Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Loose nukes

Enough nuclear material is missing worldwide to make a 'dirty' bomb. Where is it? What is being done to prevent its use by terrorists?

By Staff writer / December 5, 2001



Jamal Ahmad Al-Fadl said his role in the prospective purchase of nuclear material began with a call from a senior Al Qaeda official. A man in Khartoum, Sudan, supposedly had uranium for sale. At the time, Mr. al-Fadl was an operative in Al Qaeda's terrorist army. His job: Check out the deal.

Skip to next paragraph

So in late 1993 or early 1994, he met with the first contact, then another, and then another, like a job applicant passing through corporate departments. Along the way, he noticed that at least one of them appeared to have been high in the Sudanese government at some point.

Finally, one morning al-Fadl drove with two men to a house north of the city. They disappeared for a moment, and then came back with a large bag, from which they pulled a cylinder two or three feet tall. They handed him a piece of paper covered with English words al-Fadl couldn't read. He recognized one phrase: "South Africa."

The demonstration phase of the sales pitch over, al-Fadl and his contacts returned to Khartoum in their jeep. He took the paper to an Al Qaeda boss.

Osama bin Laden's operatives were impressed, or at least satisfied. They told Al-Fadl to pass the word that they would pay the cylinder's $1.5 million asking price. Then they gave him $10,000 and took over the deal themselves.

"You did great job, we going to check it, and everything be fine," Al-Fadl said he was told.

This story of nuclear shopping was offered as an aside by Al-Fadl during his testimony earlier this year in the trial of Al Qaeda associates accused of bombing US embassies in East Africa in 1998. Is it a tall tale? Maybe. Al-Fadl, a self-described Al Qaeda turncoat, is far from an unimpeachable source.

Al-Fadl also said he didn't know whether this transaction ever went through. The "uranium" in the cylinder might have been a worthless prop in a radiological scam.

But its details ring true to many nuclear experts. And the larger point is indisputable: The shadow army of terrorism, the force responsible for the deadliest day on American soil since Antietam, is trying, methodically, patiently, to acquire the most powerful weapon known to man.

The US and its allies have known that intellectually for a long time. But after seeing jetliners turned into cruise missiles, perhaps the West better understands what that really means. Among Sept. 11's effects may be a phase-shift in imaginations. Few can doubt that if Mohammad Atta had access to a nuclear bomb, he would have used it.

Once throw-weights and basing modes and other aspects of strategic weaponry were the crucial issues of US nuclear security. Now patching the holes in Russia's makeshift fissile material protections may be more important. Does bin Laden have the bomb? Is Iraq enriching uranium? How secure are Pakistan's nukes?

"And so we find ourselves, at the dawn of the new century, in a new arms race," said former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia in a recent speech. "Terrorists are racing to get weapons of mass destruction. We ought to be racing to stop them."

New terrorists, new lapses

The old expert consensus used to be that terrorist groups were not terribly serious about getting nuclear weapons. They might try chemical or biological attack, but not nukes: They are highly dangerous, extremely expensive, and difficult to acquire. And their horror would overwhelm the essentially political nature of terrorist acts. Through history, most terrorists have wanted to maximize publicity - not casualties.

That judgment had already begun to change before the events of this fall. The rise of a new generation of terrorists, their goals unclear, their commitment total, their address unknown, saw to that.

A state such as Iraq is dangerous enough. But at least the US has some understanding of its weapons programs. A nation has assets and infrastructure that presumably even a leader such as Saddam Hussein might be loath to expose to US retaliatory attack.

Permissions