Report: Soviet nuclear weapons could be smuggled to extremists in the Middle East

An Associated Press report raises anew fear that Soviet-era nuclear weapons could be smuggled to hostile groups in the Middle East. How big a concern is this?

Vadim Ghirda/AP
Former Moldovan police investigator Constantin Malic pauses during an interview in Chisinau, Moldova. In 2009, Malic was a 27-year-old police officer when he first stumbled upon the nuclear black market.

US and Eastern European authorities have caught smugglers trying to sell nuclear material from former Soviet Union countries, including smugglers looking to sell to the Islamic State group. Is that a realistic threat? 

The Associated Press reports that smugglers from Eastern Europe are trying to put radioactive material into the hands of violent groups that hate America. An investigator, who helped wiretap conversations among smugglers, says one middleman from a former Soviet country insisted the nuclear material go to Arab buyers.

"He said: 'I really want an Islamic buyer because they will bomb the Americans," Constantin Malic, an investigator in Moldova, told the AP.

But does ISIS want radioactive material for a "dirty bomb," and what could it do with it?

It's unlikely that the Islamic State has the logistical capability to obtain and launch a terrorist strike with radioactive materials, says Roby Barrett, an expert on nuclear issues at a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., the Middle East Institute. He allows that he doesn't have personal knowledge of investigations into weapons smuggling in Eastern Europe, but he doubts that Middle Eastern terrorists would put their resources into such a difficult and costly operation.

“If you’re a terrorist group there are methods that are a lot easier and a lot cheaper to do the same thing,” Dr. Barrett tells The Christian Science Monitor. “It could happen, but relative to the other potential threats, I think there’s a low probability.”

While some may jump to the scenario of ISIS obtaining nuclear weapons to attack American soil because of “PTSD from 9/11,” the Islamic State group is mostly focused on gaining and keeping power in the Middle East itself, he says.

Investigators in Moldova, a country on the fringe of the former Soviet Union, described to the Associated Press four sting operations conducted with the FBI in order to highlight the problems they face. They say their sting operations are letting some of the criminal leaders – who may have the dangerous materials in their possession – get away.

"We can expect more of these cases," Mr. Malic told the AP. "As long as the smugglers think they can make big money without getting caught, they will keep doing it.

The fear that hostile groups in the Middle East could get their hands on nuclear material from the Cold War era is not new.

After the Soviet Union fell, the states it had formerly encompassed scrambled to get their hands on its nuclear weapons. Local governments did not want to use them; rather, most quickly gave the weapons to the Russians or to the US, figuring the larger countries were better equipped to handle the dangerous materials.

Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus were on the US watch list for nuclear proliferation as the countries went their separate ways after the Cold War. The US put diplomatic energy and money into containing the nuclear threats. At that time, the fear was that any weapons left unaccounted for would be sold by poor former Soviet bloc countries to such hostiles as Iraq's Saddam Hussein and or Libya's Muammar Qaddaffi, The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time.

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