Following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks by al-Qaeda, Western security officials were seriously concerned by the possibility of terrorists acquiring radioactive material for use in making a radiological, or “dirty” bomb. That security concern was driven by two worrying factors – the potential ease of building such a mass-casualty weapon and the availability of radioactive material throughout much of the former Soviet Union.
In the South Caucasus and Central Asia, for example, there was a fairly extensive legacy of Soviet-era military laboratories and nuclear research facilities. In many cases, these Soviet military facilities had ample supplies of cesium, strontium and other related radiological materials. And more troubling, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of these facilities have been only minimally protected, with meagre security precautions or safeguards.
Throughout Russia and Ukraine, there has been significant Western assistance aimed at disposing of such radioactive material. But the Caucasus has been a lower priority and in Georgia, for example, these facilities have been largely abandoned and neglected.
Nuclear material in the Caucasus
Nevertheless, there is a long record of proliferation cases involving radioactive material in the Caucasus.
The most recent case was back in April 2013, when three men were detained in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on suspicion of selling a small amount of the radioactive material 241Am, an isotope of americium.
But there was a more serious incident in March 2010, when Georgian security arrested a criminal group linked to Russian organised crime. That group, arrested in an undercover “sting” operation, attempted to sell highly enriched uranium in Tbilisi.
The US has bolstered security in Georgia, as well as in Armenia and Azerbaijan, providing border monitoring equipment capable of detecting both nuclear and other radioactive materials.
According to unidentified Georgian government sources at that time, an April 13 blog report by The Guardian newspaper stated that the material was “over 70 percent enriched“, which would be of high enough quality to create a crude nuclear bomb.
In 2006, in an undercover operation similar to the 2010 case, Georgian security forces succeeded in thwarting an attempt by a smuggler from neighbouring North Ossetia in Russia to sell some 100 grammes of highly enriched uranium in Georgia.
Given this record of radiological proliferation, to date, the United States has bolstered security in Georgia, as well as in Armenia and Azerbaijan, providing border monitoring equipment capable of detecting both nuclear and other radioactive materials.
Little evidence of a dirty bomb
Since the heightened post-9/11 concern over the danger of radiological “dirty bombs”, there has been little evidence and even less success of terrorists acquiring and constructing such a low-tech, high-casualty weapon, however.
But the absence of any cases of terrorists armed with dirty bombs should no longer breed complacency.
The arrest of three suspects in Georgia in recent days for attempting to sell radioactive material highlights the emergence of a significant new threat.
The threat is rooted in the new security context, not of a global threat from al-Qaeda, but from the local connections between the Caucasus and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
More specifically, with the direct links to the region – a number of citizens from Georgia and Azerbaijan are now serving in the ranks of ISIL – the South Caucasus may become a new and tempting target, not for operational attacks but as a source of new deadly radiological weapons.
For the countries of the region, that threat also poses a new challenge to their largely under-funded and generally unprepared security services.
Richard Giragosian is the founding director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think-tank in Yerevan, Armenia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.