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Bin Laden sought nuclear matter

Officials have not confirmed the purchase

By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 9/16/2001

NEW YORK - Accused terrorist Osama bin Laden and associates in his Al Qaeda organization have tried several times to buy nuclear weapons, including one 1994 attempt to buy uranium, according to federal prosecutors.

Since then, several Arabic newspapers have reported that bin Laden, now considered the chief suspect by the Bush administration for last week's attacks in New York and Washington, has succeeded in obtaining nuclear material.

In 1998, the Saudi-owned, London-based Arabic newspaper, Al-Hayat, declared bin Laden had obtained nuclear weapons - a report that was never confirmed.

But several months later, the Arabic newsmagazine Al-Watan reported bin Laden, working with organized crime sources in the former Soviet republics, had obtained nuclear material.

The Saudi exile reportedly gave Chechen gangsters $30 million in cash and two tons of opium in exchange for about 20 warheads, the magazine said.

Although officials have not confirmed the purchase, bin Laden's interest in the deadly weapons is not out of character for a man CIA director George Tenet, in congressional testimony earlier this year, called one of America's greatest national security threats, both at home and abroad.

As bin Laden told Time magazine in a 1998 interview, acquiring weapons ''for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty. If I have, indeed, acquired these [nuclear, biological, or chemical] weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so.''

The first sign that bin Laden wanted to buy nuclear weapons was in 1998, with the arrest of Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a key aide and co-founder of Al Qaeda. Arrested in Munich, Germany, Salim was charged with acting on behalf of bin Laden to obtain nuclear materials, including highly enriched uranium.

That same year, Salim and four other suspects were accused of plotting the deadly bombings of two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Salim pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and his case was separated from the other defendants. He is scheduled to stand trial next week on a separate stabbing case involving a prison officer.

During their trial earlier this year, federal prosecutors portrayed Al Qaeda as a vast and sophisticated network dedicated to following through on bin Laden's decrees, including a call to eliminate all Americans.

A star witness in the case, Jamal Ahmad Al-Fadl, a Sudanese national, described how he had been assigned the task of buying uranium for bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan.

He was offered a 2- to 3-foot canister of uranium, with South African markings, for a price of $1.5 million, he said.

He testified he often told merchants the quality of the uranium was far more important than the cost. He then handed off the transaction to a higher-up.

Although he did not know if the uranium was ever purchased, he said he received $10,000 for his efforts, and an associate later told him the uranium would be tested in Cyprus.

Al-Fadl, who split with bin Laden over money disputes, is now in the FBI's witness protection program after turning himself in at an American Embassy in 1996.

At that time, he demanded protection and said he knew of plots against the United States.

''They try to make war against your country,'' he recalled telling officials at the time.

When officials asked what he meant, Al-Fadl answered, ''Maybe they try to do something inside the United States and they try to fight the United States Army outside, and also they try to make bomb against some embassy outside.''

The 1998 embassy bombings left 224 dead, including 12 Americans.

Two of the men convicted in that plot have been sentenced to life in prison. The other two, convicted of conspiring in the attack, have yet to be sentenced.

This story ran on page A26 of the Boston Globe on 9/16/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.