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Loose Nukes: Russia & Nuclear Terror

Loose Nukes: Russia & Nuclear Terror

A nuclear terrorist attack would undoubtedly be a world-changing event. With the largest nuclear arsenal, is Russia doing enough to prevent nuclear terrorism with Russian materials worldwide?

Since the end of the Second World War, the preeminent threat to the world’s nation-states has been the threat of nuclear weapons. Although the threat has traditionally been interpreted as a tool only in the arsenals of states, that assumption has been challenged in recent decades. The possibility of a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons or radiological dispersal devices (dirty bombs) has long been the nightmare of national security professionals, especially as more and more states acquired nuclear capability in the latter half of the twentieth century.

The state with the largest stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons has long been Russia (for some time as the Soviet Union), which necessitates an assessment of the security of that state’s nuclear stockpile. The problem is compounded with the threat of international terrorism in the twenty-first century; Salafist fundamentalist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIL have stated their intentions to acquire and detonate a nuclear device to kill large numbers of civilians.

The active involvement of Russian citizens with these types of international Salafist organizations has escalated in recent years, urging a reassessment of Russia’s role in combating the possibility of a nuclear or radioactive terrorist attack. How effectively have Russian nuclear and radioactive materials been secured against acquisition by an international terrorist organization?

The Nature of the Problem

The threat of nuclear terrorism is global in nature and poses an existential threat to states worldwide. A nuclear weapon employed by a terrorist organization like ISIL or Al Qaeda would have devastating effects on human life and the environment, as well as wide-ranging implications on public policy globally. The world is more interconnected than ever before, and international illicit trafficking organizations are no exception.

The nature of today’s globalized world means that each nuclear state has a responsibility to the international community to provide adequate security for their nuclear facilities. Russia is the possessor of an extraordinarily large quantity of nuclear weapons as a proportion of the total global stockpiles, and as such, the security of their nuclear weapons stockpiles and nuclear and radioactive materials must be evaluated constantly in the face of new threats.

The specific threat areas concerning Russian nuclear material and Islamist fundamentalist terror groups are: Russian citizens engaging in terrorist activities abroad; terrorist organizations operating directly in Russian territory; and terrorist organizations engaging in black market activities to procure Russian or former Soviet nuclear materials. These issues are inextricably linked and have broader implications.

The nature of international terrorism in the modern age means that states must cooperate in order to prevent indiscriminate attacks perpetrated by non-state actors. Groups like Al Qaeda and ISIL are of particular concern, especially as ISIL-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria continues to be degraded by Russian, Western coalition, and regional forces, while at the same time expanding their reach internationally.

The number of jihadists returning to their home countries must be interpreted as a security threat by both Western states and Russia itself. State governments must recognize the jihadists’ stated nuclear ambitions as a clear threat and act to intercept illicit trafficking of these materials.

The multiethnic nature of ISIL’s membership base must also be recognized as a contributing factor to the increased threat of a nuclear terrorist attack. Foreign fighters from around the world flocked to ISIL territory in recent years, which created a diverse and interconnected terrorist network with a global reach

ISIL’s multiethnic and multinational network is difficult to predict and monitor, especially due to their significant numbers. Now that many of these fighters are returning to Europe, Russia, and North America, the terror network’s international reach is growing. Jihadists from former Soviet states may have family or business ties to individuals with access to nuclear materials in those states. Previous smuggling activity has been facilitated through relationships of these types. Foreign fighters from European states, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, may have or seek to have links with smugglers in possession of former Soviet nuclear materials.

I: Illicit Trafficking of Nuclear and Radioactive Materials

In the twenty-first century there have been several incidents related to the smuggling of nuclear and radioactive materials. Between 1993 and 2014, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed 2734 illicit incidents involving radioactive materials internationally. Russian/Soviet nuclear and radioactive materials are of particular concern.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, these materials have been making their rounds through smuggling groups until authorities either seize them or until they reach an end user. Russian and former Soviet nuclear and radioactive materials are known to be among the materials smuggled by criminal organizations, although fortunately much of it is unsuitable for use by a terrorist organization.

In order to deal with the issue of nuclear smuggling, one must be aware of the different types of nuclear materials and their uses. Which types of nuclear materials would be useful to a terrorist organization? What kind of technology and expertise would they need to be able to weaponize it? And how effectively were former Soviet materials prevented from being illicitly trafficked in the chaos of the 1990s? The United States’ Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program of 1991 attempted to resolve these issues.

It included provisions for the securing of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials from reactors, test sites, and other sites formerly housing elements of the Soviet nuclear program. It also attempted to resolve the issue of unemployed nuclear scientists potentially finding work with terrorist organizations or rogue states. According to Richard Lugar, a co-sponsor of the legislation, the initiative has been largely successful but could be better implemented by circumnavigating political differences.

US intelligence analysis at the time suggested that Russia had poor accounting for former Soviet nuclear weapons and materials, due to the lack of centralized accounting of the Soviet nuclear program. This lack of information regarding the nuclear materials in former Soviet states reveals a worrying lack of oversight in the period between the collapse and the implementation of the Nunn-Lugar program.

The materials potentially lost in that chaotic period were not only useful for the creation of nuclear weapons. Some radioactive materials could be used by a terrorist organization to create a radiological dispersal device (dirty bomb). In October of 2015 Moldovan authorities apprehended a trafficker attempting to sell Cesium for use in a radiological device (dirty bomb) to an undercover police officer claiming to represent ISIL. Events of this kind demonstrate that the supply of radiological material exists, and that suppliers are willing to sell illicit materials to terrorist organizations explicitly for use in dirty bombs.

Smuggling of nuclear materials has been well documented in the Caucasus region, most notably in 2006, when a Russian citizen from North Ossetia was arrested in a Georgian sting operation and charged with smuggling 100 grams of highly enriched uranium (HEU). He claimed it was only a sample, promising he had access to two kilograms of the substance. The smuggler, Oleg Khintsagov, would not reveal the sources of his HEU.

Russia later claimed that the HEU was more than 10 years old and that the source could therefore not be identified by their tests. However, tests conducted by the US identified certain isotopes that suggested it was of Russian origin. Experts on nuclear physics have asserted that Russia would likely have been able to determine the origin of the HEU due to the identifying “passport” each batch carries.

Should this be the case, lack of Russian cooperation with international investigators should be considered a hindrance to future smuggling prevention. An important detail of this incident is that the hypothetical buyers of that amount of weapons-grade uranium would need a high level of expertise, and would likely also need more uranium in order to build a nuclear weapon.

II: The Current State of International Terrorism

In the past, they have used conventional explosives, hijacked vehicles, and other simple methods in order to cause as many deaths – civilian and military – as possible. For this reason, a nuclear weapon would be the ultimate acquisition of any international terrorist organization. Like many of their notable previous attacks, a nuclear attack would likely be perpetrated in a large Western city, for example in Western Europe or North America.

Large-scale attacks have previously taken place in European and American capitals, in order to inflict as many casualties as possible, but also as a symbolic attempt to destroy the centres of Western democratic and economic power. A nuclear attack of any kind would naturally generate publicity and fear regardless of the location, but a strike in the Western world would send a message to its governments and civilian populations.

As possibly the largest international terrorist organization, ISIL boasts a diverse and multiethnic membership. Many of their recruits have come from Arab states or have an ethnic background from Arab states, but many have also come from former Soviet states. Russia itself – with its republics like Chechnya and Dagestan - represents the largest share of these former Soviet states, but other states like Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan, and others have also seen their share of ISIL recruits.

According to the Soufan Center, more than 3000 Russian citizens alone have joined ISIL’s ranks in Syria and Iraq since 2014. Russia’s Muslim minority has been involved in security crises inside and outside the Caucasus region. Chechnya, for example, has seen its own Islamic fundamentalist groups rise since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Terrorist activity in Chechnya has been the object of Russian military intervention. The Chechen wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries saw Russian troops in direct conflict with these Chechen Islamic fundamentalist groups seeking their independence from Russia. Chechnya and its neighbouring republics have represented a recruitment base for ISIL in its Syrian and Iraqi territory.

The most famous Chechen fighter in ISIL’s ranks was Abu Omar Al Shishani, a former soldier of the Georgian army (another former Soviet republic). Individual Chechen radicals have also perpetrated conventional acts of terrorism in Chechnya, Moscow, and other areas of Russia. The major Chechen Islamist terrorist organization prior to 2015 was the Caucasus Emirate, however, it has become largely defunct after most of its members defected to ISIL. ISIL’s active operations within Russian territory, under the name Vilayat Kavkaz, must be considered an escalation of their conflict with the Russian government, but it must also be considered an increased risk for their acquisition of nuclear or radioactive material.

Due to their increased proximity to the Caucasus and Eastern Europe (the centres of previous known trafficking activity), the risk for former Soviet nuclear materials to find their way into the international terrorist network is elevated. The presence of Russian and other former Soviet citizens within ISIL’s network, both inside and outside former Soviet territory, constitutes a clear threat to international stability, as the possibility for the network to possess nuclear weapons or radioactive material is heightened. ISIL’s international network is an organization of both potential smugglers and attackers in states around the world.

III: The Collapse of the Soviet Union

The period before, during, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union was an unpredictable era for its nuclear materials. The Russian and other former Soviet governments were havens for rampant corruption, resulting in illegal sales of Soviet military equipment to private entities. Smuggling rings and other groups saw the opportunity to take advantage of the chaos plaguing the former Soviet republics.

Considering the highly secretive nature of the Soviet nuclear program – and the unparalleled rarity and value of nuclear material on the black market – it is highly likely that some form of nuclear material would have been among the government property trafficked illicitly on the black market in the post-collapse environment.

These materials have been the concern of governments since the 1990s, and although steps have been taken to prevent trafficking, more materials surface periodically on the black market. The incidents mentioned previously prove that materials were indeed stolen or sold, and it is likely that more material is hidden and still in the hands of illicit traffickers. With Muslim Russians, Kazakhs, Azeris, Georgians, and other former Soviet nationals joining ISIL inside and outside its territory, the proximity to potential sources of nuclear materials is elevated.

IV: Contemporary Russian Nuclear Assets

The Russian nuclear arsenal is currently one of largest in the world. Although arms reduction efforts have removed thousands of weapons from their stockpiles, Russian nuclear policy still values both their strategic and tactical nuclear weapons as viable and relevant military assets. The arsenal is comprised of strategic nuclear weapons located primarily in stationary ICBM silos, mobile ballistic missile launch sites, SLBM-armed submarines, and strategic bombers.

Russia also holds several hundred tactical nuclear weapons, also known as non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW). These smaller warheads are intended for use on the battlefield against an enemy military force, although a tactical nuclear weapon could be used in a civilian context in order to inflict terror on a major city, as well as to irradiate the surroundings.

A Russian strategic nuclear warhead would be the ideal tool of a terrorist organization for maximum casualties and psychological effect, but a tactical nuclear weapon would be much easier for them to smuggle and utilize. There is very little information in the open literature about the quantity and locations of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons, but Russia’s Ministry of Defense acknowledges their active role in Russian deterrence policy. Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” concept ensures the existence of Russian NSNWs for the foreseeable future. These smaller, more mobile warheads would be a target of would-be terrorists or traffickers.


Russia’s nuclear materials have not been adequately secured against the threat of nuclear terrorism. Nuclear and radioactive materials produced during the Soviet era are of particular concern for their potential use in a dirty bomb. This is evidenced by the several incidents of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials of Russian and Soviet origin, and unfortunately Russian authorities have not been forthcoming in aiding international bodies in preventing the trafficking of these materials.

There are several possible links connecting international terrorist organizations with Russian nuclear materials through illicit trafficking, exacerbated by the increased cohesion of Islamic fundamentalist groups in the Caucasus with international terrorist networks. ISIL’s expansion to the Caucasus region is conspicuous after the several known incidents of trafficking in that region. Russia must therefore be aware of potential links between terrorists, traffickers, and other individuals with access to nuclear materials.

Russian nuclear weapons are also of concern, although their security is difficult to evaluate due to the secretive nature. Although the sheer numbers of warheads causes concern – particularly the stockpiles of NSNWs – the open literature does not suggest there has been a breach in Russia’s nuclear security since their government stabilized after the 1990s. This is in stark contrast with the known incidents of illicit trafficking involving nuclear and radioactive materials.

Perhaps the most troubling issue regarding the trafficking of illicit Russian nuclear and radioactive materials is the apparent unwillingness to cooperate with international bodies on the part of the Russian government. The 2006 incident on the Georgian border demonstrates clearly that the Russian government is not interested in proving to its neighbours or to the United States that it is doing its part in securing its nuclear and radioactive materials.

While the security of Russian nuclear and radioactive material has improved dramatically since the 1990s, it still has a long way to go in rectifying the mistakes of that era, as well as preventing future incidents of nuclear and radioactive illicit trafficking.

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