Moldovan authorities, in a joint effort with the FBI, have foiled attempts to sell highly-radioactive material to Islamic State militants. The investigation claims that the origin of the smugglers is Russian.
Informant helps take down alleged smuggler
According to The Independent, in the last five years, authorities working with FBI have reportedly foiled four such attempts involving groups with Russian connections seeking to sell highly radioactive nuclear material to the highest bidders from the Middle East. The most recent of these cases was in February and involved a smuggler who was searching for an Islamic State buyer for enough deadly cesium that was potent enough to contaminate hundreds of homes and offices. Authorities allege that Valentin Grossu, offered a supply of cesium to what he thought to be an ISIS representative for €2.5 million.
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“You can make a dirty bomb, which would be perfect for the Islamic State,” the smuggler allegedly said in a meeting at a nightclub in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. “If you have a connection with them, the business will go smoothly.”
After about 20 meetings, the informant was able to gain his trust. The eventual meeting point where the final deal was going to take place was the stage for the sting operation in which Grossue was caught and sent to jail.
Moldova a home for smugglers
All these investigations took place in Moldova, a state that has been sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine in Eastern Europe and in the past has played host to many smuggling incidents. In 2011, a group led by a mysterious Russian known as “The Colonel” who was rumored to be an officer with Russia’s FSB intelligence agency tried to arrange the sale of bomb-grade uranium and blueprints needed to manufacture a dirty bomb to an unknown man from Sudan. The plot was disrupted following a raid on the middleman’s home. However, The Colonel escaped from authorities, who still have no idea if he has more nuclear material.
An informant disguised as a buyer was informed by the middleman that it was imperative that the smuggled uranium reached the hands of the Middle Eastern extremists because he really wanted an Islamic buyer since they will definitely bomb Americans.
In a separate case, gangsters reportedly told informants that they could provide 10kg of uranium, which is roughly a fifth of the amount that was used over Hiroshima in 1945 – in 1kg installments that would cost the buyers £24 million each.
Leaders escape capture
In most of these raids and investigations, mid-level players were caught red-handed, but the ring leaders always managed to get away with the bulk of the radioactive material. However, legal constraints and inefficiency meant that the lower level gang members keep getting off with light prison sentences. Shockingly, The elusive Colonel’s partner, who intends to annihilate America, also left jail early after serving his sentence.
The investigative case files were shared by the Moldovan police and judicial authorities in order to show just how dangerous and aggressive the nuclear black market has become in recent months. According to Moldovan authorities, tensions between Russia and the West have made it really hard for them to find out exactly how these smugglers keep finding new ways to move parts of Russia’s vast store of radioactive materials. An unknown but large quantity of these materials has ended up on the black market where they are the talk of the town. Constantin Malic, a Moldovan police officer, was behind all four investigations and says that his team is expecting to work on further cases.
“We can expect more of these cases. As long as the smugglers think they can make big money without getting caught, they will keep doing it,” he said.
How the smugglers were brought down
The investigators used classic undercover tactics and high-tech devices, which included radiation detectors and clothes with recording equipment woven into the fabric. Informants and undercover police officers posing as gangsters and driving an FBI-funded Mercedes socialized with the gangs through secret meetings at nightclubs and worked their way to building trust with the dealers. Numerous wiretapped conversations always revolved around plots targeting the U.S.
Harvard professor Matthew Bunn who headed a covert study for the Clinton administration on the security of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, was clearly distressed about the possibility of smugglers of nuclear material being so good at making connections with real buyers, including organizations such as the Islamic State that have shown a proclivity for violence without any hesitation.
“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.”
These incessant attempts to organize radioactive material sale are a clear sign that the nuclear black market is thriving in the impoverished corners of Eastern Europe. So far, The FBI and the White House have declined to comment on the recent developments, while the U.S. State Department has declined to delve into the specifics of these cases.
However, Eric Lund, spokesman for the State Department’s section that deals with non-proliferation, says that Moldova has taken good steps to curb nuclear smuggling inside its borders.
“The arrests made by Moldovan authorities in 2011 for the attempted smuggling of nuclear material is a good example of how Moldova is doing its part,” he said.