On February 26, 2002, The New York Times reported that U.S. administration officials said, “analysis of suspected radioactive substances seized in Afghanistan has found nothing to prove that Osama bin Laden reached his decade-long goal of acquiring nuclear materials for a bomb.” In fact, administration officials said, al Qaeda leaders may have been duped by swindlers selling phony materials.
One has to be careful not to misinterpret this statement. While it would be easy to accept this analysis at face value and conclude that al Qaeda does not possess nuclear material, such a conclusion would be incorrect. First, to acknowledge that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network might have been scammed is one thing—almost all secret nuclear programs in the developing world have been scammed at one time or another—but to assume that the network was tricked in all its black-market dealings is risky. Second, one cannot interpret the government’s analysis of the information collected in Afghanistan and reported by The New York Times as representing a full or complete understanding of bin Laden’s nuclear procurement efforts or accomplishments. The article quotes administration officials as cautioning that it is impossible to make a blanket assertion that al Qaeda does not possess any nuclear material. The officials also said that the group has the global network of operatives to seek, and perhaps someday, acquire nuclear material that could be used in a terror attack.
In many assessments of clandestine nuclear weapons programs, assuring completeness of analysis has been the most difficult task confronting analysts. Not finding any nuclear material in Afghanistan does not mean that al Qaeda did not obtain radioactive material. Al Qaeda could have moved valuable nuclear material out of Afghanistan or into secret hiding places in remote portions of the country. Nuclear material used in nuclear weapons or in many radiological dispersal devices is easy to transport. Given that most of the al Qaeda leadership escaped U.S. capture, it would be foolhardy to assume that al Qaeda would have left behind its valuable radioactive material.
Could Al Qaeda Build a Nuclear Weapon?
Since the results of the government’s analysis were published, some commentators have speculated that al Qaeda’s scientists were too naïve or even too stupid to successfully acquire radioactive or fissile material. One commentator went so far as to joke about “Osama the scientist,” calling bin Laden, “the chump of the century.”
These types of statements are misleading. Worse, they could be dangerous if they lead to underestimating al Qaeda’s ability to acquire nuclear materials for radiological dispersal devices or nuclear explosives.
The New York Times article states that the United States found crude containers with makeshift labels. These containers were found not to contain any significant radioactive material. According to administration officials, the materials “value for a weapon was zero.” There is little reason to dispute this statement.
Other evidence, however, found in caves and safe houses in Kabul or reported in the media, points to al Qaeda’s long standing desire to obtain nuclear weapons. A previous ISIS assessment, in collaboration with CNN, found that al Qaeda was seeking the wherewithal to develop a nuclear explosive device. ISIS could not determine how much al Qaeda accomplished toward building nuclear weapons, but the information shows the group was serious about this goal. This assessment also found that despite obvious disruption after being uprooted from Afghanistan, al Qaeda would likely continue its pursuit of nuclear weapons elsewhere.
Scams are Common
Scams happen all the time. It is part and parcel of the business of illicit procurement. In the case of Iraq, its intelligence agencies bought or were willing to buy red mercury, a material purported to be a powerful high explosive, and uranium wrongly characterized as a deadly radiological weapon. According to a former senior CIA official, Iran in the early 1990s purchased something it believed was a complete nuclear weapon, only to learn after paying a large sum of money that it had been scammed.
In addition, at least two of bin Laden’s attempts in the mid-1990s to obtain highly enriched uranium or plutonium fell victim to scams. These previous scams inevitably lead to the question of whether al Qaeda gave up its quest for nuclear material or got smarter, and perhaps more successful, in its efforts.
General Tommy Franks, commander of American forces in Afghanistan, said searches had been conducted at over 100 hundred sites including those suspected as sites for production of weapons of mass destruction and other “sensitive sites.” While administration officials found no evidence of nuclear materials at these sites, this statement is not the same as saying that al Qaeda did not obtain any nuclear material.
Terrorists may have acquired fissile materials or nuclear know-how from Russia or Pakistan. Controls in these countries have been inadequate. An unclassified CIA report released February 22, reported that, “weapons-grade and weapons-usable nuclear materials have been stolen from some Russian institutes.” The CIA assessed that, “undetected smuggling has occurred although we do not know the extent of magnitude of such thefts. Nevertheless, we are concerned about the total amount of material that could have been diverted over the last 10 years.”
Members of al Qaeda’s nuclear weapons programs have not been identified. These cadres may be continuing to develop radiological dispersal devices or nuclear explosives at unknown locations.
Many questions remain to be answered. How complete was the government’s analysis of the sites it visited in Afghanistan? How confident is the government that it found the vast bulk of sensitive sites? What was the extent of environmental sampling aimed at finding trace amounts of plutonium or highly enriched uranium? What evidence exists to discount al Qaeda moving nuclear material outside Afghanistan?
These questions need to be answered before we can be confident that al Qaeda does not have nuclear material. Perhaps, it does not. We increasingly believe that its effort to master the building of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan was nipped in the bud. However, the analysis of whether al Qaeda possesses nuclear material is incomplete. Any rush to judgment based on this information could be a dangerous mistake.
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