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Iraqi's Mission: To Get Bin Laden a Nuke
Jailed associate a feared zealot
By BOB PORT and GREG B. SMITH Daily News Staff Writers
n a 10th-floor high-security jail cell a few blocks from the ruins of the World Trade Center sits a man Osama Bin Laden was counting on in his quest to buy a nuclear bomb.
Experts agree that Osama Bin Laden probably has not acquired the ability to set off a nuclear device — yet. Mamdouh Mahmud Salim is the only member of Bin Laden's inner circle in custody, and in many ways, he's one of the most frightening characters in Bin Laden's terrorist confederacy, Al Qaeda.
Last November, Salim briefly made headlines when he allegedly stabbed a Metropolitan Correctional Center guard in the eye with a carefully sharpened plastic comb.
But the most disturbing allegations concern Salim's participation in Bin Laden's long and serious effort to acquire a nuclear device that would make the Sept. 11 attack seem like a practice run.
Mamdouh Mahmud Salim of Osama Bin Laden's inner circle was at the center of efforts to obtain a nuclear bomb. Experts agree that Bin Laden probably has not yet acquired the ability to set off a nuke in his effort to drive America and Israel from what he views as Muslim holy land.
But law enforcement sources and experts on nuclear weapons agree that Bin Laden has certainly made a sustained effort to buy the enriched uranium that is the essential ingredient of any nuclear effort.
Could Bin Laden make an A-bomb?
"It's much harder than hijacking an airplane with a knife," said Leonard Spector, of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "[But] it's probably true that with enough time and effort, one could make a bomb. It is a big challenge, though. People have debated this for a long time."
Sidetracked in Germany
There have also been reports — none confirmed — that the terrorist leader was seeking to buy a small nuclear device.
At the center of the controversy over Bin Laden's "Manhattan Project" nuclear schemes is Salim, a 41-year-old Iraqi-trained engineer.
Details of Bin Laden's nuclear efforts first came to light after Sept. 14, 1998, when German law enforcement apprehended him.
Days after the Aug. 8, 1998, bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, Salim traveled from Khartoum, Sudan, to Istanbul to Majorca, Spain, to Stuttgart, Germany. A friend then took him by car to Munich, where German police detained him.
He was held there for days while first German and then U.S. law enforcement grilled him. Since then, evidence gathered by the FBI makes clear that Salim was an elite member of Bin Laden's ultra-secret organization.
He allegedly controlled bank accounts for Al Qaeda and ran one of Bin Laden's construction companies. He has even been identified as a founder of Al Qaeda by Manhattan Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Karas, who is now investigating the Sept. 11 attack for the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office.
In extradition papers filed in Germany, Karas listed Salim as a member of Bin Laden's majlis al shura, a council that advises terrorist groups from Egypt, Iran, Sudan, Algeria and elsewhere affiliated with Al Qaeda.
One of Salim's most frightening missions involved a joint operating agreement between Al Qaeda and the Islamic governments of Iran and Sudan.
The three agreed to produce weapons in Sudan, including "an effort to develop chemical weapons," Karas alleged.
Salim — who says he trained as an electrical engineer at the University of Baghdad — has been linked to the pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum that was bombed by U.S. forces on Aug. 20, 1998.
The bombing took place shortly after the Aug. 8 Bin Laden-led attacks on the two U.S. embassies in East Africa. The Clinton administration said the plant was manufacturing chemical weapons — an allegation plant management denied.
But a chemical attack was only part of the plan.
As long ago as 1993, Bin Laden's network began trying to make or acquire nuclear weapons, according to FBI informers and U.S. intelligence reports.
By 1998, Bin Laden acknowledged his effort openly.
In May that year, he issued a statement titled "The Nuclear Bomb of Islam," translated by the U.S. State Department as declaring "it is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God."
In testimony during the embassy bombing trial last year, informant Jamal Ahmed Mohamed Al-Fadl vividly recalled Salim's involvement in Bin Laden's 1993 effort to buy a nuke.
Al-Fadl — who left Al Qaeda in 1996 after he was caught embezzling money — claimed he met with a former high Sudanese official to discuss buying enriched uranium.
He described meeting with intermediaries who demanded $1.5 million, then driving in a jeep to an anonymous address in a Khartoum neighborhood called Bait al Mal.
There, inside a house, a bag was brought out and opened. Inside, Al-Fadl said, was a 2- to 3-foot long metal cylinder with South African markings.
He said he was instructed to go to Salim with a document spelling out this transaction, and that Salim reviewed the document and approved it.
Uranium Passed Test
Though Al-Fadl never saw money change hands, he got $10,000 and praise for arranging an inspection of the uranium before it was shipped to Cyprus for quality testing. Al-Fadl said he later learned, second-hand, that the uranium was good and the deal was consummated.
It's unclear what became of the uranium.
To make an atomic bomb, at least 7 pounds of an extra-radioactive form of uranium that exists as a small fraction of mined uranium is needed. This highly purified U-235 is enriched, or weapons-grade, uranium.
Enriched uranium, which is hard to make, is placed in a container that implodes, compressing the uranium to a critical mass and triggering an atomic chain reaction that releases a blast equal to thousands of tons of dynamite.
A crude device might likely resemble Little Boy, the bomb crafted by America's secret Manhattan Project during World War II and dropped on Hiroshima. Little Boy was 10 feet long and weighed nearly 10,000 pounds.
Since the 1993 effort to buy uranium, Bin Laden's 'Manhattan project' has focused on acquiring a nuke from the former Soviet Union's arsenal, according to an October 1998 article in the Arabic magazine Al Watan Al Arabi.
The magazine claimed that at a meeting between Bin Laden followers and Chechen mobsters, $30 million cash and 2 tons of opium were exchanged for about 20 nuclear warheads. It quoted sources as saying Bin Laden planned for his scientists to convert the warheads to small "suitcase nukes."
A month earlier, Israeli intelligence sources told Time magazine that Bin Laden paid $2 million in British pounds to a man in Kazakhstan who promised to deliver a suitcase bomb within two years.
Ever since, a spate of alarming, unconfirmed and exaggerated news reports have played off those original news items, which remain unconfirmed.
80 Nuclear Weapons
The mere mention of "suitcase bomb" caused speculation Bin Laden might acquire one of some 80 1-kiloton tactical nuclear weapons allegedly made by Russia in the 1970s, as claimed in a 1997 "60 Minutes" interview with former Russian Security Council Secretary Alexander Lebed.
"My impression was that this issue was checked out pretty thoroughly," said Spector, of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "Nobody inside the U.S. government became alarmed once they did some investigating. ... This did not lead to an enormous amount of anxiety. Nobody was losing sleep over it."
Last week, U.S. officials in Washington declined to respond to any questions about Bin Laden and nukes.
But one source said the prospect of Bin Laden building a nuke, while distant, is to be feared.
For years, the United States has been buying Russia's stock of weapons-grade uranium to remove it from the market, but the purchases are a fraction of what exists.
"The threat is taken very seriously because the quantities of uranium in Russia are enormous. ... We've been worried for some time that security there is a problem," said one defense source. "Nobody wants to talk about it."
Original Publication Date: 10/1/01
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), October 01, 2001