Armenia and Georgia foil latest uranium smuggling plot

Joint anti-nuclear proliferation operation results in multiple arrests in Georgia. One year after Fort Hood shootings, US army outlines plans for radical security overhaul. Somali pirates land largest-ever ransom payment. All this and more in today's security briefing.
Luke Heighton
10 November 2010

On Monday the Armenian government announced the detention of a man suspected of supplying weapons-grade uranium to two men arrested earlier this year in a joint operation between the Armenian and Georgian security services. Garik Dadayan, who previously served two and half months of a two-year sentence for a similar offence committed in 2003, was intercepted following a tip-off by Georgian investigators. Anonymous investigators told the Guardian they believed Dadayan had been allowed to keep some of his stash by Georgian border guards at the time of his original arrest, having bribed his way out of detention.

Meanwhile, the two men to whom Dadayan is alleged to have supplied 18g (0.6oz) of highly enriched uranium, and who were arrested in Georgia in March, have appeared in a closed court in the Georgian capital, Tblisi. Hrant Ohanyan and Sumbat Tonoyan, both of whom are Armenian, pleaded guilty to trying to attempting to smuggle the uranium into the country concealed in a zip-lock plastic bag inside a lead-lined cigarette case. Ohanyan, a 59-year-old semi-retired physicist, and 63-year-old Tonoyan, a former businessman who had gambled away his fortune, had attempted to move the uranium from Yerevan to Tblisi by train, with the intention of selling it for approximately $50,000 (£30,800) per gram, with further, larger sales to follow. 

Their client – so they believed – was a Turkish-speaking Muslim acting on behalf of mysterious “serious people”. In fact he was an undercover policeman commissioned by Archil Pavlenishvili, head of the radioactive materials investigations team at the Georgian ministry of the interior and mastermind of the sting operation. The ‘buyer’ is understood to have first crossed paths with Tonoyan a few weeks beforehand, when the latter travelled to Batumi on the Black Sea coast to look for buyers.

Much to the bemusement of the security officers who had been tracking them since their departure, once on board the train Ohanyan and Tonoyan stashed their cargo between two carriages, before getting off the train once it had crossed in Armenia and taking a taxi to its final destination, Tblisi. Arriving several hours before the train, they then zig-zagged across the city to ensure they could not be followed. Tonoyan and another man, Kaka Kvirikadze – a Georgian contact with extensive smuggling experience – then collected the package headed to the Tori hotel, where the ‘buyer’ had reserved a room for the deal to take place. As soon as the exchange was made, however, a police team watching from the room next door moved in. Ohanyan, who was not present, was arrested shortly afterwards as he slept at another hotel.

This was the third incident of its type to have occurred in Georgia in the last seven years, and the 21st recorded attempt to smuggle nuclear materials through Georgia since the break up of the Soviet Union. In August police in Moldova seized 1.8kg of uranium-238 in the capital, Chisinau, which thieves were attempting to sell for around 9m euros (£7.4m), despite it being of no use in building a nuclear weapon. Commenting on this latest incident, Georgian officials were quick to describe the operation as an encouraging sign that increased cooperation between local agencies and the US is leading to increased arrests. The long history of smuggling in the country means it will take more than one successful hit for such a claim to be validated.

The authorities’ ability or inability to thwart such operations highlights the country’s political and diplomatic woes – its failure to appease ethnic and religious minorities and its hostile relationship with Russia, with its broader implications for Russia’s relations with Nato powers. For Boris Volkhonsky, writing for the Voice of Russia, the plot evidenced Georgia’s “very poor control over its territory”, which in turn has allowed it to become a “safe haven” for both Al Qaeda and Chechen separatists, a long-standing Russian grievance and common refrain in criticism of the country. From the other side, meanwhile, the coup will be cited as reason to continue the US Nuclear Smuggling Outreach Initiative partnership, which under US oversight bolsters Georgia’s police, military and coastguard capabilities, with perhaps tangential benefits for Georgia’s intelligence and military strength vis-a-vis its still much more powerful northern neighbour. 

US army recommends radical changes to security procedures, closer ties with intelligence services

A little over a year since the 5 November shootings at the Fort Hood military base, Texas, which left thirteen people dead and wounded thirty others, the United States army has released the findings of its 118-page internal follow-on review of force protection policies, programmes and procedures. Published by the army and the department of defence, the report calls upon the army to address the ways in which it protects its soldiers, collects information regarding potential internal threats, and in particular its working relationship with the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. 

The report also recommends that the sharing of information within the organisation by service personnel must be made easier, having already identified a number of factors – fear of punishment being among them – which currently discourage individuals to come forward with their concerns. It goes on to suggest that the army should continue to develop a greater knowledge and understanding of what it calls the "observable indicators for espionage, terrorism and extremism." 

To date, it is suggested, the army has implemented or is taking definitive action on 66 of the DoD’s 79 Independent Review Panel recommendations. These include:

- The development and implementation of a  “Threat Awareness and Reporting Program”,  centred on identifying and reporting 'insider threats' and  emphasising soldier awareness and reporting.

- The creation of a “Counterintelligence Fusion Cell” and developed systems to improve information sharing within the army and with other agencies.

- The development and implementation of the “iWatch” and “iSalute” programmes. iWatch is described as “a 21st Century version of the neighborhood watch program [integrating] terrorism prevention and suspicious activity reporting”. The iSalute programme, meanwhile, is “an online counter-intelligence reporting system through the army’s main intranet and primary web portal, Army Knowledge Online. Soldiers, Family members and department of the army employees can now electronically file reports that will initiate an interview with army counter-intelligence personnel”.

- The establishment of an Army Personnel Security Investigation Center of Excellence at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, which oversees an enhanced screening program, and which now serves as the central submission and processing point for all army personnel security and suitability background investigations.

- Increased incident response training capability and leveraged civilian law enforcement best practices to improve the army’s ability to respond. According to the report, to date, more than 23,000 security force personnel have received additional training in law enforcement functions, with another 2,700 army law enforcement personnel at 122 army installations undergoing training in how to respond to an “active shooter” scenario.

Both the army’s report and senior army personnel have stressed that in their view no single action could have prevented what happened at Ford Hood a year ago; nevertheless, “in the aggregate, the initiatives outlined by the army's internal review team will significantly improve the army's ability to mitigate internal threats, ensure FP [force protection], enable emergency response and provide care for the victims and families." Henceforth, military police attempting to stop similar acts of violence will also be authorized to use jacketed hollow point ammunition. Hollow point bullets expand upon entering a target, causing greater fragmentation tissue disruption than normal ammunition. 

An evidentiary hearing into the 5 November shootings, which were carried out by Major Nidal Hasan, is set to resume on Monday. It has not yet been decided whether or not Major Hasan will face a court-martial and a possible death penalty. Members of Congress are known to be exerting pressure on the department of defence and US intelligence services to release more information on what they knew about Major Hasan prior to the shootings, So far, however, these requests have been resisted on the grounds that any such release could compromise the trial. The air force, navy and marines have already released separate reports of their own.

International efforts to curb piracy in the Gulf of Aden failing, says UN official

Somali pirates are continuing to outpace attempts to crack down on their activities, despite significant international attempts to stop them, and repeated warnings to commercial shipping, aid agencies and independent sailors to steer well clear of Somali waters if at all possible or face potentially disastrous consequences. According to the latest International Maritime Organization figures, 438 crew and passengers and 20 ships are currently being held hostage at sea near Somalia. A report by the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre released last month found that in the first nine months of 2010, 44% of 289 piracy incidents on the world’s seas were committed by Somali pirates. That compares with the same organisation’s report of the previous year, according to which there were some 214 attacks reported between 2008 and 2009 (of which 47 resulted in a hijacking), and a total of 867 ordinary crew members were held hostage by pirates during that period. Another organisation that monitors Somali pirates’ activities, Ecoterra International, believes more than 25 foreign ships and up to 500 people are currently held hostage.

Speaking at the beginning of the week, Lynn Pascoe, UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, described how pirates are taking greater risks and seeking ever-higher ransoms: "As long as piracy is so lucrative [and] with ransom payments adding up to tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars, and other economic incentives so bleak, the incentives are obvious." 

One of the possible reasons for the increase both in the frequency of attacks and the size of the ransoms demanded is that pirates are said to be using increasingly larger vessels, allowing them to strike further and further away from shore, where patrols are also less frequent. There is evidence that this escalation has been accompanied by an increasing likelihood of violence and murder, both trends a response perhaps to the increasing force being brought to bear on pirates by the world’s navies. On Saturday, pirates announced that a ransom of between $9-10 million had been given to them for a South Korean supertanker, and there is evidence al-Shabab is becoming increasingly involved in pirating activities, as it looks to increase revenues to aid its campaign to wrest control over remaining government-held territories. 

However, Pascoe also said that the situation would be worse "if not for the very considerable international anti-piracy efforts under way". Despite the military superiority of patrolling vessels and crew, encounters with hostage-takers have proved far from uniformly successful. In a recent incident, EU Navfor warship FS Floreal located a yacht belonging to a South African yachtsman who refused to cooperate with pirates who attacked and boarded the vessel. The Floreal came under fire from the vessel before the yacht ran aground. After failing in their attempts to remove the three crew members on board, and with the skipper refusing to leave his vessel. The pirates left with the remaining two crew members as hostages, however, neither of whom have since been found.

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