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India/Pakistan

'Terrorist' NGO has nuclear weapons connection

ISLAMABAD - The detention of two Pakistani nuclear scientists who have links to Afganistan's Taliban has focused fears that Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organization may be acquiring or developing a nuclear weapon.

The two scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, are former senior officials of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and helped the country to become a nuclear-armed power.

After resigning in protest at moves by the Nawaz Sharif government to sign the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Bashiruddin formed a non-governmental organization called Ummah Tameer-e-Nau (Reconstruction of the Muslim Ummah). This NGO was affiliated to the Al-Rasheed Trust, listed by the United States as a terrorist organization for its links with Al-Qaeda (see THE ROVING EYE: Anatomy of a 'terrorist' NGO by Pepe Escobar, Oct 25.) The NGO was one of the few allowed by Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar to carry out relief work in Afghanistan.

Mahmood was a project director in the lead up to Pakistan's nuclear tests in May 1998 and won the prestigious Sitar-e-Imtiaz civil award for his work. He was also chief designer and director of the Khoshab Atomic Reactor, and played a pioneering role in setting up the Uranium Enrichment Project of Pakistan

The scientists were reportedly taken into custody for questioning by Pakistani authorities at Washington's behest. Pakistan's Interior Minister, Moinuddin Haidar, said on Thursday that Mahmood was being taken into "protective custody". Military spokesman Major General Rashid Qureshi said the authorities were investigating links between the Taliban and the scientists' NGO. "Mahmood had been visiting Afghanistan and we are simply investigating the contacts that exist between his relief agency and the Taleban," Qureshi said. "His detention has nothing to do with any nuclear aspect."

Bin Laden has been reported to have sought nuclear capability since as early as 1993, when a senior Bin Laden associate was said to have met a Sudanese military commander to negotiate buying enriched South African uranium. Bin Laden agents have also been linked to attempts to buy nuclear material through the Russian mafia. There are also concerns that portable nuclear munitions, so-called "suitcase bombs" from the Soviet arsenal in the 1970s, may have found their way into bin Laden's hands. Former Russian Security Council head Aleksandr Lebed noted in 1997 that most of the more than 100 such "suitcase bombs" built had gone missing, and described them as "ideal for blackmail and terror".

These reports led the US's Central Intelligence Agency director, George Tenet, to sound the alarm at a Senate hearing last year.

Pakistan's government has meanwhile been trying to reassure the world that the country's own nuclear arsenal is in safe hands, reports Inter Press Service. A meeting this week of the powerful Nuclear Command and Control Authority (NCA) was meant to send a message that there was no chance of its nuclear weapons being blown up accidentally or falling into the hands of religious fanatics, security experts say.

Sandwiched between Western doubts over Pakistan's effective control over nuclear weapons and the religious lobby's fear that under US pressure the military-led government may disband its nuclear program, President General Pervez Musharraf said that he had reassured world leaders that the country's "strategic capability" was fully safeguarded.

The meeting of the NCA, the highest controlling authority of the country's nuclear assets, was attended by the federal foreign and interior ministers, chairman joint chiefs of staff committee, three services chiefs and senior scientists.

Chairing the meeting, Musharraf reaffirmed that Pakistan's strategic assets were the cornerstone of the country's national security and there was no question of any compromise on the nuclear program.

Security experts consider the NCA meeting significant especially in the light of a visit to Islamabad in the last week of September by six US military officials. They spoke to Pakistani officials about improving security and installing new safeguards on its nuclear weapons and at its nuclear power plants. This reflected US fears that in the face of sustained US-led attacks on Afghanistan and Pakistan's precarious position as a frontline state, unrest could boil over, and that Taliban sympathisers in the military might seize control of nuclear weapons

Maria Sultan, research fellow at Pakistan's Institute of Strategic Studies, brushed aside such fears. She said the very structure of the NCA did not allow for such a worst-case scenario. "Pakistan's command and control system is based on a central authoritative system, therefore there is less potential of accidental launches or misuse," she explained. Also, Pakistan did not have its nuclear capability in a "push-button" state, which meant "it would need a lot of synchronization, with a larger number of personnel, hence the possibility of some rogue element taking control is impossible".

In a related development, the Japanese government said on Friday that it would suspend sanctions imposed on Pakistan and India. Tokyo froze all new loans and grants after the countries' tit-for-tat nuclear tests in May 1998.

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