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Al Qaeda interested in 'dirty bomb,' U.S. says

Device called a crude nuclear weapon designed to terrify

By David Ensor

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- At a meeting of senior al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan within the last year, a member of the terrorist network displayed a cylinder and said it contained radiological material that could be used in a so-called "dirty bomb," according to U.S. officials.

A "dirty bomb" is a conventional explosive laced with radioactive materials designed more to terrify people than to kill large numbers, experts said.

The al Qaeda member said "that's what it was, but we have no way of knowing whether there really was anything in that cylinder," a U.S. official said.

The incident -- monitored by U.S. intelligence -- is an additional sign, U.S. officials said, of the high interest Osama bin Laden's group has had in obtaining materials for a nuclear weapon, or at least for a crude radiological device.

U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge warned Americans of another possible terrorist attack. CNN's Susan Candiotti reports (December 4)

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In recent weeks, intelligence officials -- as well as CNN and other news organizations -- have found piles of materials in former al Qaeda safe houses in the Afghan capital, Kabul, indicating the group was trying to learn how to make a nuclear weapon.

One hand-drawn diagram found in a Taliban or al Qaeda facility showed a design for a "dirty bomb," according to U.S. officials. The bomb would be made by taking highly radioactive materials such as spent nuclear fuel rods or Cesium 137 -- used for medical purposes around the world -- and wrapping them around conventional high explosives.

Such a crude device could easily be made by terrorists if they had enough radiological materials, experts said. Concerning nuclear weapons themselves, the documents found in Kabul are "relatively primitive," according to a U.S. official.

"They indicate a high level of interest but do not by themselves prove a high level of knowledge," the official said.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that increased evidence showing al Qaeda may have tried to obtain materials for a radiological weapon contributed to the Bush administration's decision Monday to warn Americans of the risk of a new terrorist attack.

But Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge denied al Qaeda's efforts prompted the alert. "We have to be prepared for all eventualities, but that report that you relate to in The Washington Post has absolutely nothing to do with our going on alert again," he told CNN.

Nuclear weapons experts said while a "dirty bomb" would likely terrify the public, it would not kill many more people than a conventional explosion -- if any -- and thus might not be the weapon of choice for terrorists.

"This would be a major psychological problem in a public way, but as a threat -- it's not going to kill a lot of people by and large," said Roger Hagengruber of Sandia National Laboratories, which do a large amount of research and development related to U.S. national security.

Even the long-term threat to those nearby would not be dramatic, according to David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security. He said that "even if it's a fairly significant radiological attack, it's not like 20 years from now we're going to see this huge spike in deaths from cancer."


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