Colonel Putin in the Conservatory with the Cesium

I’m not sure if this story is real or if somebody transcribed one of Bill Kristol’s nightmares wildest dreams:

The previously unpublicized case is one of at least four attempts in five years in which criminal networks with suspected Russian ties sought to sell radioactive material to extremists through Moldova, an investigation by The Associated Press has found. One investigation uncovered an attempt to sell bomb-grade uranium to a real buyer from the Middle East, the first known case of its kind.

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 the Islamic State and al-Qaida — both of which have made clear their ambition to use weapons of mass destruction.

"Look, I'm not 'reflexively pro-war,' I'm 'reflexively pro-bad idea,' OK?"
“Yep, that does sound like one of mine”

Russia…uranium…WMD…Islamic State…all we’re missing is a reference to “Iran” and our Neocon Bingo card will be complete.

This isn’t George Jahn transcribing mysterious Iran documents, so there’s no immediate reason to question the AP’s investigation here. But there are a few bits of context that need to be mentioned:

  • The “previously unpublicized case” referred to above may have itself been previously unpublicized, but the “Russian smugglers attempt to sell radioactive materials in Moldova” story has been previously publicized. And before Moldova, Georgia was supposed to be the place where a would-be terrorist could get the radioactive materials he wanted. This isn’t suddenly A Thing.
  • Despite the article’s repeated references to “bomb-grade uranium” and “atomic bomb” and “nuclear bomb,” it appears that the material these smugglers are attempting to sell (maybe) would only be useful in building a radiological device, or “dirty bomb.” Don’t get me wrong, those are bad enough, but the AP ought to realize that when you talk about “nuclear bombs,” people think of mushroom clouds, not radiological devices (hypothetically, a nuclear bomb might destroy a city and kill everyone inside, while a dirty bomb might contaminate part of a city and expose the people in its blast radius to a dangerously high level of radiation). The AP investigation did uncover details about one smuggler who was (according to investigators who tested his supply) selling highly enriched uranium (true nuclear bomb-making stuff), but even that guy supposedly only talked about using his material in a dirty bomb. Again, I’m not trying to minimize the horror of a dirty bomb, but there’s a difference between one of those and a fusion nuclear device, and the AP article seems to be conflating them here.
  • Many of these guys may not even have material that’s suitable for dirty bombs. In one case, a group claimed to have a supply of cesium 137 (suitable for a dirty bomb), but insisted that its prospective buyer (the undercover investigators) buy a vial of cesium 135 (not suitable for a bomb) to “prove their seriousness.” The supposed cesium 137 was never found. Similar investigations appear to have arrested smugglers selling things like unenriched uranium and depleted uranium remnants, which as far as I know would need a lot of processing to be useful for any truly nefarious purpose. Investigators say they’re frustrated because the real smuggler bosses and the real stockpiles of dangerous material keep “disappearing,” but maybe they’re not “disappearing” so much as they “don’t really exist.”
  • The FBI was involved in these investigations, which on the one hand is good (I would definitely like US law enforcement to do what it can to prevent any attempts to sell radioactive materials to groups that would them use those materials to kill people), but on the other hand raises some potential problems. The FBI has gotten really good at “counter-terrorism” investigations that look suspiciously like cases of entrapment when you get into the details. I’m not saying that’s happening here, but the possibility should at least be considered.
  • Despite the supposedly rampant black market trade in these materials, ISIS and Al-Qaeda haven’t gotten their hands on any yet. The reason we know this is that, well, they haven’t used it.

OK, that last point is conjecture on my part, but these aren’t the kind of institutions that are going to sit on a nuclear stockpile for some kind of deterrent. And even if they did decide to build up a deterrent capability for some reason, they’d want that capability to be public knowledge; a “secret deterrent” sounds like just about the most useless thing you could imagine. So if either of those organizations had actually obtained some of this stuff, the rest of the world would know about it, one way or the other.

The proliferation of radioactive materials of all kinds obviously continues to me a huge concern for governments all over the world. But the only way to deal with it apart from piecemeal law enforcement operations (and hoping for the best) is, and I’m sorry if this offends any sensitive Bill Kristol acolytes out there, to put strong anti-proliferation agreements in place governing the use and disposal of those materials, and to work with other countries, even ones whose relations with the United States isn’t entirely pleasant, to maintain strong safeguards against their illicit acquisition.

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