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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Terror and the black market

International underground weapons networks are essential for extremists, writes Gordon Corera(The Australian).

SOME sellers in the nuclear black market are amateurs trying to make a quick buck; others are far more dangerous. A serious fear is that organised crime recognises the profits and could move in to fill the vacuum. As international organised crime networks increasingly overlap and even merge with terrorist networks, this could be a route for terrorists getting hold of technology or nuclear material.

There's little doubt of al-Qa'ida's desire for nuclear weapons, and the more states there are with the bomb and the more technology and material there is in the marketplace, the more likely it is that al-Qa'ida will succeed in its ambition.

Since the early 1990s, Osama bin Laden has been seeking nuclear material.but the cylinder he received proved to be useless. Another individual in Sudan tried to get material for al-Qa'ida but was probably scammed into buying low-grade reactor fuel or other useless material. In 1998, bin Laden said that getting hold of unconventional weapons was a "religious duty". Terrorists are unlikely to be able to develop their own infrastructure to produce fissile material. The Japanese terrorist cult Aum Shinrikyo tried to develop nuclear weapons but lacked the scientific expertise to fulfil its ambition.

So if terrorists get hold of a weapon, it will likely be from a state. Buying or stealing has always been a fear when it comes to the nuclear stockpiles of the former Soviet Union and Pakistan. In late 2001, this possibility was beginning to look very real. A CIA source called Dragonfire warned that al-Qa'ida already had its hands on a weapon, to be detonated in New York.

Events on the ground in South Asia compounded the growing anxiety. As US troops and intelligence operatives swept through Kabul in October 2001, they found startling new details of al-Qa'ida's ambitions regarding nuclear weapons, and the role of Pakistan. The speed of the Taliban's fall meant that safe houses were abandoned still filled with documents that offered a huge intelligence haul. They revealed al-Qa'ida's capabilities and intentions had been seriously underestimated. It was further along with its biological weapons program than had been previously thought.

What really set off alarm bells was that the documents found in Kabul made clear that Pakistani nuclear scientists had met the Taliban and al-Qa'ida to discuss the development of nuclear devices. One of the men who had met them was Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a scientist whose zeal had caught former Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's eye in Multan in 1972. After being shoved aside by Khan, he moved to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, rising to become the director for nuclear power. But he also became increasingly radical and religious.

He wrote a book entitled Doomsday and Life after Death. In 1999 he was forced out of the nuclear establishment amid increasing concern over his views (including advocating the transfer of nuclear technology and materials to other countries) after he protested against Pakistan signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Another scientist who went with Mahmood to Afghanistan, Chaudhri Abdul Majeed, had retired from Pakistan's nuclear program in 2000.

After the two men left Pakistan's program, they founded a charity called Umma Tameer-e-Nau, which carried out relief work in Afghanistan. Mahmood's sympathies for the Taliban were well known and when he was visiting Kabul in 2000, bin Laden is reported to have heard of his presence and sent an al-Qa'ida operative to his hotel to arrange a meeting. A second meeting with bin Laden occurred in August 2001 in a Kabul compound. Mahmood's son said: "Osama asked my father, 'How can a nuclear bomb be made, and can you help us make one?"' According to the White House, during a follow-up meeting, an associate of bin Laden indicated that he had nuclear material.

No one is sure of the exact nature of the conversations and how much advice Mahmood may have given, although his son says he declined to help.

If the Taliban had not been overthrown, the relationship could have moved forward. When it emerged Mahmood had met bin Laden as well as Mullah Omar and discussed nuclear weapons, there was panic in Washington. CIA director George Tenet raced to Islamabad. Pakistani officials stressed that nothing sensitive had been passed on, but there were suspicions other scientists had been to Afghanistan. There was no evidence that al-Qa'ida had fissile material for a weapon and there seemed to be a realisation that a dirty bomb might be more feasible than an actual nuclear bomb.

Mahmood and Abdul Majeed were arrested by Pakistani intelligence officers on October 23 along with the entire UTN board, which had ties to the Pakistani military: former military intelligence chief General Hamid Gul was reported to have been UTN's "honorary patron". Gul met Mahmood in Kabul the same month Mahmood met bin Laden, although Gul said he knew nothing of contacts with bin Laden, according to reports filed by Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl shortly before he was killed. Mahmood was interrogated jointly by the CIA and ISI and failed six lie-detector tests.

But for all the fears of nuclear leakage from Pakistan, Islamabad was not confronted about Khan. There were too many other priorities and too much still to learn about the network.

The tremendous danger posed by the nexus between the development of weapons of mass destruction by states and the desire for those weapons by non-state terrorist groups was fast becoming the new orthodoxy in Washington. After the surprise attack of 9/11 and fear that the next attack might involve unconventional weapons, a new forward-leaning policy was formulated.

This policy put the greatest emphasis on stopping states from developing weapons of mass destruction rather than closing down the networks that might be supplying them: hence the identification of Iraq, Iran and North Korea in George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech in January 2002. The Bush White House never had much faith in traditional arms control regimes and treaties, with their universalistic principles, perceiving them as ineffective and too focused on process rather than results, in turn constraining US action. The problem was dangerous regimes, not dangerous weapons.
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