U.S. Fears Bin Laden Made Nuclear Strides
- Washington Post
U.S. Fears Bin Laden Made Nuclear Strides
Concern Over 'Dirty Bomb' Affects Security
By Bob Woodward, Robert G. Kaiser and David B. Ottaway
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 4, 2001; Page A01
U.S. intelligence agencies have recently concluded that Osama bin Laden and
his al Qaeda terrorist network may have made greater strides than previously
thought toward obtaining plans or materials to make a crude radiological
weapon that would use conventional explosives to spread radioactivity over a
wide area, according to U.S. and foreign sources.
Some of the conclusions come from interrogations of captured al Qaeda
members or associates. Some come from evidence gathered in the last month on
the ground in Afghanistan by CIA officers and U.S. Special Forces from
former al Qaeda facilities.
In addition, recent U.S. intelligence reports describe a meeting within the
last year in which bin Laden was present when one of his associates produced
a canister that allegedly contained radioactive material. The associate
waved the canister in the air as proof of al Qaeda's progress and
seriousness in trying to build a nuclear device.
The U.S. government last month urgently asked a few key allied governments
to assist in determining whether the associate, identified only with a
common name, may have entered their countries, perhaps with radioactive
material. The concern is sufficiently deep that some countries have adopted
extreme security procedures at their borders, including the increased use of
devices that measure radioactivity, the sources said.
There is no conclusive evidence that bin Laden or his associates have built
a radiological bomb or even have the capability to do so, these sources
emphasized. But for years bin Laden has said publicly he was working to
obtain a nuclear capability.
U.S. officials are very concerned that any nuclear detonation by al Qaeda
would be a calamitous psychological setback to the war on terrorism, and a
maximum effort has been launched to detect and prevent the possibility,
remote as it might be, several sources said. The worry about al Qaeda's
efforts to obtain a nuclear capability was a factor in the decision
yesterday to issue another national alert about possible terrorist attacks,
a senior source said.
On at least one occasion, the White House cited the increased concern that
al Qaeda might have a radiological bomb as a key reason that Vice President
Cheney was not available for a face-to-face meeting with visiting senior
foreign officials. The meeting usually would have allowed for informal
personal contact, but took place via secure video conference because Cheney
was at a secure location outside Washington.
U.S. intelligence agencies are looking not only for evidence that terrorists
could be assembling a radiological bomb but also for any sign that al Qaeda
could be trying to make a very crude and small atomic or fission bomb.
A radiological bomb, also known as a "dirty bomb," could be made by taking
highly radioactive material, such as spent reactor fuel rods, and wrapping
it around readily available conventional high explosives. The device is
designed to kill or injure not through its explosive force but by creating a
zone of intense radiation that could extend several city blocks. A large,
highly radioactive bomb could affect a much larger area.
There is no public record that any country or terrorist group has detonated
a radiological bomb. [MewNews note: an Iraqi document seized by the IAEA
indicates that Iraqi scientists tested a radiological bomb, but deemed it
A diagram of a dirty bomb has been found in a Taliban or al Qaeda
installation in Afghanistan in recent weeks, according to a source. In
addition, numerous other documents about nuclear weapons in general were
recovered. But a well-placed U.S. source said such diagrams and documents
could be found in public sources, including the Internet. The source said
some designs were so inadequate and primitive that they most likely would
Al Qaeda's longstanding interest in acquiring a nuclear capability is
well-documented. In February, a Sudanese man who worked for bin Laden for
nine years, Jamal Ahmed Fadl, testified that al Qaeda was trying to acquire
nuclear material in the early 1990s. Fadl said that a bin Laden lieutenant
ordered him to buy uranium from a former Sudanese army officer, who offered
to sell ore from South Africa for $1.5 million.
Though he did not have personal knowledge that the deal was consummated,
Fadl testified, he was paid a $10,000 bonus for arranging the deal. Fadl was
a government witness at the New York trial of four participants in the al
Qaeda bombing of two American embassies in Africa in August 1998.
Last month, bin Laden told a Pakistani journalist that his movement already
had chemical and nuclear weapons.
"I wish to declare that if America used chemical or nuclear weapons against
us, then we may retort with chemical and nuclear weapons," bin Laden was
quoted as saying. "We have the weapons as a deterrent."
In 1998, bin Laden called it "a religious duty" to acquire weapons of mass
destruction, adding: "If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank
God for enabling me to do so."
One Taliban official in Afghanistan has denied that al Qaeda has a nuclear
"We do not even have modern weaponry, not to mention weapons of mass
destruction," Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, said
recently after widespread reports of bin Laden's deterrent comment.
Pakistan has detained two nuclear scientists, both veterans of the secret
program that has given Pakistan about a dozen nuclear warheads, and is
interrogating them about their contacts with Taliban and al Qaeda members.
The two, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majid, worked in Afghanistan
in recent years but have said they were only providing charitable assistance
Mahmood is an expert in plutonium, the highly fissionable material used in
the heart of most nuclear weapons. He was given a desk job in 1999 after he
publicly said that Pakistan should help other Islamic nations build nuclear
weapons. He also spoke publicly in support of the Taliban movement.
Russia and Pakistan are considered the two most likely sources of
radioactive material for al Qaeda. Russian officials have reported dozens of
attempts to steal enriched uranium or plutonium since 1990. Last month, a
Russian general said unidentified terrorists recently had twice tried and
failed to penetrate Russian top-secret fortified nuclear storage facilities
known as "S-shelters."
Mohamed El Baradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy
Agency, said in a Nov. 1 statement that after the Sept. 11 hijackings, the
agency had been alerted to the possibility that terrorists might use
"radioactive sources to incite panic, contaminate property and even cause
injury or death among civilian populations."
On Nov. 9, President Bush said of al Qaeda, "They're seeking chemical,
biological and nuclear weapons."
Bin Laden is a fugitive from Saudi Arabia, which along with the United
States is considered a top target for another attack. Border inspection and
surveillance have been increased substantially in Saudi Arabia; authorities
there are on the lookout not only for radioactive material but also for any
related equipment, parts or technology that might be used in a nuclear
In Saudi Arabia, a source said, border guards are searching any package or
truck that might be used by smugglers. Particular emphasis has been given to
the Saudi border with Yemen, which has had an active al Qaeda presence.
Operatives connected to bin Laden in Yemen are believed to be responsible
for the attack on the American destroyer USS Cole in October 2000, when a
small boat loaded with explosives rammed the ship and killed 17 U.S. sailors
in the port of Aden.
Researcher Jeff Himmelman contributed to this report.
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