Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Bin Laden’s dirty bomb quest exposed

The Sunday Times - World
by Nick Fielding

NEW evidence of Osama Bin Laden’s attempts to acquire radioactive material for a “dirty bomb” has been revealed by an aide to the Al-Qaeda leader.
In a book to be published shortly, the insider shows that Bin Laden bowed to pressure from hawks within the terror group’s leadership to buy the material through supporters in Chechnya. He had initially been cautious about such a dramatic increase in its armoury.

It is the first time that such a senior Al-Qaeda figure has revealed the internal tensions and debates within the group, and shows it was far less unified than had been thought.

During the American bombardment of Tora Bora in Afghanistan where the leadership had fled in 2001, the book says, Al-Qaeda was hopelessly split and faith in Bin Laden declined. Bin Laden had also fallen out with Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader.

Excerpts from the book appeared last week in a London-based Arabic newspaper and are believed to have been written by Abu Walid al-Misri, an Egyptian who spent years in Afghanistan where his son was killed fighting the Russians.

Misri, who was with Bin Laden in Tora Bora, is thought to be one of Al-Qaeda’s leading theorists. When they fled Afghanistan, his book records, the organisation had been devastated by the death of Mohammed Atef, its military commander, killed by American bombing near Kandahar.

Atef had been a leading hawk and chief advocate of obtaining weapons of mass destruction. He had wanted radioactive material to be stored on US territory for use in a fast and direct response to any aggression against Afghanistan.

Bin Laden was more cautious, warning his followers that such a plan was “like a genie in a bottle” which could have untold consequences for Al-Qaeda. He was persuaded, however, by hardline supporters who argued that such weapons would give Al-Qaeda a powerful propaganda tool.

They accepted that the organisation would never be able to make sophisticated weapons but only develop “primitive things” such as “dirty bombs” — where radioactive material is packed with explosives to spray a deadly cloud over an area.

Atef was asked to contact Abu Khattab, a Saudi jihadist in Chechnya, in the belief that he could obtain materials from Russian nuclear facilities in the Caucasus. They never came.

The Taliban, who according to Misri had “a considerable quantity of radioactive materials seized from smugglers”, failed to answer Al-Qaeda’s request. Instead, they sold most of it to Pakistan.

As Afghanistan fell to coalition troops, Masri says, disquiet was growing about Bin Laden’s strategy. “It was a tragic example of an Islamic movement managed in an alarming and meaningless way. Everyone knew that their leader was leading them to the abyss.”

The main criticism was that Bin Laden had substantially underestimated US determination to destroy his organisation. The Al-Qaeda leader had believed that the 9/11 attacks, coming after the East African embassy attacks and the attempted sinking of the USS Cole, would deter America from invading Afghanistan.

Bin Laden had already fallen out with Mullah Omar, who had given him several warnings not to give interviews to the western media as a condition for staying in Afghanistan. Although Bin Laden had ignored them, Omar refused to hand him over to the Americans.

Misri also criticises the growth in Al-Qaeda training camps, saying many of them were compromised by spies and that they lacked discipline. “The last months in the life of Al-Qaeda (in Afghanistan) were a tragic example of an Islamic movement being run in a terrible way,” he says.

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