By Roland Oliphant, Moscow, video source Moldovan Police / APTN6:10PM BST 07 Oct 2015
Moldovan authorities have teamed up with the FBI in push to prevent nuclear material falling into the hands of Islamic State extremists in the Middle East and Africa.
Moldovan police working with the FBI have disrupted a string of attempts by gangs in the former Soviet Republic to sell radioactive materials to Islamic extremists, including a putative deal to supply Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) terrorists with enough caesium to contaminate several city blocks.
No less than four such attempts by groups with suspected Russian connections have been interrupted in the past few years, the sellers repeatedly seeking out buyers who would use the radioactive products to target the United States.
The alarming findings, made in an Associated Press (AP) investigation based on documents provided by Moldovan police, raises fresh concerns about unaccounted for materials taken from vast stockpiles of radioactive substances when the Soviet Union collapsed 24 years ago.
And to make matters worse, investigators have warned that the recent break down in intelligence sharing and inter-governmental cooperation between the United States and Russia has created a favourable environment for future nuclear smuggling operations.
“We can expect more of these cases,” said Contantin Malic, a Moldovan police officer who took part in all four investigations. “As long as the smugglers think they can make big money without getting caught, they will keep doing it,” he told AP.
But he warned that attempts to round up the ringleaders of the smuggling rings have been thwarted by a police tendency to swoop in the early stages of a deal – often catching front men, but giving masterminds further up the chain time to flee.
In the case involving the caesium, the would-be smuggler wanted €2.5 million (£1.8 million) for enough of the highly radioactive substance to contaminate several city streets with a dirty bomb.
When police broke up the deal in a dramatic raid in February, they recovered a single vial of caesium in a less radioactive form than the gang had said it could provide – possibly a case of false advertising. Moldovan officials said the most serious case they had encountered was in 2011, when a middle man working for a Russian called Alexander Agheenco tried to sell bomb-grade Uranium 235, along with bomb designs, to a Sudanese buyer. The seller reportedly insisted that the product went to “an Islamic buyer” because he could be sure that they would use it against Americans.
Eastern Europe is not the only potential source of radioactive material for would-be nuclear terrorists. Transnistria is known to have had some stockpiles of radioactive material when it split from Moldova in a war in the 1990s.
Isil militants seized up to 40 kilograms of uranium compounds from Mosul University when they overran the northern Iraqi city last summer.
In a letter to Ban Ki Moon, the United Nations secretary general, Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim, the Iraqi ambassador to the UN, warned that the compounds, which are not believed to have contained enriched uranium, “can enable terrorist groups, with the availability of the required expertise, to use it separate or in combination with other materials in its terrorist acts.” He also warned it could be smuggled out of Iraq.