Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Sources Fear Radiation Bomb

WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence agencies have recently concluded that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network may have made greater strides than previously thought toward obtaining plans or materials to make a crude radiological weapon that would use conventional explosives to spread radioactivity over a wide area, according to U.S. and foreign sources.

Some of the conclusions come from interrogations of captured al-Qaida members or associates. Some come from evidence gathered in the past month on the ground in Afghanistan by Central Intelligence Agency officers and U.S. Special Forces from former al-Qaida facilities.

In addition, recent U.S. intelligence reports describe a meeting within the last year in which bin Laden was present when one of his associates produced a canister that allegedly contained radioactive material.

The U.S. government last month urgently asked a few key allied governments to assist in determining whether the associate, identified only with a common name, may have entered their countries, perhaps with radioactive material. The concern is sufficiently deep that some countries have adopted extreme security procedures at their borders, including the increased use of devices that measure radioactivity, the sources said.

There is no conclusive evidence that bin Laden or his associates have built a radiological bomb or even have the capability to do so, these sources said. But for years, bin Laden has said publicly he was working to obtain a nuclear capability.

U.S. officials are concerned that any nuclear detonation by al-Qaida would be a calamitous psychological setback to the war on terrorism, and a huge effort has been launched to detect and prevent the possibility, remote as it might be, sources said. The worry about al-Qaida's efforts to obtain a nuclear capability was a factor in the decision Monday to issue another alert about possible terrorist attacks in the United States, a senior source said.

On at least one occasion, the White House cited the increased concern that al-Qaida might have a radiological bomb as a key reason that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was not available for a face-to-face meeting with visiting senior foreign officials. The meeting usually would have allowed for informal personal contact, but took place via secure video conference because Cheney was at a secure location outside Washington.

U.S. intelligence agencies are looking not only for evidence that terrorists could be assembling a radiological bomb but also for any sign that al-Qaida could be trying to make a crude atomic or fission bomb.

A radiological bomb, also known as a "dirty bomb,'' could be made by taking highly radioactive material, such as spent reactor fuel rods, and wrapping it around readily available conventional high explosives. The device is designed to kill or injure not through its explosive force but by creating a zone of intense radiation that could extend several city blocks. A large, highly radioactive bomb could affect a much larger area.

No country or terrorist group has detonated a radiological bomb.

A diagram of a dirty bomb has been found in an installation that appeared to belong to the Taliban or al-Qaida network in Afghanistan in recent weeks, according to a source. In addition, numerous other documents about nuclear weapons in general were recovered. But a well-placed U.S. source said such diagrams and documents are available to the public. The source said some designs were so inadequate and primitive that they most likely would not work.

Al-Qaida's longstanding interest in acquiring a nuclear capability is well-documented. In February, Jamal Ahmed Fadl, a Sudanese man who worked for bin Laden for nine years, testified that al-Qaida had tried to acquire nuclear material in the early 1990s. Fadl said that a bin Laden lieutenant ordered him to buy uranium from a former Sudanese army officer, who offered to sell ore from South Africa for $1.5 million.

Though he did not have personal knowledge that the deal was consummated, Fadl testified, he was paid a $10,000 bonus for arranging the deal. Fadl was a government witness at the New York trial of four participants in the al-Qaida bombing of two American embassies in Africa in August 1998.

Last month, bin Laden told a Pakistani journalist that his movement has chemical and nuclear weapons.

"I wish to declare that if America used chemical or nuclear weapons against us, then we may retort with chemical and nuclear weapons,'' bin Laden was quoted as saying. "We have the weapons as a deterrent.''

One Taliban official in Afghanistan has denied al-Qaida has any nuclear capability.

"We do not even have modern weaponry, not to mention weapons of mass destruction,'' Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, said recently.

Pakistan has detained two nuclear scientists, both veterans of the secret program that has given Pakistan about a dozen nuclear warheads, and is interrogating them about their contacts with Taliban and al-Qaida members. The two, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Abdul Majid, worked in Afghanistan in recent years but have said they were only providing charitable assistance to Afghans.

Mahmood is an expert in plutonium, the highly fissionable material used in the heart of most nuclear weapons. He was given a desk job in 1999 after he publicly said that Pakistan should help other Islamic nations build nuclear weapons. He also spoke publicly in support of the Taliban movement.

Russia and Pakistan are considered the two most likely sources of radioactive material for al-Qaida. Russian officials have reported dozens of attempts to steal enriched uranium or plutonium since 1990. Last month, a Russian general said unidentified terrorists recently had twice tried and failed to penetrate Russian top-secret fortified nuclear storage facilities known as "S-shelters.''