Peddling Peril

Peddling Peril

Chapter Eight – Al Qaeda’s Bomb

The image of Osama bin Laden discussing nuclear weapons around a campfire with two former senior Pakistani nuclear engineers is the stuff of movies. Yet it actually happened in August 2001, when A.Q. Khan’s deal with Libya was in full swing. Access to these Pakistani engineers was a major shortcut to possessing nuclear weapons. No one could dismiss the likelihood of nuclear terrorism again.

Bin Laden had thought seriously about acquiring nuclear weapons for many years. In the early 1990s, an al Qaeda agent unsuccessfully sought uranium in Sudan. In 1998, the year Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons, bin Laden declared that acquiring unconventional weapons was a religious duty.

He apparently realized early in his quest that he would need help. In 1998, bin Laden’s representatives approached the Khan network. They tried at least three times, and each time were rebuffed. A lack of funds might have been the reason, or resistance to share nuclear weapons expertise with terrorists who could be expected to use a nuclear weapon if they ever got one.

Bin Laden fared better with some of Khan’s longtime rivals, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudiri Abdul Majeed, two retired senior engineers at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) who were more willing to help bin Laden build nuclear weapons.

After retiring from the PAEC in 1999, Mahmood established Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (UTN), Reconstruction of the Muslim Ummah (community), a nongovernmental organization whose stated mission was to invest in industries and conduct relief work in Afghanistan. Majeed, who retired in 2000 from the PAEC’s prestigious Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH), became one of UTN’s key officials. UTN was also supported by Pakistani military officers who opposed President Musharraf and sympathized with the Taliban.

One of the most important members was General Hamid Gul, former director of the Pakistani intelligence service, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In Afghanistan, UTN was one of the few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that had the approval of Mullah Omar, the Taliban head of Afghanistan.

In addition to its civil work, however, UTN had a darker side, providing a cover for helping al Qaeda build nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. UTN had global ambitions to spread nuclear technology. It approached the Libyans with an offer to provide nuclear as well as chemical and biological weapons assistance. Yet Libya had little need of UTN’s help because Khan was already providing much more than UTN could offer.

Mahmood, a fundamentalist, had even less compunction than Khan about proliferation, believing that spreading nuclear technology to other Muslim countries was his duty and viewing Pakistan’s nuclear capability as “the property of a whole Ummah.”

Conversely, Khan is not typically viewed as a fundamentalist, but his support is strongest among them. Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of physics at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University and a longtime Khan observer, said that Pakistani fundamentalists continue to “view Islam and the bomb together.” He added, “Their belief system revolves about Islam and Pakistan being besieged by powers outside, Israel and the United States. It’s that paranoid mindset.” Mahmood internalized this mindset; Khan was merely interested in exploiting it for profit.

Mahmood was an early recruit to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. His son recounted that his father wept after India conducted its nuclear test in 1974 and vowed to make Pakistan an atomic power.  A few months after India’s test, at a nuclear scientists’ meeting called by President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Mahmood argued strenuously in favor of building nuclear weapons and recommended buying necessary items illicitly overseas.

In 1974, at age thirty-three, Mahmood became the first head of Pakistan’s secret gas centrifuge program that was created to exploit Khan’s ongoing espionage in the Netherlands. He played a pioneering role in establishing Pakistan’s gas centrifuge project, including its focus on unlawful procurement, but he lost his job after Khan returned from the Netherlands and was pushed out in the summer of 1975. Since he was determined to have Mahmood’s job, Khan was a vocal critic of Mahmood’s early leadership of the gas centrifuge program.

Mahmood’s professional career continued, and his resume grew, like that of any accomplished nuclear engineer. He held many senior positions and became a successful nuclear project manager in a country at a tremendous technological disadvantage. Mahmood received several awards for his work in the nuclear program, including a gold medal from the Pakistan Academy of Sciences. He was elected president of the Academy in 1997, and in March 1999 was awarded the prestigious Sitara-e-Imtiaz award by the president of Pakistan, Muhammad Tarar, for his outstanding contributions to Pakistan’s nuclear program. Yet his most prestigious assignment was designing and directing the first Khushab nuclear reactor, which went “critical” in April 1998.

This covert reactor project depended extensively on illicit overseas procurement. It can make enough weapon-grade plutonium for about two fission nuclear weapons each year. However, Pakistan has plenty of weapon-grade uranium to make fission weapons.With the operation of the Khushab reactor, and its ability to produce weapon-grade plutonium, Pakistan had, according to Mahmood, “acquired the capability to produce boosted thermonuclear weapons and hydrogen bombs.”

While Mahmood had a sterling list of accomplishments and contacts among Pakistani nuclear experts that any terrorist organization would be thrilled to exploit, he also had a bizarre fascination with the occult, writing a series of controversial apocalyptic reports based on pseudo-science and fundamentalism. In 1987, he published Doomsday and Life After Death — The Ultimate Fate of the Universe as Seen Through the Holy Quran, a 232-page treatise based on Islamic teachings. In one chapter Mahmood seeks to explain scientifically how the world will end and theorizes that his “scientific mind can work backward and analyze the actual mechanism . . . of the great upheaval before the Earth’s Doomsday.” In Cosmology and Human Destiny, published in 1998, Mahmood argued that sunspot activity has influenced human behavior and historical events, such as the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and World War II.  He concluded that governments across the world “are already being subjected to great emotional aggression under the catalytic effect of the abnormally high sunspot activity under which they are most likely to adapt aggression as the natural solution for their problems.”

Mahmood was inspired by Dr. Israr Ahmad, a prominent pro-Taliban radical Islamic cleric who became a patron of UTN. From his headquarters in Lahore, Ahmad advocated the creation of a “true Islamic state.” He believed that Pakistan and Afghanistan were the only two countries that had the potential to become the starting point for the global ascendancy of Islam, advocating their union to lay the foundations of a model Islamic system. Since he argued that Pakistan’s nuclear capability does not belong to only one country, but is actually the collective trust of the entire Muslim Ummah, Ahmad believes that in the event of U.S. military or economic sanctions, Pakistan should provide Muslim countries access to Pakistan’s nuclear technologies in exchange for funds needed for national development.

Mahmood was also a vocal critic of Pakistan constraining its nuclear arsenal, strongly opposing the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In March 1999, Pakistan’s intelligence agency recommended his transfer from the sensitive position of the director of the Khushab reactor to a desk job, sparking Mahmood’s resignation.

Less is known about Chaudiri Abdul Majeed’s motivations for working with UTN. A former artillery officer, Majeed worked at PINSTECH, the premier scientific research and development center of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. His nuclear competence appears more specialized than Mahmood’s and might include expertise in plutonium separation — a vital step in producing weapon-grade plutonium for a nuclear weapon.

Soon after 9/11, the CIA learned of UTN’s help to bin Laden from a friendly intelligence service. Acting on an American request, on October 23, 2001 Pakistani authorities detained Mahmood and Majeed for questioning. They also detained all seven members of UTN’s board of directors including Mirza Yusef Baig, an industrialist with the largest foundry in Pakistan and extensive ties with the Taliban regime. Other members of UTN’s board were retired military officers or engineers.

Many Pakistani officials, not surprisingly, tried to downplay what information Mahmood and Majeed could have provided to al Qaeda. The interrogations were largely ineffective. In late November 2001, CIA director George Tenet told President Musharraf that Pakistan’s experts were wrong about how difficult it would be for al Qaeda to build nuclear weapons. He demanded a crackdown on the UTN scientists and “certain elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment” that he said supported UTN.  President Musharraf had little choice but to act on the growing U.S. concern about UTN and nuclear terrorism.

This time, Pakistani interrogators (with American assistance) got their confessions. Searches in Afghanistan discovered disturbing evidence of UTN’s and al Qaeda’s work on weapons of mass destruction. After the fall of Kabul on November 13, 2001, the CIA searched UTN offices and houses looking for documentary evidence of its secret WMD work. The searches of UTN houses, located in Kabul’s wealthiest suburb, revealed that while UTN did conduct charitable activities as claimed, they were also working on obtaining WMDs.

The U.S. government has released little information about UTN’s activities in Afghanistan. However, Ingrid Arnesen, a seasoned CNN producer who arrived in Kabul soon after the Taliban withdrew from the city, visited several houses and offices linked to UTN and al Qaeda based on information provided in part by the Afghan police. These houses’ inhabitants had fled, but in their haste many had left behind caches of documents. Arnesen found documents and drawings showing work on biological weapons, including a series of illustrations scrawled over a white board in UTN’s headquarters in Kabul that appeared to show plans to use high-altitude balloons to spread anthrax spores or cyanide.  These plans were evidently a reaction to Mahmood’s false claims that the Northern Alliance had attacked Taliban soldiers with chemical and biological weapons supplied by the United States.

Arnesen and her CNN crew were taken by Afghani police to a safe house in an upscale neighborhood known as Wazir Akbar Khan. Neighbors told CNN that “big Arabs” lived there. One of them was a member of al Qaeda known as Abu Khabbab al-Masri, an Egyptian expert in WMD and conventional explosives. At this house, which the Arabs had likewise fled in haste, CNN found a nuclear document titled Superbomb and a number of documents on making conventional explosives from easy-to obtain ingredients.

Arnesen could tell with the help of her translator that the twenty-five-page Superbomb document, handwritten in Arabic, was an elementary primer on nuclear weapons. The text exhibits an understanding of basic nuclear physics and chemistry but lacks familiarity with nuclear weapons’ design and manufacture, describing the complicated process of laser enrichment as a “simple” method to pursue, and presents several properties of plutonium and uranium but does not discuss the production of weapon components out of these materials.

Moreover, the document had errors. For instance, a hand-drawn diagram of a nuclear explosive appears unworkable. The crudeness of this schematic is difficult to understand when accurate schematics of fission weapons are easy to find online.

Al Qaeda has searched the Web, too; a torn, partial document found at an al Qaeda safe house in Kabul was printed from a website discussing nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. While the bizarre site mentioned nuclear weapons, it also discussed the phony elements Jupiternium, Saturium, and Marisum. On an edge of the document underneath the fake elements, the word “bullshit” was written in Arabic.

The United States identified the Egyptian chemical engineer and explosive expert Mohammed Abdel al-Aziz al-Masri as a key figure in al Qaeda’s nuclear weapons effort. Following Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s capture in Pakistan in 2003, Mohammed named Abdel al-Aziz al-Masri as the “nuclear CEO” of al Qaeda. After Kabul fell, al-Masri fled to Iran, where he was placed under a loose form of house arrest. A senior al Qaeda operative told the CIA that Abdel al-Masri conducted experiments with explosives to test the effects of producing a nuclear yield. These experiments were likely rudimentary ones in using high explosives to implode an object. Such experiments are necessary for building an implosion type nuclear weapon out of plutonium or highly enriched uranium. An implosion design is complicated to master and would require an extensive, time-consuming effort.

While al Qaeda invested considerable resources into developing its explosive capabilities, its nuclear program might have started only a year before the fall of Kabul.  Nonetheless, according to the after-action assessment by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, the intelligence community underestimated al Qaeda’s fast-growing unconventional weapons capabilities and aggressive intentions.  Documents found and detainees interviewed after Kabul’s fall in 2001 demonstrated that al Qaeda had a “major biological effort” and had made “meaningful progress on its nuclear agenda.”

As a major force in Afghanistan, organizing a range of commercial projects that would draw upon the private and governmental resources of Pakistan, UTN was well suited to help al Qaeda make progress on its nuclear agenda. With offices in Kabul, Lahore, and Islamabad, UTN was growing into a large organization. In conjunction with the Baracat Islami Investment General Trading and Contracting Co. Ltd. (BTC), a suspected al Qaeda money laundering front company, UTN and BTC had drafted a memorandum of understanding to establish a close working relationship to promote the relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction of Afghanistan.  The memorandum was signed at Kabul on May 15, 2001, by Ghali Atia Alshamri, president of BTC, and Mahmood himself. They agreed to establish joint projects and to share all their financial, technical, and human resources in all disciplines such as commerce and industry, agriculture, banking and finance, health education, social welfare, communications, energy, minerals and mining, and research and development. Mahmood was so confident about UTN’s potential that one day before his arrest in October 2001, he bragged that if the United States had not attacked Afghanistan, the country would have developed, with his help, into a strong industrial country during the next ten years.

Many of UTN’s commercial projects needed large loans from investors and the Pakistani government. UTN’s strategy was to obtain permission from the Taliban regime for a project and then seek a loan to fund the initial stage of construction. Local companies would use materials and equipment imported from or through Pakistan. In return for finishing the first stage, Afghanistan would furnish UTN with cash and minerals that could be easily sold. After selling the bartered commodities, UTN would furnish another payment to the local companies for the next stage, and so on, until the project was completed. Mahmood referred to this approach as “investment recycling.” Such an investment strategy is consistent with Islamic economic principles advocated by UTN that oppose the charging of interest on loans. Revenues earned from the sale of the commodities would also be used to cover UTN’s costs. After paying back the initial investments, any surplus revenues would represent profit for the investing parties. UTN was certainly not opposed to seeking large profits for itself and its investors.

As it grew more successful, UTN was also growing more dependent on the Taliban regime and indirectly on al Qaeda for the approval of its commercial projects.  Mahmood and Majeed reportedly told their interrogators that Pakistan’s intelligence agency had sanctioned both their charity activities and their meetings with Mullah Omar.  UTN’s growing dependence on the Afghan government would have made it increasingly difficult for Mahmood and his associates to say no to Taliban or al Qaeda requests for nuclear assistance, but given Mahmood’s pro-Taliban views, he was inclined to help in any case.

Over two or three days in August 2001, Mahmood and Majeed had long discussions with Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and two other al Qaeda officials about the development of weapons of mass destruction, providing detailed responses to bin Laden’s technical questions about the manufacture of nuclear weapons. 

Mahmood and Majeed described bin Laden as intensely interested not only in nuclear, but in chemical and biological weapons. Mahmood provided information about the infrastructure needed for a nuclear weapon program and the effects of nuclear weapons (which led the CIA to derisively refer to Mahmood as “bin Laden’s nuclear secretary).” One senior al Qaeda operative shared his ideas of constructing a simple firing system for a weapon using commercially available supplies and in response Mahmood provided a rough hand-drawn bomb design.

Al Qaeda also wanted Mahmood and Majeed to help with making radiological dispersal devices (RDD), or “dirty bombs.” Farhatullah Babar, who had known Mahmood for many years and was a media advisor to the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, said U.S. interrogators were unable to prove that work on a RDD progressed much beyond an agreement in principle. Babar added that Mahmood would have been willing to make a RDD, but the September 11 attacks ended all their plans, this in spite of the fact that a senior Pakistani intelligence official described both scientists as “very motivated.”

Mahmood and Majeed were not the only Pakistani scientists in contact with the Taliban and al Qaeda. Several other Pakistani nuclear scientists were contacted by representatives of the Taliban government and al Qaeda seeking assistance to create a nuclear program inside Afghanistan. Out of those, two unnamed Pakistani scientists who were veterans of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons complex and associates of Mahmood and Majeed were amenable to al Qaeda’s overtures (one of the two was already under suspicion for trying to sell weapon designs).

Although President Musharraf detained many UTN officials for questioning, often at the request of the United States, he limited the ability of U.S. interrogators to question them. Pakistani officials accused the United States of using these interrogations to learn secrets about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Behind the scenes, these interrogations unsettled the leaders of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. For the first time, concern over the potential threat of losing classified secrets because of the actions of Pakistanis employed in the nuclear programs superseded concern over Indian or Israeli attack or sabotage.

In response, the government implemented systematic checks to ensure its nuclear scientists were reliable. This tougher stance didn’t apply to Mahmood and Majeed. Pakistan announced in late January 2002 that it would not press criminal charges against them. They were released from detention and put under house arrest with a limit placed on their communications (code language for being forbidden to talk to the media or other governments).

Musharraf’s tepid punishment against Mahmood and Majeed furthered doubts that Pakistan had truly fixed its massive security breach.

There is little doubt that if Musharraf had not joined the United States in fighting al Qaeda, UTN officials would have probably provided extensive and ongoing assistance to nuclear efforts in Afghanistan. UTN’s civilian projects could have served as a front for illicit procurement of items from Pakistan or other states with inadequate or nonexistent controls. Under the cover of civil industries, medical facilities, and universities, UTN or al Qaeda agents could pose as legitimate buyers. They could connect with suppliers and transnational smuggling networks unlikely to sell overtly to terrorists but willing to break or exploit loopholes in the U.N. embargo on Afghanistan. Much of this assistance would have occurred in secret and could have transformed al Qaeda’s primitive nuclear effort into a much more serious threat.

Shielded by the Taliban government, al Qaeda would have been able to create secure bases of operation to seek plutonium or highly enriched uranium, conduct secret, long-term research and development work on nuclear weapons, along with building crude facilities to both make and test nuclear weapons components. Al Qaeda was well positioned to create a smuggling network to seek nuclear explosive material and key dual-use items for producing nuclear weapons. Al Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan demonstrate that a subnational group operating relatively freely within a weak, nonindustrialized state could, with determination and patience, develop its own nuclear weapons program.

A central lesson of Afghanistan is that nuclear terrorism is possible even in the most remote locations. According to Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former director of the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy and former head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s WMD and terrorism efforts, “There was an assumption within the intelligence community that nuclear material was too hard to acquire and that even if they had material, nuclear weapons are too sophisticated to be built without an industrial complex supporting the effort.” Easing its task, he added, a terrorist group does not need the “surety and consistency” that a state desires as its weapon can be far less safe and reliable, forgoing certain hard-to-make components that would give a state pause.

Few believe that a terrorist group has a nuclear weapon today or that acquiring one would be easy. However, nothing suggests that al Qaeda or similar groups have given up on their hopes to attack the United States or its allies with a nuclear weapon. In May 2003, al Qaeda obtained a fatwa from a radical cleric that approved the use of WMD against civilians if they are killed during an attack aimed at defeating an enemy. Al Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith said that al Qaeda had the right to kill four million Americans, including one million children, in retaliation for Muslim deaths that al Qaeda blames on the United States. Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, issued a public call for help in September 2006 from “people of distinguished skills and high levels of expertise, particularly nuclear scientists and explosives engineers.”

Over time, the chance of al Qaeda succeeding in recruiting experts is almost certain to increase. One place they could come from is Pakistan. Richard Holbrooke, special U.S. advisor to Pakistan and Afghanistan, warned in September 2009 that al Qaeda was publicly asking nuclear engineers to provide Pakistan’s nuclear secrets. There remain Pakistani nuclear scientists and engineers with radical views who could be open to helping al Qaeda or another terrorist group build nuclear weapons. Pakistani government officials regularly state that no Pakistani scientists could now leak sensitive information, but how can we have confidence that they would know a breach had taken place? Even today, U.S. intelligence officials believe Pakistan’s vital nuclear technology is not as secure as its government wants us to believe.

Theft and smuggling of nuclear explosive materials by terrorist groups remain a deep concern. The IAEA’s head, Mohamed ElBaradei, said in 2004, “We are actually having a race against time which I don’t think we can afford. The danger is so imminent not only with regard to countries acquiring nuclear weapons but also terrorists getting their hands on uranium or plutonium.” So far, the IAEA has confirmed about fifteen incidents of theft and smuggling of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. These cases involve relatively small amounts of material, typically by smugglers with material, or access to material, but no buyers. Yet according to Charles Allen, former undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, these cases also suggest that “an organized trafficker with access to both materials and qualified buyers might escape detection.” His comment implies what many already believe — some nuclear explosive material is already missing.

A nuclear weapon requires just fractions of a percentage of the huge quantities of weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium stored or transported around the world. Russia possesses hundreds of thousands of kilograms of nuclear weapons-usable materials as does the United States. Europe and Japan at any one time have almost 150,000 kilograms of weapons-usable plutonium in their civilian nuclear industries. China has about 30,000 kilograms. India has almost 2,000 kilograms and Pakistan has well over 1,000 kilograms. Over the next fifteen years, hundreds of thousands of kilograms of weapons-usable plutonium are slated for transport on the world’s highways and sea lanes. With such large quantities dispersed through so many parts of the world, protecting this material is vital to stopping nuclear terrorism.

A breakthrough in learning to make an implosion-type nuclear weapon could stimulate a terrorist group to more aggressively seek nuclear explosive materials. This type of crude nuclear explosive is very difficult to make, but from a materials standpoint, an implosion type has advantages for a terrorist group compared to the simpler-to-make gun-type device. First, an implosion device can use all nuclear explosive materials, including plutonium and highly enriched uranium, rather than just highly enriched uranium (or the rare element neptunium) as in the gun-type. Second, an implosion-type device needs far less highly enriched uranium than a gun-type. An implosion weapon needs less than 6 kilograms of plutonium or 20 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium. In contrast, a gun-type device requires about 50 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium.

Another consideration is that terrorist groups devote considerable resources to training explosives experts, a focus that gives them a considerable advantage in building a nuclear weapon. Abdel al-Aziz al-Masri showed that a terrorist group can work on developing the ability to set off a nuclear explosive with high explosives under crude conditions. Achieving a capability to implode a nuclear core with high explosives might represent an ominous threshold at which point a terrorist group feels it can actually succeed in detonating a nuclear explosive, particularly if it has a recipe for a nuclear weapon. It might find innovative ways to ease its task of building a nuclear device, sacrificing the size of the nuclear explosive yield or the device’s reliability and safety.

Despite the improvements in intelligence since 2001, terrorist work on nuclear weapons is incredibly difficult to discover. The head of the Department of Energy’s intelligence office, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, stated in Congressional testimony in April 2008, “The task for the intelligence community is not easy. We must find something that is tactical in size but strategic in impact. We must stop something from happening that we have never seen happen before.” Beyond some basics, he added, “We do not know what a terrorist nuclear plot might look like.” Mowatt-Larssen warns, “In the early years of the twenty-first century, we will likely be tested in our ability to prevent non-state efforts to develop and detonate a nuclear weapon.” Stopping terrorists from detonating a nuclear explosive is a crucial challenge. Mahmood and Majeed represent a true nightmare, but they should also be an urgent wake-up call.