In the backwaters of Eastern Europe, authorities working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have interrupted four attempts in the past five years by gangs with suspected Russian connections that sought to sell radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists, The Associated Press has learned.
The latest known case came in February this year, when a smuggler offered a huge cache of deadly caesium ─ enough to contaminate several city blocks ─ and specifically sought a buyer from the the self-styled Islamic State (IS) group.
Criminal organisations are driving a thriving black market in nuclear materials in the tiny and impoverished Eastern European country of Moldova, investigators say.
The successful busts, however, were undercut by striking shortcomings ─ kingpins got away, and those arrested evaded long prison sentences, sometimes quickly returning to nuclear smuggling, AP found.
Moldovan police and judicial authorities shared investigative case files with the AP in an effort to spotlight how dangerous the nuclear black market has become.
They say the breakdown in cooperation between Russia and the West means that it has become much harder to know which smugglers are involved.
“We can expect more of these cases,” said Constantin Malic, a Moldovan police officer who investigated all four cases.
“As long as the smugglers think they can make big money without getting caught, they will keep doing it.”
In wiretaps, videotaped arrests, photographs of bomb-grade material, documents and interviews, AP found a troubling vulnerability in the anti-proliferation strategy.