Part 1: Introduction.
Say you’re an overnight guard at a small nuclear power plant, in a sleepy Eastern European nation. It’s four in the morning, and you and two of your coworkers are doing your best to stay awake. One of them has stepped out to have a cigarette, one of them is doing the hourly rounds, and you’re watching the cameras. It’s a normal, standard shift, nothing fishy at all, but as the minutes tick by, the guard doing rounds hasn’t come back. Come to think of it, you haven’t seen him on the cameras for a little while, either. You scratch your beard, start flipping through screens, and then you spot him, walking quickly away from one of the back buildings with a small suitcase in hand. You watch him go to his car, toss the suitcase in the trunk, and speed off. You call your supervisor, let him know that somebody just walked off the job, and he asks if the other guard took anything. You say yes, and the response isn’t what you’re expecting. You’re now under lockdown, and the national police will be right over. As he explains, you realize—your coworker might have just stolen nuclear materials, and now he, and it, is in the wind.
In a post-Cold War era, we don’t often think of the enduring threats of nuclear proliferation around the world, and if we do, it’s typically in relation to the threat of individual nations: North Korea, Iran, the rage that simmers between India and Pakistan. We like to imagine the world’s nuclear materials as high-tech, secure, and well-guarded, with a careful accounting of every gram of radioactive material. Unfortunately, though, as we’ve seen on this channel many times, the truth is not quite so simple.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, radioactive material has been smuggled and trafficked at an alarming rate. From terrorists to mobsters to sub-state actors, there are a lot of people who want to get their hands on the stuff, for a wide range of reasons. Even more troubling, there are a lot of people who are more than happy to provide it, and who have the means, methods, and often, the malice required to make that happen. This is the shadowy world of nuclear smuggling, lurking just out of the periphery of public awareness.
Part 2: The Early Days.
Nuclear trafficking has been around for as long as people have understood the lethal potential of radioactive material, but in order to understand what the problem looks like in the modern day, we’ve got to go back to 1991. The Soviet Union was one of the world’s two nuclear superpowers at the time, and when it came crashing down, it crashed hard. Unrest across the Union led to individual nations declaring sovereignty and splitting off, and during that time, several of those nations now found themselves in possession of all kinds of radioactive material: uranium and plutonium in power plants, storage, and even warheads1, as well as several other isotopes—Cesium-137, Cobalt-60, Polonium-210, et cetera, that pose significant danger when used as dirty bombs2.
This became a very real problem almost immediately, with the German Federal Intelligence Service, the Bundesnachrichtendeinst,3 keeping record of over five hundred concerning incidents between 1992 and 1996. That includes thefts, offers, threats, and all manner of other verbs you don’t want associated with illicit radioactive material. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, identified 132 confirmed instances of international nuclear smuggling in roughly that same time. That doesn’t include instances when nuclear material was trafficked within a single country—from government sources to local criminals, for example. The German Federal Criminal Police, the Bundeskriminalamt,4 has record of a staggering eighty-four instances of seizure of nuclear materials, and nearly six hundred instances in which an apparently genuine offer was made by a buyer to a seller who had expressed interest in getting their hands on something radioactive. Thankfully, only fourteen of those scenarios involved the highly enriched uranium and plutonium used to make nuclear bombs,5 but for something so dangerous, fourteen is far too many.
And where was all this material coming from? The short answer is theft—lots and lots of theft, both from inside Russia and from several other Eastern Bloc states. Research institutes, weapons plants, submarine bases, and enrichment facilities reported hundreds of incidents, brought on by a shift both within Russia and the newly independent surrounding nations to a weak government structure that became overrun by corruption and organized crime. With deteriorating economic conditions in the area, many people turned to stealing from nearby facilities, to obtain nuclear material that they expected would sell for massive sums, even though they had little idea of what it actually was or how to keep themselves safe while handling it.6 In other cases, civilians, scientists, and security guards at sites with radioactive and radiological material would even sell that material themselves. The intermediaries that receive it then turn their efforts to finding a buyer, whether a terrorist organization, a separatist movement, a religious sect, a rogue nation, or an organized criminal enterprise.7
But even with all the apparent activity of nuclear smugglers, the world was either on its game or very lucky in the years immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, because the attacks that could have come, never did. The first, and to date, the only actual attempt at a radiological attack using trafficked material took place during this time, in November of 1995. A group of Chechen rebels attempted to threaten the Russian government, stating that they had stashed radiological materials in a public park in Moscow, and when they provided a location to authorities, a package containing radioactive cesium was found at that same spot.8 The crisis was averted, but by all accounts, the hoax didn’t just represent an empty threat; the leader of the Chechen rebel cell that planted the bomb, Shamil Basayev, had led a raid on a Russian town just months earlier in which dozens were killed. The rebels who planted the package were never found, and Basayev went on to orchestrate a number of other deadly attacks in Russia before his death.9
Part 3: The A.Q. Khan Network.
Eventually, the rest of the world got the message that radioactive materials trafficking was out of control in the former Eastern Bloc, and foreign governments got to work helping to lock down known routes of international smuggling in the region. But far away from Moscow, past the Black and Caspian Seas, a second nuclear smuggling network had already been well-established for a decade before 1991, helmed by a brilliant, shadowy rogue scientist, A.Q. Khan.
Abdul Qadeer Khan was a nuclear physicist and engineer who had joined the budding Pakistani nuclear program in December 1974, as part of an effort to respond to India’s new nuclear capability. He got his start by stealing advanced centrifuge designs from a Dutch uranium enrichment consortium, as well as full knowledge of their supply chain, and by the mid-1980s, he stood at the helm of a full-scale uranium enrichment operation that was all his own. In order to supply Pakistan with the materials it needed in order to build such a program, Khan had long since established an underground global supply network, and when other ambitious nations came calling, Khan was the man for the job. In the early days Khan and the Pakistani government worked together, providing design specifications and a list of suppliers to Iran and then openly selling their services as nuclear weapons experts—including one brochure that even featured a mushroom cloud.10
The work continued for Khan, as he began to travel to more and more nations in attempts to satisfy their wildest nuclear dreams. He offered enrichment and design tech to Iraq, made appearances in a half-dozen African nations, and continued to expand his supply network. Eventually, Khan was less a traveling sales agent than an atomic Library of Alexandria, with all the resources, designs, and illicit supply networks a potential nuclear power could ever want. His web stretched from Britain to the Netherlands, from Switzerland to Germany, from Dubai to Malaysia to South Korea and beyond. Khan’s nuclear intelligence gave support to South Africa’s successful nuclear program, and stroked the massive, dangerous ego of Moammar Gaddafi, as the dictator tried his own hand at building the bomb.11
Perhaps most significant about Khan’s efforts was the chess game he played for decades with international law enforcement, often threatened, but always elusive enough to avoid a final checkmate. When the United States and France stopped him from getting his hands on plutonium, he rung up North Korea. When export restrictions went into place on dedicated nuclear technology, Khan went to the component suppliers himself and assembled what he needed. When export bans were expanded to include dual-use nuclear items, those that can be used for either civilian or weapons programs, Khan built an entire mini-economy to carry out production his way. As Mohamed ElBaradei, former Director General of the IAEA, once put it: “Nuclear components designed in one country could be manufactured in another, shipped to a third, assembled in a fourth, and designated for eventual turnkey use in a fifth”.12
Of course, all things must end one way or another, and by the late 1990s, the international dragnet was beginning to tighten around A.Q. Khan. Over the next several years, Pakistan was forced to remove Khan from his position, and with increased concern that Khan may have been supplying WMD intelligence to terrorists and non-state actors like al Qaeda, the efforts to finally stop him picked up speed. In 2004, his entire network was exposed, and he was placed under house arrest. Though he was released five years later, and remained a national hero until his death in October 2021, there is no evidence to suggest that his work to spread nuclear weapons technology ever continued afterward.13
To this day, Khan’s smuggling network was a one-of-a-kind effort, and not in a good way. From the network’s sophistication, to the ability of non-state actors to easily acquire nuclear equipment, to the attempt to sell an entire beginning-to-end nuclear program to Libya, the sheer scope and depth of all Khan achieved was a chilling reminder to international experts that nuclear technology could, and would, move through the world basically unchecked. The dissolution of the network led to the establishment of a number of new nonproliferation resolutions and initiatives, but also to a supply vacuum for goods that, by then, were very much in-demand.
Part 4: Terrorists and Rogues.
As the new millennium began and the global security environment began to shift toward fears of terrorism and rogue nations in a single-superpower era, the underground nuclear market moved to accommodate it. New buyers, new sellers, new thieves, and new intermediaries all worked together to shift the landscape of nuclear smuggling, perhaps none quite as prominently as one Osama bin Laden.
Well before the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda had expressed interest in creating an improvised nuclear device, making inquiries to obtain uranium in Sudan as early as 1993. The uranium, which had been enriched in South Africa, eventually made it into al Qaeda’s hands, and according to a defector, it was found to be genuine, although nothing more ever came of it. Al Qaeda operatives had made their way to Russia and southern Africa hunting radioactive material by 1996, and two years later, a merger with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad movement incorporated a much greater degree of WMD-related technical knowledge into the group. Al Qaeda representatives even went so far as to make contact with the A.Q. Khan network, although they were turned away, for unknown reasons.14
After the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, al Qaeda became much less secretive about their nuclear ambitions. Osama bin Laden made claims that al Qaeda already possessed nuclear weapons, and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, detailed that they had purchased suitcase bombs from disgruntled Soviet-era scientists. Although in hindsight these statements were almost certainly a bluff, al-Zawahiri’s in particular was fairly in line with international perception of the nuclear black market at the time. Later in 2001, an associate would provide substantiating evidence that al Qaeda had a nuclear weapons development project, and this was confirmed by 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003.15 That same year, an Armenian citizen was found with 170 grams of highly enriched uranium in a known smuggling hub on the Georgian border, which was said to be part of a larger stockpile pending sale to a shadowy Middle Eastern customer.16 Al Qaeda’s nuclear ambitions are known to have extended for several years afterward, and American cables released via WikiLeaks suggest that the group eventually did have what they needed to construct dirty bombs, although any direct confirmation of this is ultimately still a mystery. With the group still active around the world, the possibility remains that they maintain access to radiological materials.17
But, of course, the potential for nuclear terrorism doesn’t stop with al Qaeda, and the Islamic State has proven to be just as dangerous in the 2010s. Between 2010 and 2015, United States and Moldovan authorities intercepted several attempts to sell radioactive materials to terrorists, but one in February 2015 was particularly troubling: a smuggler had been seeking a buyer from the Islamic State specifically, and was offering enough cesium to give several city blocks’ worth of people radiation poisoning. The Islamic State had, by that time, already shown its willingness to utilize chemical weapons, giving world governments and media organizations plenty of reason to believe that they would be just as happy to deploy radiological ones.18 Then, in March 2016, news broke that extremists had secretly monitored a top Belgian nuclear scientist—some of the same extremists that had later become suspects in the Paris attacks. Another international case took place in 2015, again in Moldova, when a nuclear smuggler was caught by Moldovan police and the FBI before he could shake on a deal that would have, allegedly, provided enough cesium-137 to allow the Islamic State to contaminate several city blocks.19
The Islamic State also came across some 40 kilograms of uranium during their seizure of the city of Mosul, although later reports indicated that material was nowhere near weapons-grade.20 The stashes of Cobalt-60 they found, also at Mosul University, were of greater concern, but as it turned out, the machines holding the Cobalt-60 were found fully intact by the Iraqi government when Mosul was recaptured. Apparently, the Cobalt-60 had never been touched, probably because the soldiers on hand didn’t know how to get at the material without killing themselves trying to do it.21
Criminals outside of terrorist organizations have targeted radioactive materials, too. South Africa’s Pelindaba reactor, the country’s primary nuclear research center and the location where its bomb program was largely carried out, has been a victim of multiple incidents. In 1994, over a hundred barrels of enriched uranium waste were stolen, many of which were never found.22 In 2007, two teams of armed attackers passed through multiple layers of security, including a 10,000-volt electric fence, and spent 45 minutes essentially alone inside Pelindaba. The attackers were later driven off by a fireman and a watch officer, who were able to call for help. An independent investigation found that the raid was likely targeting nuclear explosives, and had been conducted by skilled attackers with insider knowledge of the facility. Though it failed, the attackers still had gained a remarkable level of access to the facility, and could have caused much, much more damage than they did.23
Finally, although access to radioactive material had become more and more restricted by the mid-2000s, international smuggling efforts still existed outside of A.Q. Khan’s umbrella. In one such case, a Russian citizen named Oleg Khinsagov was intercepted in 2006, while transporting 100 grams of highly enriched uranium—that is to say, bomb-grade uranium—which he claimed was a sample from his over-3-kilogram stockpile.24 Khinsagov’s arrest pulled back the curtain on a much larger smuggling ring through breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where more uranium—most of it lower-grade—was eventually tracked. In all, the highly enriched uranium Khinsagov carried was only a small fraction of what is needed to build a functioning nuclear bomb, but the arrest was one small development in an area that was found to have exceptionally weak smuggling controls.25 Highly enriched uranium samples would be intercepted in Georgia again in 2010, and across the Black Sea in Moldova the following year, in a case where smugglers were thought to be offering up to ten kilograms of the stuff. Smuggling cases in France and Bulgaria also showed common connections to Moldova, which, like Georgia, was experiencing ongoing problems around border security and international organized crime at the time.26
Part 5: The State of Things.
The good news is, humanity has learned from the past thirty-odd years of nuclear smuggling, and in the modern day, radioactive materials are well-catalogued and typically well-tracked. The IAEA, a myriad of international treaties, and continued cooperation between the law enforcement of various nations has gone a long way toward making sure that something like the A.Q. Khan network or an Islamic State atom bomb cannot exist. But the bad news is, even in recent years, instances of radiological trafficking have continued to come to light in ways that illustrate just how far the problem is from being dealt with.
Returning to Georgia, in the first half of 2016 three attempts to smuggle radioactive materials were intercepted and announced. In each successive transport, uranium-235, uranium-238, and cesium-137 were found and tested, all of which have a variety of potential uses in the event that they were to come into the possession of some ill-intentioned buyer. Again, the materials were transported in small quantities, and were believed to be on their way to Turkey.27 More recently, in 2020, an unidentified organized crime group was disrupted in Vienna, midway through an operation to sell radiological materials to an unidentified army. Information on the size of the materials sample or the entities responsible are yet unknown.28 Elsewhere, an incident in Malaysia saw a cache of iridium-192 go missing along with its industrial casing, and although some details on the cache are unknown, the iridium involved could have helped to craft a particularly dangerous dirty bomb. Luckily, that iridium had a fairly short half-life, and the risk it poses today is probably slim to none.29
Today, the biggest risk for loose nuclear material is Russia, which in 2016 was rated twenty-fourth of twenty-four countries that produce weapons-usable uranium and plutonium in terms of the risk of theft or misuse.30 In other parts of the world, nuclear adversaries have accused each other of having a smuggling problem, including in 2021, when Pakistan’s foreign ministry circulated misinformation that Indian authorities had intercepted 250 kilograms of radioactive californium, as well as two caches of uranium.31 Nuclear programs like North Korea’s and Iran’s pose a continued risk of sub-state trafficking, whether by Iran’s potential to place materials into the hands of independent groups like Hezbollah, or the possibility that North Korea will try to threaten the South by use of either nuclear weapons smuggled into the country, or radiological weapons that use fuel provided by the pariah state. From a resurgent al Qaeda to the Taliban to breakaway regions and insurgencies in Europe, Asia, and Africa, the world is full of potential non-state buyers who could be receptive today to the overtures of nuclear smuggling rings.
Some Closing Thoughts.
It bears repeating that most instances of international radioactive-materials smuggling have not involved the transport of bomb-grade nuclear fuel, and that which has, typically has involved only small amounts. For other radioactive material, the threat of a dirty bomb is born more of societal fear and panic over radioactive contamination than any potential to destroy city blocks or fatally irradiate whole neighborhoods. As far as we know, terrorist organizations have never successfully built and deployed a nuclear or radiological weapon, and with lessons learned after A.Q. Khan, the chances of a sub-state actor secretly spreading nuclear knowledge and materials around the world are much lower now than they were as the Cold War had just drawn to a close. Ranked on the basis of impact, nuclear smuggling doesn’t even have a place in a discussion on what has caused the most harm in the world after 1991.
But at the same time, the threat nuclear smuggling poses is much the same that nuclear proliferation poses in general. It is quiet, it simmers mostly below the surface of public awareness, defined by a long series of small mistakes and near-misses. It is, for all intents and purposes, harmless…until it’s not. When mis-used in the right way, radioactive and nuclear materials become weapons of mass destruction, and by understanding the frequency and scope of smuggling incidents that we do know about, we begin to understand what may go on under the surface that we don’t know about. The war against nuclear smuggling will continue to happen quietly, in the nighttime on back roads and sleepy border checkpoints in areas of the world you or I would never think to check, and it is a war that even now, the world simply must win.
3 Simon, if you can say it right, I owe you a beer.
4 Two beers.
5 Rennselaer Lee, 1998. Smuggling Armageddon. St. Martin’s Press, New York.
6 Rennselaer Lee, 1998. Smuggling Armageddon. St. Martin’s Press, New York.
22 “Mysterious O.J. Simpson envelope contained ‘knife with no significant evidence'”. Canberra Times. 1994-09-04. p. 7. Retrieved 2017-08-29.