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Russian nukes missing; who has them?

July 1, 1993

Russian nukes missing; who has them?

By Joe Baker

By Joe Baker

Senior Editor

Dozens of Russia’s nukes are missing, according to The Times of London. The paper says there is plenty of evidence that Osama bin Laden’s agents have been searching everywhere, trying to buy or steal these weapons to attack the West.

Three years ago, Ahmed Salama Mabruk was arrested in Baku, in Azerbaijan. Mabruk was a personal assistant to Ayman Zawahiri, bin Laden’s number two man and now believed to be the brains behind the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon.

At the time, no one could confirm or disprove what he claimed to know, but today nobody is inclined to discount it.

The Times said security forces seized a laptop computer carried by Mabruk and were able to download it. Officers said it contained much information about the structure and organization of the al-Qaeda terror network.

Mabruk was extradited to Egypt where he was convicted of terrorist activity and is serving a 25-year sentence. During his trial, however, he was able to speak briefly with a reporter from the London-based newspaper, Al-Hayat.

The reporter asked whether al-Qaeda had acquired nuclear weapons. Mabruk told him that both al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad had obtained such weapons with the help of several different countries.

Mabruk claimed bin Laden had instructed his men not to use these weapons until he directed them to do so. Another story comes from a man named Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl. He traveled to Khartoum, in Sudan, in 1993, carrying $1.5 million and orders from bin Laden to buy weapons-grade uranium from South Africa.

He claims he made contact with a Sudanese army officer who had the uranium for sale, packaged in a three-foot steel cylinder. Al-Fadl got $10,000 for his troubles, he said, and then was removed from the negotiations. He did not know whether the deal was completed.

Three years later, al-Fadl turned himself in at the American embassy in Africa. He is reportedly considered the FBI’s most valuable source on bin Laden. He has been given secret quarters and a new identity in the Witness Protection Program.

There has been no confirmation of any nuclear weapons or fissionable material reaching bin Laden. Conversely, there is no evidence it hasn’t either. Bin Laden has said it’s his duty to get weapons of mass destruction. The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in Vienna confirms hundreds of instances of nuclear smuggling since the Soviet Union collapsed. Most of it, the IAEA says, is persons offering small amounts of non-weapons-grade material to buyers who know less about nuclear physics than the sellers.

In 1997 a group of Georgian customs officers, in what used to be the Soviet Union, were treated for deep brown leg wounds. The officers had seized several vials of radioactive caesium and pocketed it in hopes of peddling it on the black market. Instead, they learned caesium is useless for making bombs, but will eat into your flesh.

As to these scattered incidents, Dr. Laurie Mylroie, an American academic, commented: “They are probably the tip of the iceberg.”

Gary Milhollin, of the Washington, D.C. anti-proliferation think-tank known as the Wisconsin Project, said: “If Russian organized crime groups with good contacts and resources got involved in this, you might never hear about it. You tend to pick up the amateurs, not the pros.”

Russia has between 15,000 and 40,000 nuclear weapons and enough fissionable material for another 40,000, but its stockpile, compared to that of the U.S., is poorly guarded and vulnerable to the thousands of scientists who built and now earn an average of $50 a month. That creates what one expert terms “a nuclear Kmart.”

What we’re speaking of here are not the big ICBM’s (those are heavily guarded) but the lesser nukes, battlefield weapons, to “suitcase nukes,” which are the poor man’s basic nuclear bomb.

It cannot be ruled out that Iraq may have gotten enough fissionable material to load a warhead and mount it on a Russian-made Scud missile. There are no longer UN weapons inspectors in Iraq.

In 1994 German police arrested a Colombian at Frankfurt airport, according to the paper. He was traveling from Moscow with a consignment of plutonium in his suitcase.

One of the wildest and most porous borders in the world is the 3,000-mile route along the southern edge of the old Soviet Union. It begins on the Black Sea near Batumi, and runs all the way to the Tien Shan. In the center of it sits Uzbekistan, whose border with Afghanistan has been closed for four years. It is possible to go back and forth through this area with impunity.

Early in 1999, the Arabic magazine Al Watan reported bin Laden had made a major deal for 20 Russian nuclear warheads, obtained for him by the Chechen mafia in exchange for $30 million in cash and two tons of opium. That reportedly was in addition to an order placed by a Pakistani intelligence agent with an undercover U.S. agent posing as an arms dealer. The Pakistani wanted six nuclear switches and an undisclosed amount of plutonium. He told the American agent he intended to “kill all Americans.”

Most of the information already was known to the CIA. Former director Robert Wolsey told reporters: “Bin Laden has been trying to get his hands on enriched uranium for seven or eight years.” That was one week after the New York and Washington attacks.

Why didn’t the U.S. do more to halt the attacks? The CIA appears to have put too much stock in its assumption that bin Laden could not have nuclear weapons because building and maintaining them requires considerable resources and great political will, the paper said.

Experts today say the assumption was false. In 1997 General Aleksandr Lebed, head of Russia’s national security council, announced dozens, possibly hundreds, of suitcase-sized nuclear weapons were unaccounted for. Lebed said they were “a potentially perfect weapon for nuclear terrorism and blackmail.” The following month, Aleksei Yablokov, a former advisor to President Yeltsin, said 84 of 132 of these weapons were missing.

A former Western diplomat, who travels to Central Asia often, said these weapons almost certainly exist. “It’s very plausible,” he said, “that a device has been smuggled out and even to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is as possible a recipient as Saddam Hussein.”

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