The Links Between Organized Crime and Terrorism in Eurasian Nuclear Smuggling
U.S. programs designed to safeguard Russian nuclear materials are "brilliantly engineered but fatally flawed," according to Louise Shelley, Director, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, American University, and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute. At a 12 December 2005 Kennan Institute talk, Shelley and Robert Orttung, Associate Research Professor, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, American University, and former Title VIII-Supported Short-Term Scholar, Kennan Institute, argued that U.S. programs focus exclusively on technical aspects of protecting nuclear materials (such as locks and security systems). Although these technical safeguards are important, Shelley contended that corrupt officials and the work of criminal and terrorist networks can undermine the best technical security. The threat to nuclear materials in Russia "is not a hypothetical problem," she warned. "Criminals are actually moving these materials, and there is a market among terrorist groups."
According to Shelley, the greatest threat to post-Soviet nuclear security is no longer underpaid scientists selling their skills to the highest bidder. Much more dangerous today are the connections between corrupt officials who have access to nuclear materials, criminal groups that already control transit networks for illegal goods, and terrorist groups that want to acquire nuclear materials. Shelley noted that some of these connections have been formed when criminals and terrorists have been imprisoned together in European jails. Unlike traditional, nationalist mafia groups, she argued, criminal groups in the former Soviet Union are not averse to working with terrorists, and often the two groups feel that they have common enemies.
Orttung, who has done research on crime in the closed nuclear city of Ozersk in Chelyabinsk oblast, gave an overview of the many complex networks through which nuclear materials may pass from storage facilities in Russia into the hands of terrorists groups. He contended that Chelyabinsk is on a major drug trafficking route, and drug dealers inside of the closed city have connections to Tajik drug groups, which in turn may be connected to terrorist groups. Released convicts living in Ozersk, as well as corrupt employees of the nuclear plant, may have the incentive and the ability to sell nuclear materials to local and transnational criminal groups, potentially taking advantage of transport conduits such as conscript soldiers who guard the closed cities or criminalized taxi and construction groups. Finally, nuclear plants in Chelyabinsk oblast have many Tatar and Bashkir employees, whose families living outside of the closed city are targeted by recruiters for Islamic extremist groups that may have an interest in acquiring nuclear materials.
According to Orttung, the wide array of criminal networks in a closed nuclear city give terrorists many opportunities to access materials. "The argument here isn't that there is one single organized crime group that specializes in smuggling nuclear materials, but that there's a vast array of networks, dealing with drugs, fruit, all kinds of contraband goods that are being brought into Russia legally or illegally, and that the terrorist group could use any one of these to get access to the material and then transport that material," he explained.
The states of the South Caucasus are an important link in Eurasian nuclear smuggling networks. Shelley stated that small quantities of stolen nuclear materials-probably intended for terrorist groups hoping to build dirty bombs-have been intercepted by border guards in the South Caucasus. The fact that nuclear materials appear to be leaving Russia via the Caucasus rather than across Russia's long and loosely guarded border with Kazakhstan suggests that smuggling networks have intentionally made the Caucasus their route of choice for nuclear materials, according to Shelley. She argued that a number of factors make the South Caucasus an appealing route for smugglers, including: proximity to western states, lack of state control in separatist regions, high rates of poverty that drive many people into illicit activities, and inexperienced and corrupt law enforcement. Shelley added that the South Caucasus was the stronghold of traditional organized crime in the Soviet Union. "These groups have moved a lot into the transport sector and they've also been globalized….You're looking at a network structure that is very hard to detect," she explained.
According to Shelley all the nuclear materials that have been found in the South Caucasus have been detected by radiation detectors, rather than on the basis of intelligence. This is very troubling, she argued, because it means that nuclear materials are traveling thousands of miles from their points of origin in central Russia before they are detected, and it is likely that some materials are leaving Eurasia undetected. Preventing and detecting further nuclear smuggling in Eurasia will require increased intelligence-gathering and a better understanding of criminal and terrorist networks in the region. "There is little understanding of the actors involved or the target destinations of nuclear materials," Shelley said. "We need to be providing crime and terror analysis that better understands the areas of vulnerability, and better integrate our findings into our threat analysis and our policies on safeguarding weapons of mass destruction."