The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that European authorities along with the FBI have stopped four attempts in the last five years by gangs with links to Russia attempting to sell radioactive material to Middle Eastern terrorists, including ISIS. The first attempt was at an exclusive nightclub in Meldovia, in which the arms smuggler attempted to sell enough radioactive material to contaminate several city blocks, earning 2.5 million euros.
In that operation, wiretaps and interviews with investigators show, a middleman for the gang repeatedly ranted with hatred for America as he focused on smuggling the essential material for an atomic bomb and blueprints for a dirty bomb to a Middle Eastern buyer.
Wiretaps, arrests, and photographs of bomb-making materials, documents and interviews, investigators have discovered that the sellers are singling out buyers who are enemies of the West. The developments represent the fulfillment of a long-feared scenario in which organized crime gangs are trying to link up with groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda – both of which have continued to make clear their ambition to use weapons of mass destruction.
The sting operations involved a partnership between the FBI and a small group of Moldovan investigators, who over five years went from near total ignorance of the black market to wrapping up four sting operations. Informants and police posing as connected gangsters penetrated the smuggling networks, using old-fashioned undercover tactics as well as high-tech gear from radiation detectors to clothing threaded with recording devices.
While successful, the investigations fell short of capturing kingpins. Those arrested evaded long prison sentences and ended up returning to nuclear smuggling. The repeated attempts to peddle radioactive materials signal that a thriving nuclear black market has emerged in an impoverished corner of Eastern Europe on the fringes of the former Soviet Union. Moldova, which borders Romania, is a former Soviet republic. Both FBI and White House officials have remained silent on the investigation, while the State Department would not give any specifics of the cases.
Moldova has taken many important steps to strengthen its counter nuclear smuggling capabilities,” said Eric Lund, spokesman for the State Department’s bureau in charge of nonproliferation. “The arrests made by Moldovan authorities in 2011 for the attempted smuggling of nuclear materials is a good example of how Moldova is doing its part.”
Secretly recorded conversations revealed plots targeting the United States; in one case, a middleman strongly said it was essential the bomb-grade uranium go to Arabs. The most serious case began in the spring of 2011, with the investigation of a group led by a shadowy Russian named Alexandr Agheenco, “the colonel” to his cohorts, whom Moldovan authorities believe to be an officer with the Russian FSB, previously known as the KGB. A middle man working for the colonel was recorded arranging the sale of bomb-grade uranium, U-235, and blueprints for a dirty bomb to a man from Sudan, according to several officials. The blueprints were discovered in a raid of the middleman’s home, according to police and court documents.
As in the other cases, investigators arrested mostly mid-level players after an early exchange of cash and radioactive goods. The ringleader, the colonel, got away. Police cannot determine whether he had more nuclear material. His partner, who wanted to “annihilate America,” is out of prison.