An Unrealized Nexus? WMD-Related Trafficking, Terrorism, and Organized Crime in the Former Soviet Union

Article excerpt

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, powerfully advanced the notion that terrorist groups might acquire and use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or, more plausibly, radiological dispersal devices (RDD). Terrorist interest in weapons of mass destruction is ample. Al Qaeda has been on record as determined to acquire and use these weapons.

In 1995, several years prior to the September 11 attacks, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo sought to gain nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and it successfully used sarin gas. That same year, Chechen rebels planted but did not explode an RDD made of cesium-137 and dynamite in Moscow's Izmailovsky Park.

In 2004 the uncovering of the Abdul Qadeer Khan network fueled new concerns that trafficking in WMD material could give rise to a parallel black market of nuclear material linked to organized crime. Pointing out that terrorist organizations and organized crime had already cooperated in the drug trafficking business, a number of analysts warned that organized crime might decide to channel AVMD material to tenorists.

Much of the concern about a possible nexus between WMD trafficking, organized crime, and terrorism focused on the former Soviet Union, particularly Central Asia and the Caucasus. There, a large number of insufficiently secured nuclear, chemical, and biological facilities are located in close proximity to trafficking routes for drugs and small arms. Powerful radiation sources also are plentiful and inadequately protected. Furthermore, several terrorist groups in the region have become increasingly radicalized since the September 11 attacks.

Even though these developments suggested that a perfect storm was brewing, more than five years later there is no compelling evidence of a solid nexus among WMD-related trafficking, terrorism, and organized crime in the former Soviet Union. To be sure, a cautionary note is in order. Serious data collection problems in the region make understanding trafficking patterns an inherently limited proposition at best. They also make it essential to improve the quality and quantity of data collection and sharing by local and regional authorities.

Nonetheless, all available evidence indicates that the character of WMD trafficking in the post-2001 period has remained essentially the same as in the pre-2001 period, displaying amateurish features and dominated by the supply side. Trafficking cases involving weapons-grade nuclear material have entailed minuscule quantities, and their number has substantially decreased compared to the pre-2001 period, when most of the proliferationsignificant events involving kilogram-level quantities of material were reported. That said, the post-2001 evidence of trafficking in WMD-related material does show new and potentially worrisome characteristics that bear close scrutiny.

The Data Set

This article is based on an analysis of 183 trafficking incidents that occurred in the former Soviet Union between January 2001 and December 2006. The incidents were reported in the Center for Nonproliferation Studies' (CNS) N/5 Export Control Observer,1 the International Export Control Observer,2 and the CNS Newly Independent States Nuclear Trafficking Abstracts Database,3 which gather information from a variety of regional, national and international sources, including gray literature such as conference reports and interviews.4 The data set includes incidents that constitute illegal activities, with or without criminal intent; orphan material; and cases where the arrest of the perpetrators or seizure of the material occurred outside the former Soviet Union but concerned material or individuals originating or suspected of originating from the former Soviet Union. Hoaxes and events that were first reported as illicit trafficking cases but later revealed to be legal shipments or that had no WMD connection were discarded. Yet, because of the incompleteness of information available in open and gray sources and inconsistencies in press reporting, the data set may include occasional mistakes. …