Well, damned if this isn’t the scariest, craziest thing you read today.
According to a report by the Associated Press, FBI agents have busted at least four attempts by mobsters with ties to Russia to sell nuclear material. Each time, the intent of the sellers was to get the radioactive elements into the hands of radical Islamists. In all the busts, at least some nuclear materials — uranium, cesium, and plutonium — exchanged hands. Informants, posing as buyers, were readily able to acquire it. And in every sting, though arrests were made, no top-level people were brought down. Now, many believe it’s still possible for terrorists to acquire the ingredients for a dirty bomb.
The scene unfolds in Moldova, a former Soviet Republic, which sounds even more lawless than you could imagine.
The sting operations involved a partnership between the FBI and a small group of Moldovan investigators, who over five years went from near total ignorance of the black market to wrapping up four sting operations. Informants and police posing as connected gangsters penetrated the smuggling networks, using old-fashioned undercover tactics as well as high-tech gear from radiation detectors to clothing threaded with recording devices.
But their successes were undercut by striking shortcomings: Kingpins got away, and those arrested evaded long prison sentences, sometimes quickly returning to nuclear smuggling, AP found.
I can’t even properly summarize it, the story is so crazy. But here’s one of my favorite excerpts:
In mid-2014, an informant told [Constantin Malic, a Moldovan investigator] he had been contacted by two separate groups, one offering uranium, the other cesium. The Moldovan police went directly to the FBI, who backed up their operations.
Malic volunteered to work undercover, posing as an agent for a Middle Eastern buyer. He did not have much training, and struggled with his nerves, resorting to shots of vodka before each meeting. He went into them with no weapon — showing a cool face while taming a pounding heart.
The FBI fitted him with a special shirt that had microphones woven into the fabric, so that even a pat-down could not reveal that he was wired. They also set him up in a white Mercedes S-Class to look like a gangster.
It worked. At one point, the unwitting smuggler said in text messages obtained by the AP that his gang had access to an outdated Russian missile system capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The man said he could obtain two R29 submarine-based missiles and provide technical background on how to use them.
Following the same script as in 2011, the team wrapped up the investigation after a sample of 200 grams of unenriched uranium was exchanged for $15,000 on Dec. 3, 2014. Six people were arrested, five got away.
Honestly, saying everything in this article is straight up out of a Tom Clancy novel doesn’t give it enough credit.
Chetrus [a dealer who was eventually arrested] clung to a Soviet-era hatred of the West, Malic said, repeatedly ranting about how the Americans should be annihilated because of problems he thought they created in the Middle East.
“He said multiple times that this substance must have a real buyer from the Islamic states to make a dirty bomb,” Malic said.
The informant would show up with a recording device hidden in a different piece of clothing each time. On the other side of the road would be Malic, disguised as a migrant selling fruit and grains from a van — watching the house for signs of trouble.
In one early phone call, the informant pressed Chetrus to find out whether he had access to plutonium as well as uranium, saying his buyer had expressed interest, according to wiretaps. But Chetrus was suspicious, and insisted that before big quantities of either substance could be discussed, the buyer had to prove that he was for real and not an undercover agent.
Perhaps our only saving grace is that this shit is expensive as hell. Too much for your average terrorist to purchase (maybe).
Chetrus’ boss decided to sell the uranium in installments, starting with a sample. If the buyers were plants, he reasoned, the police would strike before the bulk of the uranium changed hands — an acceptable risk.
Eventually they worked out the terms of a deal: Chetrus would sell a 10-gram sample of the uranium for 320,000 euros ($360,000). The buyer could test it and if he liked what he saw, they could do a kilogram a week at the same rate — an astonishing 32 million euros every time until the buyer had the quantity he wanted. Ten kilograms of uranium was discussed — about a fifth of what was used over Hiroshima.
The two later met in the dirt courtyard of Chetrus’s house to discuss plutonium.
“For the plutonium,” Chetrus said, “if they prove they are serious people, we will provide the sample for free. You can use a small amount to make a dirty bomb.”
He spread his hands wide. Then waved them around, as if all before him was laid to waste.
Chetrus, the man in this bust, is already out of prison for his actions. He only served three years. By some accounts, he’s back to his old ways.
Go read the whole thing. Now.