FBI foils smugglers' plot to sell nuclear material to Isis

Investigation finds that Russian-linked gangs specifically targeted the extremist group

Smuggling gangs with suspected Russian links tried to sell nuclear material to Islamic extremists from Isis, an investigation has found.

In the backwaters of Moldova, authorities working with the FBI interrupted four attempts in the past five years by the gangs that sought to sell radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists, The Associated Press news agency learned. The latest known case came in February this year, when a smuggler offered a huge cache of deadly cesium — enough to contaminate several city blocks — and specifically sought a buyer from Isis. 

Nuclear smugglers trying to sell to Isis

The smuggler, Valentin Grossu, offered the supply of cesium to what he thought was an Isis representative in exchange for 2.5 million, according to the investigation. The representative was in fact an informant.

“You can make a dirty bomb, which would be perfect for the Islamic State,” the smuggler said in a meeting at a nightclub in the Moldovan capital  of Chisinau. “If you have a connection with them, the business will go smoothly.”

After initial suspicions and 20 meetings, Grossu was persuaded the informant was an authentic Isis representative and the pair met to exchange money, in a sting operation that ended up with Grossu in jail.

The investigation also uncovered an attempt to sell bomb--grade uranium to a eral buyer from the Middle East.

Gobetween Teodor Chetrus is held by Moldovan police during a uranium-235 sting operation

In that operation, wiretaps and interviews with investigators show, a middleman for the gang repeatedly ranted with hatred for America as he focused on smuggling the essential material for an atomic bomb and blueprints for a dirty bomb to a Middle Eastern buyer. 

In wiretaps, videotaped arrests, photographs of bomb-grade material, documents and interviews, AP found that smugglers are explicitly targeting buyers who are enemies of the West. The developments represent the fulfillment of a long-feared scenario in which organized crime gangs are trying to link up with groups such as Isis and al-Qaeda — both of which have made clear their ambition to use weapons of mass destruction. 

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. 

Uranium seized in one of the sting operations

For strategic reasons, in most of the operations arrests were made after samples of nuclear material had been obtained rather than the larger quantities. That means that if smugglers did have access to the bulk of material they offered, it remains in criminal hands. 

The repeated attempts to peddle radioactive materials signal that a thriving nuclear black market has emerged in an impoverished corner of Eastern Europe on the fringes of the former Soviet Union. Moldova, which borders Romania, is a former Soviet republic. 

Moldovan police and judicial authorities shared investigative case files with the AP in an effort to spotlight how dangerous the black market has become. They say a breakdown in cooperation between Russia and the West means that it is much harder to know whether smugglers are finding ways to move parts of Russia's vast store of radioactive materials. 

“We can expect more of these cases,” said Constantin Malic, one of the Moldovan investigators. “As long as the smugglers think they can make big money without getting caught, they will keep doing it.” 

Euro banknotes laid out on the passenger seat of Grossu's car following his arrest

The FBI and the White House declined to comment. The US State Department would not comment on the specifics of the cases. 

“Moldova has taken many important steps to strengthen its counter nuclear smuggling capabilities,” said Eric Lund, spokesman for the State Department's bureau in charge of nonproliferation. “The arrests made by Moldovan authorities in 2011 for the attempted smuggling of nuclear materials is a good example of how Moldova is doing its part.” 

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Wiretapped conversations exposed plots that targeted the United States, the Moldovan officials said. In one case, a middleman said it was essential the smuggled bomb-grade uranium go to Arabs, said Malic, an investigator in all four sting operations. 

“He said: 'I really want an Islamic buyer because they will bomb the Americans.”' 

The middleman, a former KGB informant called Teodor Chetrus 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. 

Additional reporting by AP