Deadlier than terror

A FRIEND of mine, a nuclear physicist, retired after a lifetime of teaching, keeps in touch with who is doing what in developing nuclear weapons and who is trying to stop them and why. He has a sceptical view of the outrage that the West is expressing over what Iran is doing in its nuclear research facilities. "Why was it OK for India and Pakistan to develop a bomb but not Iran?" he asks.

By Phillip Knightley

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Fri 13 Jan 2006, 11:37 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:42 PM

All this came up because I asked this friend about a new American book I have been reading. It’s called Illicit and the author, Moises Naim, puts forward his theory that illicit trade and global crime are destabilising our civilisation and that this is as big a threat — if not greater — than terrorism. "Illicit trade is pushing the world in new directions that so far have eluded our capacity to comprehend let alone arrest. The most alarming part of the book deals with the illicit arms trade.

Naim has hair-raising stories about Russian gangsters offering fissile materials for sale and an illicit trade in nuclear know-how. I checked this out with my friend. "Yes," he said, "It is long past the time when all the fissile material in the former Soviet Union should have been catalogued and monitored. Yes, the Pakistani physicist Dr A Q Khan was able to sell nuclear technology to Iran and others only because he had the backing of the Pakistan government, an example of the author’s theory that illicit trade is at its most dangerous when the profit motive and government political interests coincide.

But Dr Khan and the Pakistan government would argue that they were only redressing the world nuclear imbalance." What about criminals offering nuclear stuff for sale? "There are a lot of confidence tricksters out there who offer for sale nuclear know-how and materials like enriched uranium with no possibility that they can deliver. And when you learn from the media that an illicit arms merchant has been caught in the act of trying to sell missiles or nuclear material it usually turns out it was either a "sting operation by the FBI or some other agency or a confidence man with nothing really to offer just trying his luck."

Given this analysis by my friend I began to have doubts about other parts of the book. One reason for this is that it is not easy to get worked up about several of the types of illicit trade that the author complains about — pirated books, movies, CDs, videos, music, and counterfeit luxury goods. In that we all buy them at some time or another, we ourselves are part of the problem. The author sees all this as theft, a conspiracy, and a danger to legitimate trade.

Another way of looking at it would be as an act of revenge, a payback by consumers for all the cartels, monopolies, restrictive practices, and price-fixing that manufacturers have inflicted on us all these years. Could it be that what we are witnessing is not an outbreak of criminality but the market addressing an imbalance of power? One can argue that consumers have always been willing to pay, but they wanted their music and their books and their movies and their goods to be easily available at a reasonable price, a price they considered fair. Globalisation and new technology has made this possible and big business and governments are frightened by this.

Of course, it is not as simple in other areas this book covers — smuggled weapons, drugs, illegal immigrants and laundered money. Naim divides the world into "bright spots", where law and order prevail, and "black holes", where illicit trafficking thrives. He names Spain’s Costa del Sol as a black spot because, among other factors, it has experienced a 1,600 per cent increase in private home construction in five years because, a Spanish police inspector says, "Criminals are businessmen these days. They want good travel connections, an efficient banking sector, nice weather and anonymity. They can get all that in Malaga."

But the building boom on the Costa del Sol (and elsewhere in Spain) was fuelled by the replacement of the peseta by the euro, a move which forced Spanish middle classes, notorious tax evaders, to take their pesetas out from under the mattress and invest it — hence the building boom. Naim says, "The more fortified and successful the bright spots become in defending themselves, the more value there is in breaching their fortifications."

This is certainly true of the drugs trade. The more money Britain and the United States spend on the war against drugs, the greater the volume of drugs on the market and the more easily they are available. The suppliers are only one part of this equation. Are the consumers to bear no responsibility for creating the demand? Illegal immigrants have been with us for a long time and as the author admits, closing our borders has failed to stop them. I think he has failed to make his case. But at least he has opened the debate.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist and commentator. He can be reached at

More news from