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CNN Discovers al Qaeda's Blueprints for Bombs

Aired June 10, 2002 - 13:37   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We are back with a story that you will only see here on CNN. CNN has learned that documents that we found in an apartment at an al Qaeda -- some al Qaeda people were using as a safe house in Kabul, Afghanistan may actually be the blueprints for a nuclear bomb. Now, CNN is the only network to have found these documents in Afghanistan.

Our Mike Boettcher is following the story. We find him, though, today, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's got the details for us.

Hello, Mike.


Well, those documents were recovered by CNN producer Ingrid Arnesen. They were found at the house of al Qaeda's number one bomb- maker. Now, we had nuclear experts and Arabic experts examine those documents, and what they determined was al Qaeda, in terms of weapons of mass destruction, had a chilling intent.


(voice-over): The neighbors agreed we should go there, told us it was an important house. A place, they said, where the big Arabs lived.

Inside, signs of a hasty al Qaeda retreat. The house was empty, but the garbage was full. And in the chaotic days of mid-November, only spies and reporters collected Kabul's trash.

A discarded letter was a clue to the importance of this address.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "Most respected Abu Khabbab, I'm sending some companions who are eager to be trained in explosives or whatever they want. All of them are trustworthy. Concerning the expenditure, they would pay you themselves. I hope that you would not disappoint me."

BOETTCHER: It is dated January 12, 2001. Abu Khabbab is Osama bin Laden's top chemical and biological weapons commander.

Once operating out of a series of hilltop training camps in Eastern Afghanistan, he was a key link in a chain of connections that would bring thousands of volunteers into Afghanistan and send them out into the world with skills of master terrorists. Those operatives, apparently caught by surprise when Kabul fell last November, fled this upscale neighborhood, known as Wazir Akhbar Khan. Within hours, local Afghan police led CNN to al Qaeda's now- vacant and looted homes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was this pile of garbage. The house was completely empty. Completely empty, except for this one bag, obviously left behind, that had neatly stacked documents. And when we looked at them, we had a colleague, Eddie Maloof (ph), who's a satellite engineer, and speaks Arabic. And he was able really quickly to determine what was on them. And when we realized what it was, we just ran out, grabbed all the documents.

BOETTCHER: Scattered in the mess were documents and journals with notes on explosives. And not just any explosives.

At this house, described by neighbors as occupied by armed Saudis, we found a bag near a shed containing neatly arranged piles of documents. Among them, this one. Large Arabic letters, written in blue marker, spelling the chilling words: "super bombs." Inside: words in English: nuclear fission, isotopes and heating temperatures for uranium-235 and 238.

If it was a blueprint for a nuclear bomb, experts say, it was not workable. But why was it even written? Why did discarded notes from an apparent al Qaeda safe house discuss nuclear designs?

To try to find out why, we commissioned an exhaustive review of apparent al Qaeda documents CNN found in Afghanistan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here are some of your explosive mixtures.

BOETTCHER: The lead analyst, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. He is an expert on nuclear weapons design and proliferations. In the past, he's been a consultant to the U.N. inspection teams investigating Iraq's weapons programs.

Also helping with the review, institute senior analyst Corey Hinderstein, and one of the nation's top Arabic translators, Ron Wolf (ph), who has experience translating technical and weapons documents.

We start with this design, found in a 25-page document filled with information about nuclear weapons. The design would require difficult-to-obtain materials like plutonium to create a nuclear explosion, something al Qaeda is not believed to possess.

But with easier-to-acquire radioactive materials, it could become something called a radiological dispersal weapon, also known as a dirty bomb. A device that does not create a nuclear explosion, but instead blows radioactive debris over a wide area. A scenario that could render entire city blocks uninhabitable.

The documents don't reveal if al Qaeda tried to build such a weapon, but reviewing several hundred pages of terrorist documents, our experts believe al Qaeda was working on a serious nuclear program. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The program appears to have existed for a long time. And that's one of the things that has to give you pause, is that they've been thinking about this a long time. And so the question is: When did they start in earnest to learn how to make a nuclear explosive?

BOETTCHER: In the same garbage bag, other documents detailing other plans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Explosive work is key, or core to al Qaeda. And that's also in the documents, is just the importance of high explosives to all their objectives. And so the idea of super bomb could just be some icing on the cake.

BOETTCHER: Put together, the documents offer an A-to-Z look into al Qaeda's quest for murderous expertise. Training manuals for virtually any kind of explosive. A chemical shopping list and where to find them. Hexamine used in preparation of medicines; sulfuric acid, simple auto battery acid; ammonium nitrate. An economical mixture, it says, the ingredients for which are found in burned wood, metal paint and farm fertilizer. It was used to build the Oklahoma City bomb. And the list goes on: 64 different chemicals.

Here, a table of explosive mixtures classified by strength. It starts with astrolite, the most powerful non-nuclear explosive, it says. Another table compares detonators. Hexamine peroxide, lead azide, acetone peroxide, also know as TATP, a compound allegedly found in Richard Reid's unsuccessful sneaker bomb.

There is a handwritten list of formulas; how to make RDX, the basic chemical found in high explosives like Semtex and C4, the explosive used to blow up the USS Cole.

This handwritten text book, which our experts believe is a teacher's manual, is a guide to making several high explosive compounds.

Another is described as the companion lab version, complete with hands-on techniques to make homemade C4 using RDX.

(on camera): Did you get the sense from looking at these documents that they tried certain formulas, and if those didn't work, they went on to something else?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we did see is that when we compared this information on the high explosives to the Internet, that these are much more polished. Where -- there is evidence that they really did work with these formulas, tested these formulas and developed a procedure of making these high explosives that was -- led to effective high explosives in a safe manner.

And so it was a complete course in making all the elements that go into whatever -- a truck bomb, or even a smaller bomb; a shoe bomb, for example.

BOETTCHER (voice-over): In fact, explosives for any target, from bridges, railroads, buildings, planes, and diagrams of how to detonate several charges at once.

The documents were found in multiples, photocopied, carbon copied, duplicated by whatever means.

These, pages from that al Qaeda training manual. These, a teacher's version of the same curriculum. And here, a student's notes on the course. The drawings are the same.

They are handbooks for more than 20,000 volunteers who came and went through Osama bin Laden's training camps.


HARRIS: An absolutely stunning discovery, as you saw there in that report -- our reporters managed to find that just by picking through the trash there in Kabul.

Our thanks to Mike Boettcher, who is reporting to us Edinburgh, Scotland. And we lost that satellite feed, so Mike had to take off. Thank you very much, Mike, if you're listening, sure do appreciate that report.




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