The hunt is on for the alleged Russian mastermind behind an Eastern European crime syndicate's failed attempt to sell weapons-grade uranium to a North African who the US fears could have links to Islamist extremists.
Nuclear material on the black market is a concern for the US
The initial deal, to sell a 4.4 gram sample of Uranium-235 to "a citizen of a Muslim country in Africa," was thwarted by police in the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova in June.
After discovering a potential link to North Africa on a previously confiscated computer, US-trained Moldovan agents, posing as potential buyers, moved to pre-empt a sale to the African contact in a raid on the gang in the breakaway Republic of Transnistria. The sting resulted in the arrest of six suspects. However, the syndicate's Russian leader and the North African contact remain at large.
A report into the Moldovan connection, carried out by US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and released this week, suggests that the alleged Russian ringleader fled from the Moldovan authorities through Transnistria and back to Russia. The report said that the Russian authorities had been informed and "are taking appropriate action."
While the amount of the fissile material offered for sale would not have been enough to arm a warhead - about 27kg of highly enriched uranium would be required to construct an improvised nuclear device - there is greater concern over intelligence that suggests the group also possesses plutonium, far less of which is needed to make a bomb.
Plutonium can also be added to explosives to create a radiological "dirty bomb," the potential use of which is currently a great worry among US counter-terrorism organizations.
'Dirty bomb' concerns
A dirty bomb blast would have long term psychological effects
"The US is of course concerned about the nuclear threat but you have to differentiate between 'dirty bombs' and a nuclear attack," Steven Pifer, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington, told Deutsche Welle.
"A nuclear attack would be much more devastating but much more unlikely. The 'dirty bomb' threat still has a small probability of happening but would be much less catastrophic in terms of casualties and the radiological effect would be minimal."
The undercover Moldovan agents were told by the gang that they had 9kg of highly enriched uranium for sale and were asking around $31 million (23 million euros) for the material. If the claim was true, experts believe that such an amount suggests it originally came from a military facility. Smaller amounts usually suggest a theft from non-military sources such as research reactors.
Information obtained from the initial interrogations of the six detainees suggests that the syndicate does in fact possess an amount of uranium, although less than they claim, and also a small amount of plutonium as feared.
"Members of the ring, who have not yet been detained, have one kilogram of uranium" stored in another nation, Maria Vieru, spokeswoman for the Moldovan prosecutors, told reporters this week.
According to the report, the small quantity of material seized from the raid has been identified through nuclear forensics as originating from Russian enrichment plants. It also has the same chemical and radioactive signature as material seized in a previous raid on an unrelated gang.
The case has once again highlighted the problem of proliferation of nuclear material on the black market, especially uranium and plutonium stolen from sites in Russia at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union when security at nuclear facilities was underfunded and inadequate.
Black market availability
Even without missiles, silos can contain usuable fissile material
The US report called on Russia to step up its counter-proliferation cooperation efforts which prompted Vladimir Averchev a member of Russia's Council for Foreign and Defense Policy to state that, while it may have been easier to steal nuclear material at the time of the Soviet Union's collapse, increased security and restrictions make it almost impossible to take such material from modern day Russia.
However, Moldovan investigators are increasingly convinced that the material originated in Russia and was then smuggled through Transnistria, a recognized sanctuary for traffickers. Air travel into the region cannot be tracked and the territory's borders with Ukraine and Moldova are not adequately monitored.
"There was chaos after the fall of the Soviet Union, a country which had a vast amount of fissile material, technology and know-how," Anthony Seaboyer, the director of the Center for Security, Armed Forces and Society at the Royal Military College of Canada told Deutsche Welle.
"Silos with fissile material and technology inside were just abandoned - although the missiles were removed first - and anyone could walk onto old nuclear sites because they didn't even have fences."
Seaboyer said that corruption was also a significant factor. "The director of a nuclear reactor was suddenly earning less than a bus driver," he said. "Imagine what the other people were earning. Consequently the selling of material and secrets was widespread."
Protection of sites is now much better in Russia but new material from Russia is still becoming available on the black market. "Protection is better than it was but a lot of the money meant for beefing up security went into people's pockets," he said. "It's still really easy to get material for dirty bombs from waste sites or pay people to get it for you."
The case also raises fears over what intelligence sources believe is a growing connection between European smugglers and North Africa, a region rife with violent extremist groups.
Bin Laden often spoke of his desire to get a nuclear bomb
While the report failed to name any specific group that the North African contact may have been working for, there are fears that the recent level of unrest and instability in North Africa has made it easier for groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), active in countries such as Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, to obtain weapons and material from Europe.
While a 'dirty bomb' explosion would cause panic and blast casualties, experts suggest such a device would not be dramatic enough for terror groups who prefer spectacular attacks.
"Making a 'dirty bomb' is easy; you just pack contaminated material around a conventional bomb and set it off," said Seaboyer. "But we have to ask ourselves, if it's so easy, why hasn't someone done it yet? It's possible that it doesn't have the desired dramatic effect for an organization like al Qaeda."
"Al Qaeda has a track record of pursuing nuclear weapons and you'd have to say that the chances, eventually, of getting one is high."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge