If terrorists ever get their hands on a nuclear bomb or the means to build one, it will likely occur in the area that surrounds and feeds into the Black Sea. This region, which includes Southeast Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, is with rife ethnic and cultural tensions, weak governance structures, rising nationalism, intense competition for resources, divisive geography, disputed borders, dueling great powers, Islamist terrorism and protracted warfare. It is a good place for terrorists to look for weapons of mass destruction.
The United States has invested heavily in helping countries in the region to improve their nuclear security. For the most part, it seems to be working. Nuclear weapons storage facilities are pretty well guarded. Except for Pakistan, the threat of terrorists gaining access to a nuclear bomb in the region has diminished. There is another danger that is of great concern, however. It is the growing connection between nuclear insiders and organized criminal networks in this volatile part of the world.
Successful illicit trafficking requires three things: access to the contraband, identification of a potential buyer and safe transport of the goods, usually across international boundaries. Nuclear trafficking cases over the past couple of decades show a clear pattern. Insiders working within a country’s nuclear establishment are almost always responsible for theft of nuclear material but they usually have trouble finding a buyer and figuring out how to transport it across international borders.
This lack of know-how on the part of nuclear insiders is not surprising. People who are cleared to handle dangerous nuclear materials do not normally associate with terrorists, nor do they tend to run in circles where knowledge of how to smuggle contraband across international borders is common. The weakness of nuclear insiders is finding an illicit buyer and moving their nuclear contraband clandestinely.
So far, these difficulties have worked to the advantage of law enforcement. A significant portion of the reported nuclear smuggling investigations began when police received reports of amateur thieves trying to find buyers interested in purchasing nuclear material. For example, one case began in 1994 when police in St. Petersburg, Russia, heard that three men were offering to sell highly enriched uranium in the local markets. An investigation ensued and the three men were arrested.
The pattern appears to be changing in dangerous ways, however. More recent nuclear smuggling cases indicate that experienced illicit traffickers are at work. They suggest that insiders with access and the willingness to steal nuclear material have teamed up with organized criminal networks that know how to move the contraband clandestinely. This alliance creates an illegal distribution chain that is much more secure and thus much more difficult for the police to uncover.
A nuclear smuggling case in Georgia in 2006 illustrates the point. The police arrested several Georgian nationals who were attempting to sell highly enriched uranium. The modus operandi used in the operation caught the attention of Georgian nuclear security officials and led to a number of disturbing conclusions.
The case began when the Georgian police learned of efforts by Russian sellers to find a buyer for nuclear contraband. The Georgians mounted a sting operation and posed as interested buyers. Then they requested a meeting with the sellers on Georgian soil. At first, the case appeared to be like the others in which naive nuclear insiders were attempting to sell stolen material. The sellers, however, never showed up for the meeting. Instead, they sent a courier with a sample of the illicit material. When the courier arrived, the police “buyers” tested the contraband, determined that it was low-quality material unsuitable for bomb making and refused to buy it. The courier left the meeting and was on his way back to Russia when he was arrested.
What the Georgians came to understand is that the courier was conducting a test run of the proposed smuggling route and gathering information on the potential buyers. Had the courier returned successfully to Russia, the real sellers would have gained much useful information. First, they would have known that the route used by the courier to cross the Russian-Georgian border was safe. They could use it to deliver the higher quality contraband. Second, with knowledge of the buyers’ identities, they could perform further due diligence, perhaps even use surveillance, to determine whether the buyers were genuine. These are not the tactics of naive nuclear insiders. They are more like what one expects to see from experienced international traffickers. The Georgians had another such event take place in 2010.
Globalization has eased the movement of people and goods across international boundaries. The price of highly enriched uranium is running at least $10,000 per gram. The risk-reward calculation is changing in a way that incentivizes illicit traffickers to include nuclear material in the contraband they move. This means that terrorists can become commodities purchasers, much like the buyers of illegal drugs. In short, the odds of terrorists successfully acquiring nuclear material have increased in their favor.
Maj. Gen. Bruce Lawlor, retired, is director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Technology, Security and Policy. He served at the White House’s Homeland Security Council and was the first chief of staff for the Department of Homeland Security.