12:33, UK, Wednesday 07 October 2015
Moldovan police, aided by the FBI, spent six years penetrating the murky world of Russian-linked gangs offering lethal nuclear material to terrorists.
Featuring shadowy kingpins, Russian security service connections, wiretaps woven into fabric and secret meetings to exchange vials of radioactive material, their investigation reads like a script for counter-terrorism thriller 24.
In an exclusive nightclub in the Moldovan capital, arms smuggler Valentin Grossu offered his terms: €2.5m for enough radioactive caesium to contaminate several city blocks.
“You can make a dirty bomb, which would be perfect for the Islamic State,” he said. “If you have a connection with them, the business will go smoothly.”
Grossu said his supplier was a retired FSB officer with a reputation for brutality. If there was any trouble, he warned an informant: “They will put all of us against the wall and shoot us.”
The gang – claiming to have a cache of caesium 137 suitable for making a dirty bomb – insisted the customer proved their seriousness by first purchasing less potent radioactive material.
Grossu and two other men were arrested on February 19 – but the suspected FSB officer and the rest of the caesium vanished.
The US-Hating Middleman
Former KGB informant Teodor Chetrus was looking for a Middle Eastern buyer for highly-enriched uranium, which could be used to make a nuclear bomb.
Moldovan police officer Constantin Malic said Chetrus held on to a Soviet-era hatred for the West, ranting about how Americans should be annihilated because of the problems they had caused in the Middle East.
“He said multiple times that this substance must have a real buyer from the Islamic states to make a dirty bomb,” Malic said.
Smartly-dressed and cautious, Chetrus was well-educated but lived in a dilapidated farmhouse in a small village on Moldova’s border with Ukraine.
He met with a police informant, who wore a recording device hidden in a different piece of clothing each time.
He said he could offer a free sample of plutonium for a “serious” buyer – potentially enough to make a dirty bomb.
At each meeting Malic was watching from the other side of the road – disguised as a migrant selling fruit and grain from a van.
The Colonel And The Deal For £240m Uranium
Chetrus was working for Alexandr Agheenco, aka “The Colonel,” who Moldovan police believe is an officer with the KGB’s successor organisation, the FSB.
He masterminded the bomb-grade uranium deal from his base in Trans-Dniester, a breakaway republic beyond the reach of Moldovan police.
An agreement was reached to supply an astonishing £240m of uranium – around a fifth of the amount used in the Hiroshima atomic bomb – starting with a small sample for £240,000.
A handover was arranged in Chisinau involving a corrupt police officer and The Colonel’s wife Galina, who deposited a 10g sample of the uranium in the parked Lexus.
At a bank in the city, Chetrus, accompanied by the informant, counted out €320,000 in a safe deposit box, using a special light to check if the bills were marked.
But when Chetrus handed over the uranium package, police in balaclavas punced, arresting the middleman and the Colonel’s wife.
To the frustration of Malic and his team the early intervention killed off any hope of catching The Colonel and recovering a larger cache of uranium.
The Sudan Connection
A search of Chetrus’ house uncovered plans for a dirty bomb and details of a separate deal to sell nuclear material to a real buyer.
Investigators found contracts made out to a Sudanese doctor named Yosif Faisal Ibrahim for attack helicopters and armoured personnel carriers.
There was a copy of Ibrahim’s passport, and evidence that Chetrus was trying to help him obtain a Moldovan visa. Skype messages suggested he was interested in uranium and the dirty bomb plans.
The deal was interrupted by the sting, but it looked like it was well advanced. A lawyer working with the criminal ring had even travelled to Sudan, officials said.
But authorities say they could not determine who was behind Ibrahim or why he was seeking material for a nuclear bomb.
Letter: U.S. has troubled weapons-policy history
May 09, 2015 – 6:00 PM
Throughout U.S. history, we have condemned others for actions we were ourselves guilty of. This includes our use of chemical and biological weapons, nuclear weapons, and frequent American acts of terrorism both on U.S. and foreign soil. We are understandably concerned about Iran’s potential to obtain nuclear weapons. Of course, we should stop Iran from obtaining such weapons by any peaceful means necessary (although sanctions often hurt only innocents).
The hard reality is the United States is the only nation guilty of using nuclear weapons. When Iraq protested inspections, I wondered how the United States would have felt if we were subjected to inspections of our nuclear power plants. Considering our history of accidents (e.g. Three Mile Island), that perhaps would have been justified.
America understandably condemns the 9/11 terrorist acts by Saudi Arabians, yet Saudi Arabia remains our ally. We fail to acknowledge our own long history of terrorism: killing innocent civilians (e.g. Vietnam, Iraq, Dresden during the Second World War), the holocaust we perpetrated on Native Americans, slavery, lynching during the Jim Crow period, and harassment of (especially) black males in places such as Ferguson by police officers. These acts, by definition, are terrorism. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs terrorized innocent Japanese civilians, who were victims of radiation for at least a generation. We used napalm, a chemical weapon, against the Vietnamese. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
The late great progressive historian Howard Zinn put it best when he wrote, “We ought to stop thinking that we must have military solutions to the problems that we face in the world. The solutions that we need are the solutions of dealing with sickness and disease and hunger. That’s fundamental. If you want to end terrorism, you have to stop being terrorists, which is what war is.”
David L. Cohen
US wants nuclear transparency, but not for its own bombs
Amid all of last week’s headlines parsing Iran’s nuclear infrastructure as the deadline for a potential deal with world powers drew near, it was easy to miss the item in the Science section of The New York Times. It was about the US hydrogen bomb programme.
The H-bomb, the paper reminded readers, is a thermonuclear device. Its destructive power is 1,000 times that of the bomb that instantly killed 80,000 people in Hiroshima in 1945. And it has long been a feature in the arsenals of nuclear-armed states.
The news peg was a memoir by one of the founders of the US H-bomb programme, Kenneth W Ford. But even though he cited publicly available material, US Department of Energy censors blocked the book.
Transparency, of course, has never been deemed a virtue in any nuclear weapons programme anywhere in the world. That said, Iran’s leaders might see the irony in being held to stringent transparency requirements while states with well-established nuclear-weapons capability are absolved of the equivalent accountability.
But the basic hypocrisy of the major world powers’ application of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is well-established. Five of the countries currently negotiating with Iran, which is an NPT signatory, are acknowledged to have nuclear weapons. The NPT requires signatories to submit their nuclear facilities to constant inspections to verify their commitment to refrain from building weapons. Meanwhile, the established nuclear weapons states are meant to negotiate their way to disarmament. But 45 years after they adopted the NPT, the established nuclear powers have not ended their addiction to nuclear weapons.
In that period, four non-signatories – India, Pakistan, Israel and South Africa – developed nuclear weapons, although post-apartheid South Africa signed the NPT and allowed the dismantling of its nukes. Meanwhile, a fifth country, North Korea, developed nuclear weapons after withdrawing from the NPT .
But the censoring of Ford’s book reveals a deeper peril in America’s national conversation about nuclear weapons – or, more accurately, the absence of a national conversation about nuclear weapons.
It can never be forgotten that the US was the first – and, mercifully, remains the only – country to have detonated nuclear weapons in anger. On August 6, 1945, that bomb instantly killed one quarter of Hiroshima’s civilian population. Three days later, it detonated a second device over Nagasaki, killing 40,000.
The decision to use weapons of mass destruction to destroy civilian population centres has not been exhaustively debated in the US. It was simply accepted as part of the national mythology that obliterating two Japanese cities was necessary to save many more lives.
When Washington’s Smithsonian Institution planned, in 1995, an exhibit depicting the impact of the bomb through photographs taken on the ground in Hiroshima, the effort was blocked by Congressional Republicans. They denounced it as “anti-American propaganda”. They did so, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, explained, because “most Americans … are sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country”.
America’s nuclear arsenal now includes weapons a thousand times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. Most of its 4,650 active nuclear warheads are between 10 and 50 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. Yet, the decision to nuke the Japanese city is one that American politicians don’t want their people to discuss. No surprise then, that there’s not much public discussion today on the place of nuclear weapons in the nation’s security doctrine.
During the 2008 campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, then-Senator Hillary Clinton rebuked her rival, Barack Obama, for ruling out the use of nuclear force against Al Qaeda in Pakistan. “Presidents since the Cold War have used nuclear deterrents to keep the peace,” Mrs Clinton said, rejecting any “blanket statements with regard to use or non-use.” This was the view of the politician who might be in pole position in the 2016 race for the White House.
In April 2009, president Obama made a historic speech in Prague committing to pursue a “a world without nuclear weapons”and to reduce the number of warheads in the US arsenal. But he also pledged, in light of continued nuclear capability by rival powers, to ensure that the US maintains an “effective arsenal”.
That commitment has now translated, according to the budget he submitted to Congress last month, into a massive modernisation scheme, which would cost $348 billion (Dh 1.28 trillion) over the next 10 years and as much as $1 trillion over a 30-year period.
Still, don’t expect to see much public debate over just what the US is building, and the circumstances in which it might conceivably decide – once again – to destroy a civilian population centre in a matter of minutes.
The world would be a much safer place if, as the NPT intended, efforts to stop new countries acquiring nuclear weapons were matched by the attempt to hold accountable those that already have them.
Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme at the New School in New York
North Korea has been testing engines for an inter-continental ballistic missile, a US think-tank said Friday, as Pyongyang announced a top military reshuffle that coincided with signs of a looming nuclear test.
The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said satellite images of the North’s Sohae rocket launch site suggested one “and maybe more” recent tests on the engine of what is probably the first stage of a road-mobile ICBM called the KN-08.
It was the latest in a series of similar tests — dating back to mid-2013 — on a missile with a targeted range of up to 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles), the institute said on its closely followed website, 38 North.
“The next technically logical step… would be a flight test of the entire system,” it said.
The successful test of an ICBM capable of reaching the continental United States would take the nuclear threat posed by the North to an entirely new level.
Experts believe three nuclear tests have brought the North closer to mastering the miniaturisation techniques required to place a nuclear warhead on a missile.
And there are signs it is preparing a fourth test, with multiple analyses of recent satellite images all noting stepped-up activity at the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
“All these activities are consistent with the view that a (nuclear) test or tests will occur soon,” the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said in its latest assessment on Friday.
Missile delivery has often been cited as the main weakness of the North’s nuclear weapons programme.
It has yet to test its medium-range Musudan missile with a range of up to 4,000 kilometers, let alone an ICBM.
In December 2012, it put a satellite in orbit with a rocket launch that was widely condemned as a disguised ballistic missile test.
That launch marked a significant step forward, but the rocket lacked the re-entry capability required of a functioning ICBM.
Models of the road-mobile KN-08 missile were displayed in North Korean military parades in 2012 and in July last year.
A senior US official expresses optimism about a possible resolving of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear energy program but says Washington is still concerned about the threat posed by Tehran’s missiles to the Persian Gulf states, PressTV reported.
Speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, US deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Space and Defense Policy, Frank Rose, added that Washington was “acutely” aware of anxieties of Arab countries in the Persian Gulf about what he called threats from Iran’s missile program.
“We are optimistic that we’ll have a successful resolution of the Iran nuclear issue … but that doesn’t downgrade our concern about Iran’s other bad behaviors, specifically their support for terrorism as well as their continued development of ballistic missile capabilities,” Rose said on the sidelines of a conference on missiles and defense.”
Rose’s comments came as Iran has repeatedly assured other nations, especially regional neighbors, that its military might poses no threat to other countries, insisting that its defense doctrine is merely based on deterrence.
Meanwhile, Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has issued a religious decree prohibiting nuclear weapons.
In the fatwa (religious decree), Ayatollah Khamenei said the Islamic Republic considers the pursuit and possession of nuclear weapons “a grave sin” from every logical, religious and theoretical standpoint.
Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, France, Britain, Russia, and China – plus Germany sealed an interim deal in the Swiss city of Geneva on November 24, 2013, to pave the way for the full resolution of the decade-old dispute over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear energy program. The deal came into force on January 20.
The two sides are scheduled to resume expert-level talks in New York on May 5-9.