THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Qaeda said to focus on acquiring WMDs

Email|Print| Text size + By Josh Meyer
Los Angeles Times / February 4, 2008

WASHINGTON - After a US airstrike leveled a small compound in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions in January 2006, President Pervez Musharraf and his intelligence officials announced that several senior Al Qaeda operatives had been killed, and that the top prize was an elusive Egyptian who was believed to be one of the network's top explosives specialists as well as a senior researcher and instructor in chemical weapons.

But current and former US intelligence officials now believe that the Egyptian, Abu Khabab Masri, is alive and well - and is in charge of resurrecting Al Qaeda's program to develop or obtain weapons of mass destruction.

Given the problems with past US intelligence assessments of weapons of mass destruction, officials are careful not to overstate Al Qaeda's capabilities, and they emphasize that there is much they don't know because of the difficulty in getting information out of the mountainous area of Pakistan.

But they say Al Qaeda has regenerated at least some of the research and development effort that it lost when the US military flattened its Afghanistan headquarters and training camps in late 2001, and they believe it once again is trying to develop or obtain chemical, biological, radiological, and even nuclear weapons that it can use in attacks on the United States and its other enemies.

For now, the intelligence officials believe, that effort is largely focused on developing and using cyanide, chlorine, and other poisons that are unlikely to cause the kind of mass-casualty attack that is usually associated with weapons of mass destruction.

Intelligence officials say they base their assessments on anecdotal evidence gleaned from intercepted phone calls and e-mails, information provided by informants and captured Al Qaeda members and the tracking of money flows and jihadist websites. One international counterterrorism official said there are indications that some operatives have received immunizations against biological agents.

Khabab is believed to have set up rudimentary labs with at least a handful of aides and to have provided a stable environment in which scientists and researchers can do research and experiment with chemicals and other compounds, said several former intelligence officials familiar with Al Qaeda's weapons of mass destruction program.

Recent intelligence shows that Khabab is training Western recruits for chemical attacks in Europe and perhaps the United States, just as he did when he ran the "Khabab Camp" within Al Qaeda's Derunta training complex in Afghanistan before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to one senior US intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the CIA's weapons intelligence is classified.

Raphael Perl, who heads the Action Against Terrorism Unit of the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, said it was widely assumed that Al Qaeda developed chemical weapons years ago, and that if it doesn't have biological capabilities already, "they are certainly not far from it."

Given that Khabab "has the technical knowledge," he said, "it's very, very clear that they are working both in the chemical and biological fields."

Pakistan's information minister, Nisar Memon, refused to comment on Khabab and Al Qaeda's weapons program, but officials from three Pakistani intelligence agencies confirmed that he is alive.

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