President warns of bin Laden arms bid

Bush says terrorists are seeking access to nuclear weapons

War On Terrorism : The Nation

November 07, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush sought yesterday to magnify the threat posed by Osama bin Laden, saying the alleged terrorist mastermind and his al-Qaida network are trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.

Speaking by satellite to Central and Eastern European leaders at an anti-terrorism conference in Poland, Bush described bin Laden and his host, Afghanistan's Taliban regime, as similar to "fascists" and "totalitarians" who shared "the same mad, global ambitions."

"Al-Qaida operates in more than 60 countries," Bush told the conferees. "They are seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Given the means, our enemies would be a threat to every nation and, eventually, civilization itself."

Later, in remarks to reporters, Bush said bin Laden has talked about trying to acquire nuclear weapons. "I was using his own words," said Bush, appearing at the White House with French President Jacques Chirac. "He announced that was his intention. And I believe we need to take him seriously."

Bush said the United States "will do everything we can to make sure he does not acquire the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction. If he doesn't have them, we will work hard to make sure he doesn't. If he does, we'll make sure he doesn't deploy them."

The possibility of bin Laden trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction has been raised a number of times by government officials since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And with the recent spate of anthrax attacks, there has been a growing concern about the abilities of bin Laden and other terrorists to develop or acquire such weapons.

Yesterday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer quoted CIA Director George J. Tenet as telling the Senate last year that "we know that a number of these groups are seeking chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear agents."

Moreover, Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, is facing strong protests from many of its citizens for supporting the U.S. attacks on the Taliban and al-Qaida in neighboring Afghanistan. Thousands of Pakistanis are either protesting U.S. access to their country's air bases or crossing the border to fight with the Taliban militia.

There have also been reports that some Pakistani intelligence officials and nuclear weapons scientists have ties to al-Qaida.

While the government of Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, does not appear to be in any immediate danger, some are wondering whether those weapons would be safe if it were to fall.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld brushed aside a reporter's question about Musharraf supposedly complaining that if his government falls, Pakistan's nuclear weapons might wind up in the hands of terrorists.

"I can assure you he did not say that. Somebody may have said he said it," replied Rumsfeld, who met with Musharraf in a recent five-nation trip to the region.

"Countries that have nuclear weapons ... tend to have over a period of time, a very healthy respect for the lethal power of those weapons," Rumsfeld said. "And there is no doubt in my mind but that the president of Pakistan and his senior officials ... have taken appropriate steps to see that they are managed and handled in a way that is safe and fully responsible."

Defense officials knowledgeable about al-Qaida have said that if bin Laden has developed weapons of mass destruction, they are likely to be of the most basic types. And bin Laden does not possess any sophisticated delivery systems, such as ballistic missiles, officials said.

"I'm not going to say they do not have a nuclear weapon," said a senior defense official. "But at a base line, what we believe is that they have a crude chemical and possibly biological capability. And if there's any nuclear capability, it is liable to be more radiological than fissionable."

The official said a radiological device would not be a bomb: "There's no explosion. The damage to humans comes from the radiation. It's radiological material."

Among the chemical weapons possibly in the hands of al-Qaida, the official said, are chlorine and phosgene agents, similar to the weaponry first used during World War I that in its gaseous form attacks the lungs and can lead to death. The biological weapons might include a variety of toxins, including anthrax, according to the official, who requested anonymity.

While Bush was raising the possibility that bin Laden could one day come up with weapons of mass destruction, Rumsfeld came up with a new description for the elusive terrorist:

"Osama bin Laden - comma - mass murderer," Rumsfeld said.

The defense secretary also commented on a new video released by bin Laden in which he admonished Muslim nations for not fighting the United States and for cooperating with the United Nations.

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