Organised Crime, Nuclear Materials and Terrorism – Is Europe at Risk?

Commentary by Kirsten WILLIAMS

The collapse of the Soviet Union – and its carefully regulated criminal underworld with it – wrought social and economic chaos on the Soviet republics. Grinding poverty and unprecedented unemployment spurred on the rapid expansion of organised crime, both by supplying a new workforce and by creating a new clientele for scarce foodstuffs, drugs, black market alcohol and prostitutes. Most worryingly, the abandonment of factories and facilities left unknown quantities of chemicals and radioactive or nuclear materials vulnerable to stealing. In the decades that have followed, sporadic reports have cropped up detailing the disappearance or theft of a number of these materials. Indeed, some journalists and researchers have attempted to track the smuggling routes, many originating in Georgia, Armenia or Chechnya and snaking down towards Iran and Afghanistan.

Hanford Nuclear Reactor in the 1960s, where most of the US nuclear waste is stored - Public Domain
Hanford Nuclear Reactor in the 1960s, where most of the US nuclear waste is stored – Public Domain

Last week, the Associated Press (AP) published an investigation on Moldovan criminal groups trafficking radioactive and nuclear materials to IS in Iraq and Syria. For many, this confirmed the existence of a criminal-terrorist nexus capable of destruction on a massive scale. The concern is that terrorist organisations may use radioactive or nuclear waste in a ‘dirty bomb’, that is, a bomb combining conventional explosives with nuclear materials. In contrast to a nuclear bomb, which could affect an area of several hundred square miles, the radiation from dirty bombs is far more limited. Nonetheless, while not coming close to the long-term, long-range devastation of a nuclear bomb, dirty bombs have the potential to cause mass trauma to a population as well as the disruption of basic state capacities. That is the real danger of a dirty bomb: the long-term psychological effects on people as seen in Tokyo after the sarin attacks on the subway.

So how likely is a dirty bomb in Europe? We know that IS are keen to perpetrate a large-scale attack on a major European target, and we know from open-source reporting that organised gangs will at least attempt to transport nuclear materials. Breakaway regions in Eastern Europe, in particular South Ossetia, Transnistria and Crimea, are known hubs for attempted nuclear trading. While terrorist organisations have apparently not yet developed the capabilities to weaponise nuclear materials, most risk assessment agencies agree that it is only a matter of time before they do.

On the other hand, the media hysteria surrounding the AP discovery is rather overstated for a number of reasons. Firstly, trading in nuclear waste is low on the list of organised crime activities. It involves far more complex networks and a clear buyer at the other end. Organised crime is no longer the stereotypical hierarchy of the Mafia – rather, criminals form loose networks on a fairly temporary basis, meaning that systematic trafficking is rare. From what we know of nuclear trafficking, attempts are generally opportunistic and many would-be traffickers are unaware of the immense danger of the material they are smuggling. Those more knowledgeable criminals prefer to stick to the safer trades and far more profitable trades in people, drugs and cigarettes.

Such a lack of expertise is also the reason why, even when radioactive materials have been traded, they are not used to make weapons – since the smugglers do not know what they are smuggling, the material they sell is often useless for dirty bombs. For a would-be terrorist, it is very rarely worth the risk of buying extremely costly nuclear material with no guarantee from non-expert criminals. Experts in nuclear trafficking generally agree that, though the risk potential is huge, proof of a ‘marriage of convenience’ between nuclear traffickers and terrorists is hard to come by. One scholar, having studied over 1000 cases since 1991, admits that only one incident involved terrorists other than Chechen rebels. That incident took place in India.

Europe is lucky in terms of geography – most smuggling routes head east or south – and benefits from highly sophisticated anti-terrorism systems. This includes border security as well as intelligence agencies. There have been very few incidents of nuclear materials being smuggled into Western Europe from the Caucasus or Russia. An increasingly vigilant European nuclear industry has ensured a drop in thefts of some nuclear materials, most notably plutonium and uranium.

Nonetheless, while European countries have thus far avoided a dirty bomb, the growing capabilities and resources of terrorist organisations cannot be ignored. While the link between organised crime, nuclear trafficking and terrorism remains tenuous, the spread of groups like IS do pose a risk to Europe. Should a smuggling network form between, say, European or Chechen IS fighters in Iraq and their sympathisers in Europe, and should the right nuclear materials become available to someone with adequate knowledge, a dirty bomb in Europe is foreseeable. Luckily a number of conditions stand in the way of that situation, and journalistic panic does a disservice to our developed security services.

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