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Last Updated: January 18th, 2005
Do Terrorists Really Have Nukes Here?

"Waiting for the Big One"
by J. R. Nyquist
September 18, 2003

For two years the terrorists have spoken openly and privately about a final, devastating attack that would “paralyze” the United States. In November 2001, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar spoke to a journalist about the final destruction of America. A man of simple words, Omar did not say how America would be destroyed.

Last week Osama bin Laden re-issued his famous religious ruling (fatwa) on the mass killing of Americans: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilian and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God [who said], ‘fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,’ and ‘fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God.’"

While America relies on economic optimism to keep going, bin Laden relies on terrorist optimism. Exactly what is he planning? In 1999 terrorism expert Yossef Bodanksy quoted a senior Arab intelligence official as saying, “Osama bin Laden has acquired tactical nuclear weapons from the Islamic republics of Central Asia established after the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Recent postings on Islamist Internet sites, intercepted by intelligence experts, suggest that Islamic nuclear weapons may have been smuggled into the United States. A journalist who watches America’s borders recently dropped me a note: ”The fact something is about to go down is palpable. Many of my sources have gone into hibernation. It's been consistent that when that happens, something is going on.”

According to Bodansky, “Bin Laden’s emissaries paid the Chechins $30 million in cash and gave them two tons of Afghan heroin [approximately $600 million street value]” in exchange for nuclear weapons back in the 1990s. In his 1999 book, Bin Laden, the Man Who Declared War on America, Bodanksy wrote: “Evidence of the number of nuclear weapons purchased by the Chechens for bin Laden varies between ‘a few’ (Russian intelligence) to ‘more than twenty’ (conservative Arab intelligence services).”

Regardless of the weapons used, Osama’s re-issued fatwa tells us what to expect: “We -- with God's help -- call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youth, and soldiers to launch raids on Satan's U.S. troops and the devil's supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.”

On 5 June 2003 Attorney General John Ashcroft told the House Judiciary Committee: “We must be vigilant. We must be unrelenting. We must not forget that al Qaeda’s primary terrorist target is the United States of America. Even though recent attacks were overseas, the terrorist network is committed to killing innocent Americans, including women and children, by the thousands or even the millions if they can.”

Ashcroft then read the title of a fatwa issued by Saudi cleric Nazer bin Hamd al-Fahd: “The Legal Status of Using Weapons of Mass Destruction Against Infidels.” Ashcroft explained, “This fatwa lays out … religious arguments for the use of weapons of mass destruction against Americans, including women and children.”

Nazer bin Hamd’s fatwa reads as follows: “Weapons of mass destruction will kill the infidels on whom they fall, regardless of whether they are fighters, women or children. They will destroy and burn the land. The arguments for permissibility are many.”

This fatwa suggests – without a direct admission – that the Islamists have nuclear weapons. Here is a theological pronouncement by an Islamist cleric on the morality of nuclear attacks against civilian targets. The Muslim theologian in question says that massacring infidel noncombatants is “permissible.” Arguably, the Muslim world has nuclear weaponry on the brain. The Guardian (UK) is reporting that Saudi Arabia wants to acquire its own nuclear arsenal. Perhaps they are a bit behind the curve.

Whether terrorists currently possess nuclear weapons or not, people’s minds are being conditioned to accept the possibility of an Islamist nuclear assault. There are a number of ways to look at this. First, the Islamists may indeed have nuclear weapons in useable condition. Second, they might be exaggerating their capabilities. This exaggeration could serve the purposes of a third party (like North Korea, Russia or China) at the outset of a future military crisis. If U.S. leaders are conditioned to expect a nuclear attack from Arab terrorists, they might not be psychologically prepared to recognize a nuclear precursor attack initiated by highly trained commandos and military assets of other nuclear powers. The psychological possibility of successful misdirection opens a window of opportunity for strategic competitors interested in dealing a stealth-type blow against the United States, knowing the blow will be attributed to an Islamist terror network.

The fact that U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism remains weak, despite the improvements of Attorney General Ashcroft, must be fully appreciated in this context. Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen were not the only Russian spies burrowed deep in our intelligence hierarchy. Others, yet hidden in the highest ranks of the CIA and FBI, are doubtless in place. And then there is the testimony of veteran CIA officers like Robert Baer, who tell us that U.S. intelligence has been neutered by political correctness. There is another point, as well. The bane of drug trafficking has countless tentacles of corruption, and these have branched out into all directions – contaminating law enforcement, intelligence, government and business. The linkages between drug trafficking and terrorism deserve closer scrutiny. According to recent reports, several Mexican crime groups are now coordinated by the Russian mafia. Reports of this kind deserve careful consideration because we’ve heard similar reports from European sources. The statement given to David Remnick by Luciano Violente, the chairman of Italy’s parliamentary committee of inquiry into the mafia is relevant in this context. Voilente’s statement was used in Remnick’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Lenin’s Tomb, and refers to the fact that Russia is now “a kind of strategic capital of organized crime from where all the major operations are launched.” Violente also told Remnick that Russia hosted crime summits to discuss money laundering, the sale of nuclear material and drug trafficking for the three main Italian mafias. Russia, said Violente, “has become a warehouse and clearing house for the drug market.”

More than one Soviet bloc defector has emphasized that Russian criminal groups are fronts for strategic operations. The same has also been said of Chinese and North Korean criminal groups that are known to operate in Mexico and Canada. The use of organized crime as a strategic tool is not some outlandish notion. It is fact, and the involvement of leading al Qaeda members in drug trafficking and money laundering should not surprise us.

The threat being built up in our minds, which is clearly a nuclear threat, emphasizes the role of Arabs and Muslims. Taking into account the fact that the nuclear and biological weapons of the Islamists are said to originate in “former” communist countries, supplied by characters like Victor Bout (under Moscow’s protection) or Chechen rebels previously trained by the GRU (like Shamil Basayev), we are left to ponder the potential blinds and double-blinds of what may be the ultimate maskirovka (defined as “preserving the secrecy of preparations for operations and campaigns, and also for the disorientation of the enemy with regard to actual intention and actions….”)

We are told that the Islamists probably have nuclear weapons. That is the story. Day by day, the idea filters into the media. We read Islamist statements on the Internet. Experts like Bodansky and others say that Arab and Russian intelligence services have confirmed these rumros. But if the terrorists have nuclear weapons then why haven’t they used them?

Several years ago, while talking to Abdul-Bari Atwan, editor of al-Quds al-Arabi, bin Laden said, “Military people are not unaware that preparations for major operations take a certain amount of time, unlike minor operations.”

In his 1999 book on bin Laden, Bodansky wrote: “Since early summer 1998 Islamist terrorists … under the command of Osama bin Laden and sponsored by the ISI [Pakistani intelligence] have been actively preparing for spectacular terrorist strikes using chemical, bacteriological, and perhaps radiological weapons in a well-equipped, fortified compound concealed near Qandahar.” According to Bodansky, “Viruses causing deadly diseases, such as Ebola and Salmonella, were procured [by al Qaeda] in Russia. Samples of botulinum biotoxin were acquired in the Czech Republic along with equipment for mass production.”

Bodansky also says the Islamists have prepared fungi for use against crops. They have procured toxins to poison drinking water. We are told that Arab specialists working for bin Laden were trained in places like Romania and Hungary (i.e., former Soviet bloc countries). An Islamic commander operating undercover in Europe reportedly stated, “These weapons [of mass destruction] have been purchased from East European states and the former Soviet Union.”

But the GRU and the KGB are the best intelligence services on the planet. They had FBI counter-intelligence penetrated for over a decade (see Robert Hanssen). They had the CIA moled out for two decades. Every CIA spy in Russia, during a period of several years, was caught and either turned or executed. In other words, the United States has been effectively blind with regard to secret doings in Russia while Russia has enjoyed a double set of eyes. First, Russia saw everything the U.S. could see. Second, it saw with its own eyes._ To imagine that Islamic terrorists, supposedly the chief enemies of Russia in the 1980s, have purchased mass destruction technology from Russian/East Bloc sources without being caught, or without turning those weapons on Russia, is to suggest that the Russian services are incompetent or that the Islamists aren’t serious about wiping out a particular subset of infidels (a subset that killed more than a million Muslims in the 1980s). If the latter is correct, one has to ask why this has come about?

Bodansky has claimed that bin Laden wants to use “former” Soviet SPETSNAZ troops to carry out nuclear strikes against the United States. So we are left with the thought that even the men who detonate the bombs, will either be Russians or trained by Russian. This is most curious, and it deserves to be kept in mind whenever a major terrorist assault on America is discussed.

For several years our minds have been conditioned to a new enemy, even as we’ve been conditioned to believe that our old enemy is a reliable friend and partner. The new enemy’s links to the old enemy are ambiguous, masked by criminal intermediaries. America’s leaders are not paying sufficient attention to this. The new enemy is to be our focus. The old enemy, meanwhile, escapes suspicion. We are told to expect a mass destruction attack involving “old” Soviet bloc weapons carried about by “former” Soviet personnel on behalf of a handful of Islamists hiding in remote caves.

In considering the plausibility of this scenario we need to look at the big picture. While the United States remains fixated on the terror threat, Latin America is falling to closet communists like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Ecuador’s Lucio Gutierrez and Brazil’s Lula da Silva. While the United States has moved against terror-supporting states in Afghanistan and Iraq, Europe has begun to shift closer to Russia. Again, one ought to be suspicious. One ought to consider the possibility that we are being “played.”

In the event of a nuclear terror strike against America we are left with one assumption. It is the assumption that Osama bin Laden will be the perpetrator._ We would like to assume that the bombs, even if smuggled by Russian gangsters, are al Qaeda’s bombs.

Is our approach to the war on terror naïve?

© 2003 Jeffrey R. Nyquist
September 18, 2003

Much of what is presented below is from a paper presented November, 2002 by the Director of Homeland Security Programs of the major supplier to the Federal Government of radiological detection instruments. Some of it is gleaned from my over 40 years of work in the nuclear industry, including 7 years as Chairman of a Nuclear Technology Program at a major southern college, 2 years at the DOE PANTEX FACILITY, 5 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory and 2 Years a Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

There are 4 basic problems concerning nuclear terrorism facing the U. S. today. These are [not in order of importance]:

(1) A terrorist act at a domestic nuclear facility such as

- A commercial nuclear reactor
- A DOE nuclear facility
- A commercial nuclear fuel enrichment or fabrication facility
- A university nuclear reactor

(2) Explosion of a "Dirty Bomb" in a public place such as

- A major city
- An amusement park
- A sports stadium
- An airport or sea port

(3) Release of radioactive material into and air or water supply

- An aerosol or other airborne radioactive material released into the air intake of a major building
- Radioactive material released into the water supply of a major city

(4) Explosion of a nuclear weapon

- There are over 200 documented cases of persons attempting to purchase special nuclear material (stuff to make bombs) or tactical nuclear weapons on the black market
- There are over 100 "suitcase bombs" missing from the Soviet nuclear inventory

This last item is probably the most important. The former head of Soviet National Security, Alexander Lebed testified to that fact before congress. He stated that the devices measure approximately 24" x 16" x 8" and can be set off by an individual in less than 30 minutes, producing a 1 kilo ton yield. Such a device, set off in New York Harbor would produce a 15 to 20 foot wave that would destroy New York City. Other sources have confirmed that the number of suitcase bombs missing from the Soviet inventory is correct.

Now, how do we detect such a device coming into the U.S.? Weapons grade plutonium, 94% Pu-239 produces a 414 KeV gamma ray, detectable and identifiable by gamma spectroscopy. It also contains approximately 6% Pu-240 that undergoes spontaneous fission, producing neutrons that can be detected by neutron detectors. It also contains Am-241 that produces 60 KeV gamma rays, again detectable by gamma spectroscopy. The significant quantity of weapons grade Pu is about 8 kilograms. The physical size of 8 Kgm of Pu 239 is about the size of a baseball. (Try to find that in a sea/land container.)

Weapons grade uranium is approximately 93% U-235, producing a 186 KeV gamma ray detectable by gamma spectroscopy and 7% U-238, producing a 1001 KeV gamma ray from it's daughter Pa-234m, also detectable by gamma spectroscopy. The significant quantity is about 25 Kgm, a sphere about 7" in diameter. (Again, try to find that in a sea/land container.)

The radiological signature of any of the gamma emitters could easily be shielded by a few inches of lead or tungsten. Four or five inches of steel would effectively reduce the radiations to background. Think about putting it inside the cylinders of and engine in a car being imported!

So where could this material enter the U.S.? It could come in as Sea Cargo. The U.S. Customs has stated that only 2% of Sea Cargo is inspected. It could come in as Air Cargo. FedEx, UPS and USPS are not inspected! It could come across at border crossings. Only a few of the border inspectors are equipped with alarming dosimeters and even fewer are trained in how to use them. A nuclear device or special nuclear material could come in with luggage from commercial aviation, general aviation, cruse ships or by private car. Or, perhaps, by fishing boat or private yacht. As you can see, there are many ways for an enemy to get a device into the U.S. (There's more to this story of our porous borders that can't/shouldn't be shared publicly, but bottom line is, it's actually much worse and easier penetrated than stated here.) Incidentally, there are not enough instruments currently available for purchase to equip all of the ports of entry and it will take at least 2 more years to manufacture such instruments. They are also expensive, ranging in price from a killobuck or so for an alarming dosimeter to detect special nuclear material to more than $100,000 for a single installation to survey a sea/land container.

What is being done to protect us?

Thursday morning, June 6 (anniversary of D-day), 2002, President George W. Bush met with his Homeland Security Council and discussed a Department of Homeland Security (DHS). That evening he proposed that Congress establish a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The mission of the DHS would be to prevent terrorist attacks within the U.S., reduce America's vulnerability to terrorism and minimize the damage and recover from attacks that do occur. There would be four divisions of the Department. They would be Border and Transportation Security, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Countermeasures and Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection. The DHS would have approximately 169,000 employees and a budget of $37 billion.

Thus far the DHS has not been funded by Congress. Sleep well tonight!

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Wednesday, October 2, 2002

Does al-Qaida have
20 suitcase nukes?

Author claims bin Laden purchased them in '98 from ex-KGB agents for $30 million

Posted: October 2, 2002
1:00 a.m. Eastern

© 2002

A new book by an FBI consultant on international terrorism says Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network purchased 20 suitcase nuclear weapons from former KGB agents in 1998 for $30 million.

The book,"Al Qaeda: Brotherhood of Terror," by Paul L. Williams, also says this deal was one of at least three in the last decade in which al-Qaida purchased small nuclear weapons or weapons-grade nuclear uranium.

Williams says bin Laden's search for nuclear weapons began in 1988 when he hired a team of five nuclear scientists from Turkmenistan. These were former employees at the atomic reactor in Iraq before it was destroyed by Israel, Williams says. The team's project was the development of a nuclear reactor that could be used "to transform a very small amount of material that could be placed in a package smaller than a backpack."

"By 1990 bin Laden had hired hundreds of atomic scientists from the former Soviet Union for $2,000 a month – an amount far greater that their wages in the former Soviet republics," Williams writes. "They worked in a highly sophisticated and well-fortified laboratory in Kandahar, Afghanistan."

This work continued throughout the 1990s, the author says.

In 1993, according to the book, Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a bin Laden agent who turned into a Central Intelligence Agency source, purchased for al-Qaida a cylinder of weapons-grade uranium from a former Sudanese government minister who represented businessmen from South Africa. The purchase price was $1.5 million and the uranium was tested in Cyprus and transported to Afghanistan.

Al-Fadl reported that, at the time of this transfer, al-Qaida was already working on a deal for suitcase nukes developed for the KGB.

Williams says the Russian Mafia made another mysterious deal with "Afghani Arabs" in search of nuclear weapons in 1996. The Russians who sold the material now live in New York.

Then again in 1998, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim was arrested in Munich and charged with acting as an al-Qaida agent to purchase highly enriched uranium from a German laboratory.

That same year, according to Williams, bin Laden succeeded in buying the 20 suitcase nukes from Chechen Mafia figures, including former KGB agents. The $30 million deal was partly cash and partly heroin with a street value of $700 million.

"After the devices were obtained, they were placed in the hands of Arab nuclear scientists who, federal sources say, 'were probably trained at American universities,'" says Williams.

Though the devices were designed only to be operated by Soviet SPETZNAZ personnel, or special forces, al-Qaida scientists came up with a way of hot-wiring the bombs to the bodies of would-be martyrs, according to the book.

Suitcase nukes are not really suitcases at all, but suitcase-size nuclear devices. The weapons can be fired from grenade or rocket launchers or detonated by timers. A bomb placed in the center of a metropolitan area would be capable of instantly killing hundreds of thousands and exposing millions of others to lethal radiation.

Yossef Bodansky, author of "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America" and the U.S. Congress' top terrorism expert, concurs that bin Laden has already succeeded in purchasing suitcase nukes. Former Russian security chief Alexander Lebed also testified to Congress that 40 nuclear suitcases disappeared from the Russian arsenal after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Williams quotes an anonymous federal official as saying: "The question isn't whether bin Laden has nuclear weapons, it's when he will try to use them."

In addition to the suitcase nukes, Williams reports that al-Qaida has also obtained chemical weapons from North Korea and Iraq. Williams says the FBI confirmed to him that Saddam Hussein provided bin Laden with a "gift" of anthrax spores.

Williams says al-Qaida also includes in its arsenal plague viruses, including ebola and salmonella, from the former Soviet Union and Iraq, samples of botulism biotoxin from the Czech Republic, and sarin from Iraq and North Korea.

"Al Qaeda: Brotherhood of Terror" is available now in the WorldNetDaily online store.

Fears Prompt U.S. to Beef Up Nuclear Terror Detection
Sensors Deployed Near D.C., Borders; Delta Force on Standby

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 3, 2002; Page A01

Alarmed by growing hints of al Qaeda's progress toward obtaining a nuclear or radiological weapon, the Bush administration has deployed hundreds of sophisticated sensors since November to U.S. borders, overseas facilities and choke points around Washington. It has placed the Delta Force, the nation's elite commando unit, on a new standby alert to seize control of nuclear materials that the sensors may detect.

Ordinary Geiger counters, worn on belt clips and resembling pagers, have been in use by the U.S. Customs Service for years. The newer devices are called gamma ray and neutron flux detectors. Until now they were carried only by mobile Nuclear Emergency Search Teams (NEST) dispatched when extortionists claimed to have radioactive materials. Because terrorists would give no such warning, and because NEST scientists are unequipped for combat, the Delta Force has been assigned the mission of killing or disabling anyone with a suspected nuclear device and turning it over to the scientists to be disarmed.

The new radiation sensors are emplaced in layers around some fixed points and temporarily at designated "national security special events" such as last month's Olympic Games in Utah. Allied countries, including Saudi Arabia, have also rushed new detectors to their borders after American intelligence warnings. To address the technological limits of even the best current sensors, the Bush administration has ordered a crash program to build next-generation devices at the three national nuclear laboratories.

These steps join several other signs, described in recent interviews with U.S. government policymakers, that the Bush administration's nuclear anxieties have intensified since American-backed forces routed Osama bin Laden's network and its Taliban backers in Afghanistan.

"Clearly . . . the sense of urgency has gone up," said a senior government policymaker on nuclear, biological and chemical terror. Another high-ranking official said, "The more you gather information, the more our concerns increased about al Qaeda's focus on weapons of mass destruction of all kinds."

In "tabletop exercises" conducted as high as Cabinet level, President Bush's national security team has highlighted difficult choices the chief executive would face if the new sensors picked up a radiation signature on a boat steaming up the Potomac River or a truck heading for the capital on Interstate 95.

Participants in those exercises said the gaps in their knowledge are considerable. But the intelligence community, they said, believes that al Qaeda could already control a stolen Soviet-era tactical nuclear warhead or enough weapons-grade material to fashion a functioning, if less efficient, atomic bomb.

Even before more recent discoveries, some analysts regarded that prospect as substantial. Some expressed that view when the intelligence community devoted a full-day retreat to the subject early last year in Chantilly, Va., according to someone with firsthand knowledge.

A majority of those present assessed the likelihood as negligible, but none of the more than 50 participants ruled it out.

The consensus government view is now that al Qaeda probably has acquired the lower-level radionuclides strontium 90 and cesium 137, many thefts of which have been documented in recent years. These materials cannot produce a nuclear detonation, but they are radioactive contaminants. Conventional explosives could scatter them in what is known as a radiological dispersion device, colloquially called a "dirty bomb."

The number of deaths that might result is hard to predict but probably would be modest. One senior government specialist said "its impact as a weapon of psychological terror" would be far greater.

These heightened U.S. government fears explain Bush's activation, the first since the dawn of the nuclear age, of contingency plans to maintain a cadre of senior federal managers in underground bunkers away from Washington. The Washington Post described the features of the classified "Continuity of Operations Plan" on Friday.

Bush's emphasis on nuclear terrorism dates from a briefing in the Situation Room during the last week of October.

According to knowledgeable sources, Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet walked the president through an accumulation of fresh evidence about al Qaeda's nuclear ambition. Described by one consumer of intelligence as "an incomplete mosaic" of fact, inference and potentially false leads, Tenet's briefing raised fears that "sent the president through the roof." With considerable emotion, two officials said, Bush ordered his national security team to give nuclear terrorism priority over every other threat to the United States.

Tenet told Bush that Pakistan's nuclear weapons program was more deeply compromised than either government has acknowledged publicly. Pakistan arrested two former nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majid, on Oct. 23, and interrogated them about contacts with bin Laden and his lieutenants.

Pakistani officials maintain that the scientists did not pass important secrets to al Qaeda, but they have not disclosed that Mahmood failed multiple polygraph examinations about his activities.

Most disturbing to U.S. intelligence was another leak from Pakistan's program that has not been mentioned in public. According to American sources, a third Pakistani nuclear scientist tried to negotiate the sale of an atomic weapon design to Libya. The Post was unable to learn which Pakistani blueprint was involved, whether the transaction was completed, or what became of the scientist after discovery. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is believed to include bombs of relatively simple design, built around cores of highly enriched uranium, and more sophisticated weapons employing Chinese implosion technology to compress plutonium to a critical mass.

At the October briefing, Bush learned of a remark by a senior member of al Qaeda's operational command. The operative had been an accurate, though imprecise, harbinger of al Qaeda plans in the past.

After U.S. bombing began in Afghanistan, an American official said, the same man was reliably reported to have said "there will be another attack and it's going to be much bigger" than the one that toppled the World Trade Center and destroyed a wing of the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

"What the hell did that mean?" the official said, recalling the stunned reaction of those briefed on the remark. Other reports reaching Washington described al Qaeda references to obtaining, or having obtained, special weapons. "The benign explanation is bucking up the troops" with false bravado, the official said, but the Bush administration took the report "extremely seriously."

Searches of al Qaeda sites in Afghanistan, undertaken since American-backed forces took control there, are not known to have turned up a significant cache of nuclear materials.

The New York Times reported that U.S. personnel in Afghanistan sent three suspected samples to American labs for analysis but found no significant radioactive source.

There is evidence that some of al Qaeda's nuclear efforts over the years met with swindles and false leads. In one case, officials said, the organization was taken in by scam artists selling "red mercury," a phony substance they described as a precursor, or ingredient, of weapons-grade materials.

If al Qaeda has a weapon or its components, U.S. officials said, its whereabouts would be the organization's most closely guarded secret. Addressing the failure of American searchers to find such materials in abandoned Afghan camps, one policymaker noted that "we haven't found most of the al Qaeda leadership either, and we know that exists."

The likeliest source of nuclear materials, or of a warhead bought whole, is the vast complex of weapons labs and storage sites that began to crumble with the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia has decommissioned some 10,000 tactical nuclear weapons since then, but it has been able to document only a fraction of the inventory.

The National Intelligence Council, an umbrella organization for the U.S. analytical community, reported to Congress last month that there are at least four occasions between 1992 and 1999 when "weapons-grade and weapons-usable nuclear materials have been stolen from some Russian institutes."

Of those thefts, the report said, "We assess that undetected smuggling has occurred, although we do not know the extent or magnitude."

Victor Yerastov, chief of nuclear accounting and control for Russia's ministry of atomic energy, has said that in 1998 a theft in Chelyabinsk Oblast made off with "quite sufficient material to produce an atomic bomb."

An American official, commenting on that theft, said that "given the known and suspected capabilities of the Russian mafia, it's perfectly plausible that al Qaeda would have access to such materials." The official added, "They could get it from anybody they could bribe."

Col. Gen. Igor Valynkin, chief of the Russian organization responsible for safeguarding nuclear weapons, said on Oct. 27 that any claim Russia has lost an intact warhead is "barking mad."

The U.S. government is not accepting that assurance at face value. "We don't know with any confidence what has gone missing, and neither do they," said one American official.

Thefts of less threatening nuclear byproducts, especially isotopes of strontium, cesium and partially enriched uranium, have been reported more frequently. In November 1995, Chechen rebels placed a functioning "dirty bomb" using dynamite and cesium 137 in Moscow's Izmailovo park. They did not detonate it. Al Qaeda is closely aligned with the Chechens.

There are limits, "governed by the laws of physics," as one official put it, to American technology for detecting these materials. In broad terms they have to do with sensing radioactivity at a distance and through shielding, and with the balance between false positives and false negatives. There are classified Energy Department documents that catalogue what one of them called "shortcomings in the ability of NEST equipment to locate the target materials which if known by adversaries could be used to defeat the search equipment and/or procedures." The Post has agreed to publish no further details.

A division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, known as NIS-6, is leading efforts to build an improved generation of sensors. Some will use neutron generators to "interrogate" a suspected object, and others are planned for long-range detection of alpha particles.

A measure of the government's grave concern is the time devoted by top national security officials to developing options for a crisis involving nuclear terrorism.

One hypothetical scenario, participants said, began with a sensor detecting what appeared to be the radiation signature of a nuclear weapon amid a large volume of traffic on a highway such as I-95.

According to two participants, the group considered how the Energy Department's NEST teams, working with Delta Force, might find and take control of the weapon without giving a terrorist time to use it.

Roadblocks and car-by-car searches, for example, would create chaos, require hours, and give ample warning to those hiding the device. But without roadblocks the searchers might fail to isolate the weapon within a radius defined by the limits of sensor technology. If commandos found the device, they could expect to encounter resistance. Would the president delegate to on-scene commanders a decision that might result in nuclear detonation? Which officials, meanwhile, should be evacuated? Would government inform the public of the threat, a step that would wreak panic without precedent in any country and complicate the job of finding the weapon?

"Evacuation is one of those issues you throw your hands up and say, 'It's too hard,' " said one participant in a tabletop exercise. "Nobody wants to make that decision, certainly not in advance."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

U.S. Customs chief raises nuke threat on containers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Customs Service, in announcing a new security initiative, on Thursday raised the specter of a nuclear bomb being shipped to and detonated in a United States seaport. "Of greater concern are the possibilities that international terrorists such as al Qaeda could smuggle a crude nuclear device in one of the more than 50,000 (shipping) containers that arrive in the U.S. each day. One can only imagine the devastation of a small nuclear explosion at one of our seaports," said Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner in a speech prepared for delivery at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Bonner raised the concern in announcing a new container security initiative intended to enable officials to have more data on what's in international shipping containers and enhance the ability of the United States to stop suspicious containers before they arrive at an American seaport.

"First and foremost, we concentrate our efforts on the 'mega-ports' of the world -- the largest container ports -- and specifically those ports that send the highest volumes of container traffic into the United States," Bonner said.

Bonner said the top 10 international ports account for almost half of all the container traffic coming into the United States. One idea, he said, is to have the latest X-ray machines and radiation detectors at foreign "mega-ports" to catch worrisome containers on the outbound trip.

He said the idea of delivering a nuclear device by container to the United States was "by no means far-fetched" and said Italian authorities in October had found an al Qaeda operative bound for Canada in a container outfitted with a bed and bathroom.

Aside from the human toll, Bonner also said a nuclear attack via a shipping container would also exact a huge cost economically.

"The detonation of a nuclear device smuggled by way of a sea container would have a far greater impact upon global trade and the global economy. Even a two-week shutdown of global sea container traffic would be devastating, costing billions," he said.

Uranium Found at bin Laden Base Wires
Monday, Dec. 24, 2001
LONDON -- Uranium and cyanide have reportedly been discovered in drums at an al-Qaeda terrorist base near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

The discovery -- the first evidence that suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden had obtained materials for a nuclear arsenal -- was confirmed by U.S. officials, the London Telegraph said.

The cache included a low-grade uranium which could be used to make a so-called "dirty bomb," or a crude radiological device wrapped around a conventional explosive. Such a bomb is designed to spread radiation over a large area after exploding.

The suspicious substances were found in tunnels at the edge of an air base controlled by U.S. forces.

Marine Corps Capt. David Romley said that he "cannot deny" that uranium had been found at the airport, USA TODAY reported.

"We are aware that there are CBR (chemical-biological-radioactive)-type environments in the region," he said.

USA TODAY quoted one U.S. official as saying some depleted uranium was found recently, but that the material did not appear to be dangerous and that it isn't clear whether Sunday's claim involves the same discovery. Other U.S. officials said they knew of no discoveries of any radioactive materials anywhere in the country.

Haji Gullalai, the interim intelligence chief for Kandahar province, told The Telegraph that after capturing the airport area earlier this month, his men discovered the materials in the tunnels.

"There were big drums the size of petrol drums and metal boxes with sides seven or eight inches thick," he said.

"The bottles were labeled in four different languages -- Chinese, Russian, Arabic and English."

The Telegraph quoted U.S. officials as saying that Russia, the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, China and Pakistan were all possible sources for the uranium.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
All rights reserved.

New US Terror Alert Linked to Nuke Fear
December 5, 2001; Page A01

One factor in the third general terror alert raised in the United States since September 11 relates, according to US media, to intelligence information indicating that the former Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden has gained possession of a so-called dirty or radiological bomb. The target date referred to in electronic intercepts is mid-December. It has also been suggested that such weapons may have been smuggled into the United States. 

On October 12, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported from its intelligence sources that Bin Laden had almost certainly procured a supply of uranium-235 six months before the September 11 suicide attacks. The uranium was believed to have reached him in a multimillion deal with a Ukrainian-born mobster called Semion Mogilevich.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly came back to the subject more recently on November 30, in another exclusive report: Radiation Poisoning Betrays Mule

In the first week of October, a Pakistani arrested on immigration charges in the course of the FBI investigation into the September 11 suicide attacks, complained of bleeding gums and pain, symptoms of gingivitis. He was treated with antibiotics, but was found dead in his cell in Hudson Count jail in Kearny, New Jersey, three weeks later. 

The cause of death was not released, any more than the dead man's identity. 

DEBKA-Net-Weekly's medical experts note that the bleeding gums the anonymous Pakistani was treated for are a symptom of radiation poisoning, suggesting he might have been a "mule" transporting nuclear materials or devices into America. (A subsequent investigation revealed that he had contracted gingivitis as a result of radiation-induced leukemia.)

This explanation would imply that more than one such carrier is employed by al Qaeda to smuggle nuclear materials or devices into the United States, Western Europe and the Middle East, their mission being to plant their deadly burdens in pre-arranged secret locations, ready for activation. 

At roughly the same time, another Pakistani was detained at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan to Israel. According to initial published reports, he was caught trying to smuggle in a "dirty" nuclear device (a conventional explosive mixed with nuclear materials that spreads radiation). 

Then came the news blackout. 

An exhaustive DEBKA-Net-Weekly investigation revealed that the arrested intruder carried no nuclear device. However, he suffered the same symptoms as the man who died in Hudson Jail, New Jersey, indicating he had been exposed to dangerous doses of radiation. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources reveal that Israel has recently installed hidden Geiger counters in the battery of detectors at its international border crossings. The counter pointed border officials to the suspected "mule", who most probably reached Jordan from Abu Dhabi. 

Israel handed him over to the United States, but was left asking itself: What exactly was the Pakistani's mission? And have other members of the mule pack managed to gain entry?

Pakistanis Abet bin Laden's 'Dirty Nuke'

Arnaud De Borchgrave Wires

Friday, Dec. 7, 2001
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani nuclear scientists, in collaboration with former Pakistani intelligence officers, were assisting Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization in developing a "dirty" nuclear weapons capability, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies concluded, United Press International learned Thursday.

Speaking not for attribution, intelligence officers in Washington and Islamabad are convinced documents uncovered in Kabul and the interrogation of nuclear scientists, who were frequent visitors to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan ostensibly involved in humanitarian work, are conclusive evidence al-Qaeda was trying to put together a "nuclear device in the 'dirty-bomb' category."

One Pakistani general who has seen the evidence described the device as a "dirty nuclear weapon," i.e., radioactive materials wrapped around conventional explosives. He also believes bin Laden obtained such materials on Russia's nuclear black market.

The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria is aware of 175 cases of trafficking in nuclear materials since 1993, including 18 that involved highly enriched uranium and plutonium pellets the size of a U.S. silver dollar.

18 Million Chances

There are 18 million potential delivery vehicles to covertly introduce a nuclear device in the United States. That's the number of cargo containers that arrive in the United States annually. Only 3 percent of them are inspected by U.S. Customs, and bills of lading do not have to be produced until they arrive at their final destination.

Radioactivity is invisible, as was the case with the Chernobyl disaster in 1985, but not undetectable. There is no way of knowing the future impact on people exposed, although prolonged radiation exposure can cause genetic alterations resulting in birth defects, health problems and even death. Because most of the long-term effects of radiation are unknown, "dirty" nuclear devices are more weapons of mass disruption than mass destruction.

An unidentified former chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency is believed to be the man who coordinated bin Laden's nuclear ambitions. One local intelligence source speculated a dirty bomb could have been smuggled out before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. It would have been transported in a truck all the way to Karachi, in southern Pakistan and then shipped in a cargo container.

That could be the weapon Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar was referring to when he said after the U.S. bombing started Oct. 7 that America would soon have to face extinction. Allowing for hyperbole, he may have known what bin Laden was planning next.

Another ex-ISI chief, retired Gen. Hameed Gul, predicted to UPI after Sept. 11 that one day there would be a single Islamic state stretching from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and it would have nuclear weapons and control the oil resources of the Persian Gulf.

The general is an ISI legend and still popular among the agency's leaders, who were his junior officers in the late 1980s. Gul is vehemently anti-American and a Muslim fundamentalist. He acts as "strategic adviser" to Pakistan's extremist religious parties and spent two weeks in Afghanistan immediately before Sept. 11.

It's Not Over

Gul slowly is emerging as the spokesman for the combined opposition of Islamist fundamentalists. In Thursday's Urdu-language newspapers, he is quoted as saying: "No one can tell us how to run our nuclear facilities and nuclear programs. This is being done in the interest of Pakistan, not the United States. The Taliban will always remain in Afghanistan, and Pakistan will always support them."

He presumably was referring to Taliban intentions to launch a guerrilla campaign once it had lost Kandahar, its last outpost.

Gul's only daughter runs VARAN, the public transportation bus company that enjoys a monopoly in Islamabad and its twin military garrison city of Rawalpindi. Gul himself lives in "Pindi" in an army housing development for retired generals.

Officially, the Pakistani government has accepted the explanation of three nuclear scientists about their "innocuous" relationship to Taliban. Privately, however, some Pakistani officials, working closely with U.S. colleagues, told UPI their activities "cannot be described as innocuous by any stretch of the imagination."

CIA Director George Tenet, on a brief visit to Islamabad last weekend, conferred with President Pervez Musharraf on what was described as the need for "more and better intelligence" from ISI.

The CIA has reportedly submitted a list of six more nuclear scientists it wants to probe on suspicion of having links with al-Qaeda. Two of the six - Dr. Suleiman Asad and Dr. Muhammad Ali Muktar - have been working in Kahora Research Laboratories. They are in Myanmar (Burma) doing undisclosed research with Burmese scientists.

Dr. Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmud, the former director of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, and Chief Engineer Dr. Chaudry Abdul Majeed have been questioned by a joint FBI-ISI team.

Apparently anxious to avoid further U.S. probes into Pakistan's ultra-secret nuclear weapons program, these two scientists have been advised by the government to remain in Myanmar until further notice.

The CIA, according to PAEC sources, wishes to conduct a separate interrogation based on documents seized in Kabul. Mahmud is a close associate of Gul. They were colleagues when Gul ran ISI.

Mahmud is one of three scientists who befriended Taliban leaders. He is an expert in enriched uranium and plutonium. He has lectured all over Pakistan and praised the Taliban as "the wave of the future for Pakistan."

Mahmud and two of his colleagues were detained in late October as a result of U.S. questions about Pakistani "relief" organizations active in Taliban-run Afghanistan, including an agricultural project near Kandahar.

Spreading Plutonium to Other Muslims

They admitted to meeting with al-Qaeda associates of bin Laden and were officially cleared of passing on nuclear secrets. Mahmud says publicly that plutonium production is not a state secret and advocates increasing plutonium output to help other Islamic nations build nuclear weapons.

After the start of the U.S. bombing campaign Oct. 7, Musharraf ordered an immediate redeployment of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to six new secret locations, including separate storage facilities for uranium and plutonium cores and their detonation mechanisms. Army colleagues now say privately Musharraf was fearful of assassination by extremists who were already accusing him of betraying Islam and selling out to the United States. There also were rumors of a coup by hard-lining military Islamists.

The officer corps is 20 percent fundamentalist, according to a post Sept. 11 confidential survey by military intelligence, which operates separately from ISI.

Pakistan's nuclear scientists are known as "profoundly fundamentalist" and anti-American. They are particularly resentful of America's economic and military sanctions against Pakistan as punishment for their country's nuclear weapons program.

Their guru is Abdul Qadir Khan, the scientist who devised Pakistan's first nuclear weapon. Pakistan now has an estimated 20 such weapons in its arsenal.

ISI is still widely distrusted by western intelligence agencies and by all levels of Pakistani society, from people in the street to top political leaders. An ISI general who is regional director in one of the tribal areas told an important tribal leader known to this reporter: "After Afghanistan, Pakistan is next on America's list of countries to be conquered, and after Pakistan, Iran will be next. All that war talk about Iraq being next is just a smokescreen."

The tribal leader said "such silly statements are typical of the Islamist state of paranoia." Gul has been touring federally administered tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan with much the same message about Washington's plans for conquest in the region.

ISI is undergoing a traumatic shock in the wake of the Taliban's defeat, according to knowledgeable secular political party leaders.

"They have lost thousands of operatives in Afghanistan," said one key politician who did not wish to be named. ISI also facilitated the transfer to Afghanistan in the past two months of thousands of young religious school students who had been proselytized by their clerical teachers to volunteer to fight with Taliban.

Musharraf had a dangerous precedent in mind. Six years ago, a group of Pakistani army officers was arrested for plotting to kill Army Chief of Staff Gen. Abdul Waheed. He had fired the ISI chief for secretly assisting Muslim rebels in several countries.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

All rights reserved.

Do Terrorists Really Have Nukes Here?

Loose nukes

Enough nuclear material is missing worldwide to make a 'dirty' bomb.

Where is it? What is being done to prevent its use by terrorists?

By Peter Grier | Staff writer - Dec 05, 2001 edition

Jamal Ahmad Al-Fadl said his role in the prospective purchase of nuclear material began with a call from a senior Al Qaeda official. A man in Khartoum, Sudan, supposedly had uranium for sale. At the time, Mr. al-Fadl was an operative in Al Qaeda's terrorist army. His job: Check out the deal. So in late 1993 or early 1994, he met with the first contact, then another, and then another, like a job applicant passing through corporate departments. Along the way, he noticed that at least one of them appeared to have been high in the Sudanese government at some point. Finally, one morning al-Fadl drove with two men to a house north of the city. They disappeared for a moment, and then came back with a large bag, from which they pulled a cylinder two or three feet tall. They handed him a piece of paper covered with English words al-Fadl couldn't read. He recognized one phrase: "South Africa."

The demonstration phase of the sales pitch over, al-Fadl and his contacts returned to Khartoum in their jeep. He took the paper to an Al Qaeda boss. Osama bin Laden's operatives were impressed, or at least satisfied. They told Al-Fadl to pass the word that they would pay the cylinder's $1.5 million asking price. Then they gave him $10,000 and took over the deal themselves. "You did great job, we going to check it, and everything be fine," Al-Fadl said he was told. This story of nuclear shopping was offered as an aside by Al-Fadl during his testimony earlier this year in the trial of Al Qaeda associates accused of bombing US embassies in East Africa in 1998. Is it a tall tale? Maybe. Al-Fadl, a self-described Al Qaeda turncoat, is far from an unimpeachable source. Al-Fadl also said he didn't know whether this transaction ever went through. The "uranium" in the cylinder might have been a worthless prop in a radiological scam.

But its details ring true to many nuclear experts. And the larger point is indisputable: The shadow army of terrorism, the force responsible for the deadliest day on American soil since Antietam, is trying, methodically, patiently, to acquire the most powerful weapon known to man.

The US and its allies have known that intellectually for a long time. But after seeing jetliners turned into cruise missiles, perhaps the West better understands what that really means. Among Sept. 11's effects may be a phase-shift in imaginations. Few can doubt that if Mohammad Atta had access to a nuclear bomb, he would have used it.

Once throw-weights and basing modes and other aspects of strategic weaponry were the crucial issues of US nuclear security. Now patching the holes in Russia's makeshift fissile material protections may be more important. Does bin Laden have the bomb? Is Iraq enriching uranium? How secure are Pakistan's nukes?

"And so we find ourselves, at the dawn of the new century, in a new arms race," said former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia in a recent speech. "Terrorists are racing to get weapons of mass destruction. We ought to be racing to stop them."

New terrorists, new lapses

The old expert consensus used to be that terrorist groups were not terribly serious about getting nuclear weapons. They might try chemical or biological attack, but not nukes: They are highly dangerous, extremely expensive, and difficult to acquire. And their horror would overwhelm the essentially political nature of terrorist acts. Through history, most terrorists have wanted to maxi- mize publicity - not casualties.

That judgment had already begun to change before the events of this fall. The rise of a new generation of terrorists, their goals unclear, their commitment total, their address unknown, saw to that.

A state such as Iraq is dangerous enough. But at least the US has some understanding of its weapons programs. A nation has assets and infrastructure that presumably even a leader such as Saddam Hussein might be loath to expose to US retaliatory attack.

Al Qaeda and its ilk are different. "The problem is, we can't target them like states," says Kimberly McCloud, a researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Then add new opportunity to this equation. It's possible that South Africa could be the source of weapons material. Pakistan might be a proliferation danger, too, considering it is a nuclear-capable state with long-standing Taliban ties.

But it is Russia and the former republics of the Soviet Union that are the "Home Depot" of fissile material, in the words of one expert. The collapse of the Soviet Union threw its nuclear programs into a chaos from which they have yet to completely recover.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the closed cities where the USSR's nuclear weapons were produced changed from islands of prosperity to sinkholes of poverty. The human misery this created - especially in the early years - led some scientists to attempt desperate actions. In 1992, a large group of ballistic-missile experts from the closed city of Miass tried to reach North Korea, apparently to work in Pyongyang's intercontinental-ballistic- missile projects. Authorities caught them as they sat in a plane at Moscow's Sheremetievo-2 airport, waiting to take off. Russian authorities insist that their estimated 30,000 actual nuclear warheads have remained under adequate control at all times. But the same cannot be said for its military and civilian fissile material.

Over decades, the Soviet Union produced enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium to produce some 70,000 nuclear weapons. This was scattered at perhaps 100 sites throughout the territory of the former USSR. In the early '90s, some research sites were protected by nothing but padlocks and weeds. Dedicated scientists at times had to improvise defenses. When civil war broke out in the former republic of Georgia in 1992, scientists at one institute in Tbilisi took turns guarding 10 kilograms of weapons-grade HEU with sticks and garden rakes.

Much of this material was later moved to Britain for safekeeping. A cache of similar uranium elsewhere in the former republic met a different fate. In 1993, scientists at the Sukhumi research center in the Abkhazia region of Georgia piled cinder blocks around a building containing 2 kilograms of HEU, and fled oncoming fighting. A Russian team entered the abandoned building four years later, and found the material gone.

The Abkhazia affair remains the only confirmed case of missing weapons- grade fissile material in the world. To this day, no one knows where this HEU is. "It may be in the hands of the Abkhaz separatists, or it may have been stolen by or sold to others," says Matthew Bunn, of Harvard's Project on Managing the Atom.

Overall, there have been 14 confirmed, significant cases of trafficking in fissile material from the former Soviet Union, according to the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

The good news is that most of the cases date to the early and mid-'90s, before Russia stabilized and a US effort to help guard its material took off. The bad news is that there may be more significant cases the world doesn't know about. Most of the confirmed incidents took place in Europe or what used to be the western USSR. Yet a glance at a map shows that southern Russia, and the former republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc., are the logical place for a Middle Eastern group such as Al Qaeda to go nuke shopping.

The US has been involved in cooperative programs with Russia to control its loose nuclear weapons and material for years. Since 1991, US money has paid for the deactivation of more than 5,000 Russian nuclear warheads. It has provided security equipment for dozens of facilities, helped construct a secure storage facility for fissile material, and paid for science and technology centers intended to provide ex-weapons scientists the means to work on civilian research.

"These programs have made tremendous progress," notes Jon Wolfsthal, an associate in the non-proliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But much more may need to be done. Almost half of Russia's fissile material is stored in facilities that have not received US-funded protection upgrades. Russia continues to add to its stockpile of plutonium - not for military purposes, but because the reactors that produce the material also produce desperately needed electricity.

Earlier this year, a Department of Energy advisory group headed by former US Sen. Howard Baker and former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler surveyed the US effort - and found it wanting. The programs need a broader mandate, and they need more money, concluded the group.

"The most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen or sold to terrorists or hostile nation-states," concluded the Baker/Cutler study.

That was written before Sept. 11.

Al Qaeda and the black market

There is one point about Al Qaeda's nuclear program on which most experts agree: It does not yet have an actual atomic weapon. If it did, the chances are it would have exploded by now. It's less certain whether the group has any radioactive material at all. Al Qaeda has been a player in fissile-material markets for years, according to intelligence reports. In the early '90s, it allegedly scoured Kazakhstan for USSR-era material, in the belief that the high percentage of Muslims in this former Soviet republic might open doors. Apparently, the group came up empty. Since then, Al Qaeda may have been snared by its share of scams. They were dealing, after all, in a back alley of world commerce that makes drug- dealing look both honest and inexpensive.

At least once, Al Qaeda operatives have been offered low-grade uranium reactor fuel unsuitable for weapons use without further enrichment. Along with other potential buyers, Al Qaeda also may have fallen for the widespread "red mercury" fraud. Clever criminals pitch this element as a crucial component of the Soviet weapons program.

"In the case of Al Qaida, the 'red mercury' turned out to be radioactive rubbish," concluded Gavin Cameron, a professor of politics at Britain's University of Salford, in a paper on terrorist nuclear-proliferation activities. Al Qaeda may have been gullible, but at least the group was subtle. Contrast their approach with that of the apocalyptic Japanese religious group Aum Shinrikyo, whose members were responsible for the release of sarin nerve gas in five Tokyo subway trains on March 20, 1995.

In the early 1990s, Aum actively recruited adherents from Russia's nuclear design facilities, as well as student physicists from Moscow State University. It purchased property in Australia from which it planned to mine natural uranium for enrichment - an arduous task beyond the resources of most nations. In 1993, Aum representatives sought a meeting with then-Russian Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov for the express purpose of discussing the purchase of a nuclear warhead. (The meeting was denied.)

Enough nuclear material is missing worldwide to make a 'dirty' bomb. Where is it? What is being done to prevent its use by terrorists?

But Al Qaeda's and Aum Shinrikyo's nuclear dealings share at least two similarities that experts find worrisome. One is ample funding. At the height of its influence, Aum had an estimated net worth of $1 billion, obtained largely from co-opting the assets of its members. Al Qaeda's operations have bin Laden's personal fortune - inherited from his construction-magnate father - as seed funds.

The second similarity is persistence. Following Aum's path, Al Qaeda has apparently mounted a multinational, many-leveled effort to enter the nuclear club. In recent years, there has been a steady trickle of reports from experts in Europe and the Middle East who say they have been contacted by bin Laden associates and asked for help obtaining fissile material.

Last year, a Bulgarian businessman said he had met bin Laden himself, and had been offered a role in a complex deal to transship nuclear waste to Afghanistan via Bulgaria. This month, Gul Nazir, head of organic chemistry at Kabul University, said he had turned down offers from Taliban delegations to provide substances that could be used to help make chemical weapons and mine uranium.

Then there's the curious case of Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood. An architect of Pakistan's nuclear program, he has traveled back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years, allegedly to advise the Taliban on the construction of food-processing plants.

At least one expert believes a radiological attack of a sort was part of Al Qaeda's original plan for Sept. 11. In a speech delivered to a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in early November, Mr. Cameron of the University of Salford said that it is likely that the target of the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 was a US nuclear facility.

The hijackers' intentions are essentially unknowable, he admits, because they were stormed by heroic passengers, leading to the plane's crash in rural Pennsylvania. But the plane made a sharp turn near the Pittsburgh area, and rapidly lost height, before the passengers acted. Combined with unspecific FBI warnings about threats to power plants, this evidence may point to the terrorists' intended destination.

"It now appears that one of three nuclear reactors in southern Pennsylvania - Three Mile Island, Peach Bottom, or Hope Creek, Salem - may have been the real target," Cameron told the IAEA.

When scientists conspire

On Dec. 18, 1998, an official of Russia's successor agency to the KGB, the Federal Security Service (FSB), said that agents under his command had broken up a conspiracy by employees of a major nuclear facility in the Chelyabinsk region to steal 18.5 kilograms of weapons-usable material. If it had gone through, the theft would have caused "significant damage to the [Russian] state," local media quoted FSB Maj. Gen. Valeriy Tretyakov as saying.

In the US, experts reeled.

Chelyabinsk is home to some of Russia's most important nuclear facilities, including a nuclear-weapons assembly and disassembly plant at Trekhgorny, and a weapons-design lab at Snezhinsk. If a group of insiders at one of these sensitive sites had decided to steal fissile material - well, that would be a highly serious matter. Furthermore, the material involved was apparently not some useless radioactive slurry. It was weapons-usable - meaning 18.5 kilograms might be enough to make an entire nuclear weapon.

This incident is not included on most lists of the most important nuclear trafficking incidents, for the simple reason that it was quashed in its initial phases. But it remains one of the most troubling apparent cases of attempted proliferation of all - because it matches almost exactly the US nightmare scenario for a fissile-material theft.

It wasn't ancient history. It occurred in 1998, after many facilities in the region had received US money for protection upgrades. It involved lots of stuff. And it involved a conspiracy of the knowledgeable.

"Multiple insiders are the hardest thing for any security system to address," says Mr. Bunn of the Managing the Atom project. Consider the ramifications. Russia has a "three-man rule" in regard to its nuclear weapons. Individuals are forbidden from working alone on warheads, as are twosomes.

But if two scientists are in cahoots, they might be able to overpower the third. To guard against this, security might have to institute a four-man, or even five-man rule. Perimeter guards might need to be doubled. The cost and complexity of protection systems escalates exponentially.

And what would be the genesis of such a conspiracy? Perhaps a group of disillusioned scientists or guards would try such a thing on their own, but that may be unlikely, given the difficulties of marketing the stuff. It's more likely that such a theft might come in response to an enticing overture. Such as Saddam Hussein, perhaps, offering enough money for everyone in the group to buy a South Seas island.

"What I worry about is state intelligence agencies contacting these people," says Scott Parrish, an analyst at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute.

If the Chelyabinsk conspiracy is the No. 1 worrisome incidence of potential trafficking in nuclear material, the Prague seizure might be judged No. 2. In December 1994, an anonymous tip led Czech police to a marked car. In it, they found 2.7 kilograms of HEU enriched to 87.7 percent. The amount and purity of the recovered material was highly troubling. Worse, in two instances in 1995, Czech authorities recovered small amounts of additional HEU that appeared to be from the same source.

This suggests that there is a stock of weapons-grade HEU out there, of unknown quantity, in unknown hands. New worries about so-called "dirty bombs," conventional explosives used to spread deadly radioactive material over a wide area, are also making some incidents of trafficking seem important in retrospect.

Earlier this year, for instance, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported the seizure of 5 kilograms of cesium 137 from Chechen rebels, who were allegedly loading the material into mortar shells. Most experts do not consider this incident confirmed, but the Chechens have threatened to use radiological material before. And cesium 137 is nasty stuff. Its radiation was the cause of many of the fatalities associated with the Soviet-era explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant.

In fact, once worries about dirty bombs multiply, the potential sources of dangerous material rapidly multiply as well. Radioactive material is used in many medical and industrial applications. Eastern Europe and the nations of the former Soviet Union even used trace amounts of plutonium in smoke detectors. "I used to joke that if Saddam Hussein placed an order in Russia for 500 million smoke detectors, we should get worried," says Dr. Parrish of the Monterey Institute.

What the U.S. is doing

Preventing a nuclear terrorist attack on the US will require a comprehensive effort far into the future, say US officials. It will be one part - arguably the most important part - of the overall commitment to homeland defense. More narrowly, it may necessitate redoubled cooperation with the most likely source of loose nukes in the world: Russia. Warming relations between President Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, today offer a window of opportunity for such an intensification, say its advocates.

There is a decent foundation of mutual effort to build on. Initiated by Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia in 1991, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program has grown into a $1 billion-plus effort overseen on the US side by the Departments of Energy, State, and Defense.

"These programs have achieved impressive results for a relatively minor investment," says Stephen LaMontagne, a nuclear analyst at the Council for a Livable World Education Fund.

CTR funds pay for the destruction and dismantling of Russian ballistic missiles and submarines, for instance. Last year, $57 million of US funds went toward completion of the first wing of the Mayak Fissile Material Storage Facility, which will ultimately have the capacity to protect 6,250 dismantled warheads.

The Department of Energy's Material Protection, Control, and Accounting program has so far improved physical security at 13 Russian Navy nuclear sites and 24 civilian nuclear installations. But there are some 58 more Russian nuclear sites that need security upgrades, according to DOE figures. A program to blend HEU down into less dangerous civilian reactor fuel is moving slowly. Efforts to replace three Russian nuclear reactors that produce both desperately needed energy and plutonium have stalled in a swirl of politics.

And the Bush administration, in its first crack at drawing up a national- security budget, has slashed the funding of much of the non-proliferation effort. Bush's budget took $100 million out of the Department of Energy's side of the effort, alone. The needs, according to the Secretary of Energy's advisory board task force headed by Mr. Baker and Mr. Cutler, include: a real strategic plan; a high-level position within the White House devoted to the issue, perhaps within the National Security Council; more money, and more urgency.

Concludes the report: "There is a clear and present danger to the international community as well as to American lives and liberties."


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