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Race to find mafia's uranium bars
Police fear terrorists may get ingredients for 'dirty bomb'
Philip Willan in Rome Friday November 9, 2001 The Guardian
Italian police have launched a hunt for seven bars of enriched uranium believed to be in the hands of the mafia and which they fear could have been sold to Islamist terrorists. The bars of enriched uranium 235 and 238 were part of a stock of eight kilos of uranium sold to the government of Zaire by an American company, General Atomic of San Diego, in 1971, La Repubblica reported.
They were sold as part of the "atoms for peace" programme and were intended for use in an experimental reactor in Kinshasa. But the uranium went missing four years ago, following the collapse of the Mobutu regime.
The bars re-emerged in Europe in 1997, when a group of traffickers were involved in a shoot-out with police in France, and came to light again in the hands of an underworld group in Italy the following spring.
Police learned that they were in the hands of an organised crime group made up of mafiosi from Sicily and Calabria, and members of a Rome underworld gang known as the Magliana band.
A finance police officer was given a false identity and false criminal record for handling stolen property and approached the group with an offer to purchase all eight bars on behalf of an unidentified Arab country.
The undercover officer, posing as "the accountant", offered to pay 20bn lire (£6.4m) into a Swiss bank account for all eight bars - half the figure originally sought by the mafiosi.
The transaction took place on March 20 1998, but the sellers brought only one bar, code numbered 6910 GA. It contained 40 grams of uranium 235, 150 grams of uranium 138 which was 20% enriched, and was contained in a 90 cen timetre steel-encased cylinder. Investigators determined that the bar was not sufficiently enriched to be used in the manufacture of a nuclear bomb, but could be used with conventional explosives, or even a gas canister, to create a "dirty bomb".
"If terrorists exploded a dirty bomb in Villa Borghese Gardens, they would create little more than a large hole in the ground, but the centre of Rome would be contaminated for a century," Captain Roberto Ferroni, of the finance police, told La Repubblica.
Thirteen suspects were arrested and last month a court in the Sicilian city of Catania sentenced them to prison terms ranging from two years to four years and six months. New anti-terrorism laws could not be invoked and they were convicted merely of "attempting to export dual use material".
Police have no idea what has become of the other uranium bars and do not know whether they are still in Italy.
"It's as though they had vanished into thin air," Capt Ferroni told La Repubblica. "We had some indications of their presence here in Rome. Measurements were made [with a geiger counter] and certain zones showed anomalous peaks of radiation."
Capt Ferroni said the investigators could not say whether the bars had found their way into the hands of al-Qaida.
"Unfortunately we don't know," he said. "But I can say that when we carried out the undercover operation, our man, "the accountant", introduced himself as an intermediary for an Arab country. And our sellers certainly didn't seem upset. On the contrary, the credibility of the Arab world, which has always been hunting for nuclear material, convinced them that the "accountant" was not a trap."
Investigators believe one of the convicted uranium traffickers, Domenico Stilitano, could provide a lead on the fate of the nuclear material. But he has refused to talk and as he has a sentence of only four years and six months to serve, the authorities have little leverage with which to convince him.
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), November 09, 2001