- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

In March, a passenger toted 20 pounds of radioactive thorium powder, in his luggage, onto a bus crossing into Russia from Kazakhstan. In 2000, Chechen rebels were the apparent customers for stolen radium. In 1999, a smuggler unwisely stuck a highly radioactive capsule in his trouser pocket as he boarded a flight in Kyrgyzstan.
The new nations of Central Asia have become a trafficker's marketplace for radioactive materials. Pakistani investigators say this was the region Abdullah al Muhajir, who was born Jose Padilla, headed to when he sought material for a "dirty bomb."
Confronting the threat is a big job, but the U.S. government has begun sending detection equipment to border posts in the vast region and training customs officers in intercepting nuclear contraband.
Pakistani officials said al Muhajir, an American citizen in U.S. custody and al Qaeda suspect, traveled to a Central Asian country in April hoping to buy radioactive materials. The convert to Islam had conferred with senior members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network about detonating a radiation weapon, or "dirty bomb," in the United States, American authorities say.
Such a device would not be a nuclear bomb, with its devastating fission explosion, but instead would set off conventional explosives to scatter harmful radioactive material, contaminating and panicking people, and forcing abandonment of parts of cities.
The Pakistani officials would not say whether al Muhajir was successful in obtaining radioactive substances, nor would they identify the country he is said to have visited. Officials in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States had no such information and questioned whether the reported mission occurred.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly independent Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan have dealt with a legacy of nuclear facilities left poorly staffed after Russian specialists went home and abandoned radioactive materials.
The only nuclear weapons in the region, in Kazakhstan, were withdrawn to Russia in the early 1990s. In 1994, a half-ton of highly enriched uranium raw material for nuclear bombs was spirited out of Kazakhstan in a U.S. operation.
But material for possible "dirty bombs" remains scattered and often poorly controlled in the region. This includes cesium, strontium, cobalt and other radioactive substances used in medicine and industry, as well as the low-grade uranium and radioactive waste of nuclear-power plants.
"Protecting against radioactive sources is much harder than securing nuclear materials," said Dmitry Kovchegin, a nuclear-proliferation specialist at Moscow's Center for Policy Studies in Russia. "It's not so hard to create a 'dirty bomb,' and it's not so hard to find the material. It's used everywhere."
Here are some cases from the marketplace where al Muhajir purportedly shopped, based on local media reports:
In March, a radiation check of a bus crossing into Russia from Kazakhstan turned up a Russian passenger who had packed at least 22 pounds of thorium-232 powder in his luggage. Its radiation was "hundreds of times" normal background levels, authorities said. Its origin and destination were not reported.
In Kyrgyzstan, airport guards grew suspicious of a man who looked ill as he boarded a flight to the United Arab Emirates. The Uzbek was found to have pocketed a smuggled capsule of what he was told was plutonium. Local media said it emitted fatal doses of radiation at close range. There were no subsequent reports about the 1999 case.
In July 2000, two brothers from Kazakhstan were arrested after purportedly smuggling radium-226 into Russia to sell to Chechens. Chechen separatists in the mid-1990s had threatened to detonate "dirty bombs" in Moscow, but never did.
In Tajikistan, six residents were convicted in April 2000 in the theft of 3 pounds of uranium mixed with highly radioactive cesium-137 from a uranium-processing plant. It was not reported how enriched suitable for nuclear weapons the uranium was.
All of those substances theoretically could be used for a radiation-dispersal bomb.
Reports indicate that Pakistan and Afghanistan, until eight months ago a hub for international terrorism, were the destination in some nuclear-trafficking cases in recent years. Those monitoring the situation have no way to judge how many other such smuggling operations succeeded.
The U.S. Customs Service last year conducted in Texas a three-week course focused on radioactive contraband for 80 border officers from the five republics. The Americans also have dispatched detection equipment to the Russian-Kazakh border and Uzbekistan.
Last month, Washington and Moscow announced the formation of a joint task force to study the securing of radioactive sources in Russia. This "shows how serious this issue is and that we're ready to solve it," Russian atomic energy minister Alexander Rumyantsev said. No such comprehensive approach has been organized for Central Asia.


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