KABUL, Afghanistan Two Afghan nuclear
scientists, in the strongest indication yet that al Qaeda was trying to
construct a nuclear bomb, have revealed how the terrorist group attempted to
The scientists disclosed how they had risked their lives by hiding radioactive materials, sufficient to make dozens of "dirty bombs," in the ruins of the old Aliabad mental hospital in Kabul and in the grimy basement of Kabul University's nuclear physics department.
Last week, a team of specially trained British soldiers equipped with state-of-the-art instruments were led to the caches by the two nuclear physicists.
What they found astounded them.
There was a broken radiotherapy machine, containing enough cobalt 60 to kill a man instantly, in the lead-lined cancer treatment room of the hospital.
In the basement of Kabul University, there were containers of solid and liquid radioactive material, some broken or with the lids off; chemical warfare agents; and instruments emitting radiation.
"We've been finding stuff that's far more potent and dangerous than even 'dirty bombs,' which are made of nuclear waste," said Capt. James Cameron, who heads an eight-member team from the Joint Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Regiment, based in Bury Saint Edmunds, England, which also monitors the activities of Iraq's Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
The team is in Kabul to protect the international peacekeeping force.
Capt. Cameron said much of the material was left over from the Soviets, "who used far higher doses of radiation than we would." Some of the containers were damaged by the Afghan mujahideen in the early 1990s, he said.
"But al Qaeda and the Taliban never knew about it. The atomic scientists tore up their papers and never said a word," Capt. Cameron said.
Last week, the two Afghan scientists, Mohammed Jan Naziri, a professor of applied nuclear physics, and Jora Mohammed Korbani, a nuclear physics professor, revealed how they had concealed their knowledge from the Taliban.
They said that in 1996, when the Taliban militia first entered Kabul, they and some other colleagues on the faculty had gathered all the radioactive sources and instruments they could find from the university's laboratories and stored them in the nuclear science faculty's basement.
Because they had no radiometers and no protective clothing, the scientists moved the items as carefully as they could, storing them between sheets of lead. They then tore up their research documents and papers on atomic physics.
"We didn't really know how radioactive some of the sources were," Mr. Naziri said. "We just tried to protect them."
Initially, the Taliban came to the university and simply registered the names of all the professors in the nuclear physics department.
"They didn't understand anything about physics or what we were doing, but we knew they were looking for physics and chemistry experts," Mr. Korbani said.
Then, one day a man from Kandahar, the Taliban's heartland and Osama bin Laden's main base, came to talk to the scientists at the faculty.
Mr. Naziri said he refused to talk to the man, whom he described as "an Arab who spoke Pashtu and Farsi poorly."
He said he asked the man for official letters of request from the Foreign Ministry or the university and told him he couldn't do anything without the Atomic Energy Authority's permission.
"We never saw him again," Mr. Naziri said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Korbani, who lost his job a year after the Taliban took Kabul, was approached by a mysterious aid agency called the "Chand Groupi," or "Multi Group," which operated out of a house in Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan district, where bin Laden kept several safe houses and where many Arab al Qaeda fighters lived.
The agency operated separately but was linked to the Ummah Tameer-e-Nau charity, run by the renegade Pakistani nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmoud, who the CIA has called "bin Laden's nuclear secretary." Mr. Mahmoud is currently under house arrest in Pakistan.
Although evidence found by the Sunday Telegraph last November and more recently, the joint team headed by Capt. Cameron in Mr. Mahmoud's house revealed that he was engaged in an experiment to float a helium balloon filled with anthrax over the United States, the Multi Group was clearly attempting to construct a nuclear bomb.
"They said to me, 'We know you're working for the faculty of nuclear science, and we need you,'" Mr. Korbani said. "They offered me a lot of money and said that they wanted me to find 100 other nuclear scientists and technicians and come to Karachi."
Mr. Korbani was then asked to write a paper on atomic energy.
"They told me, 'Pakistan has a very powerful atomic bomb, and we are very keen on bringing such a power to Afghanistan,'" he said. The men told him that people in Pakistan's tribal areas would pay for the program. "They kept calling me, but I never returned [the calls]. I knew it was too dangerous."
Capt. Cameron said there was little doubt that al Qaeda and the Taliban were attempting to make chemical weapons. If not for the Kabul University scientists, al Qaeda might have successfully constructed several "dirty bombs," he said.
Unlike a conventional nuclear bomb, in which atoms are split to produce a massive explosion, a dirty bomb is simply a conventional bomb wrapped in radioactive material.
A dirty bomb is much easier to produce because it requires only a conventional explosive plus some radioactive waste, such as spent fuel from a nuclear power plant or radioactive material used in medicine.
"The Taliban would have given their eyeteeth for the stuff these men were hiding, and if they'd found it, I hate to think what they'd have done," Capt. Cameron said.