One night last spring, Amiran Chaduneli, a flea-market trader in the ex-Soviet Republic of Georgia, met with two strangers on a bridge at the edge of Kobuleti, a small town on the country’s Black Sea coast.
Over the phone, the men had introduced themselves as foreigners—one Turkish, the other Russian—and they were looking for an item so rare on the black market that it tends to be worth more, ounce for ounce, than gold. Chaduneli knew where to get it. He didn’t know that his clients were undercover cops.
From the bridge, he took them to inspect the merchandise at a nearby apartment where his acquaintance had been storing it: a lead box about the size of a smartphone, containing a few pounds of radioactive uranium, including small amounts of the weapons-grade material known as uranium-235. The stash wasn’t nearly enough to make a nuclear weapon. But if packed together with high explosives, these metallic lumps could produce what’s known as a dirty bomb—one that could poison the area around the blast zone with toxic levels of radiation.
In the popular culture, the dealers who traffic in such cargo are usually cast as lords of war with tailored suits and access to submarines. The reality is much less cinematic. According to police records reviewed by TIME in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, Chaduneli’s associates in the attempted uranium sale last spring included construction workers and scrap-metal traders. Looking at the sunken cheeks and lazy left eye in his mug shot, it seems improbable that lousy capers like this one could rise to the level of a national-security threat. But the ease of acquiring ingredients for a dirty bomb is precisely what makes them so worrying.
There have already been plenty of signs that ISIS would like to go nuclear. After the series of ISIS-linked bombings in Brussels killed at least 32 people in March 2016, Belgian authorities revealed that a suspected member of a terrorist cell had surveillance footage of a Belgian nuclear official with access to radioactive materials. The country’s nuclear-safety agency then said there were “concrete indications” that the cell intended “to do something involving one of our four nuclear sites.” About a year earlier, in May 2015, ISIS suggested in an issue of its propaganda magazine that it was wealthy enough to purchase a nuclear device on the black market—and to “pull off something truly epic.”
Though the group is unlikely to possess the technical skill to build an actual nuclear weapon, there are indications it could already possess nuclear materials. After the group’s fighters took control of the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, they seized about 40 kg of uranium compounds that were stored at a university, according to a letter an Iraqi diplomat sent to the U.N. in July of that year. But the U.N.’s nuclear agency said the material was likely “low grade” and not potentially harmful. “In a sense we’ve been lucky so far,” says Sharon Squassoni, who heads the program to stop nuclear proliferation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. “I honestly think it is only a matter of time before we see one of these dirty-bomb attacks.”