Loose Nukes And Al-qaeda

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 6

In an article in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs, Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, pointed out that nearly each month someone is “apprehended trying to smuggle or steal nuclear materials or weapons.” The last incident, in February, involved a former Soviet intelligence officer attempting to smuggle plutonium-239, cesium-137 and uranium across the Ukrainian-Hungarian border. The current U.S. Ambassador to Japan warned “there could be 40,000 nuclear weapons, or maybe 80,000 in the former Soviet Union, poorly controlled and poorly stored…” Half of the Soviet arsenal, Allison argues, “remains inadequately secured.”

Potential “loose nukes” suppliers include Russia, Ukraine, Belarus (led by Europe’s last dictator, Alyaksandr Lukashenka) and the Transdniester enclave of Moldova. Of these potential sources, Belarus and Transdniester are aligned with Russia and are propped up financially by Moscow.


From 1996 to 2000, Pakistan spent US$800 million on Ukrainian arms and military equipment, making it one of the largest purchasers of Ukrainian armaments. The bulk of this expenditure went to the purchase of 300 T-80YD tanks. In June 2002, a Pakistani delegation visited Ukraine, seeking to modernize its T-69 and T-72 tanks as well as its U.S. F16 and Russian SU-27 aircraft. A US$100 million deal was signed for Ukraine to deliver 285 engines for tanks. Close military links between Ukraine and Pakistan have inevitably raised the question of whether there were also Ukrainian military links with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which was backed by Saudi funds and Pakistani personnel and political support.

In January of 2002 reports surfaced in a number of Western media, including Der Spiegel, that Ukrainian T-55 tanks had ended up in Afghanistan via Pakistan. Der Spiegel pointed to Leonid and Andrei Derkach as being behind the military shipments to Afghanistan. Leonid Derkach headed the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) from 1997-2002, during which time the SBU was heavily involved in such illegal arms transactions. His son, Andrei, is implicated in many other arms scandals that involve such notorious gunrunners as Leonid Minin.

In July 2000, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma authorized the sale of Kolchuga radars to Iraq. Presidential security service officer Mykola Melnychenko, disgusted at high-level corruption, illicitly taped Kuchma’s office. Melnychenko fled from Ukraine in November of 2000 and received political asylum in the United States in April of the following year. He now lives in Washington, DC.

In addition to the Derkachs, another highly compromised Ukrainian oligarch involved in illegal arms trafficking was Vadym Rabinovych. Despite his status as persona non grata in the United States since 1995, links between Kuchma and Rabinovych continue to remain close. During Kuchma’s stay in a private hospital at Baden-Baden, Germany, in late December-early January, Rabinovych was one of his select visitors. Natalia Ligachova, editor of the Ukrainian Telekritika, described Rabinovych as someone who can be “used by the presidential administration, thanks to his not-quite-transparent businesses, arms sales and former links with the KGB in the Soviet era”.

A Rabinovych proxy organization brought charges of anti-Semitism against Silski Visti, Ukraine’s only large opposition newspaper, forcing the publication to close and thereby denying opposition access to media outlets during this year’s presidential elections. Interpol police files obtained by PBS Frontline/World prove Rabinovych’s ties to organized crime and his involvement in money laundering and arms trafficking. His ties to Victor Bout and Minin are well documented.

Der Spiegel mentions Rabinovych as a middle man working with the Derkachs between the Ukrainian arms exporter (Ukrspetseksport) and the SBU (then run by L. Derkach) to the Pakistanis and the Taliban. A former Russian border troop officer and a Pakistani ISI defector have confirmed this network. In June 1999, Rabinovych became persona non grata in Ukraine at the urging of then National Security and Defence Council (NRBO) Secretary Volodymyr Horbulin. SBU Chairman Derkach intervened on Rabinovych’s behalf and succeeded in having his pariah status rescinded. Rabinovych in the meantime took up Israeli citizenship. The NRBO under Horbulin’s successor, Yevhen Marchuk (defence minister since 2003), continues to publicly wrangle with the Derkachs over their involvement in illegal arms trafficking.

But, as has always been the case in Ukraine under Kuchma, no oligarch has ever been brought to trial for arms trafficking, let alone corruption. The only occasion when oligarchs have been targeted is when they have gone into opposition to Kuchma (e.g., Pavlo Lazarenko and Yulia Tymoshenko).


With Ukraine closely involved in supplying arms to Pakistan beginning in 1996, and possibly the Taliban regime as well, it is not surprising that further allegations have surfaced concerning links to al-Qaeda. The most recent were reports of nuclear materials supplied to al-Qaeda by Ukraine.

The Financial Times reported that a Taliban-al-Qaeda delegation visited Ukraine in September 1999, headed by Taliban deputy foreign minister Abdul-Rahman Zahed. The ties established in 1999, a year before UN sanctions were imposed on Afghanistan, continued at least until Sept 11, 2001.

A former Soviet air force officer and notorious illegal arms trafficker, Victor Bout runs most of his business operations from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), operating between forty and sixty aircraft (including the largest Antonov cargo fleet in the world) and employing 300. One of Bout’s airfreight companies air-lifted Rabinovych’s weaponry from the UAE. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Saqr al Nayhan, former UAE Ambassador to the United States and a member of the UAE ruling family, remains a close business associate of Bout.

Bout’s links to the Taliban go back to the mid 1990s, when a transport plane intended for the Northern Alliance government of Burhanuddin Rabbani landed in Taliban-controlled territory. Bout immediately began selling Rabinovych’s arms to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and continued right up to 9/11. British intelligence (MI6/SIS) had been monitoring Bout since 1999. A British official said, “The evidence assembled is persuasive. He has a go-anywhere, supply-anything outfit that fuels war and terrorism”. British Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain claimed Bout “was also supplying the Taliban and al-Qaeda. He must be put out of business.”

More serious charges concern possible nuclear trafficking. Although tactical and strategic nuclear weapons were removed from Ukraine in 1992 and 1996, respectively, not all nuclear materials have been accounted for. In 1994 a Ukrainian nuclear scientist offered U.S. officials the opportunity to purchase 165 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, sufficient for three nuclear bombs. The United States declined.

The scientist, then working at the obscure Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, admitted at the time that, “It’s lightly guarded”. Two-thirds of the staff had been laid off and the remainder were paid poor salaries. Formerly a major scientific research arm of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons industry, the Kharkiv Institute used to employ some 6,000. So where has all of this nuclear material gone to in the time since the Soviet collapse? In 2002 the Washington Post quoted William Potter, director of the Monterey Center for Nonproliferation Studies, as believing “It represents a major terrorist and proliferation target…”

These concerns should be borne in mind when two February reports appeared in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper alleging that al-Qaeda obtained tactical nuclear weapons or “suitcase bombs” from Ukraine. The reports claimed that Ukrainian scientists visited Kandahar in 1998 and met senior al-Qaeda figures. U.S. intelligence agents “learned about the affair and were able to immediately track the deal all the way to Ukraine,” according to Al-Hayat. Publicly at least, U.S. officials have remained skeptical about the new claims. Not surprisingly, Russia has come to the rescue of its ally, President Kuchma, backing the official claim that all nuclear weapons were transferred to Russia in 1992-1996. As usual, the Ukrainian authorities also dismissed these reports as “Totally groundless and surprising”.

Nevertheless, we should not rush to dismiss these claims, however sensational they may be. Two years earlier, in September 2002, Ukrainian Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko alleged that only 2,200 of the 2,400 tactical nuclear warheads that Ukraine inherited from the USSR were transferred to Russia in 1992, while 200 remained unaccounted for. Nor did Ukrainian Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Adam Martyniuk, also a Communist, rule out the Al-Hayat reports completely.


The new claims made in Al-Hayat about al-Qaeda obtaining nuclear materials from Ukraine seem at first glance to be unlikely and the two stories seem, therefore, to have been planted by an unknown group or country. Nevertheless, three factors should be kept in mind.

Firstly, Ukraine has a very poor record in illegal arms trafficking. Not a single Ukrainian arms trafficker has been prosecuted domestically. These arms traffickers had, and continue to have, close ties to President Kuchma, as evidenced by his recent meeting with Rabinovych.

Secondly, the international commission that visited Ukraine in October 2002 to investigate charges that it supplied Kolchugas to Iraq concluded that Ukraine’s arms export controls were poor. During L. Derkach’s chairmanship of the SBU from 1997-2002, Ukraine developed close military ties with Pakistan.

Thirdly, the chronology of events shows that during this same period Ukraine broadened these military ties. Bout had ties to the Taliban from 1995-1996. Ukrainian scientists may have visited the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 1998, and a Taliban-al-Qaeda delegation reportedly visited Ukraine in 1999. The Bout-Rabinovych arms export business alliance is known to have supplied military equipment to the Taliban from 1999-2001. All this should raise concerns for those monitoring al-Qaeda attempts at obtaining nuclear capabilities.

Dr. Taras Kuzio is a resident fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European studies and adjunct professor of the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto (www.taraskuzio.net).