U.S. intelligence agencies have uncovered new information that Osama bin Laden and his terrorist group, al Qaeda, are acquiring from the Russian mafia components for weapons of mass destruction.
Bin Laden, the key suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, also is believed by U.S. intelligence to have a secret nuclear weapons laboratory inside Afghanistan, say officials speaking on the condition of anonymity.
There is no hard evidence that bin Laden or his followers have actually produced chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
But a U.S. official said contacts between bin Laden and the Russian mafia, and efforts to obtain materials used to make weapons of mass destruction, could not be ruled out because of Afghanistan’s porous borders. This official suggested that the reports about the contacts could not confirmed independently by U.S. intelligence agencies. Bin Laden has worked with Russian mafia groups in obtaining chemical and biological weapons materials and nuclear components, according to officials familiar with intelligence reports on the contacts.
“There are signs they have been supplying [bin Laden] with chemical and biological materials and nuclear components,” said a second official familiar with the reports.
Transporting and then using weapons of mass destruction is difficult, though al Qaeda’s use of suicide attackers makes the use of deadly chemical, biological or nuclear weapons somewhat easier, those familiar with terrorist tactics and capabilities say.
U.S. intelligence agencies have information that bin Laden is operating a secret nuclear weapons laboratory somewhere in Afghanistan. The laboratory is believed to be where bin Laden associates are working on developing nuclear or radiological weapons. Radiological weapons are bombs that kill by spreading radioactive material. This is believed to be one of the sites sought for U.S. military strikes, expected in the next several weeks.
A recent foreign intelligence service report stated that al Qaeda has obtained some type of nuclear device, but U.S. intelligence officials said they could not confirm that report. The new intelligence report on bin Laden’s contacts with the Russian mafia provide new details on al Qaeda’s efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
An FBI court document made public in 1998 in New York stated that al Qaeda has tried to purchase enriched uranium since 1993 “for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons.” The State Department’s latest report on international terrorism says that al Qaeda “continued” to seek chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear capabilities.
Intelligence officials say classified analysis of the types of chemicals and toxins sought by al Qaeda indicate the group probably is trying to produce the nerve agent Sarin, or biological weapons made up of anthrax spores. Sarin can be produced from the components used to make fertilizer and kills by disrupting the central nervous system. Anthrax is a highly lethal biological weapon that causes death after spores are ingested.
At its height during the Cold War, the Soviet biological weapons program employed some 65,000 persons, and U.S. officials have feared for years that some of the out-of-work biological weapons scientists would sell their expertise to terrorists like bin Laden.
The FBI has obtained specific threats since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that terrorists plan to retaliate for any U.S. strikes on Afghanistan or terrorists around the world by using chemical or biological weapons, the officials said.
Russian crime groups also have provided bin Laden’s Islamic extremists with small arms, the U.S. intelligence officials say. They also are believed to help bin Laden launder the proceeds from drug trafficking.
Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism official, says contacts between the Russian mafia and bin Laden could be related to drug trafficking and that cooperation between the two is not surprising.
“There has been evidence in the past of links between the Taliban militia and the Russian mob on opium,” Mr. Johnson says, noting that the Taliban has been a major patron of bin Laden.
The Russian crime groups purchase opium from Afghanistan and refine it into heroin that is sold in Europe and the United States, he says.