Islamic Terrorists and the Russian Mafia

By Land, Thomas | Contemporary Review, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Islamic Terrorists and the Russian Mafia

Land, Thomas, Contemporary Review

THE FIVE recently independent republics of former Soviet Central Asia have signed a treaty establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in their countries. The instrument is of enormous interest to the West because the territories of the five - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - have recently emerged as a global battleground for terrorist weapons of mass destruction.

Significantly, both Russia and China, the regional superpowers, have already expressed support. The Asian diplomatic initiative is in response to a challenge by a group of Islamic tenor organizations led by al-Qaeda, threatening the integrity of countries along the southern rim of the former Soviet Union. The governments of the region are regarded by the terrorists as soft targets for the acquisition of raw materials for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons from arsenals left behind by the Cold War.

Their reactors and weapons stockpiles are vulnerable, their frontiers are poorly controlled and key segments of their security services are often corrupt. And the terrorists are deploying a lethal new weapon - collaboration with the powerful, well connected and versatile Russian Mafia. But the threatened countries receive substantial support from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations as well as the West.

The conflict area embraces the Muslim lands of former Soviet Central Asia, stretches across the Caucasus and into Moldova and follows the traditional heroin smuggling route across Turkey to the Balkans. A wide range of research into the objectives and nature of the struggle has been brought into focus by the proceedings of a secret conference, apparently penetrated by Russian intelligence, of a diverse group of Islamic terrorist organizations held recently at the town of Travnik in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Significantly, the conference forged a united front endorsing the deployment of any means and collaboration with any potential ally in pursuit of jihad. These terrorist groups will be even more determined to acquire a nuclear weapon after the defeat of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Al-Qaeda's desire to obtain nuclear arms is well documented by evidence discovered in bunkers vacated by the terrorists during the war in Afghanistan. Intelligence sources fear that the terrorists may already be very close to assembling crude radiological weapons which can scatter nuclear materials using conventional explosive devices. The collapse of Soviet power has made such an arsenal readily available. A lot of radioactive material originally used by hospitals, industry and research institutions lies unaccounted and abandoned in the former Soviet Union - in addition to some 800 tons of weapons grade uranium and 200 tons of plutonium held in poorly guarded stockpiles.

The use of Russian organized criminals in the struggle for nuclear weaponry is probably a new development. Vladimir Orlov of the Centre for Policy Studies in Moscow recently described at a Washington conference an unsuccessful attempt by a Russian gang to obtain weapons of mass destruction for foreign interests. The risks facing the organized criminals in the regions challenged by the terrorists are relatively low, argue Phil Williams and Paul Woessner of the Ridgway Centre for International Security Studies, because of the weakness of law enforcement, the prevalence of corruption and the lack of interdiction skills.

'Nuclear material has certain attractions for criminals', they argue in a discussion paper published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. 'It is not too difficult to obtain, relatively small and easy to transport, easy to disguise and. . . provides rapid, immediate and large profits. Criminal networks are dynamic and fluid rather than fixed or static: they often bring together different kinds of participants in alliances of convenience. Hybrid trafficking networks of this kind are often difficult to identify until it is too late. …

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