- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 8, 2002

U.S. intelligence agencies are concerned that terrorists are working hard to acquire small nuclear weapons and nuclear material for bombs from Russia.

The problem was highlighted by recent intelligence reports indicating that representatives of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network have discussed buying nuclear weapons and nuclear material from members of organized crime groups in Russia.

Russian authorities also raised concerns recently when saying they suspect the murder of a nuclear chemist in August may have been linked to a clandestine effort to steal the country's nuclear technology.

Sergei Bakhvalov, a leading specialist in the extraction of plutonium, may have been killed by terrorists seeking to obtain nuclear expertise, material or equipment, according to Russian press reports quoting sources within the Federal Security Service, Moscow's domestic spy agency.

Asked about the terror network's attempt to obtain nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, a senior U.S. defense official said recently: "I can't tell you here that I have evidence they've made use of them. I know that they are working on them; the documentation is there."

The senior official said there are cases where al Qaeda has had contacts to inquire about purchasing weapons of mass destruction on the black market.

Russia's government says its weapons are strictly controlled.

"A theft or a leak from our nuclear weapons storage facilities is absolutely impossible," Col. Gen. Igor Volynkin, head of the Defense Ministry's 12th main department in charge of nuclear security, told reporters in Moscow on Sept. 4.

"The Defense Ministry's 12th department is reinforcing and is capable of resisting any terrorist attacks," he said.

A U.S. intelligence official said there are no indications that the al Qaeda has acquired small nuclear arms. However, the official noted, "It is something that cannot be dismissed completely."

There are fears that Iraq, which is seeking to rebuild its nuclear weapons development capability, will share the know-how with such terrorists, according to a senior defense official.

"There is a close correlation between those states which are sponsoring terrorism and those which have weapons of mass destruction programs chemical, biological and nuclear programs," the official told reporters during a briefing on terrorism and unconventional weapons.

In February, the CIA sent a report to Congress on Russia's nuclear arsenal and material security that concluded Moscow's nuclear weapons are protected from external threats but have become vulnerable to insider theft since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, U.S. officials said.

Many of Moscow's security measures are outdated and "are not designed to counter the pre-eminent threat faced today an insider who attempts unauthorized actions," the report states.

Russia has 300 buildings at more than 40 facilities across the country that contain nuclear weapons material, and security there is considered poor, the report said.

CIA Director George J. Tenet told Congress in February that "one of our highest concerns is [al Qaedas] stated readiness to attempt unconventional attacks against us."

"As early as 1998, bin Laden publicly declared that acquiring unconventional weapons was 'a religious duty,'" Mr. Tenet said.

U.S. intelligence believes that prior to allied military operations in Afghanistan, which began Oct. 7, bin Laden "was seeking to acquire or develop a nuclear device," he said. "Al Qaeda may be pursuing a radioactive dispersal device what some call a 'dirty bomb.'"

Documents obtained by U.S. military and intelligence officials in Afghanistan indicate that al Qaeda terrorists were working on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

"These diagrams, while crude, describe essential components uranium and high-explosives common to nuclear weapons," the CIA report in January said.

There also have been persistent reports that bin Laden attempted to purchase covertly a tactical nuclear weapon in Kazakhstan several years ago.

Bruce Blair, a nuclear weapons specialist, said the threat of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons is going to remain an "uncertainty" because of the problem of keeping track of material, equipment and scientists.

"[T]he concern extends to such areas as cyber-terrorism, such as hacking into the early warning systems and nuclear command and control networks, with a view to triggering false alarms or circumventing electronic safeguards against unauthorized launch," said Mr. Blair, director of the Center for Defense Information.

Mr. Blair said a Pentagon study found that cyber-terrorists could enter the Navy's nuclear command system and send a launch order to Trident nuclear missile submarines. The study led to a tightening of submarine missile launch procedures.

"The point of this last story is that the nuclear security problem in Russia has been too narrowly conceived," Mr. Blair said. "There are other scenarios besides the loss of a weapon or materials that fall into the wrong hands."


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