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Al-Watan Al-'Arabi

13 Nov 1998; Paris; pp 20-21

Report by Riyad 'Alam-al-Din in Nicosia and unidentified Al-Watan al-'Arabi correspondent in Moscow -- date not given.

Translation by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS).

"It is the floating tip of the iceberg. The affair is much more serious than what is being talked about openly and officially. It has more wide-ranging ramifications than the two bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. It is even more serious than the 224 charges."

These remarks were made by a senior western security official specializing in cases of terrorism and Islamic extremism. He was commenting on the official charge sheet submitted by the US judiciary last week against Usamah Bin-Ladin and Muhammad 'Atif (alias Abu-Hafs), Bin-Ladin's military commander who is in charge of the Al-Qa'idah [Base] organization. There is a reward of $5 million to whoever gives information that would facilitate arrest of the most dangerous terrorist in the world today. In the opinion of this security official, however, all the accusations on the charge sheet are no more than a way to "legitimize" the largest international manhunt in history. The objective of this operation is to hunt down and besiege Bin-Ladin and his group and to threaten any quarter that tries to provide safe haven to his organization. This expert also told Al-Watan al-'Arabi that most, if not all, of the intelligence organs worldwide have been absorbed for the past few weeks in a manhunt led by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A special joint team from the US National Security Council [NSC] and the CIA is supervising the manhunt. The information that has reached Al-Watan al-'Arabi says that the results that have begun to surface in several countries -- stretching from Africa to Europe, especially Albania, and reaching all the way to the United States -- indicate that the arrest of radical elements from Bin-Ladin's organization or who cooperate with Bin-Ladin is merely part of this US plan.

According to our information, the US plan is to stop Bin-Ladin from converting his organization into a terrorist faction armed with nuclear weapons. Al-Watan al-'Arabi has learned from well-informed and reliable security and diplomatic sources that US and European anxiety and worry have turned into total mobilization that is unprecedented in the history of the war against terrorism. This is due to the emergence of serious fears regarding extremely serious developments. These developments are much more serious and dangerous than what happened in Kenya and Tanzania, and much more serious than possible retaliatory bombing operations against US interests. These developments evolve around highly secret reports that have reached the special NSC team from several sources, including the Russian intelligence organ (FSB), the successor of the KGB. All these reports talk about a new and dangerous strategy of terrorism masterminded by Bin-Ladin in cooperation with Taleban Amir Mulla Muhammad Omar who is Bin-Ladin's partner, guardian, and "uncle". [In Arab and Muslim culture, the word "uncle" is sometimes used by a son-in-law in referring to his father-in-law]. This information also confirms that about two months ago, Bin-Ladin bought nuclear warheads that had been smuggled out of the former Soviet Union. The information adds that it has been known for years that Bin-Ladin had succeeded in penetrating the Chechen Republic and in establishing wide-ranging relations with some former officials and current rebels there when he financed the "Jihad" against the Russians and when he sent some groups of his supporters to fight alongside the Muslim Chechens. Bin-Ladin recently dispatched a joint delegation to the Chechen Republic made up of his group and some representatives of the Taleban close to Mulla Omar. Secret meetings were held in the outskirts of Grozny with some members of the Chechen Mafia, which is known to be one of the strongest Mafia groups in the Confederation of Independent States (the former Soviet Union). This Mafia group is highly placed among the most important Russian Mafia groups led by former senior officers in the KGB and the Soviet Red Army.

The information received stresses that these contacts and meetings in Chechnya were held to put the final touches on "the nuclear warheads deal." According to reliable sources, the deal cost $30 million in cash from Bin-Ladin's treasury and a "grant" of two tons of Afghan heroin that were donated by the Taleban. The heroin has been estimated to be worth $70 million. Some quarters say that Bin-Ladin was ready to pay "any price" for not nuclear technology, but nuclear warheads ready for use and experts specialized in assembly, usage, and "conversion" if the need arises. Bin-Ladin underscored his interest in tactical nuclear weapons and bombs that can be carried in small suitcases. The Russians have hundreds of these weapons and bombs.

One report says that Bin-Ladin resorted to the services of the Chechen Mafia after many of his extremist aides -- some specialized in nuclear physics and nuclear sciences -- failed in their attempts to get their hands on nuclear technology and nuclear equipment. The US and western security organs have been monitoring these attempts for months, attempts that have been going on in some east European countries since 1993. The most notorious of these attempts is the one that was made by Mamduh Salim, the Sudanese electronics engineer, who is being tried in Munich pending extradition to the United States. Washington suspects Mamduh Salim of playing a role in Bin-Ladin's financial network and in contacts he has made to procure enriched uranium.

At one stage, the big security organs -- which were aware of Bin-Ladin's attempts to shop for nuclear weapons -- focused on the secret contacts going on between him, Sudan, and Iraq for cooperation in this field. It was this knowledge and these suspicions that drove the United States to bomb the Al-Shifa' factory in Sudan in August. The US suspicions were reinforced with intelligence reports that said the Al-Shifa' factory contained chemical laboratories. Recent information reaching Al-Watan al-'Arabi has revealed that the US intelligence community discovered that Bin-Ladin's attempts in sending experts from his network in east European countries to look for enriched uranium had failed. This network had also lost a great deal of money in fraudulent deals. However, it seems that this network's continued attempts to shop for enriched uranium was mere camouflage to draw the attention of the intelligence community away from what the Chechen-Russian Mafia was doing. This Mafia spread its agents and middle-men throughout the republics known for having a nuclear arsenal. These agents and middle-men were not looking for uranium or plutonium; they were on the lookout for ready-made nuclear weapons.

As a matter of fact, the US intelligence community and the major western security organs that were monitoring the movements of Bin-Ladin's network in eastern Europe were taken by complete surprise when ready-made nuclear warheads started reaching Bin-Ladin and the Taleban. Al-Watan al-'Arabi's information confirms that these warheads -- estimated at more than 20 in number in various sizes and strengths -- have come from several republics and different arsenals in different areas, such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and even Russia. The information adds that five Muslim Turkoman nuclear experts later arrived near Khost where the nuclear warheads were stored in tunnels several hundred meters deep in this mountainous region. The information says that in the days of the former Soviet Union, the leader of this nuclear team worked in the center of the Iraqi Tammuz reactor before it was bombed in the 1980s. This nuclear expert is now in charge of preparing a nuclear laboratory in that secret base. Some security agencies do not rule out the possibility that other experts have joined this team, especially since hundreds of them are looking for employment. These experts are willing to accept pay as low as $2,000 a month since some of them in Russia have not been paid their salaries for the past six months.

The US security agencies are afraid that this laboratory would specialize in converting these nuclear weapons into small bombs that can be easily carried and concealed to carry out terrorist operations in US cities. Al-Watan al-'Arabi sources confirm that this possibility has become the nightmare of intelligence agencies. These agencies have been cooperating and coordinating their operations in an unprecedented manner in order to forestall and thwart what they consider the most serious and dangerous terrorist threat in the future. The crucial importance is not merely that extremist and terrorist organizations have procured nuclear weapons, but that this peril now constitutes the most pessimistic scenario imaginable on a practical level: nuclear proliferation in the hands of cooperating criminal and terrorist organizations. The most recent example of this close cooperation is that between Bin-Ladin and the Chechen Mafia and the cooperation between this Mafia and other Mafia groups.

The disclosures and revelations in the latest reports constitute a very serious development. The period of the early 1990s -- immediately following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellite republics and the chaos that prevailed in the most sensitive military sectors -- witnessed several limited smuggling operations involving radioactive materials and nuclear weapons. These were stolen from scores of thousands of weapons left unguarded in the arsenals of the former Soviet Union, Russia, and the secret nuclear cities. There are about 30,000 nuclear warheads in Russia alone.

These days, it seems that the nuclear black market is no longer confined to some smugglers or traders dealing with Third World countries trying to procure nuclear technology. The Mafia connection, the way the nuclear warheads were purchased by the Taleban, and the way these weapons reached the Taleban without drawing any attention indicate that the Mafia gangs have turned all their expertise and professionalism from smuggling to marketing this new very lucrative trade. No doubt, the deal with the Taleban was very profitable and a "historic accomplishment" to the Russian and Chechen Mafia groups. It paves the way to their full control of the world's drug trade and trafficking in nuclear arms. It gives them the chance to assume first place and unseat the Italian Mafia from this position. It is well known that the Taleban now control the largest opium and drug plantations in the world. For instance and just as a reminder, Afghanistan produced 41 tons of opium in 1984. A chart compiled by the United Nations shows that in November 1997 production reached 2,800 tons. It seems that the Taleban insist on holding on to the "golden" notoriety of being the biggest producer and exporter of opium and heroin in the world, including the United States. The latest statistics released by the UN program to combat drugs estimate that the 1997-1998 opium season in Afghanistan produced 3,269 tons, an increase of about 16% from the previous season.

Some information reaching Al-Watan al-'Arabi says that the secret agreement concluded between Bin-Ladin and the Taleban on one hand and the Russian and Chechen Mafia groups on the other goes beyond a mere "barter" of nuclear weapons with opium. A report by the Russian intelligence agencies has revealed that the Mafia gangs have managed to procure the right to monopolize a large part of opium production. They have also received the right to participate in and monitor the work in several laboratories that produce heroin. These laboratories stretch from Kuteh and Peshawar near the Pakistani border, to Razani near Iran, and to the area of Mazar e-Sharif [placenames as transliterated] near Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. That is why security agencies are worried that the Mafia may have concluded a very close cooperation or even an alliance in sharing the proceeds with the Taleban and the radical organizations. The Mafia would use its clandestine and widespread networks to smuggle heroin to the entire world in return for providing small nuclear weapons to terrorist groups so they could perpetrate operations in cities and other targets. The presence of radicals wherever there are Mafia groups has become a real obsession with the security agencies due to the difficulties these agencies face in trying to uncover the cells of terrorism and extremism disguised in their new garb.

It is noteworthy that most of the security agencies have chosen to focus on the new peril represented in this nuclear-opium cooperation between the Taleban and the Mafia. However, it has also been noticed that the military experts and strategists are also focusing on another factor. They would like to know whether the Taleban would be prepared to resort to the use of nuclear weapons and whether Mulla Omar is prepared to be independent of Pakistan and to what extent. They also would like to know whether Mulla Omar wishes to join the nuclear club alongside Islamabad, New Delhi, and other neighboring republics in Central Asia. Al-Watan al-'Arabi has learned that this "second" obsession dominated the analyses of a large number of military experts when the recent crisis between Iran and the Taleban escalated. They paused and took a second look at the audacity and escalatory tone of Mulla Omar when he threatened Iran. He sounded as if he is in possession of extremely dangerous weapons.

[Description of source: Pro-Saudi news magazine]