In his National Defense University speech Wednesday, February 11, President George W. Bush went far towards counteracting the lame impression left by his appearance last Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert. He seemed then to be licking the wounds inflicted on his case for going to war in Iraq by David Kay’s “no stockpiles” assertions and resignation from the Iraq Survey Group. The CIA director George Tenet’s subsequent Georgetown University speech did little to repair the damage.
On Wednesday, Bush showed clearly that he had moved on. The casualty of Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction had recovered sufficiently to deliver a hard-hitting offensive on nuclear proliferation, accompanied by a fascinating glimpse of the mechanics of the nuclear black market network run by the Pakistani scientist Abdel Qadeer Khan, “as pieced together by American and British intelligence.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources augment the list of prime movers in the enterprise.
A twofold intelligence service was rendered by Spain in exposing the Khan network as well as al Qaeda rings engaged in procuring unconventional weapons, while Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi labors tirelessly in support of US counter-terrorist and intelligence efforts in southern Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean at large.
(More about this further down this issue.)
In his speech, the US president stressed that Khan and his associates were moved by greed, fanaticism, or both, when they sold the blueprints for centrifuges to enrich uranium, as well as nuclear designs stolen from the Pakistani government. “The network, he said, “sold uranium hexafluoride, the gas that the centrifuge process can transform into enriched uranium for nuclear bombs and provided Iran, Libya and North Korea with designs for Pakistan’s older centrifuges as well as designs for more advanced models.”
Bush named Khan’s deputy, B.S.A. Tahir, as running a computer company in Dubai as a front and cover for the movement of centrifuge parts to various clients. He directed a Malaysian factory to produce these parts based on Pakistani designs and then ship them to Dubai. Parts acquired by other European procurement agents transited through the same emirate.
The president tied up a few ends on an episode that occurred last October, when American and British intelligence officers identified a shipment of advanced centrifuge parts manufactured in Malaysia, followed it to Dubai and watched its transfer to the German-owned BBC China. After the ship passed through the Suez Canal bound for Libya, it was stopped by German and Italian authorities. They found several containers listed on the ship’s manifest as full of used machine parts. In fact they were filled with sophisticated centrifuge parts.
Winding up this episode, Bush said: “The BBC China was intercepted as British and American officials were discussing the possibility of Libya ending its WMD programs.”
Tahir is in Malaysia where his activities are under investigation. Malaysian authorities report that the factory concerned, Scomi Precision Engineer installation in Shah Alam, is no longer in operation. In fact, the section producing centrifuges has been closed down but the factory is still in business.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s European sources further add: The medium freighter, built as recently as 2000, was chosen for the delivery of clandestine cargoes because it is capable of unloading its 6,357-ton container freight with cranes of its own which can lift 240 tons each in ports lacking these facilities.
The US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) which was involved in shadowing the freighter carrying thousands of centrifuge parts did not board the ship in international waters, but “diverted” it to an Italian port where it was searched by local authorities and the uranium enrichment components cargo confiscated. Its forthcoming departure from Dubai was discovered in September and the German authorities were informed. Shortly after the freighter cleared the Suez Canal, they notified the Germany shipowner, BBC Chartering and Logistic GmbH, which instructed the captain to change course for Italy. A US naval vessel shadowed the freighter as it passed through the Mediterranean Sea to the Italian port. Later, the US president called Berlusconi to thank him for his assistance in helping to stem the spread of unconventional weapons.
Whether or not the confiscation finally sealed Muammar Qaddafi’s decision to give up his weapons of mass destruction is not altogether clear, but negotiations were then in progress, and shortly afterward, Libya agreed to allow US and British experts to inspect its weapons facilities.
While regrouping his assets and refocusing his weapons to fend off the assault on his credibility as a war leader, Bush is not letting go of his WMD case against Saddam. He even managed to slip a couple of sentences into his nuclear proliferation speech. The former dictator did possess and use WMD against his own people, he stressed firmly. He refused to disarm or account for his illegal weapons and programs.
That debate is therefore still unresolved.
Although Bush’s advisers would love to steer the political and campaign focus away from Iraq, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources are convinced that all three unresolved issues of Saddam’s missing weapons, Pakistan’s nuclear black market and the spread of unconventional weapons technology to dangerous terrorists will all continue to haunt the president because they are inextricably intertwined.
Six factors must be taken into account:
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf‘s life is still in danger. Our sources can disclose a third failed assassination attempt in the second week of January, following two previous tries on December 14 and 25. His enemies will keep on trying despite efforts by the CIA and Britain’s MI6 to keep him safe.
The hands behind these attempts came from agents within Pakistani military intelligence (SIS) who are part of the A. Q. Khan nuclear black market network. Musharraf’s crackdown on radical Muslim groups whom he accused of plotting to murder him was a screen behind which he sought to winkle out the real conspirators. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, the Pakistani ruler was only partially successful. Many parts of the network remain at large. In his speech, Bush declared he would not rest until they were all stopped.
Musharraf’s death – or even incapacitation – would seriously upset the chances of the Afghanistan spring offensive that chief of US central command General John Abizaid is preparing now. At best, Abizaid would hope to reel in Osama bin Laden, his top lieutenant Ayman Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar; at the least, he would hope to break up the work of al Qaeda’s smuggling rings, some of which are complicit in the Pakistani nuclear black market. If the US-led spring campaign fails, those rings will go on operating and Al Qaeda and the Taliban will sit more firmly in their strongholds in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir.
That impending contest is the backdrop against which the London-based Saudi newspaper Al Hayat of Monday, February 9, resurrected a 10-year-old report claiming Al Qaeda had acquired Russian-made nuclear bombs in a briefcase.
According to the news item, of the 132 devices the Russians built, they retain 48 but 84 have disappeared. Bin Laden, the newspaper said, has 10 to 12 portable A-bombs.
It is anybody’s guess whether the weapons are still in working condition and if so who kept them maintained over the years. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, the story was rerun now to inform Washington that there are still plenty of nuclear weapons out there and out of its control, even after the Pakistani nuclear trafficker was unmasked. Those covert devices present the United States with the threat of nuclear attack, possibly by a radiation bomb, if its forces attempt to destroy al Qaeda in the coming spring offensive. As to who planted the report in Al Hayat, the probable sources are Al Qaeda itself or the Pakistani and Saudi intelligence officials playing ball with the fundamentalist terrorists’ nuclear smuggling networks.
The Americans have been trailing A.Q. Khan and his nuclear supermarket since the early 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet empire set free a flock of Russian and satellite generals and spy chiefs. Brandishing their keys to the USSR’s nuclear arsenals, they descended on Prague and the Spanish resort beloved of royals, Marbella. There, they set themselves up in offices to peddle their wares to nuclear black marketeers, among them the Khan network.
In the second half of the decade, “big business”, namely Russia’s racketeers, moved in on the trade. One in particular, Semion Mogilevich, cornered much of the trade in banned nuclear materials, whether enriched uranium adapted to military use, or components of nuclear devices and missiles.
From the early 21st century, the Red Mafia and the Black Mafia took over. The Red Mafia was made up of a multi-national host of gangs from former Soviet nations – Russians, Ukrainian, Kazakh, Uzbek, Chechen, Hungarian, Polish, Serb and Croatian, together with Chinese and North and South Korean smuggling rings. The Black Mafia, predominantly Muslim, was spearheaded by the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, but scarcely an Arab or Muslim nation lacked a presence, represented by scientists, spies or notable criminals.
The nuclear black market landscape shifted again in the course of 2000. Its epicenter moved out of Prague to Gibraltar where the dons of the nuclear crime families met for important business. Transactions took place on the Rock, but the goods themselves were displayed and handed over to buyers not far away in the two small Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, as well as Marbella.
Although not credited in the Bush speech on Wednesday, Spanish intelligence played a vital role in exposing this traffic. Much of the success in uncovering the clandestine operations of the Pakistani nuclear network and al Qaeda’s nuclear smuggling rings is owed to the Spanish intelligence service.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons. After three years of intensive effort, the Bush administration finally succeeded in snapping the link between North Korea’s nuclear research and development program and its Middle East collaborator, Libya. Although this will undoubtedly ease America’s plans for transformations in the Middle East and perhaps South Asia, Pyongyang’s defiance as a nuclear rogue remains unresolved.
Iran is advancing full steam ahead on a nuclear bomb in breach of its commitment to the International Atomic Energy Agency and Europe to desist from enriching uranium. Tehran is able to cheat UN inspectors by keeping its clandestine program going through a duplicate network of manufacturing facilities that is hidden from sight.
But that is not the sum total of Iran’s burgeoning war machine. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report additionally:
Iran has begun building a military spy satellite and aspires to be the first Muslim nation with an eye in space.
Work is continuing on a missile system in central Iran. The Islamic Republic’s nuclear warhead-capable Shahab-2 and Shahab-3 missiles will eventually be deployed there.
Iran has applied cruise missile technology to its medium-range Raad missile, an updated version of the Chinese Silkworm and is working on its adaptation to long-range missiles.
IAEA chairman Mohammed ElBaradei is engaged in an intensive effort to torpedo America’s drive against nuclear proliferation.
The Egyptian scientist may face tough questions on his very mixed record as the world’s number one nuclear watchdog. For instance, today he admits that the Khan nuclear network is but the tip of an iceberg. But where was he when Libya, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran started their race for an A-bomb? Or when an international black market in nuclear material and uranium enrichment centrifuges began flourishing?
While the United States worked at preventing Muslim nations from going nuclear, ElBaradei, at best, sat on his hands, or, at worst, quietly applauded their advances.
He may not say so outright, but ElBaradei concurs with Pakistan’s Dr. Khan that the issue of nuclear non-proliferation is no more than an American-Israeli conspiracy to deny Muslims an asset Israel already possesses in the hundreds – nuclear warheads.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, the IAEA director is planning what he privately calls a counter-punch to “the US offensive against the Muslim nuclear industry”. He has been holding a series of secret consultations with his top advisers on a plan to travel to Israel and demand access to its nuclear facilities for the kind of inspection to which Libya, Pakistan – and in theory, Iran — have submitted. This will be ElBaradei’s way of getting at Bush and undercutting the president’s claims of victory in his push against nuclear proliferation.
ElBaradei is counting on Israeli refusing to grant him and his inspectors access to its nuclear facilities, thereby generating an international outcry and also providing Iran with a valid pretext for following suit. With European and Arab backing, the director of the world’s nuclear watchdog trusts in his ability to frustrate Washington on the nuclear front once again, just as he has done in Iraq.
The Bush administration may have reason to rue its decision to back away from its original plan to have the Egyptian nuclear scientists ousted and replaced with a more accommodating IAEA director.