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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Evidence Hints Taliban Wasn't So Nuclear Savvy

KABUL, Afghanistan -- With 10 capsules of "uranium" stuffed into a sock, Taliban officials once drove off in search of buyers or ideas for what to do with the smuggled material, said a former Taliban intelligence chief.

"The Taliban had no experience with such things. They were simple mullahs," said Mohammed Khaksar, himself a mullah, or Muslim cleric.

In an interview, Khaksar told of former colleagues in the 1996-2001 government selling supposed uranium to one another and said he advised supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to stay out of the trade because the goods appeared phony.

Khaksar, a former deputy interior minister, painted a picture of Afghan ignorance and bumbling in the business of nuclear weapons. Other reports suggest a more serious pursuit:

In October 2000, a Russian Security Council official told an international conference the Taliban had tried but failed to hire a former Soviet nuclear expert.

The U.S. indictment of Osama bin Laden, who was shielded by the Taliban in Afghanistan, alleges his al-Qaida network has sought the elements of nuclear weapons since 1993.

Captured al-Qaida lieutenant Abu Zubaydah told U.S. interrogators the Afghan-based terror group was working on a "dirty bomb," a conventional bomb that would scatter radioactive material, U.S. officials said.

Only sketchy evidence has emerged inside Afghanistan: a crude diagram of how a nuclear weapon works, said by U.S. intelligence officials to have been found in an al-Qaida location in Kabul; the travels of two Pakistani nuclear scientists to Afghanistan during Taliban rule.

Khaksar recalled mullahs passing around capsules of something they believed to be uranium, material weighing 1.8 kilograms to 2.3 kilograms that he understood came from formerly Soviet Central Asia.

The former Taliban aide said one government official bought a capsule of the material for 2 million afghanis ($55), and then sold it to his own higher headquarters for many times that amount.

"I don't think it was real uranium," Khaksar said. Even if it was, it would need to have been highly enriched with the uranium-235 isotope -- a rare commodity -- and weigh several times that amount to be of likely weapons use.

At one point, Taliban officials "put 10 capsules into a sock and drove to Kandahar," Mullah Omar's base, Khaksar said. "I think they wanted to sell it."

Another circumstance suggests less than intensive interest: Cobalt-60 and other radioactive substances, potentially useful for a "dirty bomb," sat at a hospital and a university physics lab in Kabul throughout the Taliban period, without being tampered with. International authorities finally secured them three months ago.