Authorities working with the FBI in eastern Europe have foiled four attempts in the past five years by gangs with suspected Russian connections to sell radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.
The latest known case came in February, when a smuggler offered a huge cache of deadly caesium, enough to contaminate several city streets, and specifically sought a buyer from the Islamic State (IS) group.
Criminal organisations, some with ties to the Russian KGB’s successor agency, are driving a thriving black market in nuclear materials in the tiny and impoverished country of Moldova, investigators say.
The successful busts, however, were undercut by striking shortcomings. Kingpins got away and those arrested evaded long prison sentences, sometimes quickly returning to nuclear smuggling, the Associated Press news agency found.
Moldovan police and judicial authorities shared investigative case files in an effort to spotlight how dangerous the nuclear black market has become.
They say the breakdown in co-operation between Russia and the West means that it has become much harder to know whether smugglers are finding ways to move parts of Russia’s vast store of radioactive materials – an unknown quantity of which has leached into the black market.
“We can expect more of these cases,” said Constantin Malic, a Moldovan police officer who investigated all four cases. “As long as the smugglers think they can make big money without getting caught, they will keep doing it.”
In wiretaps, videotaped arrests, photographs of bomb-grade material, documents and interviews, a troubling vulnerability was found in the anti-smuggling strategy.
From the first known Moldovan case in 2010 to the most recent one in February, a pattern has emerged: authorities pounce on suspects in the early stages of a deal, giving the ringleaders a chance to escape with their nuclear contraband, an indication that the threat from the nuclear black market in the Balkans is far from under control.
Moldovan investigators cannot be sure that the suspects who fled did not hold on to the bulk of the nuclear materials.
Nor do they know whether the groups, which are pursuing buyers who are enemies of the West, may have succeeded in selling deadly nuclear material to extremists at a time when IS has made clear its ambition to use weapons of mass destruction.
The cases involve secret meetings in a top nightclub, blueprints for dirty bombs and a nerve-shattered undercover investigator who slammed vodka shots before heading into meetings with smugglers.
Informants and a police officer posing as a connected gangster, complete with a Mercedes provided by the FBI, penetrated the smuggling gangs.
The police used a combination of old-fashioned undercover tactics and high-tech gear, from radiation detectors to clothing threaded with recording devices.
The Moldovan operations were built on a partnership between the FBI and a small team of Moldovan investigators, including Mr Malic, who over five years went from near total ignorance of the frightening black market in his backyard to wrapping up four sting operations.
“In the age of the Islamic State, it’s especially terrifying to have real smugglers of nuclear bomb material apparently making connections with real buyers,” said Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor who led a secret study for the Clinton administration on the security of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
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