President Bush last week publicly stated that Osama bin Laden’s terror network has been seeking to obtain nuclear weapons, which he said would threaten every nation in the world. The president likened bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist organization to Nazi and communist totalitarian movements of the 20th century. “We see the same intolerance of dissent, the same mad global ambitions, the same brutal determination to control every life,” Mr. Bush said. “They’re seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Given the means, our enemies would be a threat to every nation, and, eventually, to civilization itself.” While administration officials have previously spoken about the bin Laden network’s efforts to obtain chemical and biological arms, Mr. Bush’s remarks are his first about the terrorist leader’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. Bin Laden ratcheted up the ante further in an interview published Saturday in two Pakistani newspapers, declaring that he possesses nuclear weapons “as a deterrent,” and that he reserves the right to use them against the United States.
Some pundits dismiss such talk from bin Laden as little more than loud, meaningless braggadocio of a murderous thug. But numerous experts within the U.S. government take these threats seriously. These include specialists for a highly secretive federal agency known as the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), which is responsible for preventing nuclear weapons from being smuggled into the United States. In its Nov. 26 edition, Insight magazine reports that, following the deadly September attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, NEST was put on a high state of alert and was operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week searching New York City and Washington for “nuclear-related” weapons. This included the use of sensors and specially equipped vehicles patrolling the streets of the two cities. The agency set up monitoring equipment in Washington and a number of suburbs, which remains on “permanent standby.”
The current concern is that, instead of building an ordinary nuclear bomb, terrorists have obtained “nuclear-related” materials, which could be dispersed by exploding a conventional bomb. It isn’t hard to imagine the potential source of such lethal material: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Czech intelligence has reported that one of the terrorists responsible for the September 11 hijackings had repeated contacts in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. If the report about bin Laden and nuclear weapons proves to be true, it would be chilling news indeed. If Saddam is involved, it will be all but impossible for the United States to avoid “broadening” the retaliatory strikes to include Iraq.