A short-lived story appeared in the mainstream media two weeks ago describing how the United States government is working hard to keep everyone safe. The Associated Press (AP) original coverage was headlined “Smugglers busted trying to sell nuclear material to ISIS.” The Boston Herald’s version of the AP story reported it as “Nuclear Material Sellers Target U.S.: Nuclear Material Shopped to ISIS.” The article was also picked up worldwide including by the CNN and the BBC and was replayed in Israel as “ISIS Looking to Build Nuclear Weapons, Turning to Moldovan Gangs for Materials.”
The story is focused on Moldova, a relatively impoverished former Soviet republic, where the mainstream western media is unlikely to have a regular correspondent. The original AP version includes interviews with some of the participants in the police operation while also reviewing the documents and photos relating to the case. Nevertheless, one has to suspect that AP did not just happen to come across the story. The news agency might have been tipped off to pursue it through a leak arranged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or White House, intended to inform the public that there is a major threat coming from terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction but U.S. law enforcement is aware of the danger and is working effectively against it.
The media account of what took place goes something like this: Eastern European smugglers have somehow obtained access to nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union weapons arsenals and labs and have been trying to sell them to terrorists, most particularly to ISIS, for use against the United States. There have been multiple attempts in the past five years, all of which were thwarted though the key players were not arrested and the presumed stolen material was not recovered by the authorities. The FBI worked closely with the Moldovan authorities throughout, providing technical services and other support for an undercover sting operation that was instrumental in producing a relatively successful outcome.
As I read the story it occurred to me that something was not quite right. The various security and police organs of the United States government have long faced a public relations dilemma. On one hand, they have sought to exaggerate the threat coming from international terrorism because it is good for the morale of their employees to be seen fighting a formidable enemy while it also induces Congress and the public to support substantial increases in budgets and other funding. But, at the same time, too much cheerleading emphasizing the ability of the bad guys to innovate rather suggests that national security is being undermined or, worse still, that the police and intelligence agencies are not doing their jobs very well to “keep us safe.” This has meant in practice that a fine balance has to be obtained in reporting the threat while at the same time making clear that everyone in government is working hard and very effectively to counter it.
This article about Moldova might indeed be one such story floated to reassure the public but, as it was not current news, its appearance at the present time would seem to be somewhat contrived and possibly even agenda driven. According to the article, there have been four attempts to sell smuggled radioactive material in the past five years, none of them recent, the latest one dating to February. One clue to a possible secondary agenda was the linkage of the criminals in the story to Russia, a country very much seen in adversarial terms by Washington at the present time. The article states that some of the criminal gangs in Moldova have “ties to the Russian KGB’s successor agency,” that Russia has a “vast store of radioactive material – an unknown quantity of which has leached into the black market,” and that the goods were offered by a “shadowy Russian named Alexandr Agheenco, ‘the colonel’ to his cohorts, whom Moldovan authorities believe to be an officer with the Russian FSB, previously known as the KGB.”
So the story is possibly about casting Russia in a negative light as it is about bombs or terrorists. And the bombs themselves are somewhat elusive. The article states that there is a “thriving black market in nuclear materials” in Moldova but it does not indicate where the contraband wound up and who bought it. One version of the AP story claims that a small amount of weapons grade enriched uranium was produced as bona fides prior to an attempt transaction in 2010 but that is contradicted by a Moldovan police assertion that only “one vial [of radioactive cesium was] ultimately recovered” from the smugglers. The article concedes that the cesium was not suitable for building a nuclear weapon and was not even radioactive enough to construct a so-called “dirty bomb.” Cesium, it should be noted, is used in its radioactive form in medical and laboratory applications. A dirty bomb uses nuclear waste or biological and chemical agents combined with conventional explosives to produce widespread contamination. It can be deadly and nasty, but it is not Hiroshima and it is not technically related to an atom bomb.
So the sting operation arrested some low level criminals who claimed to have access to weapons grade nuclear materials but the alleged materials were not actually found. Could it be that it was all a scam, seeking to sell something that the scammers assumed to be in demand but which they did not actually possess? And as for the final point that produced the alarming headlines, what was the role of ISIS in all of this? The article provides no evidence to indicate that ISIS was actually seeking nuclear materials, nor that it desires to do so linked to intentions to attack the United States. Constructing an actual nuclear weapon would be well beyond its engineering and technical capabilities in any event and if it wanted to build a dirty bomb it already has the nuclear waste from hospitals in the area that it controls to do so as well as chemical weapons stocks captured in Iraq.
The article states that “ISIS has made clear its ambition to use weapons of mass destruction” even though no evidence is presented confirming that to be the case. Nor is there any suggestion that the Moldovan smugglers actually contacted ISIS or that ISIS in any way sought to contact the Moldovans.
One smuggler, who allegedly repeatedly “ranted his hatred for America,” said in a wiretapped conversation that he “really want[ed] an Islamic buyer because they will bomb the Americans.” But since the middleman smuggler was trying to sell his product to what he thought to be an ISIS buyer it would be a no brainer for him to express his anti-American animus. And that evidence, such as it is, is far from a solid case that ISIS was seeking a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb to use against Washington, presumably to be detonated within the United States which is what the article implies. In fact, it does not necessarily mean anything at all.
So the alarming story of ISIS’s seeking a nuclear weapons to attack America turns out to be something considerably less, a bit of propaganda to justify continuation and even expansion of the U.S. war on terror. And there is a bit of evil Russia thrown in to explain how it is all happening. In reality, the United States and Russia were cooperating quite well on securing the former Soviet nuclear arsenal until the U.S. Congress in a January 2015 fit of pique cut off funding for the program. As is often the case, if there is a problem developing anywhere in the world, in this case over possible nuclear proliferation to terrorist groups, it is because the woefully ignorant elected officials representing us Americans have consistently failed to act responsibly.