Subj: A State of High Alert
Date: 11/4/01 6:48:23 AM Pacific Standard Time

A State of High Alert
By: Anthony Kimery


State sponsors of terrorism and terrorist links worldwide are under close scrutiny for transshipment of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) ranging from biological and chemical agents to nuclear-related materials and devices. The result, according to more than a dozen top security, military and intelligence officials, is heightened alerts around the world to track down and eliminate these threats. Highly specialized teams from the FBI and other federal law-enforcement agencies, working in close cooperation with military and intelligence agencies, have been on the lookout with extremely sophisticated devices to detect WMDs of every kind.

This includes deployment of specialists from the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST). Insight was the first national journal given access to this secretive agency (see "Your Life May Depend on the Woman from NEST," Oct. 23, 1995). The primary task of NEST is constantly to be on the lookout for potential nuclear or radiological weapons that might be smuggled onto the U.S. mainland. Indeed, after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, NEST personnel were deployed to Russia to help that country and its former satellite states learn how to identify, locate and eliminate potential WMD threats, including the tracking of lost and stolen nuclear materials.

After the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, Insight has learned, NEST was put on a state of high alert and operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the nation's capital and New York City monitoring for nuclear-related weapons. Federal officials have told the magazine that this includes extensive use of deployed sensors and specially equipped vehicles patrolling the streets of both cities.

So NEST personnel were accompanied by special forces and on their highest state of alert for possible radiological threats during the first national terrorist alert announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft. Vice President Richard Cheney quickly was moved out of the capital to a secure location as a means of ensuring an orderly transition in the event of the death of the president. Officials would not comment on possible links between the nuclear concerns and the hustling away of Cheney, but after the vice president returned to a normal work schedule at his White House office they confirmed that NEST had moved to a lower state of alert.

Soon, however, both White House and Department of Defense (DOD) officials began to brief the press on concerns about potential radiological releases on U.S. grounds while dismissing the potential for a "conventional" nuclear-bomb attack as highly improbable. However, the ongoing operations of NEST and its frantic activities were not addressed. The press failed to pick up on the fact that NEST and its specialists had been on highest alert and systematically searching Washington, facts Insight has not been asked to withhold.

When Ashcroft again announced an increased state of alert during Halloween week, a similar pattern emerged. As NEST worked aggressively, U.S. government spokesmen and officials downplayed the potential for radiological attacks using nuclear materials packed into explosive packages that upon detonation disperse highly toxic materials. But, according to WMD specialists interviewed at length by Insight, there is no doubt that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization have acquired fissile materials. And, as one military source says, "We believe they have, at least, drawn up plans with the full intention" of using them inside the United States.

In this lengthy series of interviews by Insight, insiders emphasized repeatedly that the issue was never if WMDs would be used by terrorists but when. "This threat is very, very real," a U.S. intelligence official tells the magazine.

The current consensus is that, rather than a conventional nuclear bomb, the terrorists have acquired nuclear-related materials to be dispersed with a conventional explosion. Such a radiological dispersal device, known as an RDD, might kill hundreds and subject thousands to harm from radioactivity. Using plutonium, which is extraordinarily carcinogenic, an RDD could render an area of three to five square miles uninhabitable for months — or a lifetime. The specialists note that as a result of the April 1986 nuclear accident at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine, according to Soviet authorities, there were more than 1,000 direct casualties and about 100,000 were put at risk from cancer.

Although no U.S. official would comment on the record, Insight was briefed on background that federal agencies became alarmed about the potential for an RDD or other nuclear attack following the arrest of a Pakistani man trying to smuggle a bomb and radiological materials into the heart of Israel from the Palestinian territories. President George W. Bush was briefed on the capture and, according to Insight's sources, this is one reason why Cheney has been moved abruptly to secret locations. Israeli officials declined Insight's request for more information, as have U.S. intelligence and military spokesmen.

NEST moved quickly into action in Washington, where it set up specialized monitoring equipment along streets and in buildings throughout the city and surrounding jurisdictions. This equipment is designed to detect even the faintest indication of the presence of radioactive materials. NEST teams remain on "permanent standby," says a source familiar with the group's operations.

U.S. intelligence and defense officials have for years been alert to possible terrorist use of RDDs. In the summer of 1997, the DOD Science Board released a report titled Summer Study Task Force Responses to Transnational Threats. The report stated that "defense planners are increasingly concerned about possible state and nonstate use of radiological dispersal devices against U.S. forces and population centers abroad and at home … as technological barriers have fallen and radiological materials have become more plentiful."

Although some "weapons-design experts contend that the physical threat from these RDDs may be overstated," the report said, "the psychological and political effects of RDD use are not well understood and are potentially more significant than the lethality effects of such use. While RDDs may not be well-suited as 'military weapons' in the classic sense, the use of RDDs could be powerfully coercive and could trigger enormous political reactions within host countries or among allies in a coalition. These reactions could produce major strategic consequences for the military campaign."

The Pentagon defines an RDD as "any device, including any weapon or equipment other than a nuclear explosive device, specifically designed to employ radioactive material by disseminating it to cause destruction, damage or injury by means of the radiation produced by the decay of such material," according to a 1997 National Defense University paper by James L. Ford.

Virtually any radioactive material can be used to construct an RDD: fissile products, spent reactor fuel and relatively low-level radioactive materials such as medical, industrial and even research waste. Weapons-grade materials, such as highly enriched uranium or plutonium, are not needed to build a crude RDD.

Authorities point out, however, that the construction and delivery of an RDD bomb is not a simple matter. This is true in part because of the heat generated by large quantities of highly radioactive materials and the extreme exposure hazard from intense radiation. These substances require heavy shielding to protect handlers from overexposure and death. But, counterterrorist authorities emphasize, terrorists of the sort willing to crash jumbo jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon "probably would not scruple at exposure to deadly radiation" to build and deliver a bomb "for their cause," as one put it.

How could bin Laden and his network of terrorists obtain radioactive materials in a world alert for nuclear proliferation? Equally important, how could intelligence sources know about it?

The relationship between bin Laden and the Iraqi government is well known, and Czech intelligence has revealed that one of the leaders of the hijackings had repeated contact in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. Insight sources say that a U.N. weapons-monitoring team confirmed that the Iraqis were building RDDs and obtained details in a captured Iraqi report called Applications of Nuclear Physics; Atomic Energy Agency al-Qa'qa' Facility, Muthanna Facility. According to U.S. intelligence analysts, "Charges of irradiated zirconium weighing 3 KG [kilograms] were used in final tested RDD bombs. … Aerial field tests of the bomb were also performed with complete success."

This and the reported discovery by Israeli security of an RDD bomb in the possession of a terrorist suspect linked to bin Laden have been taken by intelligence agencies as confirmation that al-Qaeda terrorists were attempting to use radioactive materials against their enemies, foremost of whom is the United States.

Bin Laden never has made any secret of his determination to acquire nuclear weapons. In 1998 he issued a statement, "The Nuclear Bomb of Islam," in which he declared that "it is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorize the enemies of God." In an interview with Time magazine that same year, bin Laden danced around the question of whether he possessed nuclear devices by saying, "If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so."

In January 1999, the terrorist leader said in another interview that "it would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims." In a video released after the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden referred cryptically to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and appeared to be threatening the United States with nuclear attack. In September 1998, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, reputed to have been bin Laden's finance chief, was arrested in Munich, Germany, after trying to buy several kilograms of enriched uranium. According to U.S. and foreign intelligence officials familiar with the incident, the uranium was of Russian origin and involved organized crime middlemen from Belarus, the Czech Republic, Germany and Russia.

According to trial records in the case of United States of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., in prosecution stemming from the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, former bin Laden aide Jamal al-Fadl reportedly told the FBI when being questioned about these bombings that he witnessed al-Qaeda members trying to buy enriched uranium in the mid-1990s. He also claimed to have been assigned by bin Laden to buy uranium in 1993 from a Sudanese military officer but unexpectedly was taken off the assignment. Al-Fadl testified he did not know if the purchase ever was completed.

Recently, British intelligence services began investigating the claims of Ivan Ivanov, a businessman and former Bulgarian intelligence officer with strong ties to a Middle Eastern contracting firm. He reportedly said a middleman for bin Laden approached him earlier this year seeking assistance in setting up an environmental company to serve as a front through which to buy highly radioactive nuclear waste, including spent fuel rods, that could be combined with conventional explosives to create a "dirty bomb."

In May, the U.N. International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) released a study on suspected smuggling of nuclear materials. It stated that black-market dealers in highly radioactive materials (including bomb-grade nuclear materials) were operating with impunity worldwide. The IAEA also found that authorities in several former Soviet republics recently have seized plutonium and uranium from individuals attempting to smuggle it out of their countries and that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The IAEA report identified 550 incidents of nuclear trafficking since 1993 and said that such worldwide smuggling has doubled since 1996. Much of it originates in republics of the former Soviet Union, as well as through organized criminal elements of the Russian military and former Russian intelligence and security services, says the report.

"Let's face it, terrorism with radioactive materials after 9/11 no longer is an absurd notion," says a former special-operations officer who used to hunt down terrorists in Europe. "Terrorists crashing two jumbo-jet airliners into the World Trade towers and the Pentagon, and someone getting their hands on weaponized anthrax — and it is weaponized — and sending it through the mail, has pretty much dispelled the pre-9/11 notions that these kinds of scenarios lay only in the realm of Tom Clancy novels and Hollywood movies."

As Insight goes to press, high-level sources report that the latest terrorist alert is based on the growing conviction of U.S. intelligence agencies that the bin Laden network "definitely" has a nuclear weapon of some type "in country."

Anthony Kimery, an intelligence specialist, is a free-lance writer for Insight.
Story Source: Insight on the News