Smugglers Attempt To Sell Radioactive Material To ISIS, Investigation Reveals

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A hazard symbol designed to warn about hazardous materials, locations or objects. Nicolas Raymond

Eastern European gangs are exploiting poor relations between Russia and the West to attempt to sell radioactive material to Islamic State militants, according to a new report by the Associated Press.

The investigations into the illegal sales were carried out by Moldovan authorities working alongside the FBI. Investigators say they have interrupted four attempts in the past five years by gangs with suspected Russian connections to deliberately sell radioactive material to members of the extremist group, also known as ISIS.

According to the AP, the latest incident occurred in February in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, when a smuggler offered a huge cache of deadly cesium—enough to contaminate several city blocks—and made clear his intention to find a buyer from ISIS. The smuggler, Valentin Grossu, offered the supply of cesium in exchange for 2.5 million euros, according to the investigation, but the buyer turned out to be an informant.

"You can make a dirty bomb, which would be perfect for the Islamic State," Grossu said in a meeting with the informant at a nightclub, according to AP. "If you have a connection with them, the business will go smoothly."

Some of the criminal organizations have ties to the Russian KGB's successor agency, the FSB, Moldovan investigators told the AP, and are driving a thriving black market in nuclear materials in the tiny, impoverished Eastern European country.

Informants and police posed as gangsters to penetrate the smuggling networks using high-tech gear, including radiation detectors and clothing threaded with recording devices.

One of the most serious instances occurred in 2011, with the investigation of a group led by Russian Alexandr Agheenco, also known as the colonel. A middle man working for Agheenco was recorded arranging the sale of bomb-grade uranium, U-235, and blueprints for a dirty bomb to a man from Sudan, according to several officials. The blueprints were discovered in a raid of the middleman's home, according to police and court documents. The ringleader, Agheencol, got away, and police have not been able to determine whether he had more nuclear material. The middle man said he wanted an Islamic buyer, so that Americans would be attacked.

However, the AP reported that it also discovered that some of those arrested in stings have evaded long prison sentences, and some quickly returned to nuclear smuggling. Authorities also tended to pounce on suspects in the early stages of a deal, giving them a chance to escape sometimes with their nuclear materials.

Moldovan authorities say that a breakdown in cooperation between Russia and the West means that it has become much harder to know whether smugglers are finding ways to move parts of Russia's vast store of radioactive materials—an unknown quantity of which has leached into the black market.

"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."