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CNN Live Event/Special

Was Al Qaeda Working on a Super Bomb?

Aired January 24, 2002 - 20:00   ET


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: ... damage at the Kandahar Airport in Afghanistan. Tonight on LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN, the details of a major firefight involving U.S. Special Forces. Also, the shocking paper trail of al Qaeda. Were they working on a super bomb? It all begins right now, right here, LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN.

ANNOUNCER: In an upscale Kabul neighborhood, shopping lists for terror.




ANNOUNCER: Recipes for the unthinkable.


TONY VILLA, COUNTERTERRORISM EXPERT: 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?


ANNOUNCER: A paper trail, and perhaps a roadmap to the future.


ALBRIGHT: It was a complete course in making all the elements that go into whatever, a truck bomb or even a smaller bomb, shoe bomb for example.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight, Mike Boettcher shows us the tentacles linking al Qaeda to a world of terrorism.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are very committed to what they're doing, and as a result of that, they've done a lot of homework. (END VIDEO CLIP)


SAVIDGE: Good evening. Welcome to Kandahar, Afghanistan. We'll have more on that exclusive report by Mike Boettcher on the al Qaeda weapons program and just how exactly close them came to nuclear weapons in a moment.

But first, the latest detail of a major firefight that broke out between U.S. Special Forces, coalition forces, and Afghan forces friendly to the United States.

It occurred about 60 miles to the north of the Kandahar Airport here. As they were moving in on what is believed to be two compounds that was held by al Qaeda and by Taliban forces. There have been casualties.

We get this report now and a description from the Pentagon. First from General Richard Myers and then the Secretary of Defense.


GEN. RICHARD MYERS, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: There were enemy forces killed in this action and one U.S. Special Forces soldier was slightly injured. He was wounded in the ankle and has been evacuated.



DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: There are a lot more of these pockets. We are going to pursue them. We are pursuing them now. We pursue them alone. We pursue them with coalition forces. We pursue with Afghan forces, and we're going to keep at them until we get them.


SAVIDGE: From all that we've heard, this is shaping up to have been a major confrontation, perhaps one of the biggest in some time. There were at least 26 al Qaeda members that were captured. They've been transported here to the Kandahar Airport.

It is also reported that perhaps as many as a dozen to 15 al Qaeda and Taliban forces were killed. One U.S. Special Forces soldier was wounded. He was shot in the ankle. He was brought to the Kandahar Airport here, treated and moved on to another facility in the region.

Also we are told that there was a large store of weapons and ammunition that was destroyed by and AC-130 gun ship that was in the air. Air assets were called in to assist in this operation. It all points out, despite the military buildup, Afghanistan is still a dangerous place. The potential for further casualties for the U.S. still exists. Now, let's move on to our next story, Kabul. Last November, the fall of that city was a surprise to many, most especially, it was a surprise to the Taliban and al Qaeda, who fled in such a hurry, they left important documents behind, documents that could outline another plan of terror against the United States. CNN's Mike Boettcher picks up the first part of this exclusive report.


MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (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.

"Most respected Abu Khabbab, I am 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."

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 the 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 Arkvar Khan (ph). Within hours, local Afghan police led CNN to al Qaeda's now vacant and looted homes.

INGRID ARNESEN, CNN SENIOR PRODUCER: 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, Eddy Maloof (ph) who's a satellite engineer and speaks Arabic, and he was able to really quickly 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, describes 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 the 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.

ALBRIGHT: 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 proliferation. 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 Corie Henderson, and one of the nation's top Arabic translators, Ron Wolf, who has experienced 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 after reviewing several hundred pages of terrorist documents, our experts believe al Qaeda was working on a serious nuclear program.

ALBRIGHT: 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.

ALBRIGHT: 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 a super bomb could just have seen 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 the preparation of medicines; Sulfuric Acid, simply auto battery acid; Immonium 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 known 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 Simtex (ph) and C-4, the explosive used to blow up the USS Cole.

This handwritten textbook, which our experts believed 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 C-4 using RDX.

BOETTCHER (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?

ALBRIGHT: 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's evidence that they really did work with these formulas, tested these formulas and developed a procedure of making these high explosives that 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, 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 the 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 to Osama bin Laden's training camps, volunteers who are now being caught with those very explosives. This month, Philippine authorities arrested a man believed to be a key al Qaeda bomb maker, who was hiding 2,000 pounds of explosives.

And, members of a Malaysian terrorist group, linked to al Qaeda were arrested in Singapore. They were seeking to purchase 17 tons of ammonia nitrate, enough for several truck bombs. Intelligence sources say it's classroom theory, applied in the real world.


SAVIDGE: That is only half of the story. When we come back, CNN's Mike Boettcher digs deeper. How close did al Qaeda get to a nuclear weapon?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Use a lot more latitude for mobility and autonomy.

ANNOUNCER: Plus, was al Qaeda trying to build the biggest bomb of all? And later.

SAVIDGE: Behind me is considered to be enemy territory by the 101st Airborne. They're the ones that are protecting the perimeter.

ANNOUNCER: Martin Savidge takes us to the front lines in the U.S. War against Terrorism. LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN returns in a moment.


ANNOUNCER: Al Qaeda, meaning "the base" was created in 1989 as Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden and his colleagues began looking for new jihads.

SAVIDGE: Welcome back to LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN. We pick up now the second part of our exclusive report, looking at the super bomb program of al Qaeda. Once again, CNN's Mike Boettcher.


BOETTCHER (voice over): More than a neighborhood, Wazir Arkvar Khan was a campus, a terrorist university for teaching about powerful explosives. This house was a Saudi-funded orphanage that was apparently a front for an al Qaeda training center.

Inside, CNN was led in to rooms strewn with articles left behind by its inhabitants. Among the children's books and orphan ID documents, were trip wires, grenades, a rocket, and these manuals.

ALBRIGHT: They have their own formula for making C-4, which is a military explosive, so they were creating a cadre of people who could go out and try to put together bombs that would have little chance of being detected.

And so, they're not going out to steal military explosives from a base. They're going out and then going to a grocery store, a pharmacy, medical supply store, and buying chemicals, and then making them themselves. And so, it was a group that was being taught to be self-reliant.

BOETTCHER: Other documents shown to CNN reveal the presence of a core group of experts that put together what is known as the al Qaeda encyclopedia.

CNN was shown its 10 volumes and its latest edition, Volume 11 on explosives. A section was provided to CNN. Our experts determined this chapter was to update people in the field about new research results. It includes extensive documentation of how to improve explosives, particularly RDX.

"The goal, to obtain Ammonium Nitrate free of foreign matter in order to prepare RDS by the new method."

BOETTCHER (on camera): RDX can be used as a main explosive charge or a detonator. It is the primary component in a plastic explosive used by terrorists. Known commercially as Sintex, the U.S. military version, developed in the '50s is C-4.

Now research in these documents indicates that al Qaeda was trying to develop its very own brand, one that could be used as a detonator in a very powerful bomb.

VILLA: And the circuitry ultimately ending up with a detonator.

BOETTCHER: Tony Dia is an explosives expert, who has worked extensively for the U.S. Government.

VILLA: One of the advantages would be that you would have it, you would number one have that knowledge and you could, your mobility to move from place to place without having to go back in touch on a resource or touch base with a resource to get that product, leaves you a lot more latitude for mobility and autonomy.

BOETTCHER: In the super bomb document found by CNN, it is clear al Qaeda wanted to build the biggest bomb of all. The author clearly is knowledgeable of various ways to set off a nuclear bomb.

For example, a little known shortcut to initiate a nuclear explosion is described, but Albright cautions there is no indication that al Qaeda's nuclear work has gone beyond theory.

BOETTCHER (on camera): Why couldn't they build something that could be very destructive, judging by what you've read?

ALBRIGHT: If you're going to make something like a nuclear weapon, you have to learn many things. It is a whole set of manufacturing steps you have to go through, and there's none of that in this manual.

You also have to develop confidence in a design. I mean even a terrorist group that's going to go to the trouble to work on a nuclear weapon, wants to have some certainty that it's going to explode as a nuclear explosive, and not just explode as a high explosive.

BOETTCHER (voice over): Did these men help provide that expertise? Pakistani nuclear scientist Bashear Udin Makmood (ph) and Abdul Majid (ph) remain confined to their homes on the orders of Pakistan's government, and are not allowed to speak to anyone outside their families.

They are suspected by American, Pakistani, and other coalition intelligence agencies of having provided some of their nuclear knowledge to al Qaeda. Makmood and Majid spent lots of time in Kabul, running a charity called Ummah Tummir-e Nau.

In an office in the lobby of Kabul's intercontinental hotel, CNN found a document apparently written last May, showing Makmood had agreed to a partnership with Beracat General Trading and Contracting Company. The Beracat group of companies is on the U.S. list of those suspected of aiding terrorists.

Another document shows plans to set up a bank with Beracat, expand an artificial limb factory, and explore the mining of minerals, including uranium inside Afghanistan. U.N. weapons inspectors say Iraq used similar companies as fronts to disguise its nuclear weapons program in the mid-1990s.

Last month, the Bush Administration put Makmood's organization, Ummah Tummir-e Nau, on its terrorist watch list. CNN's repeated efforts to speak with the men were unsuccessful. However, the families of the nuclear scientists continue to say the two men have done nothing wrong.

While the Pakistani government has filed no charges against the men, the government says the investigation is not over, nor are the U.S. efforts to find what al Qaeda was up to.

BOETTCHER (on camera): Now some people would have said they were at the end of the earth in Afghanistan, trying to develop nuclear weapons. But was there something beneficial about being in Afghanistan for them to try to develop this?

ALBRIGHT: In a sense by being at the end of the earth, they were also invisible, and so a lot of things that could have gone there would have been undetected. It's not just a bunch of guys climbing along some jungle gym and going through tunnels and shooting their guns in the air. I mean these are people that are thinking through problems and how to cause destruction for a well thought through political strategy.

VILLA: They are very committed to what they're doing, and as a result of that, they've done a lot of homework.


BOETTCHER (on camera): It is homework that shows that al Qaeda had gone on to develop a series weapons program with heavy emphasis on developing a nuclear device. The irony is that al Qaeda's success on 9/11 and the global response may have derailed that nuclear program, apparently before it could become operational. Marty.

SAVIDGE: Mike, the big question is now I guess, is the danger really over? Has the threat of an al Qaeda nuclear weapons program really be averted?

BOETTCHER: Well certainly the coalition response in Afghanistan in trying to dismantle the al Qaeda network has helped and slowed it down all experts agree. But it's hard to destroy an idea, and it's also very hard to destroy a body of knowledge.

As you saw in the report, they had mimeographed, copied a lot of these. They had passed it on from one person to another, and it's estimated that 20,000 people passed through those camps.

Now earlier today, we talked to John Bolton who is the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control. We asked him for his reaction and what he thought about how advanced the al Qaeda program was.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JOHN BOLTON, U.S. UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE: I think you have to keep in mind that there's a lot of information about nuclear weapons that's fairly freely available among nuclear physicists and academics and scholars. So, it wouldn't be surprising that there might be people who were assisting them and providing information.

But whether that move from the sort of research, paper research stage into anything more, I think remains to be seen. There's no doubt we're going to be very vigilant in looking for that information, but I would at this point not jump to the conclusion that because they were reading papers or scholarly works or information that scientists had supplied to them that they had much more than a paper trail.

BOETTCHER: Well to build a real bomb they need real material. In the documents we recovered, they talk about trying to start a uranium mining operation in Afghanistan. Have you seen evidence, further evidence of attempts by al Qaeda to procure plutonium, uranium, other things that they would need?

BOLTON: Well, there are a lot of reports about their efforts generally in the area of weapons of mass destruction. You know, as with any unconfirmed reports like that, they require further investigation, and a lot of leads are being run down and we're doing a lot of intelligence sharing with other governments, law enforcement channels are at work.

So we're very actively in pursuit of the information and it may well be that there's more there. But at this point, I think it's hard to draw a conclusion that they were very far along, certainly on the nuclear side.


BOETTCHER (on camera): The bottom line from our experts, al Qaeda does not yet have a nuclear bomb, but they're trying like heck to get one. Marty.

SAVIDGE: That's a fascinating report. Mike Boettcher, thank you very much. When we come back on LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN, we'll take you to the frontlines here at the Kandahar Airport. Like Afghanistan itself, it's still a dangerous place.

ANNOUNCER: John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban captured in Afghanistan, appeared in Federal Court in Virginia this morning, where he heard the charges against him, which include conspiracy to kill Americans. Do you think Walker Lindh can get a fair trial?

To take tonight's quick vote, head to The AOL keyword is CNN. A reminder, this poll is not scientific.


KEITH OLBERMANN, THE POINT: Keith Olbermann in New York. How do you do it? How do you defend someone the country paints as a terrorist and a traitor? We have advice coming from an all-star point panel that includes the attorneys Robert Shapiro, Jerry Spence, and Stanley Cohen. I'll see you in less than five minutes. Now back to LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN.

SAVIDGE: The point of the spear here at the Kandahar Airport in Afghanistan rests in the hands of Charlie Company 2187, 101st Airborne, Division. They guard the perimeter. They watch the frontlines.

It's been a scene of fighting in the past. They know on any given night, it could happen again. This was our look at the frontlines today and into the darkness.


SAVIDGE: These are the frontlines of Afghanistan, at least when it comes to the U.S. military presence here at the Kandahar Airport. Behind us is considered to be enemy territory by the 101st Airborne. They're the ones that are protecting the perimeter.

If you look just beyond the fencepost there, about two weeks ago is where a firefight broke out, incoming fire here, suppressing fire going out very heavily from these vantage points. Nobody was hurt here. Blood trails were found on the other side.

Not far away from where we're standing, a U.S. Marine lost his leg to a landmine. They believe they've got all the landmines out. At least, that's what they think.

Off in the distance, you can see the airport terminal. It's the reason that U.S. forces are here. It is where they are headquartered. Right here, you might see the observation post. We're with Charlie Company 2187, 101st Airborne, (inaudible). Up on top there, Jason and James watching our back.

In a lot of ways, the frontlines here with the foxholes, the fighting holes reflects Afghanistan itself. It may look calm. It may look quiet. But when the darkness sets in, both the perimeter and the nation itself are still a dangerous place.


SAVIDGE (voice over): In a lot of ways what you find on the perimeter of the Kandahar Airport is reflective of the nation of Afghanistan itself. It does appear to be a beautiful place. It appears to be quiet and very much in control. But that can change in a heartbeat, and danger is never really very far away.

SAVIDGE (on camera): Coming up next for our domestic viewers, you're going to see THE POINT. For our international viewers, THE WORLD OF SPORT. LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN, I'm Martin Savidge. Thanks for joining us.