ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The recent brutal and bizarre raid by alleged Islamist extremists on the tiny Caucasus republic of Ingushetia, which borders on Chechnya, has revived the specter of "dirty bombs" and the quest for their acquisition by Wahhabi terrorists. Until now Ingushetia, with a population of only half a million, had mainly been spared the horrors visited on its eastern neighbor by a combination of Russian imperialism and Saudi-financed adventurism. But Ingushetia's tiny numbers have been swelled by Chechen and other refugees. Like many other violent incidents in the Russian Federation, the Ingush raid had its own peculiarities: for example, the terrorists disguised themselves as local police, erected roadblocks, and killed high officials who showed them their identification, but spared journalists, local Ingush police, and civilians.
The respected Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer warned on June 29, "In the past year death squads, apparently organized by the [Russian] federal security forces, have been kidnapping Ingush people that disappear without trace -- most likely tortured and killed without trial for allegedly helping Chechen rebels. At present the security services are sweeping Ingushetia, questioning or arresting hundreds of people, accusing them of aiding and abetting the rebel attack -- and most likely randomly torturing them to get confessions. Previous kidnappings and extrajudicial killings in the republic may have greatly facilitated the rebel attack. More repression may unite Ingush and Chechens in their hostility to Moscow and turn Ingushetia into a war zone."
The Ingushetia raid touched off a new round of speculation about terrorist ambitions to obtain and use nuclear materials. But while the Caucasus remains the focus of atomic paranoia in the Russian and international media, there is as much or more anxiety expressed by experts about the situation of the Republic of Kazakhstan, as a territory scattered with radioactive materials left over from the Soviet era.
For example, a U.S. government official with whom I shared a recent flight to Almaty expressed continuing concern on the part of international monitoring authorities, in which Americans play a leading role, about enriched uranium. This byproduct of breeder reactors could be used in the construction of nuclear bombs, and was produced in Soviet times by a reactor in the Caspian Sea town of Aktau, formerly known as Shevchenko. In addition, Western nuclear proliferation experts warn that many nuclear components used in oil and gas exploration, currently the main economic activity in Kazakhstan, could be stolen and recycled to create a "dirty bomb."
Nobody can deny that Kazakhstan has had its share of nuclear woe. Soviet atomic weapons testing on its terrain had predictably terrible effects, given the Communist regime's lack of efficiency standards and safeguards (remember Chernobyl) as well as its indifference to the human consequences of its "defense" activities. With the help of Russian spies operating inside the Western nuclear enterprises, especially Klaus Fuchs, the Soviet Union gained an understanding of the technology necessary for production of atomic weapons by the end of the second world war. Control over research was held by the chief of the KGB (or, as it was then known, the NKVD), Lavrenti P. Beriya, reporting directly to Joseph Stalin.
According to the shocking volume Kazakhstan Nuclear Tragedy, issued by a range of civil society groups in Almaty in 1997, preparations for nuclear testing began at the Kazakh area of Semipalatinsk, now called Semey, fifty years before, in 1947. The first Soviet nuclear explosion occurred on August 29, 1949. Beriya drew up two lists of scientists for use by the authorities following the test. If it succeeded, the researchers would receive decorations. If it failed, they would be executed.
Kazakhstan Nuclear Tragedy states baldly, "From this day the Soviet military-industrial complex waged an undeclared war against the people of Kazakhstan… Almost the entire republic turned into one boundless nuclear testing area -- all regions… suffered."
The first Soviet thermonuclear device was tested on August 12, 1953, in the same region, followed on November 22, 1955, by the Soviet hydrogen bomb, which had been developed by the later-dissident Andrei Sakharov. In many cases local residents returned to the test areas within three weeks of such explosions, when the environment was still highly dangerous for human life. The Soviet regime contended with these problems by leaving the populace unaided in the contamination zones, but then sealing them off, closing them to all outside access and even removing them from maps.
In further efforts to avoid the consequences of such policies, doctors were barred from correctly diagnosing cases of radiation poisoning and the numerous ailments associated with it. Medical testing of large population samples began in 1957, and showed increased rates of premature aging, cancers, suicides, infant mortality, and deformed births. Kazakhstan Nuclear Tragedy notes that 1.5 million people who resided near testing areas were exposed to radiation exceeding 1 rem. (A rem, or Roentgen Equivalent Man, is equal to the amount of ionizing radiation that produces the same damage to humans as 200 kilovolts of x-radiation.) Chromosomal damage in such victims may be expected to be inherited.
Kazakhstan left the former Soviet Union as a major power in its inventory of nuclear weapons, of which it immediately divested itself. The government has signed a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) but independent experts warn that its implementation is complex and will be difficult to complete.
However, while there may be no danger that Kazakhstan may become involved in nuclear war, the menace of Islamist extremism remains. The former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an ally of al-Qaeda, has been effectively defeated, but the conspiratorial movement Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or Islamic Liberation Party, continues to recruit among a minority population of Uzbeks in southern Kazakhstan. Uzbeks and Kazakhs both speak Turkic languages, and both countries have Muslim majorities; but an Uzbek diaspora outside the borders of Uzbekistan is a source of ethnic grievances that skillful extremist recruiters can exploit.
Uzbekistan, for its part, has gone through several cycles of combat with terrorists; fortunately, Kazakhstan has been spared this ordeal. Indeed, Kazakhstan stands out as an economic success story in the Commonwealth of Independent States. It maintains trade and other relations with Russia while also enriching itself by selling industrial products to China; most important are Kazakhstan's significant oil reserves. Texaco and other foreign companies are active on the scene, and their gas stations serve the driving public in Almaty. With a territory equivalent to four states the size of Texas, Kazakhstan has only 15 million people. Although it has yet to produce a full-scale multiparty democracy, Kazakhstan has a thriving civil society, with opposition media.
Most important, Kazakh Muslims are determined to maintain their Central Asian, pluralistic, spiritual and traditional form of Islam, based on Sufism and the Hanafi form of sharia, which is the most liberal in spirit. They are completely indifferent to the appeal of Wahhabism. Indeed, local Jewish leaders take pride in their close relationship with the Muslim Muftiate, or clerical leadership, and describe Kazakhstan as a model of interfaith relations. Kazakhstan has diplomatic relations with Israel and has a small military detachment of some tens of troops in Iraq.
Nevertheless, vigilance will be required on the part of the U.S., the Kazakh government, international bodies, and the Russian authorities to prevent terrorists from using Kazakhstan as a source of nuclear materials. The former Soviet Union simply spread too much atomic litter over the vast tracts it controlled. "Dirty bombs" -- conventional explosives wrapped in contaminating materials -- remain a serious threat to the world, one that must not be underestimated. In this context, Kazakhstan as a successful capitalist country and as a paragon of interreligious civility may see its significance grow immensely greater, as it takes on the responsibility of helping shield the world from nuclear terror.