Chapter Eight - Al Qaeda's Bomb
The image of Osama bin Laden discussing nuclear weapons around a campfire with two former senior Pakistani nuclear engineers is the stuff of movies. Yet it actually happened in August 2001, when A.Q. Khan's deal with Libya was in full swing. Access to these Pakistani engineers was a major shortcut to possessing nuclear weapons. No one could dismiss the likelihood of nuclear terrorism again.
Bin Laden had thought seriously about acquiring nuclear weapons for many years. In the early 1990s, an al Qaeda agent unsuccessfully sought uranium in Sudan. In 1998, the year Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons, bin Laden declared that acquiring unconventional weapons was a religious duty.
He apparently realized early in his quest that he would need help. In 1998, bin Laden's representatives approached the Khan network. They tried at least three times, and each time were rebuffed. A lack of funds might have been the reason, or resistance to share nuclear weapons expertise with terrorists who could be expected to use a nuclear weapon if they ever got one.
Bin Laden fared better with some of Khan's longtime rivals, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudiri Abdul Majeed, two retired senior engineers at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) who were more willing to help bin Laden build nuclear weapons.
After retiring from the PAEC in 1999, Mahmood established Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (UTN), Reconstruction of the Muslim Ummah (community), a nongovernmental organization whose stated mission was to invest in industries and conduct relief work in Afghanistan. Majeed, who retired in 2000 from the PAEC's prestigious Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH), became one of UTN's key officials. UTN was also supported by Pakistani military officers who opposed President Musharraf and sympathized with the Taliban.
One of the most important members was General Hamid Gul, former director of the Pakistani intelligence service, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In Afghanistan, UTN was one of the few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that had the approval of Mullah Omar, the Taliban head of Afghanistan.
In addition to its civil work, however, UTN had a darker side, providing a cover for helping al Qaeda build nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. UTN had global ambitions to spread nuclear technology. It approached the Libyans with an offer to provide nuclear as well as chemical and biological weapons assistance. Yet Libya had little need of UTN's help because Khan was already providing much more than UTN could offer.