Image: This Aug. 14, 2011, satellite image shows a facility in Al-Hasakah, Syria.
Geoeye Satellite Image  /  AP, file
This Aug. 14, 2011, satellite image shows a facility in Al-Hasakah, Syria. Investigators at the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency have asked Syria about this complex, in the center of the image, because they believe it closely matches plans for a uranium enrichment plant sold by the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb A.Q. Khan.
updated 11/1/2011 2:01:21 AM ET 2011-11-01T06:01:21

U.N. investigators have identified a previously unknown complex in Syria that bolsters suspicions that the Syrian government worked with A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, to acquire technology that could be used to make nuclear arms.

The buildings in northwest Syria closely match the design of a uranium enrichment plant provided to Libya when Moammar Gadhafi was trying to build nuclear weapons under Khan's guidance, officials told The Associated Press.

The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency also has obtained correspondence between Khan and a Syrian government official, Muhidin Issa, who proposed scientific cooperation and a visit to Khan's laboratories following Pakistan's successful nuclear test in 1998.

The complex, in the city of Al-Hasakah, now appears to be a cotton-spinning plant, and investigators have found no sign that it was ever used for nuclear production. But given that Israeli warplanes destroyed a suspected plutonium production reactor in Syria in 2007, the unlikely coincidence in design suggests that Syria may have been pursuing two routes to an atomic bomb: uranium as well as plutonium.

Details of the Syria-Khan connection were provided to the AP by a senior diplomat with knowledge of IAEA investigations and a former U.N. investigator. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Syrian government did not respond to a request for comment. It has repeatedly denied pursuing nuclear weapons but also has stymied an investigation into the site bombed by Israel. It has not responded to an IAEA request to visit the Al-Hasakah complex, the officials said.

The IAEA's examination of Syria's programs has slowed as world powers focus on a popular uprising in the country and the violent crackdown by the government of President Bashar Assad.

Syria never has been seen as being close to development of a nuclear bomb. There also is no indication that Damascus continues to work on a secret nuclear program. If the facility in Al-Hasakah was indeed intended for uranium production, those plans appear to have been abandoned and the path to a plutonium weapon ended with the Israeli bombing.

But Mark Hibbs, an analyst at the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has spoken to IAEA officials about the Al-Hasakah complex, said it is important to learn more details about the buildings.

"What is at stake here is the nuclear history of that facility," Hibbs said. "People want to know what did they intend to do there and Syria has provided no information."

Syria has reasons to seek a nuclear weapon. It has been in a Cold War for decades with Israel, a country believed to have a sizable nuclear arsenal.

"A nuclear weapon would give Syria at least a kind of parity with Israel and some status within the region," says Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

For years, there has been speculation about ties between the Syrian government and Khan.

A hero to many in Pakistan for developing the country's nuclear bomb, Khan is considered the world's most prolific nuclear merchant. He supplied Iran with the basics of what is now an established uranium enrichment program that has churned out enough material to make several nuclear weapons. Libya also bought equipment and a warhead design from Khan for a secret nuclear program that it renounced in 2003.

In 2004, Khan confessed on TV to selling nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, but he has never spoken of Syria. Khan later said Pakistani authorities forced him to make the confession.

The former investigator says Syria acknowledged to the IAEA that Khan made at least one trip to Syria to deliver scientific lectures, as the Los Angeles Times reported in 2004.

The former official said he has seen letters from Issa, then a deputy minister of education, written on official letterhead shortly after Pakistan's 1998 nuclear test congratulating Pakistan for Khan's achievement. In subsequent correspondence, Issa suggested cooperation with Khan and requested a visit by Syrian officials to Khan's laboratory, the former official said.

Issa, who later served as the dean of the faculty of sciences at Arab International University, could not be reached for comment.

In a 2007 interview with an Austrian newspaper, Syrian President Assad acknowledged having received a letter that appeared to have been from Khan, but said his government had not responded and did not meet Khan.

IAEA investigators homed in on the Al-Hasakah facility after an intensive search of satellite imagery in the Middle East sparked by a belief that Khan had an additional government customer, which had not yet come to light. They identified the site, the largest industrial complex in Al-Hasakah, after a 2006 report in a Kuwaiti newspaper claimed Syria had a secret nuclear program in the city.

Satellite imagery of the Al-Hasakah complex revealed striking similarities to plans for a uranium enrichment facility that were seized during a Swiss investigation related to Khan. The Swiss were looking into the Tinner family — Urs Tinner, his brother Marco and their father Friedrich — who are suspected of playing a crucial role in Khan's smuggling network.

Another set of the same plans was turned over to the IAEA after Libya abandoned its nuclear program. Libya told the IAEA that it had ordered 10,000 gas centrifuges from Khan, most of which it intended for a facility that was to be built according to the plans. Centrifuges are used to enrich uranium.

The investigator said the layout of the Al-Hasakah facility matches the plans used in Libya almost exactly with a large building surrounded by three smaller workshops in the same configurations. Investigators were struck that even the parking lots had similarities with a covered area to shield cars from the sun.

But the investigator said he had seen no evidence that centrifuges were ever installed there. The Hasakah Spinning Co., has a website that shows photos of manufacturing equipment inside the facility and brags about its prices.

The IAEA asked to visit the site more than two years ago. But it has not pressed the issue, focusing its efforts on the site bombed by the Israelis.

Nor has the agency ever cited the Al-Hasakah facility in its reports. Three other sites have been mentioned, but they are believed to have been related to the bombed reactor, not the Al-Hasakah plant.

IAEA inspectors were allowed to visit the bombed reactor site once, but have not been allowed back for nearly three years. They issued a strongly worded assessment in May that said the targeted site was in fact a nearly built nuclear reactor. The agency's board subsequently referred the issue to the U.N. Security Council, effectively dismissing Syrian denials as untrue.

Syrian officials again refused new inspections after talks with the IAEA in Damascus last week, diplomats told the AP. The officials said they would provide new evidence that the bombed site was non-nuclear. Agency officials remain skeptical because Syria did not describe the new information or say when it would be provided.


George Jahn reported from Vienna


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Video: Inside Syria: Underground network of cyber activists keeps revolution alive

  1. Transcript of: Inside Syria: Underground network of cyber activists keeps revolution alive

    BRIAN WILLIAMS: As the Arab Spring we witnessed quickly turns into winter, the Middle East is littered with deposed dictators, dead and alive. Now all eyes are on Syria and President Assad , who remains defiant and in power for now. He has killed thousands trying to crush the rebellion, and he's tried mightily hard to hide the killing and the torture by keeping Western journalists out of there. But our own chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel got in at great risk to tell the story of the ongoing revolution inside Syria .

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: It's the Arab Spring 's most stubborn revolution, and it's kept alive by graphic videos like these recorded in secret in Syria . The Syrian regime has kept most foreign journalists out, but it can't keep the videos in. We set out to find out why by going into Syria . We contact smugglers in southern Turkey . Usually they traffic cigarettes across the border into Syria . This time we will be their cargo. Suspecting we may be police, they swap us day and night from car to car to gauge how we react. Not surprisingly the smugglers are very, very cautious, but finally they do seem convinced we are who we say we are and haven't been followed. The group takes us to a safe house on the Turkish side of the border. We wait here for the moment to cross into Syria . We're told we'll go at night and wait three days. But when we think we're driving to yet another safe house ...

    Are we crossing now? They suddenly drop us off on the side of the road ...

    Unidentified Man #1: Go, go, go.

    ENGEL: ...and tell us that this field is the way in. It's 3 in the afternoon, broad daylight. I didn't expect we'd be crossing during the day. So without visas, without permission, we start to cross into Syria . The border runs right through these fields. We pause frequently as our guide, a smuggler, calls spotters to learn if watchtowers are occupied and for the location of armed Syrian border guards . Next, we must leave the relative protection of the tall grass and run through an open field . Once we cross the barbed wire fence, we're inside Syria . The stakes are now much higher. If we're caught, as Americans we 'll likely be accused of spying. This is the part where we are the most exposed. It's open land all around us. We've stopped in this tiny little ditch waiting for the sign that we can go forward. A car is supposed to be waiting for us on the Syrian side. We are now inside Syria and just waiting by the side of the road for our contact to pick us up. It's a terrible wait, obvious foreigners by a roadside. Finally our contacts arrive. They take us to a safe house in a small Syrian city. It's a brothel in a basement apartment full of beer bottles, mattresses and a mirrored bed. Home for the next three days. The uprising began last March in the southern city of Dara 'a. There a group of students was jailed, some as young as 11, for writing 'The people want to topple the regime' on a wall of their school. But when one of the boys was eventually released, he looked like this. Witnesses say security forces branded his face with hot knives. Protests erupted first in the student's hometown and then nationwide. President Bashar al-Assad responded with tanks, troops firing on protesters and mass arrests.

    In our Syrian safe house , I speak with Gwan Yousif a human rights lawyer. He lives in hiding and asked we not show his face.


    ENGEL: He says, 'I'd like to say to the American people , the same way you like freedom and democracy and to live in security, we are not different. We are human beings.' We drive to a nearby apartment to meet more activists, moving quickly -- he says there's some security up ahead as well -- to avoid being seen. A law student tells me many female demonstrators are raped by security forces . A journalism student shows me the laptop he uses to transmit videos . He works with a team of 10 other videographers who record demonstrations with cameras hidden in their clothing, and they are always aware that their videos could be used against them.

    Unidentified Man #2:

    ENGEL: He says, 'We deliberately film crowds from a distance so individuals can't be recognized or arrested.' Activists say they also use encryption software provided by the US State Department that prevents the Syrian government from tracking the video source. After the student sends his videos , he immediately erases the hard drive. We leave Syria back through the fields and return to Turkey .

    Man #1: Go, go, go, go, just go.

    ENGEL: In Istanbul , the Ottoman capital on the Bosphorus , we meet Omar al - Mokdad . He's the other half of the opposition. He distributes the videos recorded in Syria to the world. The 31-year-old began opposing the Syrian government while he was still in college. Al- Mokdad says he founded three unlicensed newspapers in Damascus . All were shut down by the government .

    Mr. OMAR AL-MOKDAD: We didn't make any crimes. We were just trying to follow our freedom.

    ENGEL: He says he was arrested seven times. In prison, al-Mokdad says the guards told him if he stopped writing they'd go easy on him.

    Mr. AL-MOKDAD: And they said, 'Will you -- will you continue writing this nonsense?' I say, 'If I see something wrong, I will write about it. I will not be silenced.' They say -- then they say in cold-blooded way, 'OK, cool. We will help you to stop writing.' They put my hand to the table, and they broke it.

    ENGEL: They said, 'We'll help you stop writing,' smash.

    Mr. AL-MOKDAD: And they broke my hand.

    ENGEL: Since fleeing Syria last spring, al-Mokdad has helped post more 2,500 videos . Why did Tunisia fall, Egypt fell, Gadhafi 's regime fell, but Syria hasn't? Why not?

    Mr. AL-MOKDAD: Because we have a problem with the army. The army's still under their control. Forty-one years, they put all the country under their control.

    ENGEL: The Syrian government declined to speak to us, but claims the demonstrators are armed gangs and terrorists who have killed hundreds of Syrian security forces . How do you see this developing?

    Mr. AL-MOKDAD: The people are determined to take the regime out.

    ENGEL: And their most powerful weapons are laptops and cell phones.

    WILLIAMS: We're always happy to see you back. You were briefly insanely exposed during this story. Back up, one little thing, to this State Department software, how does that happen?

    ENGEL: Yeah, the State Department helps these activists communicate without being detected by the Syrian government . About 200 activists have been killed for transmitting videos , and this is part of the State Department 's initiative to give them some degree of protection. The US has said there will be no military intervention, nothing like what happened in Libya , but they're helping in ways they can.

    WILLIAMS: Hard to believe, February of this year, you and I are walking through Tahrir Square and, you know, you're looking at Cairo , a city where you moved as a young college graduate to learn Arabic. Mubarak gone, Gadhafi gone, Assad very nervous.

    ENGEL: Assad is very nervous, especially after Gadhafi was killed. The stakes are suddenly much higher. He saw that, unless he wins and crushes this revolt, Assad could end up becoming killed. It has also encouraged the demonstrators because they saw that someone like Gadhafi himself could be brought down. So the stakes are higher for both sides.

    WILLIAMS: Always good to see you, especially after this trip.


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