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Afghanistan: Nuclear Terrorism Poses Questionable Threat

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Has suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network acquired the materials necessary to construct a nuclear device? The U.S. government accuses bin Laden of trying for years to do just that. A U.S. federal indictment charges that Al-Qaeda tried to buy bomb-making components as early as 1993. Others believe Al-Qaeda has attempted to buy ready-made nuclear warheads on the black market. How realistic is it to think that terrorists possess a nuclear capability?

Prague, 19 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In 1998, members of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network approached separatist rebels in Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya. Al-Qaeda offered the rebels $30 million and two tons of drugs. In return, Al-Qaeda would receive 20 nuclear warheads the Chechen rebels had captured from Russian military installations. The deal was never consummated. Russia's Federal Security Bureau, or FSB, reportedly foiled the plan.

This chilling tale is recounted by Friedrich Steinhausler, an arms control expert who is now at Stanford University's Center for Security and Cooperation in the U.S. state of California. The story, Steinhausler says, doesn't end there.

He says European security authorities are now investigating alleged attempts by Russian organized criminal groups to sell radioactive materials to Al-Qaeda earlier this year: "The current situation is best described by the attempts to involve Russian organized crime in acquiring radioactive material. And such negotiations between representatives of Al-Qaeda and a prominent member of the Russian mafia supposedly have taken place [in 2001] in Spain in Europe, and this event is being investigated by several European security organizations."

Steinhausler says the first serious attempt by Al-Qaeda to acquire nuclear materials took place in 1993. According to Steinhausler, the go-between for bin Laden was a Sudanese man, Jamel Ahmed Al-Fadl, who described himself as a former aid to bin Laden. Al-Fadl now lives with his wife and children in the U.S. under the federal witness protection program. "The result of multiple clandestine meetings with middlemen between Al-Fadl, representative of Al-Qaeda, resulted in a meeting with a former Sudanese military officer who offered fissile material supposedly contained in a container 60 to 90 centimeters long with multiple writings on it, among them, reportedly, the words 'South Africa,'" Steinhausler says.

Steinhausler says Al-Fadl received $10,000 for his intermediary role, but it is not clear whether the uranium purchase ever occurred.

In 1994, police in Prague arrested three men carrying almost 3 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, which was allegedly smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. Steinhausler says this nuclear heist is believed to have been organized by a web of mafia groups operating in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Belarus, Ukraine, and Germany and may also have been tied to bin Laden.

And while Steinhausler says the 1998 nuclear smuggling operation in Chechnya was broken up by the Russian FSB, others aren't so sure. A report published earlier this year in newsletter -- edited by "Washington Times" reporters Bill Gertz and Robert Morton -- claimed that bin's Laden's possession of nuclear devices is no longer in doubt. The report says Russian intelligence sources believe bin Laden has a handful of tactical nuclear weapons received from Chechen rebels who raided Russian nuclear installations.

As late as 1991, more than 50,000 nuclear devices were scattered over 500 sites in the former Soviet republics and in Eastern Europe. Most analysts say Russia has made great strides toward consolidating most of them and removing nuclear weapons from unstable parts of the country, such as the north Caucasus, but fears persist. Economic collapse has meant little funding to maintain and protect nuclear facilities. Employees at Russian nuclear installations are often poorly paid.

The Japanese Aum Shirinkyo cult, the architects of a deadly nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995, are believed to have attempted to buy a nuclear warhead on the Russian black market. A Moscow news report ["Literaturnaya Gazeta"] claimed that the extremist Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, sent a letter to the Federal Nuclear Research Center offering to buy a single atomic weapon.

And Rensselaer Lee at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., says Russian managers at top-secret defense plants offered plutonium for sale to visiting scientists. Lee -- the author of "Smuggling Armageddon: The Nuclear Black Market in the Former Soviet Union and Europe" -- says the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service reportedly masterminded the delivery of almost a pound of plutonium oxide from Moscow to Munich in August 1994.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based defense analyst, scoffs at reports that Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network have tried to acquire nuclear materials in Russia: "All investigations for the last 10 years and all reports of possible loose Russian nukes turned out to be unsubstantiated. There are many [such stories]."

Felgenhauer says that if Al-Qaeda does, indeed, possess nuclear materials, they most likely came from Pakistan, the only country that recognizes Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, which has been sheltering bin Laden.

David Kyd is a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN-affiliated nuclear watchdog group. Kyd points out that even if Al-Qaeda did acquire nuclear material, building a bomb would be extremely difficult.

"Could you build one? Well, that's a very challenging and expensive and time-consuming proposition. You need 8 kilograms of plutonium or 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. That's a large quantity, not easy to come by."

He says terrorists are more likely to opt for chemical or biological weapons: "I think I would be more tempted by quicker, simpler, cheaper, safer options, like chemical or biological. Chemicals, for instance, are easy to come by -- and substances that are banal [harmless], when combined, can have a devastating effect -- psychologically and also for public health. So I'm not sure if nuclear or radiological weapons -- that is, things that are radioactive but not fissile, like plutonium and highly enriched uranium -- I'm not sure they're on the top of a terrorist's list."

But terrorists groups may not have completely ruled out the nuclear option. As of September 1999, the International Atomic Energy Agency has recorded more than 150 reports of illegal trafficking of nuclear material. Agency spokesman Kyd says: "Since 1999, there have been over 150 cases -- confirmed cases -- of seizures of radioactive materials on the black market. Of those -- and that's somewhat reassuring, but not totally -- six have involved nuclear weapon-grade material. In other words, highly enriched uranium or plutonium."

According to Kyd, of the six serious cases, five occurred in the former Soviet bloc, including Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Latvia, and along the Bulgarian-Romanian border. In April 2000, Georgian police seized several hundred reactor-fuel pellets containing a total of 920 grams of enriched uranium.

For years, officials in the U.S. and elsewhere have been warning that terrorist groups may some day acquire weapons capable of great devastation -- biological, chemical, or nuclear. In 1998, former CIA Director John Deutch and other officials in the Clinton administration warned that "catastrophic terrorism has moved from far-fetched horror to a contingency that could happen next month."

After the events of 11 September, little seems far-fetched anymore.