You may have noticed reports recently about the secret trial in Georgia of two Armenian men who tried to sell highly enriched uranium (HEU) to a man purporting to be an Islamist terrorist.
The apparent buyer was actually an undercover policeman and the whole thing was a sting operation from start to finish, but it offers some interesting insights into the current state of play in the world of counter-terrorism.
The would-be sellers of the HEU were two naive losers, a 63-year-old failed businessman called Sumbat Tonoyan who had gambled his money away and a 59-year-old physicist named Hrant Obanyan who was chronically ill. They both wanted to score a big win in order to finance their retirement, and they fell right into the Georgian police trap.
A petty criminal called Garik Dadayan first approached Obanyan in 2002 with a packet of metallic powder, asking whether it was highly enriched uranium. Obanyan, a scientist at the Yerevan Physics Institute, confirmed that it was uranium although he could not say how enriched it was — and Dadayan was subsequently arrested trying to cross the frontier into Georgia with 200 grams of HEU.
Dadayan was out of jail again by 2005, so Obanyan knew where to go when his friend Tonoyan suggested that they could make a fortune by peddling HEU to terrorists. Dadayan told them that he had friends in Russia who could supply them with unlimited amounts of HEU, and suggested that they start by finding a buyer and selling him a sample amount of, say, 100 grams. The poor fools believed him.
It’s almost certain that Dadayan was working for the Georgian intelligence service by this time (how else would he get out of jail so fast?). The fact that in the end he only gave them 18 grams (half an ounce) of HEU to take to Georgia reinforces that suspicion. And of course it was the Georgian police who supplied the “buyer,” a Turkish-speaking undercover policeman who said he was in the market for nuclear material on behalf of “serious people.”
Last March the two mugs took the night train from Yerevan to Tbilisi, with the 18 grams of HEU hidden in a cigarette box that was lined with lead strips to fool the American-supplied radiation detectors at the border. When Tonoyan showed up at a Tbilisi hotel the next day to close the sale (he was asking $50,000 per gram), the police filmed the whole transaction and then arrested him and his partner-in-crime.
Georgia’s motivation in all this is clear. Prime Minister Mikheil Saakashvili is trying to rebuild the close relationship he used to have with the United States before his rash failed attempt to seize South Ossetia by force in 2008. He will do anything he can to make himself useful to the American intelligence services, and this serves that purpose.
Why do the U.S. intelligence services want to emphasize the risk of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands? Because that would be a bad thing, of course, but also to underline the fact that thwarting nuclear terrorism is entirely a job for the intelligence services.
The alleged threat of nuclear terrorism is used to justify the whole U.S. policy of invading countries that might provide “bases” for such terrorist attacks. It was the main (although utterly false) justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it continues to be used to justify American threats to attack Iran. But what do the intelligence people want us to conclude from this episode? That the U.S. should invade Armenia? Obviously not.
They want us to conclude that the military should not be allowed anywhere near counter-terrorist operations, partly because the tools they use — infantry, artillery, etc. — are entirely inappropriate for the job, and partly because invading countries tends to radicalize people and turn them into your enemies.
The little show-and-tell in Georgia serves the purposes of the more intelligent American intelligence officers, who know that the military must be excluded from their operations but have trouble in fending them off. It also helps to justify their budgets, although the threat they are seeking to protect us from is smaller than they claim.
It is smaller because it is almost inconceivable that terrorists could assemble a weapon that would result in an actual nuclear explosion. The technologies needed are just too challenging, and the amount of highly enriched uranium needed is too large: around 50 kg, or 2,500 times the amount that the Armenian pair were trying to sell.
A “dirty bomb” that just spreads radioactive material over some part of a city is more feasible, but also far less dangerous. It would cause widespread panic and make that district inaccessible for a time, but a well-placed car bomb would probably kill more people.
Never mind. I’m happy to have them play their intelligence games, because it just might prevent something like a “dirty bomb” from exploding in an American city. If that did happen, the popular pressure on President Barack Obama to invade some other Muslim country would be well-nigh irresistible. That’s not what we need right now.
Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian freelance writer based in London. His latest book, Crawling from the Wreckage, has just been published in Canada by Random House.