- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Terrorists have the will and some of the expertise to make a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon and are “doing everything they can” to acquire the materials, the State Department’s top antiterror official said in an interview.

Cofer Black, ambassador at large for antiterrorism, said al Qaeda is still dangerous even though more than two-thirds of its leaders from the time of the September 11 attacks have been killed or arrested.

Speaking at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Jakarta on Saturday, Mr. Black said he and other U.S. officials are “killing ourselves” to make sure terrorists don’t get a so-called “dirty bomb” or other unconventional weapon, but the threat remains.

“We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a number of these groups, if they had it, would use it,” said Mr. Black, who accompanied Attorney General John Ashcroft to an Asia-Pacific antiterror summit on the Indonesian island of Bali last week.

“They’ve got the will. A lot of these guys seek the expertise, and there’s a reasonable amount of that out there, but what you’re really looking for is the coming together of all the factors: the will, the expertise and the materials,” he said.

Authorities fear terrorists could create a dirty bomb, which would use conventional explosives to disperse a plume of radioactive dust over a city.

Unlike a nuclear weapon, a dirty bomb would not ignite an atomic chain reaction and would not require highly enriched uranium or plutonium, which are hard to obtain. The materials could be a lower-grade isotope, like those used in medicine or research.

Mr. Black’s comments follow revelations that the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, sold equipment related to centrifuges, used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Experts say the same black market that enabled those countries to obtain nuclear-weapons technology might also have supplied bomb components or plans to terrorists.

“If al Qaeda were to put together a radiological device, they’re going to use it,” Mr. Black said. “We know that they have the determination; they’ve killed large numbers before; their objective is to kill more; they’re doing everything they can to acquire this type of weapon and we are working to try to prevent it.”

Al Qaeda’s apparent interest in acquiring nuclear technology came to the fore in 2001 when two Pakistani nuclear scientists were arrested after meeting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan on suspicion of giving away secrets. The scientists were later released without being charged.

A pan-Arab newspaper said yesterday that al Qaeda bought tactical nuclear weapons from Ukraine in 1998 and is storing them in safe places for possible use, Reuters news agency reported from Cairo.

There was no independent corroboration of the report, which appeared in the newspaper al-Hayat under an Islamabad dateline and cited sources close to al Qaeda.

The newspaper said the terrorist group bought the weapons in suitcases in a deal arranged when Ukrainian scientists visited the Afghan city of Kandahar in 1998.

Al Qaeda would use the weapons only inside the United States or if the group faced a “crushing blow” that threatened its existence, such as the use of nuclear or chemical weapons against its fighters, the paper quoted its sources as saying.

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