Beyza Unal
Research Fellow, Nuclear Weapons Policy, International Security Department
More needs to be done to stop terrorists from acquiring radioactive and nuclear material through smuggling networks.
Storage casts containing 775 bombs' worth of nuclear weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium sit inside a storage facility in northeastern Kazakhstan. Photo via Getty Images.Storage casts containing 775 bombs' worth of nuclear weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium sit inside a storage facility in northeastern Kazakhstan. Photo via Getty Images.

Last week the AP published a detailed investigation on criminal groups in Moldova smuggling radioactive and nuclear materials to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This investigation has exposed the rising role of transnational criminal networks in acquiring and selling radioactive and nuclear materials to terrorist groups on the black market. Such a convergence, like that visible in Moldova today, can occur in other parts of the world with global ramifications. Existing resilience measures and mechanisms must therefore include a particular focus on organized crime groups.

Eastern Europe receives particular attention with regard to the smuggling of radioactive materials, due to high levels of organized crime and the looseness of security systems intended to safeguard radioactive materials, such as forgotten dual-use materials in construction or industrial sites or Soviet stockpiles. Nevertheless, unauthorized access to radioactive and nuclear materials by non-state actors is not unique to that region. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), based on voluntary state reporting, documented around 2,500 incidents from 1993-2003; 400 of which were reports for theft and losses. Moreover, organized crime and terrorist organizations’ convergence has been identified in at least seven post-conflict locations around the world.

Dangers of a dirty bomb

Based on these numbers, should the world, then, be concerned about radioactive materials theft and unauthorized purchase/selling? The short answer is yes, for at least two reasons.

First: many radioactive materials are dual-use, meaning they have both military and civilian functions. These materials can be used across multiple sectors, including in hospital radiotherapy units, in industrial facilities or for commercial purposes, such as in oil exploration. Low levels of security and inadequate safeguarding increase the ability of organized crime groups to acquire radioactive materials by exploiting weaknesses within the system. Industries lacking the awareness and responsibility to properly dispose of radioactive materials increase the possibility of theft. Organized criminals provide specific skills and assets that terrorist groups do not have, such as extensive supporting networks and familiarity with vulnerabilities of the system; in return, they make huge profit by providing valuable goods (such as radioactive and nuclear materials).                                                                   

Second: the presently limited use of radiological weapons (such as a dirty bomb) does not mean they will not be used in the future. Making a radiological weapon requires little technical and scientific expertise and radioactive materials can be used with conventional weaponry (such as dynamite) to make a successful dirty bomb. The incidents in Moldova, where criminal groups have attempted to sell these materials at least four times in the past five years, are indicative of an expanded black market with increased demand from terrorist organizations, saboteurs and lone actors.

The prospect of causing a very costly and time-consuming decontamination process following the use of a dirty bomb may be appealing to terrorist groups and saboteurs, because it disrupts states’ functioning capacity. Simultaneous attacks on critical infrastructures (such as ports) or busy transportation hubs may take the whole sector out of operation, and clean-up after a successful attack could cost tens of billions of dollars.

Transnational organized crime groups and terrorist organizations thrive on putting stress on governance. In many countries, health sectors may lack the capacity to respond to radiological weapons use and fear could drive people to overwhelm unprepared medical systems. In 1987, caesium-137 was released from a cracked teletherapy machine in Goiânia, Brazil, driving 120,000 people for screening when only 249 were exposed to caesium.

Building resilience

Criminal networks are highly adept at identifying security weaknesses in borders and ports, and exploiting these weaknesses to smuggle radioactive and nuclear materials to terrorist groups. These networks, moreover, have direct connections with local authorities—for example, government officials, police departments, judiciaries, and intelligence units—and use corruption as a tool, especially in post-conflict countries with less economic development. The international dispute over Transnistria—a separatist region in Moldova on the Ukrainian border, backed by Russian forces—makes it a hub of illicit trafficking of goods, including uranium.

Resilience measures in preventing illicit trafficking of radiological and nuclear materials to terrorist groups should include strengthening border and port security and export control mechanisms in areas of high corruption, and establishing a robust intelligence and information sharing system between national units, regional organizations (such as the European Union) and partner/neighbouring countries (such as the European Neighbourhood Programme). Safeguarding radioactive materials in industries, hospitals and commercial areas, and if appropriate, replacing dual-use sources with non-radioactive alternatives, may also minimize the risk of theft. A holistic method requires state-to-state cooperation, with states reporting the theft and loss of sensitive materials to the IAEA database in a timely manner. Similar to other areas of concern, cooperation between the United States and Russia is fundamental. Russia should be compelled to step up on recording and sharing details of illicit trafficking within IAEA’s ITDB system.

In the future, sporadic contact between organized crime groups and terrorist organizations could become deeper cooperation based on mutual interest and increased dependence. Reducing reliance on civilian uses and preventing convergence of terrorist organizations with organized criminal groups is the best way to combat this and to prevent malicious use of radioactive materials.

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