Al Qaeda nukes are reality, intelligence says
By Neil Doyle
SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
LONDON � Soon after September 11 last year, the notion that al Qaeda might have nuclear weapons was largely dismissed by intelligence professionals.
It is, however, a working assumption in security circles now that the terror group does have nuclear capabilities. Al Qaeda's secret nuclear stash is assumed to be somewhere in Afghanistan, although finding it is proving to be as hard as locating Osama bin Laden.
The first clue came during Christmas, when low-grade uranium-238 was discovered in tunnels near a former al Qaeda base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
U. S. officials said that enough material was found to make one "dirty" radiological bomb, which involves combining nuclear materials with conventional explosive to spread contamination over a wide area.
The black market in radioactive materials has been booming for some years, and the archives are littered with stories of smuggling.
In March 2000, for instance, customs officers in Uzbekistan stopped a truck, destined for Quetta in Pakistan, that was carrying 10 lead-lined containers filled with strontium-90, enough to manufacture scores of dirty bombs.
The uranium found in Kandahar is in theory suitable for a radiological weapon, but not a fission bomb.
That the retreating fighters from al Qaeda and Afghanistan's Taliban regime chose to leave this behind when they took to the mountains fueled suspicion that their nuclear crown jewels went with them.
Geoff Hoon, the British Defense secretary, hinted as much early this year, when he said: "We are certainly aware that he has some material that could contribute to a nuclear weapon."
There is no consensus among experts on whether al Qaeda possesses working nuclear warheads, as Osama bin Laden contended in an interview after September 11.
Rose Gottemoeller, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and assistant energy secretary for nonproliferation in the Clinton administration, said: "I believe that the chance that al Qaeda controls actual warheads is virtually nil.
"It is much more likely that they have acquired some nuclear materials, but here the range could be very wide: from depleted uranium or low-level radioactive sources [such as those used in smoke detectors], all the way up to weapons-usable material � highly enriched uranium or plutonium."
"I think it more likely that they have some kind of lower-level sources than weapons-grade material, but this cannot be excluded," Miss Gottemoeller added.
"The origins for the lower-level materials could be very broad, virtually worldwide; weapons-grade material is much more precious, therefore proliferating countries tend to hold on to it.
"It is possible such material could have come to him from a former Soviet nuclear facility, not only in Russia, but in Kazakhstan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, etc."
A minority of specialists holds that al Qaeda already may enjoy command and control over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal via close links with the country's Inter-Services Intelligence, the agency credited with creating the Taliban.
Others suggest that theft of military hardware is a more likely possibility. One former Soviet GRU (military intelligence) agent says he knows for certain that al Qaeda possesses small atomic warheads.
"Mossad [Israeli intelligence] reported that bin Laden bought tactical nuclear weapons from some former Soviet republics," he said. "They are not the suitcase-type bombs that people often refer to, but more the warhead-type munitions. These are the payloads of short-range missiles, torpedoes, and the like." He declined to elaborate.
Others believe that pilfering military warheads is unfeasible, but that al Qaeda might have bought some of Russia's missing Cold War-era "suitcase nukes" on the black market.
In 1997, the Red Army's former chief, Gen. Alexander Lebed, acknowledged that 84 such devices were missing from the military's inventory.
Atomic Demolitions Munitions (ADMs), as portable nuclear weapons are formally known, are miniaturized warheads that were developed by the United States during the Vietnam War. They were designed for use against key infrastructure targets, such as bridges and dams. The Soviets soon followed suit and produced their version in huge quantities.
They were secretly buried near targets in the West by specially trained GRU agents as part of a Soviet strategy to knock out key government and military targets and hamper response to a nuclear attack.
According to informed sources, these weapons constantly circulated around the world in diplomatic baggage, and large numbers were buried along Russia's borders for use as nuclear land mines in the event of invasion. They were often disguised as boulders.
Each has a yield of about 1 kiloton � equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT.
It has been estimated that one ADM could immediately kill 100,000 people if it exploded in a major city center, with hundreds of thousands dying from cancer in the fallout.
ADMs have a shelf life of about eight years, after which they need to be retrieved and sent to a laboratory for refurbishment.
One source said that a semi-skilled operative could set one off easily, given the right codes. They can be set to detonate using an built-in timer or can be triggered remotely with a mobile phone call.
Academics are not sure that terrorists have gotten their hands on ADMs, but few will rule out the possibility. Robert Sherman, director of strategic security at the Federation of American Scientists, said that this is "more likely than getting a ballistic missile warhead."
Paul Rogers, professor and head of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in Britain, said: "There were unconfirmed reports that one or two Soviet-era tactical nuclear weapons had got to Iran a few years ago. Apart from that, I do not have any evidence that al Qaeda has access to such weapons."
However, one senior Western intelligence contact is adamant that the terrorists do have a number of these weapons � nine, to be precise. The price on the deal is put at $30 million, plus 2 tons of opium per nuke.
"Reliable sources report that not only atomic munitions were sold by the Russian underworld and smuggled into [Central Asia] during the conflict between the U. S. and the Taliban, but that several Russian nuclear technicians were hired by the Islamic fundamentalists to try and make the weapons operational," the Western source said.
According to Mr. Rogers, an ADM would cause cataclysmic damage: "The effect of the [New York City World Trade Center] plane-fuel explosion and the gravitational forces of collapse of the two towers was about 600 tons of TNT equivalent, so an ADM would destroy a couple of city blocks, or a major bridge, or an airport terminal."
Western cities, however, may not be high on the target list if al Qaeda is holding these as weapons of final resort. The group may be planning to use them to achieve bin Laden's ultimate goal: the creation of an Islamic superstate.
This could be achieved by using nuclear weapons to destroy the oil industry in the Middle East and trigger an unprecedented global economic meltdown, according to a report published late last year by Decision Support Systems Inc., a private-sector intelligence and risk-management consultancy.
In a "limited number of strategic positions," a small nuclear device would expose the Middle East's oil infrastructure to massive radiation, with sand spreading fallout on a vast scale. In addition, hydrostatic shock waves transmitted through pipelines could destroy production and delivery facilities over wide areas.
With most of the world's oil reserves inaccessible, the United States no longer would have an economic interest in the region. And there is a precedent for such a plan: Iraq's attempt to destroy the oil fields in Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Few experts doubt the feasibility of such a plan. Mr. Sherman said: "If you presume perfect accuracy � that is, hand placement within inches of where intended � there are very few objects that would not be severely damaged by a small nuke.
"I presume that someone with a detailed knowledge of the oil field could cause a cascading effect with great damage."
According to Mr. Rogers, the greatest threat lies further downstream in the production process. "Such warheads would have a limited effect against an oil field because well heads are normally quite dispersed but could do substantial damage to a refinery or a major pumping facility," he said.
Oil has been a sore point with bin Laden. Al Qaeda propaganda prior to September 11 accused the United States of "robbing all Muslims" of exactly $36.96 trillion by exploiting its oil interests in the Middle East. It issued a pamphlet providing a long and detailed breakdown of its calculations, explaining that this was why America was responsible for poverty in the region.
The pamphlet ends with a vow of revenge, and what appears to be a euphemistic reference of future intent: "O Muslims, the times are critical indeed. Seek the approval of Allah quickly, for this is imperative. Then it won't take as long for the American jinn [in Islamic tradition, a powerful spirit lower than an angel] to be put back into the bottle as it takes for the first light of dawn to turn into the break of day."