Apocalypse now? The nuclear threat

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TUESDAY OCTOBER 23 2001 Reportage Apocalypse now? BY GILES WHITTELL Dozens of Russia's nuclear weapons are missing. There is clear evidence that Osama bin Laden's agents have been scouring the world to buy or steal such devices in order to attack the West. Our correspondent investigates how near they may be to succeeding When Ahmed Salama Mabruk was arrested three years ago in Baku, in Azerbaijan, no one in the West could confirm what he claimed to know. Some still doubt him, but no one now dares to say that he was lying. Mabruk was personal assistant to Ayman Zawahiri, the bespectacled lieutenant to Osama bin Laden who is now thought to have masterminded the September attacks on New York and Washington.

When Azerbaijani security forces confiscated Mabruk’s laptop they were able to download from it a mine of information about the structure of the al-Qaeda network. He was extradited to Egypt and is now serving a 25-year sentence for planning terrorist activities there, but during his trial he had a chance to exchange a few words in his Cairo courtroom with Mohammed Salah, a reporter with the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper.

“I asked him if al-Qaeda had obtained nuclear weapons and he told me that both al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad had done so with the help of several different countries,” says Salah. “He said that bin Laden had told his men not to use them except when ordered to.” Salah was sceptical at first. “But now,” he says, “I believe everything.”

Another story that is also suddenly credible comes from Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, who travelled to Khartoum, the Sudan capital, in 1993, with $1.5 million (£1 million) and orders from bin Laden to buy South African weapons-grade uranium. He says he made contact with a Sudanese Army officer offering the fuel for sale in a 3ft steel cylinder. Al-Fadl was paid $10,000 for his efforts before being removed from the negotiations.

Three years later al-Fadl walked into an American embassy in Africa and turned himself in. He is now the FBI’s most valuable source on bin Laden, its al-Qaeda supergrass, with secret accommodation and a new identity as a member of the bureau’s Witness Protection Programme. He says he doesn’t know if the uranium deal went through.

In fact there has been no confirmation of nuclear weapons or nuclear material falling into bin Laden’s hands — nor any firm statement that he has failed to obtain them. But the deeper you look into this information vacuum, which US taxpayers increasingly consider a poor return on their $30 billion-a-year investment in foreign intelligence, the more worrying it becomes.

Bin Laden has said that it is his duty to seek weapons of mass destruction, and the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in Vienna has confirmed hundreds of instances of nuclear smuggling since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They litter the map of Eurasia and implicate a gallery of crooks, usually offering small amounts of non-weapons-grade material to buyers with even less knowledge of nuclear physics than themselves.

A group of Georgian Customs officers treated in 1997 for deep brown leg wounds provides a case in point. They had confiscated several phials of highly radioactive caesium and pocketed it in the hope of finding a buyer. Instead they found that the caesium, which cannot be used in bombs, ate into their flesh.

The following year, according to an Afghan refugee from Mazar-i Sharif now living in London, an entire family fell ill when a smuggler buried a large quantity of what was believed to be uranium in their garden. “Some of them were paralysed from the waist down and all the vegetation in their garden died,” the refugee says. “The uranium probably came from Taliqan or Kunduz province, near the border.”

F or most of the 1990s the international community persuaded itself that nuclear smuggling on a larger scale than this was easy to detect and probably not happening. Western leaders are now having to assume the reverse: that only the clowns got caught.

“They are probably the tip of the iceberg,” says Dr Laurie Mylroie, a US academic who claims that the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing was almost certainly masterminded by Iraq, and who insists that President Saddam Hussein was likewise behind the September 11 attacks.

“If Russian organised-crime groups with good contacts and resources got involved in this, you might never hear about it,” says Gary Milhollin, of the Wisconsin Project, a Washington anti-proliferation think-tank. “You tend to pick up the amateurs, not the pros.” Before September 11 such talk might have been alarmist. Now it is a sane reminder of the most sobering reality of the post-Soviet world order. What was the world’s largest nuclear power, with between

15,000 and 40,000 nuclear weapons and enough fissile material for 40,000 more, has spent the past decade staggering under the pressure of rampant corruption and criminality with its nuclear stockpile ill-guarded, compared with America’s. And vulnerable, above all, to the thousands of scientists who built it, but now earn on average $50 a month. The result is what one of Washington’s more moderate non-proliferation experts calls “a nuclear K-Mart”.

Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles are not for sale. They are so central to Moscow’s vision of itself as a world power that they remain almost as secure and secret as in the Cold War. But a black market has existed since before the Soviet collapse for a wide range of lesser nuclear assets — from battlefield weapons to “suitcase nukes” built for Soviet special forces and low-grade radioactive material that could be packed with conventional explosives to make the most basic poor-man’s atom bomb.

In the worst scenario, impossible to rule out with no UN weapons inspectors left in Iraq, Saddam could already have acquired enough fissile material for a warhead and mounted it atop a Soviet-built Scud missile.

In the early 1990s the smugglers’ preferred routes led west out of Russia and Ukraine to Eastern Europe and Germany. In 1994, a German police sting at Frankfurt airport led to the arrest of a Colombian in transit from Moscow with a consignment of plutonium in his suitcase, and the smugglers’ focus shifted towards the Caucasus and Central Asia.

There are few wilder or more porous frontiers than the 3,000-mile fence along the southern fringe of the former Soviet Union. It starts on the Black Sea near Batumi, winds along the spine of the Caucasus and continues through scorching deserts to the Pamirs and the Tien Shan, interrupted only by the Caspian.

In the middle of it, Uzbek-istan’s short border with Afghanistan has been closed for the past four years. Otherwise all bets are off. I have interviewed Chechens in Georgia’s spectacular Pankisi Gorge who walk unhindered over the high passes of the Caucasus in and out of their war-torn homeland when the snows allow. Not far to the east, customs checks on trains from southern Russia to Azerbaijan are entirely avoidable with bribes. In the high Pamirs you can drive for hours along Tajikistan’s border with the Vakhan Corridor in northeastern Afghanistan and see hardly a soul.

I t is no surprise to learn from the IAEA that in September 1998 police arrested eight people in Turkey and seized 10lb of uranium 235, destination unknown; nor that two men were arrested trying to sell plutonium in the remote Kyrgyz border town of Kara Balta the following year; nor that 4lb of highly enriched uranium was found less than three months ago packed into a glass jar in neat discs the size of ice hockey pucks in an hotel room in the Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi.

The list is merely a sample of what is known. It does not include police and media reports based on personal testimony, such as one in the Arabic Al-Watan news magazine in early 1999 claiming that bin Laden had pulled off a huge deal for 20 Russian nuclear warheads obtained for him by the Chechen mafia in exchange for $30 million in cash and two tons of opium. It does not include the FBI’s ongoing operation against a Pakistani intelligence agent with close ties to bin Laden identified as Mohammed Abbas, who placed an order with an undercover US agent posing as an arms dealer for six nuclear switches and a quantity of plutonium after announcing over lunch in New York that he meant to “kill all Americans”.

None of this, at any rate, came as a surprise to the CIA. “Bin Laden has been trying to get his hands on enriched uranium for seven or eight years,” Robert Wolsey, the agency’s former director, told reporters a week after the September 11 attacks.

Why, then, did the world’s only superpower not do more to stop him? It is a question that torments America, but answers are already emerging. On the one hand the US intelligence community was hamstrung by internal turf wars, bureaucratic regulation and limits on what it could do to protect Russia’s nuclear stockpile because of Russia’s security interests and the risk of losing its own agents — a scenario considered unacceptable in the “risk-averse” post-Cold War era. Even more seriously, the CIA appears to have relied too heavily on the assumption that bin Laden could not have nuclear weapons since building and maintaining them takes huge political will and the resources of a nation state.

Experts are now saying that this was a false assumption on several counts. The first dates from 1997, when General Aleksandr Lebed, then head of Russia’s national security council, dropped a bombshell by declaring that dozens, possibly hundreds, of suitcase-sized nuclear weapons built in the 1970s were unaccounted for and were “a potentially perfect weapon for nuclear terrorism and blackmail”.

Lebed was blackballed by the Russian military establishment and thrown off a commission set up to investigate his allegations. Russian nuclear officials ridiculed them, but the following month Lebed named the weapons as the RA-115 and the RA-115-01 (an underwater variant), each weighing roughly 30 kilograms. Aleksei Yablokov, a former environmental adviser to President Yeltsin, said that 84 out of a total of 132 were missing. At a conference in Berlin, Lebed said he believed that most of them had been stationed in border areas no longer within Russia. He warned one of his detractors, the then Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin: “Sleep, Viktor Stepanovich, and you just might not wake up.”

Lebed is now running for a second term as governor of Krasnoyarsk and has refused all interview requests since the attacks. However, a former Western diplomat who travels frequently to Central Asia confirmed last week that the suitcase-sized weapons almost certainly exist. “It’s very plausible that a device has been smuggled out and even to Afghanistan,” he adds. “Osama bin Laden is as possible a recipient as Saddam Hussein.”

Compact nuclear weapons offer terrorists an easy answer to the question “Why build when you can buy?” Pakistan’s rush to build an estimated 120 nuclear warheads has given bin Laden yet another option — theft. President Musharraf insists that his nuclear arsenal is safe, but the US considers the risk of Pakistani warheads falling into the wrong hands so great given the number of Taleban sympathisers in his ISI intelligence service that it has offered to fly in perimeter security for the country’s nuclear bases and install fail-safe mechanisms on its weapons to prevent them being detonated.

So far Musharraf has declined the offer. Pakistan and the West must therefore hope that bin Laden has failed in all his attempts to buy nuclear weapons and material. But even if he has, the risk of nuclear terrorism remains real and serious, thanks to Saddam.

T he Iraqi dictator nearly bankrupted his country trying to build nuclear weapons before the arrival of UN inspectors in the wake of the Gulf War. This has not stopped him trying again since their departure.

The proof, or the closest thing to it, is in the form of a strange order placed with the Siemens electronics giant by the Iraqi Government in 1998 for six lithotripter devices designed to break up kidney stones with highpowered shock waves. As medical machinery the lithotripters were not covered by UN sanctions. Each used a precision electronic switch, and Iraq ordered an extra 120 of these. As Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project wrote in The New Yorker: “Iraq’s strange hankering for this particular spare part becomes less mysterious when one reflects that the switch in question has another use: it can trigger an atomic bomb.”

Former UN weapons inspectors in Iraq believed in 1999 that Saddam already had the components for three nuclear weapons, each needing 32 electronic switches. Whether he has obtained enough fuel for them is one of the critical questions driving the debate in Washington on whether to expand the war on terror to Iraq. Another is whether Saddam sponsored the September attacks.

Hawks in the Bush administration have been scouring the globe for an Iraqi link that would justify finishing the job begun by Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and they may have found it: earlier this month the Czech Foreign Minister, Jan Kavan, flew to Washington with documents showing that Mohammed Atta, the pilot of the first jet to hit the World Trade Centre, visited the Iraqi embassy in Prague for meetings with its consul last year.

“Why would they meet?” asks Laurie Mylroie, whose work on Iraqi-sponsored terrorism has a close following among those in the Bush White House pushing for a broad offensive against Iraq. “To have a cup of tea?” Asked how scared we should be of the possibility of an Iraqi-manufactured nuclear weapon detonating as the conflict unfolds, Dr Mylroie replies: “Scared is not the right word. This is war. It’s like the Second World War. People have to make the right decisions; if they make the wrong decisions tens or hundreds of thousands could die.”


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 22, 2001

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