Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi extremist accused of masterminding terrorist attacks against the West, is trying to get his hands on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, senior U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials told NBC News. So far, however, he has only managed to develop poisons used in assassinations rather than broad attacks, the officials said.
BIN LADEN has set up a secret superweapons lab in Afghanistan where rudimentary — “really Stone Age,” according to one official — research and development work on such weapons has been conducted. The lab is monitored by U.S. spy satellites.
“So far, from what we have seen, it’s not much more than the equipment you might find in a school chemistry lab, but it is looked at regularly,” said one senior counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told NBC News earlier this month that bin Ladin “definitely wants chem-bio capability.” Zinni said that while there is no “hard evidence he has it, there is no reason that he couldn’t have it.”
“We know he’s trying to develop a capability to deliver — his problem is not getting it, it’s movement and employment,” said Zinni.
TRAINED FOR TOXINS Bin Laden has been working and training his men to deal with toxins like ricin — biologically derived poisons more suited to assassinations.
“It is something you would use to kill one person rather than terrorize the whole East Coast of the United States,” Zinni said.
While there is some evidence terrorists have been trained in their use, there is “a lot of reporting that he is out there looking for material. His problem is that he is not very good at it ... yet.”
In little noticed testimony last March, CIA Director George Tenet said that bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network is one of a “number of groups ... seeking chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agents. We are aware of several instances in which terrorists have contemplated using these materials.”
“Among them is bin Ladin, who has shown a strong interest in chemical weapons,” Tenet testified. “His operatives have trained to conduct attacks with toxic chemicals or biological toxins.”
InsertArt(891840)But, officials said, bin Ladin has yet to have any success in obtaining anything other than toxins, many of which can be “cooked up” in small labs with recipes easily found on the Internet. Ricin, for example, is derived from the castor bean. It has been a favorite of domestic terrorists in the United States because it is so easy to produce.
EVIDENCE OF BIN LADEN PURSUIT One official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said information on the toxins was found on encrypted hard drives in computers seized in December from bin Ladin operatives in Jordan. The suspected terrorists allegedly planned a wave of millennium terror at three sites frequented by Americans, including the River Jordan site where John the Baptist baptized Christ. The planned called for using automatic weapons and remotely controlled bombs, but there is no evidence that toxins were to be unleashed, the official said.
Officials believe that bin Ladin “doesn’t know what he is doing with weapons of mass destruction, that his strategy has been simplistic,” the official said. “You will hear them talking about getting this or that, but it is not in any way systematic.”
As a result, said those involved in the FBI investigation of his operations, bin Laden has been the victim of at least one and possibly more scams in which he tried to obtain uranium from the former Soviet Union, only to wind up with worthless material or nothing at all. Bin Laden’s significant financial resources make him a lucrative target.
The first scam occurred in late 1993, according to the FBI. In fact, it is hinted at in an affidavit filed last year in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where bin Ladin has been indicted for the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa.
According to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Daniel Coleman, “Members of al-Qaeda made efforts to procure enriched uranium for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons. In particular, a document relating to a proposed purchase of purported uranium was routed to Salim for his review and after reviewing the document he indicated the project to purchase the purported uranium should proceed.”
InsertArt(891839)BAD DEAL FOR BIN LADENOfficials said the uranium was sought in the former Soviet Union, but that the man the network was dealing with never actually had any uranium to sell.
“A lot of that [scamming] goes on in that part of the world,” said one official.
The lab in Afghanistan — officials declined to give any further information on its location — has been occupied intermittently, “we think whenever they get some materials,” the official said.
Although the United States has not gotten close enough to the lab to determine what is going on inside, there is no indication that it has the industrial capability needed to create large stocks of any superweapons, officials said.
Based on its size, location and security, officials said the United States does not believe, for example, that the building is equipped to produce enough biological agents needed for a weapons program.
“But we check it regularly,” said one official, indicating spy satellites are used to track activity at the lab.
HELPING THE TALIBAN It was the discovery of the lab and other intelligence about the toxins that led to fears last year that bin Ladin, thwarted in his most recent efforts at conventional terror, was planning a round of high-profile assassinations. The Soviet KGB used ricin in at least one assassination: Gorgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, who died in London. Markov was stabbed with a ricin-tipped umbrella on a busy London street in the late 1970s.
Most recently, officials said, bin Ladin has been recruiting and training Islamic fighters to help the Taliban, Afghanistan’s ruling militia, fight rebels in the northern part of the country as well as helping with refugee issues.
InsertArt(891838)“He is focused on bigger game right now in Chechnya and Central Asia. He probably views it as almost a revolution in some places,” Zinni said. “He can grab countries or chunks of countries now possibly. He is funding Islamic extremists in Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgestan ... or he could be planning something bigger. It’s always worrisome when it’s quiet.”
Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News.