In the traditional televised Jewish New Year’s message on Wednesday, September 4, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon dropped a far from traditional bombshell that will reverberate long and loud. He revealed recently confirmed intelligence information from early 2002 that Libya was close to becoming the first Arab and African country to join the nuclear club, beating Iraq and Iran to the punch.
Considering that Iran is expected to reach operational nuclear capability by 2005, what Sharon was signaling was that Libya would have its atomic bomb by 2004. The Israeli leader added that the Libyan program was being carried out by Iraqi and North Korean nuclear scientists with Saudi funding. He suggested the advisability of checking to see if Saddam was not exploiting Libya to build a nuclear weapon for himself outside Iraq.
Sharon’s remarks came scant hours after US president George W. Bush told congressional leaders that the United States had no option but to deal with the problem called Saddam Hussein. In the run-up to the congressional briefing at the White House, US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said America had secret information that Iraq was nearing its nuclear goal.
He did not give that information away. Sharon did, revealing that the first Arab nuclear bomb was on the way – albeit in an unexpected place.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington report that the Bush team was far from pleased with him for letting the cat out of bag, having hoped to keep this fresh source of Middle East tension on a back burner before the assault on Iraq.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources note that Sharon gave only half the show away. He kept the other half to himself. In late July, Israeli intelligence was startled to discover that the Libyan nuclear program was essentially a combined effort to provide Egypt as well as Libya with a nuclear bomb, with a finger in the nuclear pie for Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The North Koreans had contracted to carry the project forward for the two Arab countries. And, while some of the financing came from Cairo, some could also be traced to Riyadh, in the drive for the first Arab nuclear bomb.
Some of the background for this development is revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources:
A. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who claims the privilege of being Washington’s strongest ally in the Arab world, hid behind this standing and his prestige as peacemaker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the 1990s, to deal secretly with North Korea on the development of an arsenal of atomic weapons and nuclear-tipped missiles.
B. Mubarak opted for this course after Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, putting paid to his hopes of Rabin being talked round to declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free zone in return for comprehensive peace with the Arab world. After the Israeli prime minister’s death, the Egyptian president pressured Washington to force Israel’s nuclear disarmament. When this did not work, he performed an about-face.
C. This turnabout entailed an approach to Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi for help. At the time, Libya was ostracized and subject to UN sanctions over its role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Mubarak proposed embarking on a joint Egyptian-Libyan program to develop the Arab nuclear weapon.
The Egyptian leader, while above suspicion of harboring nuclear ambitions, proposed entering into secret negotiations with North Korea for assistance in building two nuclear facilities.
The first was to be an underground reactor in the southern Libyan Desert oasis of al Khufrah opposite the Aswan Dam of the Upper Nile. When Libya and Egypt fell out in the 1970s during the presidency of Anwar Sadat, Ghaddafi posted Scud missile batteries at al Khufrah as a threat to the huge dam, a threat that was partly instrumental in persuading President Sadat to sign peace with Israel in 1979.
The other project for which Mubarak sought North Korean help was a factory for the manufacture of surface-to-surface missiles on the model of the North Korean No Dong missile, capable of delivering nuclear warheads.
Work on the two projects began in the fall of 1996, with some 1,800 nuclear engineers and technicians working on the construction of the reactor. Only 800 came from Pyongyang, the rest were recruited in Belarus, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Poland and Central Asia – mostly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – with a handful of Chinese.
The missile factory, near Alexandria, was completed in 2000. Its assembly line is working without pause, employing some 600 North Korean technicians and engineers.
Ghaddafi put up most of the cash for the two $4.2 billion nuclear projects. But Saudi Arabia agreed to contribute $800 million after Mubarak and Ghaddafi secretly showed Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Abdullah round their respective facilities – the Alexandria factory and al Khufrah reactor sites – in September 1999.
D. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that parts of the al Khufrah reactor, now in its last stage of construction, starts test runs in a matter of weeks, a testimony to the expertise of the North Korean, East European and Asian engineers and technicians who built it. They have proved far more efficient than their Russian counterparts who are erecting Iran’s Bushehr reactor. Ghaddafi, in addition to being the project’s leading sponsor, is also providing the enriched Uranium-235 for the reactor. No stranger to the illicit trade in nuclear material, back in the 1970s, the Libyan leader and his intelligence services were involved in the mining and production of uranium-rich lead in Niger, in partnership with the Soviet Union and East Germany. Over the years, Ghaddafi was the source of much of the uranium that went into the Pakistani nuclear bomb, as well substantial funds. He hoped to be presented with a bomb of his own. But the Pakistanis were only prepared to give their benefactor enriched uranium for manufacturing a device, drawing the line at providing him with the blueprints for constructing one.
E. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, until Bush entered the White House, Washington took no take action against Mubarak’s nuclear project, accepting his denial of Israel’s allegations that the Alexandria factory, operated by North Koreans, was turning out missiles capable of delivering nuclear, biological and chemical payloads. In mid-1988, Bill Clinton, then president, the CIA and the Mossad found out about the Arab nuclear bomb project. But, his hands full preparing the war in Kosovo, he was too wary of disrupting US political and intelligence cooperation with Egypt to worry about the discovery. He declined to step in even when two successive Israeli prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, presented him with evidence that Egypt was planning to manufacture missiles capable of delivering non-conventional warheads.
F. Shortly after September 11, 2001, the Mossad discovered that Iraqi nuclear scientists from Saddam’s atomic arms development program had been co-opted to the North Korean teams at the al Khufrah underground facility. In early and mid-2002, Sharon raised the issue in several of his visits to Washington. Admitting he had no specific facts, he conveyed his fears to Bush that in early 2004, when a nuclear bomb was in the hands of Egypt and Libya, Iraq would be handed both a ready-made atomic device and the missiles to deliver it anywhere in the Middle East, including Israel. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington and Jerusalem report that, while Bush did not challenge Sharon’s assessment, he asked for more proof.
G. After each such conversation in Washington, Sharon would call on Israel’s intelligence chiefs for a supreme effort to dig out definitive evidence of Iraq’s participation in the Egyptian-Libyan-North Korean nuclear project. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, their chance came on July 15, when a senior North Korean envoy, Kim-Jung Nan, arrived for visits to Tripoli, Damascus and Teheran.
Both the CIA and Mossad noted that Kim-Jung, who oversees his country’s nuclear ties with foreign countries and entities, steered clear of Cairo and Baghdad. But Jerusalem and Washington were tipped off that, while in Tripoli, Kim-Jung slipped away for a secret tour of the al Khufrah underground complex. There, he rendezvoused with a delegation from Egypt’s atomic energy commission and senior Egyptian officers dealing with nuclear projects.
The key piece of information came from Damascus, where Kim-Jung was found to have met secretly with the heads of Iraq’s nuclear military industry. The North Korean envoy demanded a guarantee that, with a US offensive against Iraq in the offing, documents on the Libyan-Egyptian-North Korean nuclear project be removed from Baghdad and kept safe from American hands, including evidence of the Iraqi scientists employed at al Khufrah.
From Iraqi and Egyptian officials, he demanded to know what would become of the Iraqi scientists once the US attack began and who would assume responsibility for them.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that in early August, Israeli intelligence got hold of the transcripts of the North Korean official’s conversations with Iraqi representatives. Sharon sent them to Washington post haste by the outgoing Mossad director Efraim Halevy. So highly classified was this material, that Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres and defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer were not let into the secret before they visited Mubarak in Alexandria later last month.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and military sources, the Bush administration began preparations to sever its ties with Cairo earlier this year, when it first heard that Egypt had admitted Iraqi nuclear scientists to its joint nuclear project with Libya. The proofs Sharon sent over to the White House finalized its decision. The US defense secretary’s proposal to pull US peacekeeping forces out of Egypt’s Sinai desert was part of Washington’s move to withdraw from involvement in the 1979 Israel-Egyptian peace treaty. The Bush team reasons that if the strategic balance between Israel and Egypt turns nuclear, America had better not be caught in the middle. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington predict the Bush administration will soon begin tailing off its monetary and military support for Egypt, ending in a complete cutoff. The White House has no intention of providing aid that ends up bankrolling the Libyan-Egyptian-North Korean (and perhaps Saudi) nuclear program. In the meantime, the US will do its utmost to ensure that the Arab nuclear option is never realized.