In Brief

'Russian gangs' attempting to sell nuclear material to Islamic State

FBI and Moldovan police have foiled four plots by smugglers looking for buyers who are enemies of the West

Criminal gangs with suspected Russian links are attempting to sell radioactive material to extremists in the Middle East, including Islamic State militants.

FBI agents working alongside investigators in Moldova have foiled four separate plots by smugglers specifically seeking out buyers who are enemies of the West, an AP investigation has revealed.

"In the age of the Islamic State, it's especially terrifying to have real smugglers of nuclear bomb material apparently making connections with real buyers," said Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor who led a secret study for the Clinton administration on the security of Russia's nuclear arsenal.

Authorities involved in the undercover operations in the impoverished Eastern European country shared wiretaps, videotaped arrests, photographs of bomb-grade material, documents and interviews with AP journalists to demonstrate the extent of the nuclear black market.

"This represents the fulfilment of a long-feared scenario in which organised 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," says AP.

In one case, smugglers promised to provide 10kg or uranium, a fifth of what was used over Hiroshima, in 1kg packages costing £24m each.

Another involved a Russian man authorities believe to be an officer with Russia's FSB intelligence agency, known as 'The Colonel'. He attempted to sell bomb-grade uranium and blueprints for a dirty bomb to a Sudanese man, but managed to escape capture when the plot was foiled by police.

The criminal investigation was plagued by serious shortcomings, AP reports. Kingpins got away and those arrested escaped lengthy prison sentences, sometimes quickly returning to nuclear smuggling.

The FBI and the White House refused to comment on the investigation and the US state department said it would not comment on specific details, but a spokesperson said Moldova has taken "many important steps" to strengthen its counter-nuclear smuggling capabilities. 

But Constantin Malic, one of the main Moldovan investigators, warned: "We can expect more of these cases.”

“As long as the smugglers think they can make big money without getting caught, they will keep doing it."

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