IMG: Abu Zabuydah
The captured Al Qaeda operative is now recovering from serious gunshot wounds
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Newsweek Web Exclusive
updated 4/27/2002 10:00:02 AM ET 2002-04-27T14:00:02

Bush Administration officials are uncertain what to make of the dialogue U.S. interrogators now appear to have established with Abu Zubaydah, the highest-ranking Al-Qaeda leader currently in U.S. custody. Gravely injured in a shootout with the Pakistani and American forces who captured him in a Pakistan safe-house in March, Zubaydah’s gunshot wounds to the stomach and groin are now healing well and he is talking more than U.S. investigators initially expected—and is providing detailed information for the “fight against terrorism,” according to a senior U.S. official. Other officials indicate Zubaydah has provided specific information, such as names and addresses, about possible Al Qaeda networks and operations.

THE PROBLEM: how much, if any, of Abu Zubaydah’s information can and should U.S. officials believe? Administration officials think Zubaydah is still a committed member of a terror group that holds Western values in contempt and trains operatives to resist interrogations. U.S. intelligence sources say this means that investigators have to take anything Zubaydah says with a great deal of skepticism. Some wonder whether he’s trying to mislead investigators or frighten the American public. Nonetheless, officials say, some of the information Zubaydah has provided has matched up with intelligence collected earlier in the war on terrorism.

Because Zubaydah’s information appeared to be supported by intelligence from other sources, the Administration last week issued two domestic terrorism warnings. One concerned possible attacks on banks or financial institutions in the Northeastern United States. That warning appears to fit with repeated statements by Al Qaeda leaders about the need to attack the U.S. economy, a mission that Osama bin Laden himself touted in a recently discovered home video. Another tip from Zubaydah warned that Al Qaeda operatives could be planning attacks on U.S. supermarkets and shopping malls. Some U.S. intelligence analysts for months have been quietly warning officials of potential suicide bombings at malls, where federal security experts say anti-terrorism precautions are lax to non-existent. These analysts believe the possibility of suicide attacks on U.S. shopping malls has only been increased by the recent standoff between Israel and the Palestinians, and Abu Zubaydah’s information has bolstered their arguments.

U.S. officials say that a third piece of information from Abu Zubaydah, about Al Qaeda’s interest in obtaining or manufacturing a crude atomic device known as a “dirty bomb,” also matches up with earlier U.S. intelligence. For the past several years, U.S. intelligence has been collecting evidence about the bin Laden organization’s efforts to obtain both the know-how and materials to make primitive atomic weapons. U.S. officials do not seem to believe that Al Qaeda was anywhere close to acquiring or making a real atomic bomb. But Zubaydah has told U.S. interrogators that the bin Laden network was deeply involved in efforts to put together a “dirty bomb” (known to U.S. atom scientists as a “radiological dispersal device”), a simple atomic weapon in which radioactive materials of any kind are packaged together with ordinary high explosives and then detonated. Such a weapons would cause limited immediate casualties, but spread fear and disruption due to the radioactive contamination of a wide area. Zubaydah’s information about Al Qaeda’s interest in “dirty bombs” dovetails with other evidence gathered by U.S. forces from terror camps and hideouts inside Afghanistan.

How close did Al-Qaeda get to actually building a “dirty bomb”? U.S. officials say Abu Zubaydah has not said that the bin Laden organization actually built one, only that it was trying to do so. U.S. officials say that some evidence has been collected by U.S. forces in Afghanistan demonstrating that Al Qaeda assembled the kind of laboratory and manufacturing equipment necessary to make unidentified forms of biological weapons, though the Al Qaeda facilities were not sophisticated enough to constitute a bio-weapons production line. By contrast, U.S. officials say that there has been no confirmed discovery of any Al-Qaeda operation to assemble “dirty bombs.” According to U.S. officials, the only confirmed case of radioactive material being found in Afghanistan is the discovery of Cobalt-60, an isotope widely used in medical procedures, in an Afghan hospital. U.S. experts say Cobalt-60 is a deadly substance that would cause serious contamination if used in a dirty bomb. Sources say that the director of the Afghan hospital where the Cobalt-60 was found hid it after Al-Qaeda operatives came to the hospital looking for radioactive material.

Other evidence that Al Qaeda was looking actively for “dirty bomb” components includes reports that the bin Laden organization was scammed at least once by suspected Russian gangsters peddling a legendary (but bogus and useless) Soviet atomic substance known as “red mercury” and reports that border guards in Uzbekistan in 2000 stopped two trucks carrying suspicious radioactive materials to Pakistan. Since September 11, NEWSWEEK has also learned, U.S. Customs inspectors twice searched containers on ships coming into the ports of New York and Charleston, S.C. looking for “dirty bomb” components or other weapons of mass destruction. Nothing suspicious was found. Despite the lack of evidence that Al-Qaeda ever succeeded in obtaining or building a “dirty bomb,” fears of such a contingency remain a factor in federal security measures which still keep Vice President Dick Cheney away from the White House complex for extended periods and require top government officials to rotate in and out of nuclear war bunkers located north and west of Washington.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.

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