Al Qaeda Could Easily Have Dipped into the Thriving Nuclear Black Market
A curious feature of the Nuclear Security Summit convened by Barak Obama in Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday (April 13-14) was the dates on the working papers put before the 47 world leaders: All the documentation on the subjects of theft, smuggling and international trafficking of nuclear elements and materials pre-dated late 2005; none pertained to information or actions after that date.
The Intelligence agencies dealing with the nuclear black market, especially the American, might be understood to have left the five-year information gap to keep their current areas of operation and undercover sources under wraps. But what about the national leaders, ministers and intelligence chiefs ingathered from across the world? How did they expect to properly discuss and make decisions when all they had to work with was outdated data?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources rather link the 2005 cutoff of information to a momentous event in the nuclear disarmament of rogue states.
In 2004, the Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi came forward and of his own accord gave Washington all the information, documents and nuclear materials that he had purchased for $100 million in cash from the head of the Pakistani nuclear black market, Dr. A. Q. Khan, the father of his country's nuclear bomb.
He did so for fear that Libya would meet the same fate as Iraq and President George G. W Bush would decide to invade his country to break up his weapons of mass destruction program and seize the nuclear materials and infrastructure and the chemical and biological weaponry he had acquired.
Qaddafi also handed over something even more valuable than his WMD, vital information about the workings of the A.Q. Khan nuclear black market network.
The dead letter of the 2005 Nuclear Terrorism Convention
That was how Washington discovered that the Pakistani nuclear wizard had sold to North Korea and Iran not only centrifuges for uranium enrichment but also blueprints for building an atomic bomb.
From additional intelligence material, the Americans learned that Khan in person with members of his network (Pakistani nuclear scientists and engineers as well British and Swiss nationals) had rendezvoused secretly with al Qaeda representatives, possible even Osama bin Laden in Kabul, Afghanistan, as early as 1998.
All that information was accumulated up until 2005, but the working papers put before the 2010 nuclear show no evidence that Western intelligence agencies added to their pool of information on nuclear black marketeering after than watershed year.
In a perfect world, it might be assumed that Dr. A. Q. Khan's network was one of a kind in the history of nuclear proliferation and had disappeared after it was smashed. Or even that the Nuclear Terrorism Convention, initiated by Russia and adopted by the UN in 2005, had succeeded brilliantly in catching and criminalizing all the smugglers and felonious traders in banned nuclear materials, like enriched uranium and Caesium-137, Strontium-90, Plutonium and Cobalt-60, the ideal materials for making radioactive and dirty bombs.
Under that convention, adopted unanimously on April 13, exactly five years before Obama's nuclear summit, all member-states agreed to criminalize the possession, use, or threat of use of radioactive devices by non-state actors, their accomplices, and organizers “with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury” or environmental or property damage.
A labyrinthine trade flourishes
Therefore, this week's summit declaration that every state is responsible for keeping nuclear materials from reaching terrorists trod old ground. They agreed to lock up vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. No wonder that the old convention was not resurrected. Our counter-terror sources note that after 115 nations approved that measure, only 24 ratified it, including Russia. The other four permanent UN Security Council members, China, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, neither ratified nor enacted special legislation to implement it.
Unlike those powers, the nuclear black market has been far from idle in the interim five years, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly shows by the following examples:
1. Not all members of the A. Q. Khan network were caught; some are still out there in Southeast Asia carrying on his nefarious trade from such places as Malaysia, Macao, Indonesia, and some of the Persian Gulf states.
2. Some nuclear black market centers have never been exposed and operate unhindered up until the present from Russia and former Soviet republics in the Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia, Turkey and the Balkans, especially Bosnia, Bulgaria and Albania. In Africa, illegal nuclear goods can be purchased in Tangiers and the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melila on the Moroccan coast and, further inland, from smuggling networks in the Sahara.
Operating in the dark too are nuclear traffickers in Pakistan, India, big Chinese cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai and the semi-autonomous XinJiang province of northern China.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's list is far from complete. Nuclear rings pop up and go to ground like any other mafia, switching from nuclear materials to drugs, money or weapons according to market fluctuations.
3. Then there are the thousands of straw companies established by certain intelligence and security services which are involved in the trade or use it to trap the criminal traffickers.
Iran's intelligence services – MOIS, and its Revolutionary Guards Corps' undercover arm, North Korean intelligence and Syrian military intelligence – are active dealers and brokers in uranium, other nuclear materials, equipment and nuclear technology, sometimes using their acquisitions as currency for obtaining components or substances urgently needed for their illegal programs.
A summit too late, too divided and too vague
Given that this short list contains no more than a fraction of the area encompassed by the lively international market, it is hard to see how the US president and his 47 guests imagined they could deliver on their decision for each government to assume control of all the nuclear materials at its disposal within four years and block their outflow to criminal traders and terrorist elements.
A very senior Western intelligence source involved in the war on nuclear smuggling told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that in the past two years (2008-2009), this racket had mushroomed to a scale that rivaled the illicit movements of conventional arms and money. Because nuclear material is usually moved about in small containers, full scope of the trade is hard to assess, but the amount of money changing hands in nuclear trafficking is just as large as in any other underground global commerce. In the view of this source, the world has woken up too late to fight this trade and missed the boat.
There is no solid information on the extent to which al Qaeda has taken advantage of the free-and-easy nuclear traffic to acquire some sort of device. It may be recalled that it took Osama bin Laden eight years to plan and execute the 9/11 horror against the United States. There is no knowing if he has a nuclear conspiracy in the making and if so, at what stage it is now. Since Qaddafi's revelations of 2004, this trail has gone cold. (Read more about this in the next article.)
Russia and China take issue with US perceptions
President Obama's opening remarks to the summit encapsulate the vast distance between its deliberations and the realities. They also bared the huge gap in perception between Washington, on the one hand, and Moscow and Beijing on the other.
Obama put it this way: "Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we face a cruel irony of history – the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up."
In an earlier statement, he said that the danger of nuclear terror was greater than that of nuclearized rogue states.
Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, with whom Obama signed a nuclear warhead reduction pact in Prague two days earlier, thinks otherwise. He sees the danger of a nuclear war between nations as having gone up rather than down.
The day before the summit (Monday, April 12), in a lengthy interview with George Stephanopolous on ABC, Medvedev warned: "It (an Israeli strike on Iran) would be the worst possible scenario. Because any war means lives lost. Secondly, what does a war in the Middle East mean? Everyone is so close over there that nobody would be unaffected. And if a conflict of that kind happens, and a strike is performed, then you can expect anything, including the use of nuclear weapons. And nuclear strikes in the Middle East mean global catastrophe. Many deaths".
More delicately, but just as firmly, Chinese president Hu Jintao rejected the US president's blandishments for bringing him around to tougher measures against Iran and its nuclear program.
Both Medvedev and Jintao resisted Obama's plan to narrow the summit agenda to nuclear terror and smuggling. They acted to make sure Iran was addressed as well.
Pakistan on all minds, though not mentioned
The US president was short of strong current data to dramatize the summit's theme. He therefore turned to hackneyed phrases to make his point: "If networks such as Al Qaeda would succeed to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, it would be a catastrophe for the world, causing extraordinary loss of life and striking a major blow at global peace and stability," he said.
"Just the smallest amount of plutonium — about the size of an apple — could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people."
At the same time, the US president avoided touching on the two really burning issues on the minds of all the participants: The inadequacy of safeguards against Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of al Qaeda or Taliban and the safety of India's nuclear facilities against terrorism originating at home or emanating from Pakistan.
While Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has insisted that security for his country's nuclear arsenal has been enhanced and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for a global center for nuclear energy partnership and for "zero tolerance" for nuclear traffickers, the safety of their own stocks and facilities leaves much to be desired.
Pakistan faces the most immediate hazard, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources. In the past two years, Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers have infiltrated the agencies charged with securing the disassembled elements of the country's nuclear weapons which are scattered around different locations. At this moment, they are not on the point of commandeering the arsenal or passing it to terrorist organizations. On the other hand, their proximity to the nuclear facilities is troubling and their ranks are being reinforced by recruits they are picking up from army contingents guarding road access to the nuclear stocks.
Inadequate security at India's nuclear reactors
Seven months ago, on October 10, 2009, the Pakistani Taliban carried out two coordinated attacks – one an attempted takeover of the Pakistani nuclear weapons' secret security division at general staff headquarters in Islamabad, and the other aimed at cutting off the Pakistani capital from the nuclear stockpiles located in army bases near the northern Pakistan city of Koat and in the Pakistani Army's munitions center of Wah.
These attacks – and the dire consequences had they succeeded – were not referred to at the Washington summit by so much as a hint. Neither was a likely Taliban-Al Qaeda repeat offensive.
In India, the situation is different insofar as Muslim elements, whether moderate or radical, are denied access to the military facilities where India's nuclear weapons are stored.
On the other hand, Muslim scientists, technicians and other personnel are employed in India's nuclear industry and work at nuclear reactors. Western and Indian security experts are worried by what they see as inefficient intelligence and security oversight of these staffs and the shortcomings of safeguards from terrorist attack at India's nuclear reactors.
A terrorist attack on an Indian nuclear power plan could potentially put to flight more than 20 million people within a 50-mile radius. They would run helter-skelter from the radioactive clouds, while lacking clear guidance from federal and state emergency officials – a sure recipe for human catastrophe.