With characteristics of both transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and terrorist organizations, hybrid organizations have demonstrated greater motivation and operational ability to traffic radiological/nuclear material illicitly, according to recent research from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). Of the 143 terrorist and 381 TCOs identified for examination, only a handful possess both high motivation and operational capacity to engage in illicit RN material trafficking if given the access and opportunity.
The research team focused on Western and Eastern Europe as well as North, Sahelian and West Africa to ascertain whether the terrorist organizations and TCOs in these areas could and would engage in illicit RN material trafficking. While connection between the TCOs and terrorist organizations is unclear in terms of RN trafficking, there is clear evidence that a number of terrorist organizations are engaging in other criminal activities to fund their terrorist operations.
Led by START researchers Amy Pate, Steve Sin, Marcus Boyd and Salma Bouziani, the team also found that when it comes to the threat of RN trafficking, most traditional TCOs lack the motivation to carry out these operations despite having the capacity to do so.
“As organizations primarily interested in sustained profit generation, TCOs were found to be lower in their threat level to willingly engage in illicit RN material trafficking,” Sin said. “The risks and consequences associated with RN material smuggling just isn’t worth the potential payoff for these groups.”
In addition to examining the group dynamics and operations in the regions, the research team examined potential routes in which RN materials could be transported. Using START’s TransIT geospatial modeling tool, the team identified illicit transport routes used by TCOs and found that TCOs adapt to the changing dynamics of their operating environment by selecting routes that optimize efficiency while minimizing the risk of detection.
The TransIT tool allowed the team to create an illustrative model that identified several transportation chokepoints within the studied regions.
“It showed us that there is consistent travel of a wide variety of TCOs through a limited number of key nodes in this network,” said Boyd, who headed up the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) component.
Funded by the Department of Homeland Security, the two-year study, “Organized and/or Transnational Criminal Cartel Nexus with Illicit Radiological/Nuclear (RN) Trade, Smuggling and/or Terrorism in Europe and North, Sahelian, and West Africa,” yielded additional policy considerations. The researchers encourage those leading U.S. efforts in these regions to continue to engage with the region’s sovereign state government, but also devise parallel policies designed to concurrently engage with select local tribal leadership to raise their awareness, secure their buy-in, and enlist their cooperation.
The team found that although technical detection methods can effectively aid in the successful interdiction of illicit trafficking attempts, non-technical detection methods, such as actionable intelligence and situationally alert law enforcement or customs officials, account for the majority of successful interdiction cases.
Additional work by the team included a case study that focused on the abuse of diplomatic immunity. The team examined documented cases in which diplomatic bags - which are exempt from inspection - had been employed in smuggling operations ranging from drug trafficking to state-sponsored kidnapping. The study highlighted the potential threat of such dimplomatic pounches being employed to traffick RN materials and the international legal hurdles to remedying this frightening vulnerability.