Atomic haul raises fears of bin Laden terror bomb
By Julian West in New Delhi
Customs officers from Uzbekistan discovered 10 lead-lined containers at a remote border crossing with Kazakhstan at the end of last month. These were filled with enough radioactive material to make dozens of crude weapons, each capable of contaminating a large area for many years.
Military analysts have described such "radiation bombs" as "poor man's nuclear weapons", in which conventional explosives are used to spread radioactive material. The seizure has raised fears that the wealthy bin Laden and his fellow terrorists could be developing the capability to unleash them on the West and Israel.
The consignment was addressed to a company in Quetta, Pakistan, called Ahmadjan Haji Mohammed. Quetta, where border controls are virtually non-existent, is the main Pakistani crossing into southern Afghanistan and only a six-hour drive from Kandahar, the Taliban regime's heartland where bin Laden operates his terror network.
Uzbek border guards were alerted to the lorry shipment when their radiation sensors "went off wildly". The Iranian driver had declared his cargo to be stainless steel, and carried a certificate from Kazakh authorities declaring that it contained no radioactive material.
The Telegraph has learnt that United States intelligence officials in the region believe that the vehicle was carrying strontium 90. This can be used to make a radiation bomb (or radiological weapon, as such a device is also known).
Kazakhstan has denied knowledge of the consignment. But the country houses many of the former Soviet Union's nuclear installations, and illegal shipments of atomic materials - sold by scientists or crime gangs - are known to leave the Central Asian republic. Two years ago, Washington issued portable radiation detectors to Customs agents from several countries in the former Soviet bloc in an attempt to stem the trade.
Although the cargo manifest stated that the shipment was destined for Pakistan, most experts believe that it is unlikely to have been intended for use by Islamabad's military regime. Pakistan, which demonstrated its nuclear capability with six test blasts two years ago, has at least 10 nuclear facilities, all producing radioactive bi-products.
Doug Richardson, the editor of Jane's Missiles said: "Pakistan is quite capable of making a nuclear bomb, so why would they want something like this? Radiation bombs are nuclear dustbin bombs - they're capable of contaminating an area around the explosion and making a city uninhabitable."
Five years ago, Chechen rebels announced that they had planted a radiation bomb in a Moscow park. It was dug up by Russian bomb-disposal experts. Although it would have caused little damage because it was buried, American experts say that such a bomb exploded above ground would be devastating.
Stephen Bryen, the former head of the Pentagon's Defence Technology Security Administration said: "It's an ideal terror weapon, used in a city and especially places such as subways, to cause maximum harm. There is therefore a high possibility that [the seized consignment] was going to terrorist groups in Pakistan and that it might well have been for bin Laden."
Reports that bin Laden has been trying to acquire chemical weapons have been confirmed recently by Western intelligence agencies. Meanwhile, the tightening American net around the ailing terrorist leader, who is being treated by an Iraqi doctor for serious kidney and liver problems, has thrown up evidence of at least two failed bomb plots - in Canada and Jordan - which bin Laden's organisation, Al Quaeda, is said to have planned.
A host of virulently anti-American terrorist groups are based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in addition to Kashmiri militant factions, and US officials believe that several may be interested in acquiring a radiation weapon. Among them are groups funded and trained by bin Laden, such as Harkat ul Mujahideen, the organisation believed to have carried out the Christmas Eve hijacking of an Indian airliner and the kidnapping and murder of six Western tourists - including two Britons - in Kashmir in 1995.
In addition, large numbers of Islamic terrorists from bin Laden's camps and Pakistan have been fighting in Chechnya, whose rebels once deployed a radiation device. The latest incident heightens American alarm about the smuggling of nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union.
Last week, Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State who was visiting Central Asia, said Washington would increase funding for counter-terrorism and cross-border controls. The US has previously provided a small handful of portable radiation detectors in addition to training from the defence department and Customs officers. US advisers have included two American Indian trackers, who have taught local officers how to follow trails through the region's mountains.
20 February 2000: Bin Laden shielded by cult status in Pakistan