Originally Published 2003-07-10 10:26:56 Published on Jul 10, 2003
On April 3 this year, a one-day conference was organised in Washington by the South Asian Studies department of the John Hopkins University. One of the sessions was on Pakistan, specifically on the safety of its nuclear installations.
Pak Jihadis have Dirty Bomb
Washington by the South Asian Studies department of the JohnHopkins University. One of the sessions was on Pakistan,specifically on the safety of its nuclear installations.

One of the prominent speakers was George Perkovich from theCarnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr Perkovich is aninternational authority on nuclear issues. He detailed severalscenarios for the country in question. He said Pakistan couldeither transfer or sell nuclear technology. A rogue General couldtake upon himself to be a nuclear Fuhrer. Or extremist elementscould seize nuclear installations and pose a nuclear threat to theworld. Mr Perkovich could be right on at least two counts.

First is the threat of extremist elements taking over the nuclearinstallations. The ties between jihadi elements and the nuclearestablishment are no longer a matter of conjecture. At least six ofthe senior nuclear scientists were known to have dealings with theTaliban in the past. Two of them, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood andAbdul Majeed, were known to have met and discussed the issue ofnuclear weapons with the Taliban leadership. Both scientists wereput under the scanner by American intelligence agencies soon afterthe September 11, 2001 attacks. CIA and FBI teams in Pakistanquestioned them extensively.

Although nothing substantial could be elicited from them, Americansecurity agencies continue to keep track of their movements.Mahmood repeatedly failed lie detector tests, but is reported tohave admitted to discussing nuclear technology with Osama bin Ladenin Afghanistan. He had also reportedly taken part in the annualcongregation of Lashkar-e-Toiba at Muridke (near Lahore). The pointto remember is that Lashkar is a well-known terrorist organisationwith links to the Al Qaeda.

More intriguing was the sudden departure of two other nuclearscientists, Suleiman Akhtar and Mohammad Ali Mukhtar, who werehastily put on a plane to Myanmar by the Pakistani authorities whenUS security officials sought them out for interrogation.

What really worried the American authorities was the circumstantialevidence US forces discovered in Afghanistan during OperationEnduring Freedom. Documents, diagrams and sketches of nuclearweapons were seized from at least 40 locations in Afghanistanduring the raids.

A careful study of these documents revealed that the Al Qaeda wasin possession of at least the knowledge and technology to produce acrude nuclear bomb. The information was much more than what wasavailable from open sources; it showed professional expertise.

In fact, at one point of time, a few months after the 9/11 attacks,the nuclear threat perception was so high that Pentagon planned tosend in an elite unit of commandos, codenamed 262, to seize andneutralise Pakistan's nuclear installations. Reports even suggestedthat Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had ordered shifting ofnuclear weapons from Dera Ghazi Khan in the North West FrontierProvince to an unknown location.

The threat of the Al Qaeda or other terror groups getting hold ofnuclear materials capable of building crude weapons is far fromover. Although there is no known evidence of such outfitspossessing uranium or other radioactive materials, a recent newsitem in a Pakistani Urdu newspaper, Nawa-I-waqt, should be takenseriously.

The paper quotes, ironically, Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed, of warningthe authorities on the recent theft of uranium from the KahutaResearch Laboratories. Though the statement has not attracted muchglobal attention, Saeed's statement could be a smokescreen todivert attention from the possibility.

Saeed's Lashkar is fast developing into an international network.At least 11 of his operatives were recently picked up in the US,where they were said to be planning to bomb the Brooklyn bridge.Lashkar is fairly active in Jammu & Kashmir and elsewhere inIndia, and is known to use a transnational arms-drugs trade routestretching across Southeast Asia to Europe, to buy weapons. Lashkardraws sustenance and funds from Saudi Arabia.

If one were to study the working of Lashkar post 9/11, it wouldbecome clear that the terror group has certainly been on anexpansion plan, and was capable of adapting and adopting newertechniques and methodologies to stretch its network and scope ofterror. The 'dirty bomb' could be one of the arsenals Lashkar isalready in possession of.

On May 8 this year, the American authorities caught one Al Muhajiror Jose Padilla when he landed in Chicago in a flight fromPakistan. Intelligence officials had begun tracking down Muhajirafter they came to know that he was working with 'someone' inPakistan on the dirty bomb. Though officials never disclosed whothat 'someone' was, it could be safely deduced that it could benone other than Abu Zubeyadah, one of the senior advisors in the AlQaeda.

The dirty bomb is, therefore, not an imaginary threat. According toexperts, it is a radiological weapon-a conventional explosivepacked with radioactive material that has the potential ofscattering after the explosion. The bomb kills twice-first byexploding, and subsequently through airborne radiation. There isevidence that the Al Qaeda and other terror groups can possess suchweapons.

Last March, the CIA had reported that the Al Qaeda possessedstrontium 90 and cesium 137, radioactive materials that werereportedly stolen from Russia after the break-up of the SovietUnion. In January 2003, British security forces found documents inthe Afghan city of Herat that revealed the possibility of the AlQaeda possessing dirty bombs.

There are two things about dirty bombs that make them attractive tojihadi elements. They are easy to assemble and even easier tocarry. There is enough information available openly about puttingtogether such weapons. A dirty bomb can easily be stuffed into aheavy suitcase and carried safely. This is a possibility whichshould worry us, especially in view of the current round ofbonhomie and the impending running of the Lahore-Delhi bus. Thepossibility of jihadi elements smuggling in components of a dirtybomb into India cannot be ruled out. Terrorists can also use theKarachi-Dhaka route to ship components and transfer it via land.Terror groups are known to be increasingly using this route totransfer arms and explosives.

What should we do? Telling the world about the terrorist game planand capability is not enough. We have to ensure that terror groupsare not able to smuggle in such components. Strict checking ofpassengers on the Delhi-Lahore bus route should be scrupulouslycarried out. The Karachi-Dhaka route should be interdicted. Thereis an urgent need to make our security forces aware of the loomingthreat and train them to deal with the situation if such a bombwere to be detected.

Reckless handling of a seized dirty bomb could cause no lessserious damage to life and property. We also need to factor in thepossibility of terrorists using these bombs in our metros,especially in Delhi, when we plan our counter-terrorist strategies.
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