Expectation of a new al Qaeda video tape reputed to urge members to use weapons of mass destruction in America set alarm bells ringing in anti-terror agencies in the United States – together with some soft-pedaling.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said Tuesday, May 27 that there is no evidence of a direct threat from al Qaeda or that the group has obtained weapons of mass destruction. Nonetheless, the bureau had sent out an alert to 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States.
Interestingly, the muted hubbub in America came four days after a political storm flared in Bern, Switzerland over an affair which opened a new window on the far-flung market run by the father of the Pakistan atom bomb and nuclear smuggler Abdul Qadeer Khan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources affirm that this smuggling market has never been completely smashed; nor to this day has every last tentacle of his network been uncovered.
Switzerland was up in arms this week when it learned that last December, its government had ordered destroyed a batch of documents detailing construction plans for nuclear weapons, gas ultracentrifuges to enrich weapons-grade uranium and guided missile delivery systems. The documents destroyed were evidence in a criminal case against a Swiss family of three engineers accused of involvement in the Khan ring.
The Swiss president Pascal Couchepin, speaking publicly about the affair for the first time, said on May 22 that the files were “explosive” for Switzerland’s security and foreign policies. They had to be destroyed to prevent them getting “into the hands of a terrorist organization or an unauthorized state.”
The Swiss connection to A.Q. Khan
According to the Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger‘s report of May 23, Urs Tinner, 43, one of the three accused, was recruited by US intelligence while he was part of Khan’s smuggling network.
Local media claimed the files were secretly destroyed under pressure from Washington which feared its efforts to clamp down on nuclear smuggling might be compromised.
A. Q. Qadeer is known to have sold nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea – but who else?
According to earlier reports, information provided by Urs Tinner led to the seizure in 2003 of the German-registered freighter BBC China which was carrying components for a uranium enrichment plant from Dubai to Libya.
Its interception prompted Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to confess to his country’s nuclear program and abandon it.
Urs Tinner has been held in a Swiss jail since 2004. His brother Marco is also held while their father Friedrich Tinner has been released. As a mechanical engineer and owner of a Swiss company PhiTec, Tinner pere had dealings with the Pakistani nuclear trafficker as far back as the 1980s.
No date has been set for their trial which, if held, may be expected to bring the light of day to many hidden pages of Khan’s nuclear smuggling resume.
Urs Tinner’s name came up in 2004 in connection with a Malaysian government inquiry into the clandestine ties high-ranking officials maintained with A.Q. Khan.
The Malaysian report on its findings disclosed that a US intelligence alert to Kuala Lumpur in November 2003 led to the detention and interrogation of a businessman called Tahir who was under police scrutiny as a suspected key middleman in the Khan network.
The Malaysian and British angles
He is described as having arranged for the shipment of two containers of centrifuge units from Pakistan to Iran on an Iranian freighter. Payment of $3 million was taken in cash in two suitcases to Khan’s center of operation in Dubai.
“Project Machine Shop 1001” was another major undertaking for manufacturing centrifuge components otherwise unobtainable by Libya. The workshop machines came from companies in Spain and Italy.
This project introduced another Western figure – a British engineer called Peter Griffin who, like Friedrich Tinner began working with Khan in the early 1980s, according to British intelligence. Griffin set up a company called Gulf Technical Industries in Dubai.
In 2001, Tahir acting on behalf of his company signed a contract with a Malaysian company, Scomi Precision Engineering, to supply centrifuge components.
This was the point at which the Swiss engineer Urs Tinner entered the picture as Scomi’s production overseer.
In 2003, when the centrifuge parts were finished, Urs Tinner left, not neglecting to take with him the hard drive with the technical drawings as well as his personnel file. The Malaysian report says that the Swiss engineer was clearly intent on not leaving any trace of his presence. The Scomi components were on board the BBC China when it was seized that year. Not only was Libya caught red-handed, but the incriminating components also led to the exposure of major strands of the Khan network.
Many details were omitted from the published Malaysian report; some lines blacked out of the printed version. They may have indicated, for instance, that the centrifuge parts were sold not only to Libya but other customers too.
The Khan network’s undiscovered agents are still in business
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources report that Urs Tinner’s hard drive was the source of the documents the Swiss destroyed last December. But the fact that Tinner, who was only a small cog in the Khan machine, was able to steal the hard drive – and with it a large mass of the network’s nuclear secrets gives rise to three conclusions:
1. That Khan did not retain an efficient security system for the data he was selling. Therefore, his system was full of holes and his confederates and agents, whether employed on the technical or marketing side of the business, were able to help themselves to documents, diagrams and other illicit nuclear materials that were put on sale and, perhaps, go into business on their own.
2. It is an open secret among the American and Western intelligence services involved in uncovering the Khan ring that large sections are still going strong out in Pakistan, the Far East and the Middle East through channels still to be excavated. They are bound to assume that the documents destroyed by the Swiss government may exist in copies still in circulation.
3. Some of their holders may have hung onto them for the last four or five years and then destroyed them when the Khan ring was exposed, for fear of being linked to the trafficker. On the other hand, it is possible that some of A. Q. Khan’s agents and accomplices sold his nuclear plans and secrets to terrorists linked to al Qaeda.
This was the hazard touched on by the unidentified US official on May 27, when he said in reference to the new al Qaeda video: “There is no sign that al Qaeda has acquired the capability to use WMD, but it’s clearly their intention and it’s something we need to be aware of and concerned about.”