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WASHINGTON – The nuclear terrorism picture just got a lot scarier.
Osama bin Laden
According to a report in the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network bought tactical nuclear weapons from Ukraine in 1998.
The report says the terrorists still have the “suitcase nuke” weapons and are storing them in safe places for possible use.
The newspaper said al-Qaida bought the weapons in suitcases in a deal arranged when Ukrainian scientists visited the Afghan city of Kandahar in 1998. The city was then a stronghold of the Taliban movement, which was allied with al-Qaida.
WorldNetDaily first broke the story of al-Qaida’s purchase of suitcase nukes Oct. 3, 2002. Paul Williams, an FBI consultant on international terrorism said then bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network purchased 20 suitcase nuclear weapons from former KGB agents in 1998 for $30 million.
His book, “Al Qaeda: Brotherhood of Terror,” 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 than 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.
According to the al-Hayat report, Al-Qaida would use the weapons only inside the United States or if the group faced a “crushing blow,” which threatened its existence, such as the use of nuclear or chemical weapons against its fighters.
Ukraine inherited nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union but in 1994 it agreed to send 1,900 nuclear warheads to Russia and sign up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, a former Russian National Security Adviser, Alexander Lebed, said that up to 100 portable suitcase-sized bombs were unaccounted for. Moscow has denied such weapons existed.
Lebed said each one was equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT and could kill as many as 100,000 people.
Al-Hayat did not say how many weapons al-Qaida bought or say who exactly had provided them.
A Pakistani government official said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was expected to visit Islamabad soon to discuss nuclear proliferation, after a top scientist there admitted passing nuclear program secrets to third parties.
As the Pakistani nuclear proliferation story widens, U.S. intelligence officials say top atomic scientists from that country met with bin Laden and Mullah Omar in Afghanistan.
Two former senior Pakistani nuclear scientists, who were based in the Afghan town of Kandahar, met Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden several times before the fall of the Taliban. They were later detained and questioned on their return to Pakistan.
Last week, after it became clear that Pakistan was the center of what has become known internationally as the “nuclear bazaar,” President Pervez Musharraf agreed to pardon nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan for selling the country’s nuclear secrets to Libya, North Korea and Iran.
Because Pakistan is perceived to be central to the U.S. war on terror, the reaction in Washington has been low-key.
“This is a matter between Dr. Khan, who is a Pakistani citizen, and his government,” said Secretary of State Colin Powell to reporters outside the United Nations. “But it is a matter also that I’ll be talking to President Musharraf about.”
Bush administration officials have expressed satisfaction with Musharraf’s guarantees that the country’s nuclear proliferation will now come to an end.
A top defector from North Korea says that country’s uranium-based nuclear weapons program was launched in 1996 under a deal with Pakistan. In addition, Pakistan stationed other nuclear scientists in Iran to help that country develop its nuclear weapons program.
Pakistan says the presidential pardon to the top nuclear scientist over his admission to have proliferated nuclear technology to three foreign countries is subject to a set of “comprehensive conditions” – but those conditions have not been revealed publicly.
The pardon even allows Khan to keep the vast wealth he accumulated by developing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and from selling the technology to other countries – including several rogue nations. Khan is believed to have earned millions of dollars from his sale of nuclear know-how, beginning in the late 1980s. Much of the money was funneled through bank accounts in the Middle East. His assets include four houses in Islamabad worth an estimated $2.8 million, a villa on the Caspian Sea, a luxury hotel in Mali and a valuable collection of vintage cars.
Khan, 69, last week made a televised confession of his wrongdoing after government investigators confronted him. Despite being granted a pardon, he is under house arrest and forbidden to give interviews.
In addition to selling nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea, Khan also offered Saddam Hussein a design for a nuclear weapon in 1990, according to a document seized by U.N. weapons inspectors. Later he made a deal with Libya.