LONDON, April 25 (JTA) — Western intelligence agencies are worried that renegade Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden is attempting to acquire atomic material to create the ultimate terrorist weapon for use against Israeli and Western targets.
The alarm was raised three weeks ago, when customs officers in Uzbekistan discovered 10 lead-lined containers at a remote border crossing with another former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan.
According to the London-based Sunday Telegraph, the containers were packed with sufficient radioactive material to make dozens of crude radioactive weapons.
Fitted with conventional explosive devices, each would be capable of contaminating large areas for many years.
The London paper quoted U.S. intelligence sources in the region as saying the shipment contained strontium-90, which is used to manufacture what are described as “radiological weapons.”
The consignment was addressed to a company, Ahmadjan Haji Mohammed, in Quetta, Pakistan, but intelligence officials doubt that Pakistan, which has already acquired nuclear capability, was the final destination.
Quetta, they point out, is a little-policed main crossing point from Pakistan to southern Afghanistan and is just a six-hour drive to bin Laden’s headquarters in Kandahar.
The Iranian driver of the truck, who insisted the consignment consisted of stainless steel, presented the Uzbek customs officers with a certificate from the Kazakh authorities declaring that the cargo did not contain radioactive materials.
The customs officers became suspicious and insisted on inspecting the cargo, however, when their U.S.-supplied radiation sensors “went off wildly.”
Kazakhstan, which has denied all prior knowledge of the shipment, is home to many nuclear installations of the former Soviet Union, and atomic materials are known to have been shipped abroad by scientists and criminal organizations in the Central Asian country.
Two years ago, the United States issued portable radiation detectors to several former Soviet states in an attempt to detect nuclear materials at the border and halt the illicit trade.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Central Asia and pledged increased aid from Washington for counterterrorism operations and enhanced cross-border controls.
Doug Richardson, editor of the London-based journal Jane’s Missiles, said a radiation bomb is capable of contaminating the area around an explosion and making a city uninhabitable.
The former head of the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration, Stephen Bryen, was quoted as saying there is a “high possibility” that the radioactive material was destined for bin Laden.
“It’s an ideal terror weapon, used in a city and especially places like subways, to cause maximum harm.”
Bin Laden is believed to have masterminded the August 1998 simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. At least 263 were killed in the bombings, which left about 5,000 wounded.
He has also been implicated in a number of other high-profile terrorist attacks, including the June 1996 bombing of a U.S. Air Force housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 soldiers and wounded nearly 400.