The rickety market stalls outside Tashkent train station were awash with loud and vibrant trading activity in the bright early morning sunshine. Reams of noisy traffic slowly bustled their way through the massed crowds. The dense smoke of breakfast stalls and barbeques lingered in the air as Sean greeted General Yuri with a strong handshake and pat on the back. Sean was unshaved. Dressed in a black T shirt, beige mountain trousers and sand brown desert boots and a large black north face rucksack. He looked to the entire world totally out of place as a westerner amongst the large crowds of native Central Asians - all actively trading and bartering around the station. Sean immersed himself in the quirky atmosphere but stayed sharp. Sharp to the fact others might be watching his every move or that other intelligence agents might have latched onto Yuri being his agent, and effectively an Uzbek traitor.
Sean and General Yuri boarded the cranky old train bound for Bokhara via the great city of Samarkand - which was destined to take twenty-four hours in a small double bunk compartment situated in the second-class carriages towards the front of the train.
Sean had nurtured his contact in the Uzbek Secret Service well. General Yuri Yakubov, a long serving officer in the Uzbek secret service, was a vital source for the British Secret Service, considered to be a genuine player in the new Central Asian great game, able to give exactly the feel needed for the activities of terrorists and rogue nations across the region.
Surreptitiously, the visit would be used to listen to new intelligence from Yuri. And also to be introduced to two male agents from the criminal underworld who had now been forced into hiding away from their homelands of the fertile Ferghana valley, just south of Tashkent. The long journey and private compartment would give Sean an opportunity to quiz Yuri on the criminal underworld activity of radiological smuggling which was happening across Central Asia.
Sean entered the compartment, placing his rucksack on the top bunk and sat at the small table next to the window. The carriage windows had a dusty set of curtains pulled back on an old wire hanging by its threads. The musty smell of the compartment lingered deep in the nose. The table held two small Uzbek bowls for drinking green chai, and a blue mosaic patterned teapot. It wasn’t long before the train had rolled out of Tashkent on its way to the historic Islamic cities of Samarkand and Bokhara. The wide desert landscape of the Karakum desert provided the mysterious backdrop to a lengthy period of discussion on criminal and terrorist underworld activity, in and outside of the tyrannous Uzbek regime. Yuri didn’t stop talking.
‘There’s an extensive network of cross border smuggling going on Sean - radiological sources moving across the region and I’ve been monitoring exactly how it works.’
‘Great. This operation has developed well and we’re very pleased with your work. What’s been happening lately? What have you found?’
‘Good – I’m glad it’s all to your satisfaction,’ Yuri said with his slightly strained, but very understandable English.
‘We pay people here Sean. They are poor and in this country, we trade in whatever we can. It might be furs, sausages, illegal drugs, vodka or even special nuclear material. It’s our way of life and bargaining markets occur across the land where buyers and sellers will come. The illicit trade in cesium and even uranium is managed by the Russian mafioso.’
Sean was fascinated at the extent of knowledge Yuri had – The information he had been relaying back to London for the last six months was chilling. He leant back into the sofa opposite the bunk beds whilst Yuri sat cross legged on a cushion near the table. Yuri continued.
‘The Mafioso use normal traders, low level workers and simple men to try and sell the stuff,’ he said. ‘You know, hustlers. Middle-men. If they sell, they give the largest cut back to the mafia – they are shit scared of them and know they will be damaged if they try and renege on any deal and run off with the items.’
‘So, who’s buying Yuri?’ Sean asked. ‘Where is it moving to? And who are the end buyers and where are they from?’
Sean asked the questions, recalling momentarily the classified intelligence he had read of the illicit trade indicating over 220 specific cases of smuggling of special nuclear material across Georgia, Turkey, the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
‘We only have a handful of deals that we’ve managed to uncover here but it moves across our territory into the Caucasus, Turkey and onwards to wherever the end buyer is. The stuff comes from our old refineries and metallurgy processing plants, some here, some in Kazakhstan. Everyone is corrupt and it’s easy for the Mafia to buy the stuff from security, the workers or even the police. Money speaks here. They then use the hustlers to move it across the deserts into Turkmenistan and then across to Georgia and Ossetia.’
Sean knew the hunting ground for the buyers was in the broken Russian states of Ossetia and Abkhazia and often over into the black-market Bazaars of Turkey. It was these countries where you could buy anything from dried fish to gold, drugs and even weapons grade Uranium.
‘Ossetia is lawless, annexed from Georgia and the biggest duty free market in the world,’ Yuri explained. ‘The market bazaars have people that come from all over the region to buy everything from gasoline to pasta with no taxes that you’d pay in mainland Georgia.’
Yuri placed some Uzbek documents on the table and explained the case of Tamaz Davitadze. Yuri placed his picture on the table next to his Kent cigarettes, and placed a picture showing four vials of green powdered Highly Enriched Uranium.
‘He brought this through Bokhara three months ago,’ he said. ‘We intercepted him to see what was happening on the wider network. We then allowed him to continue where Davitadze headed out of Bokhara toward the Uzbek-Turkmen border in an old, white Niva four-wheel drive with Vazha Lortkipadze, a corrupt, middle-ranking Uzbek interior ministry official. They met with two Iranian agents just over the Turkmenistan border in Turmenibat.’
Sean listened aghast at the extent of duplicity and corrupt state sponsored activity. Yuri had managed a clever intelligence operation and had recruited Davitadze and now had him on his payroll. Yuri lit a Kent cigarette and opened the train carriage window. He then explained how Davitadze carried over four kilograms of the greyish-green powder - not quite enough for a nuclear bomb, but, for a buyer with the right equipment and experience, a damn good start.
Yuri added some detail to the plots. ‘There was, of course, the problem of the Uzbek-Turkmen customs post,’ he said. ‘It’s only a few miles from Turkemenibat and Lortkipadze as an interior ministry official, smoothed the way with payments - probably on a regular basis to the commandant of the flat desert outpost.’
‘They’re all on the take then Yuri?’ Sean asked. ‘Uzbek military officers and government officials? All easily bought off I assume?’
‘Exactly. This means the Iranians can, and do operate at will, masterminding their own nuclear smuggling racket.’
Yuri had a short break and they ate bowls of the local beef delicacy, Bishbarmak, brought to them by their carriage concierge Hazim, a portly and smiling gentleman from Azerbaijan. Hazim had a small kitchen towards the front of the carriage and it was his job to bring each compartment their chai, lunch and dinner and provide them with any service that might be required on the long desert journey.
Sean’s glances out of the window provided him with spectacular views of the large sandy deserts with the occasional pipeline or pylon breaking up the huge desert vista, brimming with heat waves seen low across the sands, giving him a sense of myopia as the horizon blurred. He felt privileged to witness this evocative and charming land as they travelled gently across the huge expanse of Uzbekistan towards its western frontiers.
After they ate, Yuri mentioned to Sean that he should read the dossier he had personally complied through on the frightening magnitude of this illicit trading. What Sean read, all fully translated, was alarming to him. It seemed to be sound intelligence. He knew he would need to validate the detail but also knew there was enough there to mount major operations using US and UK national strategic assets to precisely track and trace the threats. Yuri had provided him with a dossier full of illicit trading in special nuclear material – And everything pointed to Iran - and not to Iraq.
Two incidents stood out as he read. One was a report where Yuri’s intelligence officers had searched vehicles in the dead of night just outside Bokhara. Their equipment and searches revealed a cargo of 15kg of zinc oxide destined for Iran with traces of Caesium 127 emitting 240 microroentgen per hour. Border checks showed the transporter did not have the appropriate permits and were using falsified documentation to move from Uzbekistan and onwards through Turkmenistan for the short distance to Iran. In the other incident, a cargo of Molybdenum, a silver metal use in metallurgy processes, was searched again at night en-route to Iran via Turkmenistan - It contained within its load Radium-226, Uranium-234 and Uranium-238.
The third incident that he read about made him physically shiver. Yuri’s officers had searched a car, based on a tip off from Davitadze, where they found a container with an estimated 2kg of cesium-137, and the special device for opening the shielded lead container as well as a number of explosive detonators. According to Davitadze, his fellow hustler had received the container with cesium-137 from a member of the Uzbek counterintelligence department at the Tashkent district police headquarters. He was instructed to transfer the cesium-137 to an unidentified person in Bokhara, later identified by Yuri’s team as Iranian agents. Sean could see immediately that cesium-137 isotope could be used as a radiological dispersal device, a dirty bomb, and that this fitted with the Iranians capabilities of having a high-grade state sponsored terrorism threat.
‘Yuri, who else knows of this operation you’re running?’ Sean used both hands to drink the green Uzbek tea from a small blue mosaic bowl awaiting the response.
‘No one other than my team at the moment,’ he said. ‘I thought it might be useful to you. I can’t trust anyone in government as they are all corrupt, but if they learn of what I’m doing and I’m linked to you, I’m a dead man.’
Sean was impressed with the courageous risks Yuri was taking. Very much driven by his motivation to leave the country and live in the UK. Yuri was despondent at the corrupt and evil nature of his country’s regime who were obviously operating illicitly with the Iranians. This crossed Sean’s mind often as he continued to ponder Yuri’s intelligence.
‘Yuri, have you any evidence that any of this stuff is going to Iraq and not Iran? Any evidence of contacts or criminal activity linked to Iraq?’
‘None,’ he answered. ‘Most of the linkages we’ve found are direct to Iran except the criminal and mafia movements of some stuff going into Georgia and Turkey.’ Sean knew this was now a critical source of intelligence for linking duplicitous Central Asian activity to the wider concerns of the West – and he started to think through how he could exploit these leads further. London were desperately looking for the Iraq connection to support the US led war that was centered on Saddam having weapons of mass destruction, but everything here pointed to Iran.
‘Yuri, here’s what we do. We develop this operation you’re working on over the coming months, and you keep reporting the leads and intelligence direct to me. We can’t get you out of the country just yet as we need you here to craft these new leads. When the time is right we’ll see what people think about defection but to be perfectly honest we don’t have enough yet.’
Sean discussed a range of activities and help for Yuri over the course of their journey to Bokhara and he felt confident that new feeds of information would yield critical results very soon. He sensed none of it would relate to Iraq at all, but it would be some years further on, and a few more intelligence roles, before he would uncover the truth.