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Could al-Qaeda go Nuclear?

By Carey Sublette

Last changed 18 May 2002


Since the Eleventh of September 2001, if not before, the possibility that Islamic terrorist groups, whose fondest dream is slaughtering as many civilians as possible, might obtain nuclear weapons has been nearly anyone's worst nightmare.

How likely is this possibility? What evidence is there that this goal has been seriously pursued, and how close might they have come to it?

While this possibility has been speculated on since at least the 1970s, it acquired special interest in 1998, when an Arabic language news story alleged that Osama bin Laden has actually obtained complete nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union. This story was published in Al-Watan Al-'Arabi on 13 Nov 1998. Nearly all of the claims that have circulated since then about bin Laden's nuclear capabilities are derived directly from this report.

The unsourced claims made in Al-Watan Al-'Arabi did not attract immediate attention in the West. It was not until about a year later that stories began surfacing in English repeating these assertions. For example, a story in the 25 October 1999 issue of the Jerusalem Report (quoted in Bin Laden has several Nuclear Suitcases) asserted that Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization al Qaeda has acquired a number of these devices in exchange for a "$30 million in cash and two tons of Afghan heroin", a claim taken directly from Al-Watan Al-'Arabi.

The Jerusalem Report story provided as the source of this allegation Yossef Bodansky, an apparently a free-lance analyst with connections to Israeli intelligence and conservative Republican think tanks. Bodansky's source for this information was not disclosed.

NB: In evaluating this claim it would be well to recall that Libya has reportedly offered over a billion dollars for a single nuclear weapon, but appears to have been unsuccessful in obtaining one; and that Russia has been the victim of terror bombings killing hundreds of civilians in recent years with the suspicion of responsibility pointing at muslim groups allied with bin Laden. Such devices in the hands of Islamic terrorist groups would be the greatest threat to Russia's security today, and it would go to almost any length to prevent it.

The most detailed and persuasive account of Osama bin Laden's interest (if not capability) in nuclear weapons is provided by the testimony of Jamal Ahmad al-Fadl, a native of Sudan and ex-bin Laden associate, in the trial of the earlier World Trade Center bombing: United States of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al. (S(7) 98 Cr. 1023) prosecuted February-July 2001 in United States District Court (transcripts are on-line at http://cryptome.org/usa-v-ubl-dt.htm ).

At the trial al-Fadl recounted in detail his extensive but unsuccessful efforts to obtain enriched uranium for al Qaeda through contacts in Khartoum, Sudan during 1993-94 and afterward. At one point a fee of $1.5 million was discussed, and plans were made to test uranium samples to see if they could be used to build a bomb (this testimony was delivered mostly during Day 3 and Day 4 of the trial.

It has been 27 years now since John McPhee's The Curve of Binding Energy brought it to public attention that with sufficient fissile material - highly enriched uranium or plutonium - there are no substantial technical obstacles for a small group to manufacture a simple but highly destructive nuclear bomb.

The US itself demonstrated in the Nth Country Experiment that the technical barrier to designing a nuclear device is quite low. This study is detailed in the classified report UCRL-50248, "Summary Report of the NTH Country Experiment," W. J. Frank, ed., March 1967, but a declassified version of it is on-line at the National Security Archive. The experiment was conducted to see how much effort was actually required to develop a viable fission weapon design starting from nothing. Three newly graduated physics students were given the task of developing a detailed weapon design using only public domain information. The project reached a successful conclusion, that is, they did develop a viable design after expending only three man-years of effort over two and a half calendar years. In the years since, much more information has entered the public domain so that the level of effort required has obviously dropped further.

There is no doubt that if a group like al Qaeda were to obtain sufficient fissile material - no more than 12 kg of plutonium, or 50 kg of highly enriched uranium, and quite possibly less, a highly destructive bomb could be constructed. It is very doubtful that a simple nuclear device developed by a small group could qualify as a "suitcase bomb", but most any ordinary vehicle would suffice for transportation.