In Eastern Europe, criminal organizations with Russian connections have been selling radioactive material to ISIS extremists. Authorities working in conjunction with the FBI have prevented four such transactions from occurring in the past five years.
The most recent transaction to be broken-up took place last February, when material smugglers offered to sell a massive amount of cesium to representatives from the Islamic State. Cesium is poisonous to humans, and the amount that was for sale would have been enough to contaminate several city blocks.
Officials believe that the material is being stolen from Russian hospitals where it has medical applications. Fortunately, there have not been any indications that overly-excessive amounts of radioactive materials have been able to enter into the trade.
Criminal organizations have been operating a thriving black market for nuclear materials in the impoverished country of Moldova. While authorities have prevented some transactions from occurring, there have been some shortcomings. Leaders of the criminal organizations often escaped custody, and many of those who did get arrested managed to use their influence to avoid lengthy prison sentences and return to smuggling.
Authorities from Moldova say that the lack of cooperation between Russia and the Western World has made preventing this smuggling very difficult. Moldovan officials say that they expect the trade to continue.
Moldovan police officer Constantin Malic says, “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.”
The enforcement against smuggling has been weak. Authorities have been trying to capture suspects in the early stages of transactions, allowing smuggling leaders to get away with the nuclear material. Meanwhile, investigators from Moldova are having a hard time keeping up due to their limited resources.
In cases so far, investigators have tried every trick in the book. They have gone undercover, posing as gangsters with fancy cars, to try and meet with the alleged smugglers. The authorities have made use of high-tech gear, such as radiation detectors, and discreet recording devices.
In the past, Moldovan authorities used to turn a blind eye to the nuclear black market in their country. However, with help from the FBI, they have been trying to prevent the trade in more recent years.
Meanwhile, political analysts are particularly concerned about the potential of nuclear weapons landing in the hands of ISIS forces.
Policy analyst and Harvard Professor Matthew Bunn says, “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.
As for the Moldovan investigators, they are absolutely terrified heading into undercover investigations. Officer Malic admits that he was so scared that he took shots of vodka before such meetings.
And like any deal involving illicit goods, the buyer has the potential of getting ripped off. In one case involving cesium, the undercover investigators purchased a vial that contained material with barely any levels of radioactivity, which made it unsuitable for creating nuclear weapons.
But perhaps most troubling was a case involving a dangerous Russian man named Alexandr Agheenco. A middle man working for Agheenco was secretly recorded as saying that the sale of nuclear material needed to be made to ISIS forces.
Agheenco stated in the recording, “’I really want an Islamic buyer because they will bomb the Americans.”
While the middleman was arrested, Agheenco was able to get away. Most cases have resulted in middlemen being arrested, while ringleaders have been able to escape custody, keeping their stockpiles of nuclear material safe.
Authorities are doing everything they can to stop ISIS from obtaining dangerous radioactive material, but they will need to step up their game because as of now, the criminals are winning.