Trafficking, Terrorism, and Organized Crime in the Former Soviet Union

Published on Arms Control Association (

An Unrealized Nexus? WMD-related

Trafficking, Terrorism, and Organized Crime

in the Former Soviet Union

 Arms Control Today

 Counterproliferation

 Nuclear Black Markets / A.Q. Khan Network

 Russia

 Features

Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley

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 WMD material to terrorists.

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 proliferation-significant 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) NIS 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.

WMD-Trafficking Incidents Prior to 2001

Prior to 2001, aside from a few proliferation-significant incidents[5] in the early 1990s,[6]

WMD-related trafficking in the region displayed amateurish features. Although known

trafficking involved primarily nuclear and radioactive material—low-enriched uranium

(LEU),[7] radioactive isotopes, and contaminated scrap metal—the material was most often

stolen for the value of the metal casing and not for the radioactive or nuclear material it


Perpetrators were primarily opportunists motivated by financial gains. They generally were

uninformed about the value of the material, which they typically overestimated, or unaware of

the possibility of detection or of the associated health hazards. Trafficking was conducted in

contraband style, with material hidden in a bag, car, or bus and transported along a southern

route, crossing Central Asia and the Caucasus, and proceeding west toward Europe through

Turkey. In the late 1990s, the more commonly used westbound route from Russia to Europe was

replaced by the southern route. Trafficking appeared dominated by the supply side, with no

evidence of an actual demand or connection with organized crime or terrorist groups.

General Trends of Post-2001 WMD Trafficking

Since 2001, the features of WMD-related trafficking appear not to have changed substantially.

Most known trafficking incidents involve radioactive orphan sources, contaminated scrap metal,

radioactive isotopes such as cesium-137, and low-grade nuclear material, primarily LEU. The

first three items account for about 50 percent of the trafficking transactions. In many ways, this is

not surprising. Powerful radiation sources disposed of improperly by medical and industrial

facilities or abandoned by the Soviet army are abundant throughout the former Soviet Union.

Other potent sources contained in radioisotope thermoelectric generators—devices built to

provide electricity in lighthouses, radio beacons, and meteorological stations—are inadequately


No proliferation-significant cases have been reported in the 2001-2006 period. Known

trafficking incidents with plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) involve minuscule

quantities of material that would not pose a proliferation threat. In addition, a very small portion

of these incidents involves weapons-grade material. For instance, 7 percent of the trafficking

transactions (14 cases) involve plutonium (Pu-238 and Pu-239),[8] but they consist of minuscule

amounts contained in industrial instruments or smoke detectors, which would not pose a

proliferation threat.[9]

Only 5 percent, or 10 cases of the known trafficking incidents during the 2001-2006 period,

involve HEU. Three of these cases concern HEU with an enrichment level of at least 80 percent,

but they also involve only small quantities of material. One had five grams of HEU enriched to

about 80 percent. The material, suspected of originating in an unidentified former Soviet Union

country, was seized in France in 2001.[10] Another incident involves 170 grams of HEU seized

in Georgia at the border with Armenia. Although media reports issued after the material was

seized in 2003 did not specify the material’s enrichment level, later reports indicated that the

HEU was enriched to almost 90 percent. The third case, which occurred in early 2006, involved

100 grams of HEU enriched to 89.4 percent.[11] This material was also seized in Georgia at the

border with Armenia. The enrichment level of the remaining seven HEU cases was not specified,

but four of these incidents were reported in 2005 by Georgian authorities, who indicated that the

material had been seized during the previous two to three years and was not weapons-grade


The profile of the perpetrators and their trafficking methods also remains constant. Perpetrators

usually are opportunists (39 percent), either facility insiders or native residents of the city or

country of material acquisition. Seven percent of the trafficking cases over the 2001-2006 period

involved crime groups (12 cases), which include established organized crime groups (seven

cases), such as the Balashikha group in Moscow, and groups of individuals suspected of

belonging to a regional or international smuggling rings (five cases). Trafficking perpetrated by

crime groups hardly differs from the other incidents. They do entail potent radioactive sources

that could be used in RDDs, such as cesium-137, or nuclear material such as HEU (two cases)

and LEU (two cases). They also involve material with no nuclear application, such as osmium-

187 (four cases), or with low radioactivity levels, such as depleted uranium.[13] This may

indicate that these groups have a limited understanding of the material’s value. In addition, these

incidents generally involve small quantities of material.

Only three cases are loosely connected to a terrorist organization. The first case is based on a

2002 report published in The Guardian, indicating that, according to an unidentified U.S. official,

Chechen rebels stole radioactive sources and nuclear material from the Volgodonsk nuclear

power plant located in Rostov Oblast, Russia. These allegations were not corroborated by other

sources and even denied by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Russian

Ministry of Atomic Energy, and Volgodonsk officials.[14] The second case involved two

individuals from the Caucasus who attempted to acquire 15 kilograms of uranium with an

unspecified enrichment level from a Russian nuclear combine in 2003.[15] The Russian press

speculated that the material was to be used for a dirty bomb to be exploded in St. Petersburg

during the city’s tercentennial celebrations. These allegations could not be corroborated as the

buyer escaped the police. In addition, given the low radioactivity level of uranium, it would not

have made a particularly powerful RDD. The third case, which took place in 2005, involved a

Sunday Times reporter posing as an intermediary for Algerian terrorists. He approached an arms

dealer in the secessionist region of Transdniestria, Moldova, who was willing to sell Alazan

rockets with warheads purportedly containing the radioactive material strontium and cesium.

Yet, the possibility that these conventional rockets had been modified to carry radioactive

warheads has been subject of much debate and no firm conclusion. Moreover, the reporter’s

allegation could not be corroborated as he broke off the deal before paying a substantial amount

of money to the arms dealer.[16]

As far as the structure of the market is concerned, it remains decidedly supply side. There are no

established connections between suppliers and possible brokers or clients, who most often are

nonexistent. Suppliers still overestimate the value of the material and do not seem to have a clear

idea of what material has value for nuclear weapons or RDD development. Indeed, many of the

transactions entail materials that have no nuclear weapons or RDD application or hardly any

radioactivity (e.g., osmium-187, cesium-133, [red] mercury, or depleted uranium).[17] In

addition, trafficking transactions are often held in public spaces, such as train stations, with few

precautions taken to hide these activities. Twenty-two percent of the trafficking cases identified

during the 2001-2006 period were discovered during the sale of the material, 10 percent of which

were the result of sting operations. Another 22 percent were discovered during the transportation

of the material, most often while crossing a border or as a by-product of roadside police checks.

Novel Characteristics

Even though post-2001 trafficking data does not support the feared nexus among terrorism,

organized crime and WMD-related trafficking, new trafficking characteristics have emerged that

bear close monitoring.

One of these new features is the appearance of trafficking in chemical and biological material.

Only two incidents have been reported for the 2001-2006 period. One involved a nonpathogenic

strain of the Ebola virus in Ukraine in 2002.[18] The other concerned mustard gas in Georgia in

2003.[19] In both cases, a dearth of information was provided on the material and, in the case of

the Ebola strain, no details about the origin, destination, and perpetrators were revealed, making

it difficult to ascertain if this was indeed a trafficking case. Nevertheless, the two cases share

something in common: the material was discovered by chance, during an unrelated roadside

check (Georgia) and during a customs shipment inspection (Ukraine). Because of the absence of

appropriate material detection equipment deployed in the former Soviet Union, this fact alone

underscores the difficulty of detecting biological and chemical material. Therefore, the small

number of reported incidents may not be representative of actual trafficking in these materials.

Notably, trafficking routes appear to have become more varied during the post-2001 period.

Seizure and arrest patterns show that previously the main route went south through Central Asia

and the Caucasus and then west to Europe. Today, traffickers are likely using three main

corridors. First, the east-west route, going directly from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus to Europe,

which was more widely used in the early 1990s, has been reactivated. Second, a new south-east

route crossing Central Asia into neighboring Asian countries seems to have emerged. Finally, the

late 1990s south-west route has been maintained, with a good portion of the traffic merging in

the Caucasus, probably because, from there, the goods can either go west through Turkey or east

into Asia and the Middle East. Although today most materials are seized before they reach their

declared destination, the use of multiple routes is worrisome because it may indicate that

traffickers have detected a possible new demand in these regions. Multiple routes may also

deplete the few resources available to the region’s enforcement communities, thus making it

more difficult to monitor and control trafficking.

Another troubling feature is that a few cases involved nuclear or radioactive material in

combination with small arms (four cases) and narcotics (two cases), which may indicate a

convergence between arms or drugs and WMD-related material. In some of these cases, the

nuclear or radioactive material was discovered by chance during an unrelated drug or financial

investigation.[20] This may indicate that the drug control and financial fraud enforcement

agencies can also be useful instruments of proliferation prevention.

The data set also includes a small number of cases involving opportunists that show a higher

degree of organization. Several incidents involve groups of individuals who do not belong to an

established organized crime group but collaborate for a specific operation, sometimes with the

active participation of former law enforcement representatives.[21] Some opportunist cases also

involve weapons and explosives, which may be indicative of a link with organized crime.[22]

In addition, one out of four cases involves potent radioactive sources, particularly cesium-137

(37 cases) and stronsium-90 (six cases), which could be used for RDDs. This characteristic is not

completely new; trafficking with these sources was common before 2001 because they can be

found in many orphaned industrial instruments. Prior to 2001, however, monitoring focused on

state capabilities, and because these materials cannot be used for nuclear weapons, this type of

trafficking was not considered a high proliferation risk. Given current concern over terrorist use

of RDDs, trafficking with these potent radioactive sources has become more preoccupying. Yet,

in light of the meager information in media reports about either the quantity or quality of the

material, it is difficult to ascertain whether these events are of proliferation significance.

Absence of Proliferation-Significant Cases

The most striking change in the post-2001 period is the absence of reported proliferation-

significant cases (kilogram-level quantities of weapons-grade material). Whereas during the

early 1990s, when several cases involving kilogram-level quantities of weapons-grade material

were recorded, data for the post-2001 period show only three incidents with gram-level

quantities of HEU enriched to 80 percent or more. An analysis of these three cases indicates a

connection with organized crime for only one of them and no apparent connection with


The two Georgian cases have several common characteristics. They both involve opportunists,

who were arrested in Georgia while coming from Russia. In both cases, the enrichment level of

the material was almost 90 percent, which might indicate that they came from the same source.

The French case, on the other hand, involved a criminal group. Although the investigation and

the trial that followed the seizure and arrest of the perpetrators did not establish the origin of the

material, plane tickets and documents written in the Cyrillic alphabet found in the apartment of

one of the perpetrators point to an Eastern origin. The French perpetrators also kept the material

in a glass ampoule contained in a lead cylinder.[23] This is in sharp contrast with the

transportation means used by the perpetrator in the 2006 Georgian case, which consisted in a

plastic bag tucked in his pocket.[24] As HEU is not highly radioactive, this did not represent a

health hazard for the perpetrator as long as the HEU was not ingested.[25] Whether the

perpetrator was simply blissfully ignorant or was advised by a knowledgeable co-conspirator not

to fret about the matter is unknown. In any event, aside from the fact that the three cases involve

gram-level quantities of material that could have constituted a sample of a larger quantity of

material, the three cases do not seem to constitute a consistent trafficking pattern.

The absence of proliferation-significant cases may be an indicator that international efforts to

improve security at nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union are bearing fruit. If so, the

occasional incidents involving small quantities of weapons-grade material may be instances of

material stolen in the early 1990s, when security measures were not in place. Conversely, the

absence of incidents with significant amounts of weapons-grade material also may be a sign that

local authorities are unable to identify such cases or that perpetrators have become more

sophisticated in their transactions. Because of the dearth of information, we can only speculate.

2003 Spike in Activity

The number of reported trafficking cases in most categories of material, except HEU and LEU,

suddenly increases in 2003 and steadily decreases the following years. The number of cases

involving opportunists shows a similar evolution. The surge in plutonium cases (small quantities

contained in industrial instruments or smoke detectors) is slightly delayed, with an increase

occurring in 2004 and a steady decrease starting in 2005. This parallel movement may indicate

an improvement in detection capabilities that may have produced a deterrent effect, which is

difficult to prove because media sources do not always indicate the circumstances surrounding

the discovery of the material. Nevertheless, the possibility underscores the importance of U.S.

and IAEA programs, initiated or accelerated after the September 11 attacks, to detect radioactive

sources at border points.

The number of cases involving HEU, LEU, and other unspecified enriched uranium, on the other

hand, decreases in 2002 and then flattens to a low level in subsequent years.[26] This may be

indicative of the fact that there are not many such cases because of the improvement of physical

security measures at facilities storing such material. On the other hand, it may also indicate that

due to their weak radioactivity, HEU and LEU cannot be detected by existing radiation-detection

equipment. Consequently, more trafficking cases possibly have occurred. The small number of

cases involving organized crime and terrorist groups can be interpreted the same way. This may

indicate the absence of involvement of such groups in trafficking in the former Soviet Union, or

it may show that existing border-control equipment and methods are not efficient against more

sophisticated groups.

Absence of Evidence Is Not Evidence of Absence

Except for the cases having a loose terrorist connection, the data does not show much of a

convergence between WMD-related material trafficking and terrorism. Yet, caution regarding

this conclusion is warranted for several reasons. First, investigations of trafficking incidents in

the former Soviet Union are usually incomplete, especially so in Central Asia and the Caucasus,

because the enforcement communities in these countries do not have sufficient funding or

appropriate training to conduct systematic investigations. As a result, investigations are often

limited to the arrest of the seller, with little or no information on the identity of other members of

a network, if any, or any determination of the origin of the material. The few cases where several

members of a trafficking chain—seller, buyer, and intermediaries—were identified and arrested

typically involve nationals of the former Soviet Union all meeting in the same place for the

transaction.[27] Seldom can the police or security services identify sellers or buyers if they are

located in a foreign country. They are also often unable to discover the final destination of the

material or even the origin of the material if it did not come from a local facility.

A second problem relates to the lack of information sharing among enforcement organizations in

the region, which may spring from the absence of technical means, the lack of political will, and

territorial or political disputes. The problematic cooperation between Russia and Georgia

regarding the identification of the HEU seized by Georgian authorities in 2006 illustrates the fact

that political disputes constitute a powerful obstacle to cooperation in preventing proliferation

and identifying trafficking patterns.

Another major obstacle to understanding trafficking patterns is the infancy of export control in

the region. For instance, Turkmenistan has no export control law and no export control list for

strategic goods.[28] Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have export control laws, but implementing

legislation and an export control list for each country are still under development. Uzbekistan’s

export control law was adopted only in 2004, and the country’s export control list also is under


Except for Russia and Kazakhstan, most countries of the former Soviet Union have a weak legal

basis for regulating exports with contradictory and/or incomplete legislation, an underdeveloped

licensing system, and understaffed export control organizations with underpaid and untrained

personnel. Customs border posts are still ill-equipped to deal with trafficking of WMD-related

material, although several U.S. and international programs are underway to provide proliferation-

prevention equipment and training in several countries of the region. Some border sections also

remain unprotected because of access constraints, such as mountain passes, or territorial

disputes. For instance, because of disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Azeri

government does not control 132 kilometers of the border between Azerbaijan and Iran.

Mountain passes in Tajikistan, especially at the border with Afghanistan, which stretches over

1,200 kilometers, are the most difficult to protect. Visibility in these areas is limited to 10 meters

or less.

Finally, insufficient reporting is another cause for concern. Because of their lack of training,

customs officials, border guards, and security services sometimes do not recognize the

importance of events. During an IAEA workshop in 2001, a Russian customs officer indicated

that he was aware of more than 200 cases of illicit trafficking that had not been reported because

field custom agents considered them insignificant. Nuclear, chemical, and biological facilities

also may not report incidents occurring within their walls either because they poorly appreciate

the importance of the event or they fear being involved in a police investigation.

Training programs on export control of strategic material have been launched in various

countries in the former Soviet Union since the mid-1990s and are aimed to inform industry and

the enforcement community. These programs, however, are primarily directed toward aiding the

development of national export control systems or providing training on border control methods

and the use of border control equipment. Very little is done in the field of increasing

nonproliferation awareness among customs, border guards, and industry. The Export Control and

Related Border Security (EXBS) program managed by the Department of State is probably one

of the few programs that sponsors such training. The program is very limited, with a total budget

of $42 million in 2006 to cover 40 countries, of which former Soviet Union countries constitute

only a small portion.[29]


Because our capacity to understand future trends in WMD-trafficking hinges on appropriate

reporting from the field, it will become increasingly important to improve the quality and

quantity of information gathering by training local and regional officials in recognizing

significant incidents. The proliferation consequences of such an imperfect system ought to

galvanize the international community to lend appropriate assistance.

The data collected over the 2001-2006 period shows that programs aiming to provide radiation-

detection equipment have had some success and should be continued and reinforced, especially

in countries located on the southern borders of the former Soviet Union. Although existing

technology does not detect HEU, it does detect other material with nuclear-weapon or RDD

applications (plutonium and radioactive sources). Until recently, the bulk of such U.S. assistance

went to Russia and Kazakhstan because they possessed the largest quantities of WMD material.

Only after 2001 did other countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus begin to receive more

attention, due to their location on trafficking routes, their position as transit countries, and their

proximity to troubled areas such as Afghanistan and Iran.

Nevertheless, border-control assistance programs in countries such as Tajikistan and

Turkmenistan are still wanting. These two countries are located on the trafficking routes for

drugs coming from Afghanistan, they have porous borders, and Tajikistan is a theater of terrorist

activity. In addition, their customs and border guards are ill-equipped and unprepared to deal

with trafficking in WMD-related material. These also are the two countries in the former Soviet

Union with the worst record in terms of export-control system development. It is important to

direct more funding to install radiation detection equipment at their borders—some of which is

already being done under the EXBS program—encourage the development of their national

export-control systems, and train their border control personnel.

Considering that several countries of the region, such as Georgia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan,

have mountainous areas difficult to protect, the provision of other technical means would greatly

improve border control. Tools such as night-vision equipment, all-terrain vehicles,

communication equipment, and helicopters would sharply improve the efficiency of these

organizations. It also is important to provide the means to support and operate such equipment.

Some of these measures are already being implemented under U.S.-funded programs. Many

customs and border guard posts remain unequipped, however, according to local customs and

border guard representatives. Another important measure consists of raising the morale and

motivation of customs and border guards to perform their tasks efficiently. Increasing or

complementing their salaries can help here.

New methods are needed to improve data collection related to trafficking in the region. This

could be achieved by establishing a regional information-sharing mechanism that would allow

national export-control and intelligence communities to share information. Some countries in the

region exchange information on licensing on a bilateral basis (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan)

while others do not (Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine).[30] Regional organizations such as the

Eurasian Economic Community[31] have been established to harmonize export control

procedures and improve information sharing. The organization has a limited membership,

however, and so far has achieved little tangible progress. No regional information-sharing

mechanisms exist. Previous attempts to create such a system—the Regional Transit

Agreement—were supported by the State Department for several years but failed in part because

of conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The initiative should be reactivated, and conflicts

between Armenia and Azerbaijan could be avoided by establishing Georgia as the intermediary

between the two countries.

Considering that 20 percent of known trafficking cases have been discovered as a result of an

investigation, improving police investigative capabilities and training police forces in the

region—drug control and financial brigades—in identifying WMD-related material could also

greatly benefit data collection and improve our understanding of the possible connections among

crime, terrorism, and trafficking.

Programs in the field of chemical and biological nonproliferation are still wanting. Existing

training programs and equipment provision are geared toward nuclear material and technology.

Considering the dearth of biological and chemical detection equipment, it is important to help

customs and border guards identify these materials with other means. These could include such

tools as product identification workshops or the design of manuals describing goods related to

biological and chemical weapons that could be used by border control personnel. The creation of

expert centers on which border control personnel could call for assistance in identifying such

material would also be helpful. So far, such centers only exist in Russia. Yet, many other former

Soviet states have facilities that at one time produced biological and chemical weapons and that

could serve as an expert adjunct to law enforcement agencies.

Finally, for any new system or mechanism to be successful in the region, another major

challenge will have to be overcome: the absence of a nonproliferation culture. Government and

customs officials, border guards, and exporters alike have little understanding of the concept of

export control as a means to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their

means of delivery. Improvements in this area have occurred in Russia and Kazakhstan, but in

most other countries of the former Soviet Union, export control is usually understood as

“customs control,” that is, the act of checking the validity of documents and collecting duties. It

is important to educate local authorities and industry representatives about basic nonproliferation

concepts while providing them with updated information on WMD-related material and

trafficking techniques and patterns. Several training workshops have been organized under the

auspices of the Departments of State, Energy, and Commerce as well as the IAEA. These

workshops, however, are often organized with long intervals between them and for a limited

number of actors. There is a need for continuous and wider training. Only such a system would

truly generate a change in mentality and behaviors. This could be achieved by setting up a

nonproliferation curriculum within customs, border guards, and police academies and supporting

the creation of such academies where they do not already exist.

Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley is a senior researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies

at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Marina Matevski and Karl Scheuerman

provided assistance in collecting and organizing the data that form the basis for this article.


1. See Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), NIS Export Control Observer, available at

2. See CNS, International Export Control Observer, available at

3. See CNS, NIS Nuclear Trafficking Database, available at

4. The incident involving weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) that was reported in

January 2007 in The New York Times was included in the data set, as the material was seized in

Georgia in January 2006. See Lawrence Scott Sheets and William Broad, “Georgia Says It

Blocked Smuggling of Arms-Grade Uranium,” The New York Times, January 25, 2007, p. A1.

5. Proliferation-significant cases are defined as involving kilogram-level quantities of plutonium-

239 or HEU with an enrichment level of 80 percent or more. At least 3 kilograms of plutonium-

239 or 25 kilograms of HEU enriched to 80 percent or more would be required to build a nuclear

bomb. In principle, a nuclear bomb could also be built with uranium enriched to less than 80

percent. The lower the enrichment level, however, the greater the quantity of uranium required.

For instance, at 20 percent enrichment, about 200 kilograms of uranium or more would be

needed to build a bomb. A bomb maker would also need to understand very advanced techniques

in order to be able to use uranium enriched to about 20 percent. Charles Ferguson and William

Potter, The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (New York: Routledge, 2005).

6. For a description of these cases, see William C. Potter and Elena Sokova “Illicit Nuclear

Trafficking in the NIS: What’s New? What’s True?” The Nonproliferation Review, Summer

2002, pp. 112-120.

7. Uranium containing less than 20 percent of the isotope uranium-235.

8. An additional plutonium event was reported in the press in 2003. Because the material was

stolen in 1993 and the perpetrator attempted to sell it the same year, this case was not included in

the data set.

9. Traditionally, plutonium-238 is used for civilian purposes, while plutonium-239 is used in

weapons production. Other types of smoke detectors use americium-241, a radioactive isotope

slightly heavier than plutonium. A terrorist would need millions of detectors in order to extract

enough americium or plutonium to make a powerful RDD. Steve Coll, “The Unthinkable,” The

New Yorker, March 12, 2007, pp. 48-57.

10. “French Court Sentences Uranium Smugglers to Jail” NIS Export Control Observer, August

2003, p. 17.

11. Sheets and Broad, “Georgia Says It Blocked Smuggling of Arms-Grade Uranium.”

12. “Georgia Reports Four New Cases of HEU Seizure,” NIS Export Control Observer, July


13. See “Cesium Sellers Caught Red-handed,” Security Service of Ukraine, May 6, 2004; “1.8kg

Uranium Seized in Batumi, Georgia,” Interfax News Agency, July 24, 2001; “Balashikha

Organized Crime Group Members Arrested for Attempted Sale of Uranium-235,”,

December 4, 2001; “Omsk Oblast: Counterintelligence Agents Catch Pensioners Selling

Radioactive Osmium and Counterfeit Iraqi Currency,” VolgaInform, March 2, 2003.

14. “Russian Nuclear Theft Alarms U.S.,” The Guardian, July 19, 2002.

15. “A Charmed Pilgrim,” Komsomolskaya Pravda, July 19, 2004.

16. “Dirty Bomb Rockets Again Reported for Sale in Transnistria” NIS Export Control

Observer, June 2005.

17. See “National Security Service Detains Three Residents of Tokmok Attempting to Sell

Strategic Material for Over One Million Soms,” Kyrgyzinfo News Agency, February 11, 2005;

“Incidents of Illicit trafficking in the NIS-Russia,” NIS Export Control Observer, April 2005.

18. “Two Incidents of Pathogen Smuggling Reported,” NIS Export Control Observer, July 2003.

19. “Two Radioactive Smuggling Cases Occur in Georgia Within Weeks,” NIS Export Control

Observer, July 2003.

20. See “Kazakhstani Officials Confiscate 1.5kg Uranium Oxide, Heroin,” Interfax News

Agency, March 11, 2002; “Tajik Authorities Foil Attempt by Uzbekistani Citizen to Sell

Plutonium,” ITAR-TASS, March 15, 2004; “Dirty Bomb in a Nuclear Suitcase,”,

October 3, 2003; “Des trafiquants d’uranium arrêtés par hazard,” Liberation, July 24, 2001 (in


21. “1.8kg Uranium Seized in Batumi, Georgia”; “Balashikha Organized Crime Group Members

Arrested for Attempted Sale of Uranium-235.”

22. “Polish Police Arrest Gang Selling Explosives, Radioactive Material,” Gazeta Wyborcza, in

FBIS document EUP20030903000339, September 3, 2003; “Dirty Bomb in a Nuclear Suitcase.”

23. “Des trafiquants d’uranium arrêtés par hazard.”

24. No information on the transportation means was given for the 2003 HEU case.

25. As a heavy metal, uranium can pose a toxic risk, especially to the kidneys, if taken into the


26. An artificial surge in HEU cases was created by the announcement made in 2005 by

Georgian authorities that they thwarted four attempts of trafficking with HEU in the previous

two to three years. As the dates of these incidents were not given, they were all recorded in 2005.

27. See “Radioactive Components Stolen From Scientific Research Institute’s Storage Facility

Pass Through Ukraine and Seized by Special Services on Western Border,” Fakty i kommentarii

(Kiev), May 23, 2002; “Smuggling of Rare-Earth Metals Into Russia Stopped,” Interfax News

Agency, December 28, 2001.

28. Turkmenistan’s existing export control list includes only categories of material, such as

nuclear material and military technology, but does not provide a detailed list of controlled items.

29. The Export Control and Related Border Security Assistance (EXBS) program.

30. Eighth Central Asia and the Caucasus Regional Forum on Export Control, Tbilisi, Georgia,

May 16-18, 2006.

31. The Eurasian Economic Community (EURASEC) was created in May 2001, when the five

member states—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan—ratified the

corresponding treaty. Uzbekistan has joined the organization recently. EURASEC replaced the

customs union of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Arms Control Association is a non-profit, membership-based organization.

If you find our resources useful, please consider joining or making a contribution.

Arms Control Today encourages reprint of its articles with permission of the Editor.

© 1997-2008 Arms Control Association

1313 L St., NW, Ste. 130

Washington, DC 20005

Tel: (202) 463-8270 | Fax: (202) 463-8273

Source URL: