“There have been 1,340 confirmed incidents of smuggling of nuclear material since 2007 that could at least be used to make the so-called ‘dirty bomb’. And of those cases, 18 involved the smuggling of highly enriched uranium or plutonium — the material that is critical to the actual making of Atomic Bomb.”

Observation from “International Atomic Energy Agency Illicit Traficking Database”.

Human civilization has survived three quarter of centuries without bearing witness to any nuclear attack, which in itself is a compliment, keeping in mind the unprecedented times in which we live. But for how long that status withholds this routine is a matter of deep concern, especially when armed conflicts and wars have become the most profitable business across the globe. Indeed, a business of gains that thrives upon piles of corpses loaded with the unique selling point of “fear psychosis”. Gulf war by Western imperialist powers is the most glaring precedent on this count. In 2020 global nuclear arsenal spending hit $72.6 billion, a massive incentive for nuclear arsenal manufacturers and lobbyists the world over.


After the Cold War, although the official figures of nuclear weapons on record have come down a bit, but the current picture and context of weapon’s market is not symmetrical. There are non-state actors and other separatist groups like Al- Qaida and ISIS that are desperate enough to get entry into this profitable business and they are prepared to employ all sorts of tricks to catch the boat.

The primary factor that attracts the attention of any group or nation in the business of procuring nuclear material, legally or illegally, is that it substantially increases the weight of their bargaining power before the international community. North Korea is the most recent example to understand these bargain dynamics — where threat of resumed nuclear and missile testing flashed out to blackmail South Korea and the US to make concessions.


Nuclear material that can be sold or stolen and fashioned into nuclear weapons exists in dozens of nations. Just the small amount of uranium — about the size of an apple — could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Although, the possession and detonating nuclear material into a weapon of mass destruction are two different things. But for sure the very possession of nuclear material can alarm bells and make a country de-facto bidder in the game of geopolitics, regardless of its cultural ethos, civilizational history and past track records. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is the living testimony of this fact, despite its genocidal track record and history of harboring internationally acclaimed terrorists and criminals, its bargaining power before the international community largely remains intact for the reason that no one wants to see a destabilized nuclear armed State falling into wrong hands. However, in the case of Pakistan the story has witnessed another twist that introduced the international community to a new challenge of black marketing of nuclear material. When a notorious Pakistani scientist found actively involved in creating a network of nuclear material blackmarketing and its technological know hows.

Even after the successful crackdown and arrest of Adbul Qadeer, his legacy lives on and a network of illegally transported nuclear expertise and materials still flourishes. In 2004, Abdul Kadeer’s confession underlines that the fact of running a nuclear black market that supplied nuclear expertise, technology and weapons designs to at least three countries for two decades, evidence persists that the network is still in operation.


In January, an unnamed European Intelligence Agency in its 55 pages assessment report, used to brief European Government ministers, stated that remnants of Khan’s network are still actively involved in the illegal transfer of technology and that networks even more extensive than Khan’s currently exist. The European intelligence report claims that, since early 2004, the Pakistani nuclear sector has registered efforts at procuring materials and components for the nuclear program, which exceed basic requirements for spare parts and replacements. Although the Pakistani government claims it has broken up the network. Under pressure from the US, it also supplied information leading to the arrest of various network operatives in Europe and elsewhere. However, the EU intelligence report reveals that middlemen, front companies, academics and bureaucrats working for the governments of Iran, Syria and Pakistan have approached high-technology engineering companies, scientific institutes and universities in western European countries to obtain materials for their NBC, missile and conventional weapons efforts. They are also cited as targeting Russia and former Soviet Union countries for scientific expertise, particularly scientists formerly employed in former Soviet NBC centers.


On 6th May, 2021, anti-terrorism police in Mumbai arrested two men in possession of 7 kilograms of natural uranium worth $2.9 million. They have been under surveillance since mid-February. Intelligence suggested that one of the men had been touting his illegally procured nuclear wares for sometime. When the authorities finally swooped they hurriedly sent the material off for testing. Concerns rose when the result returned. Natural uranium isn’t just powerfully radioactive but it could be added to conventional explosives to make them even more deadlier.

It would be comforting to treat their arrest as an isolated incident, but this is no one off blip. In 2021 there have been at least three similar incidents in India alone, all pointing towards black marketing of nuclear materials and substantial decline in the safety standards in one of the World’s biggest nuclear powers. It is also worthwhile to mention here that at least 11 states in India have uranium reserves with Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Meghalaya recording the largest reserves of radioactive material.

There are few household names in the mix, Al Qaeda, ISIS, but luckily their current capabilities are relatively low graded. But threats in this context are rapidly changing with the passage of time. Nowadays, cyber security is another pressing concern which poses a serious challenge in preventing the technological know-hows of nuclear weapons falling into wrong hands. So this entire issue ultimately boils down to a fundamental question, how safe are nukes ?

Well, unfortunately there is no straight answer to that. All we can conclude for now is, it depends on who they belong to. For example, the recent take over of Afghanistan by the Taliban regime and their closed proximity with Pakistani deep state (ISI & Military) in accomplishing their dreams, undoubtedly adds further complications to this question. And there is no denial in appreciating the possibility that a nation who is at the verge of economic collapse and social breakdown would hardly hesitate to start pitching deals over its nuclear weapon reserves with potential buyers, so as to blackmail the international community to its own terms or may be just to avoid any direct adverse consequence, it can opt its age-old tried and tested model of keeping back doors open for non-state actors to thrive in the world of organized crimes by splitting revenues with the State establishment. So there are no promises of better days ahead here, only time withholds the key of surprises and the better we are prepared for the worst, the better would be our chances of surviving this catastrophe. The threat is inevitable and it is growing with every passing day.




Freelance Blogger & Columnist

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