Over the pulsating beat at an exclusive nightclub, the arms smuggler made his pitch to a client: 2.5 million euros for enough radioactive cesium to contaminate several city blocks.
It was earlier this year, and the two men were plotting their deal at an unlikely spot: the terrace of Cocos Prive, a dance club and sushi bar in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova.
“You can make a dirty bomb, which would be perfect for the Islamic State,” the smuggler said. “If you have a connection with them, the business will go smoothly.”
But the smuggler, Valentin Grossu, wasn’t sure the client was for real — and he was right to worry. The client was an informant, and it took some 20 meetings to persuade Grossu that he was an authentic Islamic State representative. Eventually, the two men exchanged cash for a sample in a sting operation that landed Grossu in jail.
The previously unpublicized case is one of at least four attempts in five years in which criminal networks with suspected Russian ties sought to sell radioactive material to extremists through Moldova, an investigation by The Associated Press has found. One investigation uncovered an attempt to sell bomb-grade uranium to a real buyer from the Middle East, the first known case of its kind.
In wiretaps, videotaped arrests, photographs of bomb-grade material, documents and interviews, AP found that smugglers are explicitly targeting buyers who are enemies of the West. The developments represent the fulfillment of a long-feared scenario in which organized 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.
The sting operations involved a partnership between the FBI and a small group of Moldovan investigators, who over five years went from near total ignorance of the black market to wrapping up four sting operations. Informants and police posing as connected gangsters penetrated the smuggling networks, using old-fashioned undercover tactics as well as high-tech gear from radiation detectors to clothing threaded with recording devices.
But their successes were undercut by striking shortcomings: Kingpins got away, and those arrested evaded long prison sentences, sometimes quickly returning to nuclear smuggling, AP found.