Story: Al Qaeda Documents Outline Serious Weapons Program

Terrorist group placed heavy emphasis on developing nuclear device

January 25, 2002 Posted: 11:41 AM EST (1641 GMT)
By Mike Boettcher and Ingrid Arnesen

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN)—The al Qaeda terrorist organization was building a serious weapons program with a heavy emphasis on developing a nuclear device, according to an exhaustive review of documents discovered in Afghanistan.

The apparent al Qaeda documents were found in a Kabul house reportedly used by al Qaeda operatives. Afghan police took CNN to the house soon after the Taliban withdrew from the city in November.

“I don’t have any doubt that al Qaeda was pursuing nuclear, biological and chemical warfare capabilities. It’s not our judgment at the moment that they were that far along, but I have no doubt that they were seeking to do so,” U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton told CNN on Thursday. “It underlines just how serious the threat of the use of these weapons of mass destruction could be, and why it’s such an important part of the global campaign against terrorism.”

Investigations are continuing into the information found in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and into how close the group was to gaining nuclear and biological weapons capabilities, Bolton said.

Suspected al Qaeda operatives have been arrested recently in possession of some of the explosives mentioned in the documents. Philippine authorities recently arrested a man they called a key al Qaeda bomb-maker who was hiding 2,000 pounds of explosives.

In Singapore, members of a Malaysian terrorist group linked to al Qaeda were arrested after they sought to purchase 17 tons of ammonium nitrate—enough to construct several truck bombs.

To help decipher the documents’ contents, CNN commissioned three analysts to conduct an exhaustive review of the documents. The lead analyst—David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security—is an expert on nuclear weapons design and proliferation and has been a consultant to the U.N. organization investigating Iraq’s weapons programs.

ISIS senior analyst Corey Hinderstein and Ron Wolfe, one of the nation’s top Arabic translators with experience translating technical and weapons documents, assisted Albright.

Interest in nuclear weapons

The house where CNN found the document was in an upscale neighborhood in Kabul known as Wazir Akbar Khan. “Big Arabs” lived there, nearby residents told CNN.

The house showed signs of a hasty retreat. In the trash and junk left behind were documents demonstrating al Qaeda’s interest in nuclear weapons, as well as assembling high explosives made from chemicals found in household goods.

A discarded letter, dated January 12, 2001, offered a clue to the importance of this address. It was addressed to Abu Khabbab, who coalition intelligence sources said is Osama bin Laden’s top chemical and biological weapons commander. A 25-page document filled with information about nuclear weapons included a design for a nuclear weapon that would require hard-to-obtain materials like plutonium to create a nuclear explosion, something al Qaeda is not believed to possess.

But if easier-to-acquire radioactive materials are used—like discarded nuclear power plant fuel rods—the design could become something called a “radiological dispersal weapon.” Also known as a “dirty bomb,” the device would not create a nuclear explosion, but instead would blow radioactive debris over a wide area, rendering it uninhabitable.

The documents don’t reveal if al Qaeda tried to build such a weapon, but after reviewing several hundred pages of documents, CNN’s experts believe al Qaeda was working on a serious nuclear program.

In December, U.S. intelligence officials told CNN that during a meeting of senior al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan within the last year, a member of the terrorist network displayed a cylinder and said it contained radiological material that could be used in a “dirty bomb.”

“And that’s one of the things that has to give you pause, is that they have been thinking about this a long time,” Albright said. “And so the question is, when did they start in earnest to learn how to make a nuclear explosive?”

Piles of documents and journals discovered outside a home reportedly used by al Qaeda members detail how to assemble explosives.

Document labeled ‘Super Bombs’

One document, labeled “Super Bombs,” appears to be a plan for nuclear device experts said is unworkable. But the author clearly is knowledgeable of various ways to set off a nuclear bomb. For example, the document describes a little-known short cut to initiate a nuclear explosion.

But Albright cautioned there is no indication that al Qaeda’s nuclear work has gone beyond theory. To create a nuclear weapon, Albright said a designer must learn a whole set of manufacturing steps not mentioned in al Qaeda’s manual and develop confidence in the weapon’s design.

“Even a terrorist group that’s going to go to the trouble of working on a nuclear weapon wants to have some certainty that it’s going to explode as a nuclear explosive and not just explode as a high explosive,” Albright said.

Al Qaeda also may have had some help in its efforts to develop a nuclear device. Two Pakistani nuclear scientists, Bashir Ud-din Mahmood and Abdul Majeed, are suspected by U.S., Pakistani and other coalition intelligence agencies of having provided some of their nuclear knowledge to al Qaeda.

Arabic letters on the front of this manual spell the word “Super Bombs.”

Mahmood and Majeed ran a charity in Kabul called Ummah Tameer-e-Nau. In an office at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, CNN found a document apparently written last May showing Mahmood agreed to a partnership with Barakat General Trading and Contracting Company, which is on the U.S. list of groups suspected of aiding terrorists.

Another document showed plans to set-up a bank with Barakat, expand an artificial-limb factory and explore the mining of minerals—including uranium—inside Afghanistan.

U.N. weapons inspectors said Iraq used similar companies as fronts to disguise its nuclear weapons program in the mid-1990s.

The Bush administration put Ummah Tameer-e-Nau on its terrorist watch list last month. The families of the two men continue to say they have done nothing wrong. CNN’s repeated efforts to speak with the men have been unsuccessful.

No charges have been filed against the two men, but the Pakistani government says the investigation is not over. The government has ordered them confined to their homes; they are not allowed to speak to anyone outside their families.

Home-grown explosives

Other documents found include a table of explosive mixtures, classified by strength, and a table comparing detonators, like acetone peroxide. Also known as TATP, acetone peroxide is the compound found in the unsuccessful shoe bomb that Richard Reid allegedly tried to detonate aboard an American Airlines passenger jet.

CNN also came across a hand-written list of formulas, including how to make RDX and a version of C-4, the explosive used to blow up the USS Cole in Yemen in December 2000.

“What we did see is that when we compared this information on the high explosives, to the Internet, that these are much more polished,” Albright said. “That they really did work with these formulas, tested these formulas, and developed a procedure of making these high explosives that led to effective high explosives in a safe manner.”

Nuclear weapons design were included in the 25-page al Qaeda document.

CNN also found a list of 64 chemicals that can be used in explosives and where they are found in common products, such as battery acid and hair pomade. The list included ammonium nitrate, which Timothy McVeigh used to build the bomb that destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. The list cited burned wood, metal paint and farm fertilizer as sources of the ingredients needed to create ammonium nitrate.

“They are not going to steal explosives from a military base,” Albright said. “They are going out and then going to a grocery store, a pharmacy, a medical supply store, and buying chemicals and then making them themselves. So it was a group that was being taught to be self-reliant.”

CNN’s experts also determined a section from a manual was to update people in the field about new research results. It included extensive documentation of how to improve explosives.

Commercially known as Semtex, the U.S. military version is C-4. Research contained in the documents suggested Al Qaeda was developing its own variant that could be used as a powerful detonator for a bomb.

A table and list of 64 chemicals explained how to make high-explosive compounds.

Creating its own variant would allow al Qaeda to avoid having to use a supplier for the material, said Tony Villa, an explosives expert who has worked extensively for the U.S. government.

“It gives you more latitude, more autonomy and possibly some degree of elusiveness,” he said.

Whatever al Qaeda has done in its explosives research, the documents show the group is serious about its goals.

“It’s not just a bunch of guys climbing along some jungle gym and going through tunnels and shooting their guns in the air,” Albright said. “These are people who are thinking through problems in how to cause destruction, for a well-thought-through political strategy.”

—CNN Senior International Correspondent Sheila MacVicar contributed to this report.