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Preventing Illegal Exports: Learning from Case Studies

All information contained in this web product is (C) Copyright ISIS, 2002

Many countries have sought overseas assistance for their efforts to build nuclear weapons. Only a few proliferant states have been able to proceed alone in this quest. Most have had to acquire key equipment, materials, and technology from outside sources. In total, over a dozen countries have conducted illicit nuclear procurement, are suspected of doing so, or are suspected of trans-shipping illegal exports (See tables of countries).

The al Qaeda terrorist group has also sought nuclear items, and its successor organizations are likely to continue in such endeavors or to seek nuclear weapons or radiological dispersal devices. Al Qaeda documents discovered in Afghanistan show that it recognized both the importance and necessity of foreign procurement in building weapons of mass destruction.

Foreign Assistance

Foreign assistance takes many forms. It has included government assistance, both direct and tacit. Companies have exported important items for nuclear weapons programs both legally and illegally. Governments may indirectly encourage illegal, or at best questionable, exports by either ignoring a proliferant's procurement efforts or having an ineffective or chaotic export control system.

The assistance of individuals, whether deliberately or inadvertently, has been critical to the success of many illicit procurement efforts. Individuals have acted as procurement agents, middlemen, experts, or sources of classified information. The search for legitimate business has often resulted in individuals violating export control laws in exchange for lucrative contracts.

The amount of foreign assistance required by a particular proliferant state has varied widely, depending on its indigenous level of technological expertise and the particular technology chosen for making nuclear weapons. In general, the pursuit of uranium enrichment technologies has required more foreign assistance than the pursuit of technologies to separate plutonium from irradiated fuel.

The level of assistance received by a state is dependent on its procurement skills and the effectiveness of supplier states' or international export controls. One also cannot ignore the role of chance in locating acceptable suppliers willing to break or bend the law.

Looking at the historical record, proliferant states have acquired many types of nuclear facilities through deceptive procurement efforts. In some cases, states have obtained complete nuclear facilities free of any international controls or inspections. In the 1950s and 1960s, France provided Israel with both a reactor and a plutonium separation plant that became the heart of its nuclear weapons program. France later sold Iraq the Osirak research reactor. Although the reactor was under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, Iraq still believed it could overcome both French oversight and IAEA inspections to secretly make plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Proliferant states have obtained an astonishing number and variety of sensitive components that have allowed them to construct nuclear reactors, uranium processing facilities, uranium enrichment plants, and other fuel cycle facilities. The cases of Iraq, Pakistan, and South Africa provide many examples of such procurement strategies.

Focus on Iraq

Of all the countries that have illicitly sought nuclear weapons, only Iraq has described in detail the methods it used in the 1980s to procure items for its nuclear weapons program. Following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the UN Security Council forced Iraq to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, and longer range ballistic missiles programs. To achieve its goal of an Iraq free of nuclear weapons, the Security Council created the IAEA Action Team. The Action Team spent several years investigating Iraq's nuclear accomplishments and failures prior to the Gulf War. It obtained procurement information from Iraq and systematically checked it against supplier, commerce, and intelligence records that member states agreed to provide under the UN Security Council resolutions. Because of the Action Team inspection efforts and parallel public and legal investigations into illicit procurement, a considerable amount of public information exists about Iraq's procurement activities in the 1980s.

A substantial amount of information on Pakistan's illicit procurement efforts also exists, largely because of numerous court case documentation involving Pakistani procurement operations. However, Pakistan has never provided a complete assessment of its procurement activities. Thus, Iraq remains unique as the only country where the public can gain a detailed understanding of secret procurement strategies to acquire nuclear weapons.

Persistence Counts

Based on available information, countries have been remarkably adept in violating the letter or the spirit of export control laws and regulations, often receiving active assistance from experts or corporate officials. Proliferants have proven that they are willing to devote considerable resources to obtaining items overseas. A recurring failure of the supplier nations has been to underestimate the determination and capabilities of proliferant states. In the West, specific export loopholes were closed only following major scandals, such as what occurred after Iraq's procurement efforts were exposed after the Persian Gulf War. Vigilance, however, particularly among corporations, is often short-lived. Creating a sustainable export control "culture" remains one of the most difficult challenges in supplier states.

The dilemma remains: If a company exports to a sensitive country, it risks helping that country obtain nuclear weapons. But if it does not export to that country, it risks losing business to its competitors.

Managing this situation requires rigorous export control laws and regulations. Companies and experts must increase their awareness of the strategies and methods used by proliferant states to acquire sensitive items illicitly. Although criminal activity can never be completely eliminated, there can be improved detection and reduction in criminal activities by a more thorough understanding of the methods proliferant states use to ensnare businesses and individuals in their illegal endeavors.

Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, governments have awoken to the frightening possibility that terrorist groups may seek to obtain items to make weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Because some terrorist groups operate as international networks, they may both seek and use sensitive items in states that usually do not receive much scrutiny. For example, a terrorist group may establish a company in a European Union country and order sensitive items from other members of the European Union. Such transfers would typically receive little governmental or corporate attention. Detecting such operations requires extraordinary vigilance on the part of companies and governments.

Strategies for Illicit Procurement

Proliferant states' procurement efforts have involved many strategies and methods. In the last two decades, proliferant states have had little success in acquiring complete, sensitive fuel-cycle facilities, such as reprocessing and uranium enrichment plants. Thus, they have concentrated their focus on acquiring specific parts, drawings, equipment, and materials so as to construct nuclear facilities themselves.

The following seeks to illustrate the methods of illicit procurement by examining particular cases. Most of the cases are drawn from Iraq's experience as it is well documented and comprehensive.

These cases are intended to increase awareness of how illicit procurement occurs, with the hope that knowledge will make companies less vulnerable to exploitation and more alert of entities seeking the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons.

This report does not focus on the details of national and international export controls or the enforcement of those controls. Interested readers are referred to other sources which document this information.

The process of obtaining a clandestine nuclear facility piece-by-piece often requires a sophisticated procurement network (figure 1). Each of these steps is described and illustrated by several examples. More detailed cases studies can be accessed through links in the text or from the side navigation bar.

Case Studies of Illicit Procurement Networks:

All information contained in this web product is (C) Copyright ISIS, 2003