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Evidence Points to Dirty-Bomb Plot
Posted Oct. 29, 2003
McMaster University´s reactor.

McMaster University´s reactor.

Adnan El Shukrijumah is a suspected al-Qaeda organizer who is the subject of a worldwide manhunt by the FBI and CIA. He is believed to be working on Osama bin Laden's plan to trigger a radiological disaster inside the United States - the so-called "dirty-bomb" scenario where a small charge would trigger dispersion of radiation over a large area, wreaking havoc on those caught in the blast and making the blast area uninhabitable. High-grade uranium is not necessary for this project; ordinary, low-grade nuclear waste will be deadly enough.

El Shukrijumah has eluded capture. But Insight in field interviews has obtained evidence that he was spotted several times last year on the campus of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Now, subsequent to Insight's field investigation, news reports are saying that "an FBI source" has confirmed El Shukrijumah's presence. McMaster University is the site of a 5,000-watt research reactor, as well as the university hospital that routinely generates nuclear waste. It is alleged that some of that waste has gone missing, but McMaster has refused to confirm or deny that report to this magazine. Insight already had interviewed a confidential informant who tipped off the FBI about El Shukrijuma. The confidential informant tells Insight that El Shukrijumah "said he was a student" and had met with him "five or six times" in 2002, the last time in November. Months later, in March 2003, the confidential informant recognized El Shukrijumah's photograph on television and says, "I got sick to my stomach."

According to the confidential informant, El Shukrijumah was "always alone," he "didn't talk much," but "said he was from the Middle East." The FBI lists El Shukrijumah's place of birth as Saudi Arabia, though the Saudi government denies that he is a citizen. On Sept. 5, the Saudi Embassy issued a statement that read, in part, "The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia again feels the need to correct the issue regarding the nationality of Mr. Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, wanted in connection with possible threats against the United States. ... Shukrijumah is not, and never has been, a Saudi citizen, as had been widely reported." The statement declared that the suspect's father, "Gulshai El Shukrijumah, worked in Saudi Arabia for 27 years as an expatriate employee until 1986. ... The father did not have Saudi citizenship."

The FBI alerts state that "El Shukrijumah speaks English and carries a Guyanese passport, but may attempt to enter the U.S. with a Saudi, Canadian or Trinidadian passport." The Saudi Embassy statement repeats for emphasis that El Shukrijumah is "not a Saudi citizen and if he is traveling using a Saudi passport, then he has obtained it and is using it illegally."

A well-placed source with ties to McMaster University tells Insight that in early May he was made aware of a concern on campus about "missing nuclear material" amounting to "82 or 86 kilos [180 or 189 pounds]." McMaster officials have been adroit in responding to Insight's inquiries about El Shukrijumah, saying they are not aware of a student by that name attending the university but declined to provide similar information about the suspect's aliases. The FBI alert lists El Shukrijumah's aliases as Abu Arif, Ja'far Al-Tayar, Jaffar Al-Tayyar, Jafar Tayar and Jaafar Al-Tayyar.

Jayne Johnston, a university spokeswoman, admits that "these are very serious allegations," involving as they do the possibility of missing nuclear material. She says "the media focus comes back to us to ask what truth is there to these allegations. Well none that we are aware of. ... We don't have that information to provide." While addressing concerns about the nuclear reactor, she sidestepped the issue of security over and losses of radioactive material on campus.

This presents U.S. and Canadian security with a nuclear scare of the most likely sort. The raw byproduct of a nuclear reactor or the waste from nuclear medicine is not sufficiently concentrated to create a nuclear chain reaction for an atomic explosion, but radiological waste is a threat as part of what commonly is called a "dirty bomb." A report on terrorism issued by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) describes a dirty bomb as "a radiological weapon" created from "a conventional explosive such as dynamite packaged with radioactive material that scatters when the bomb goes off." The explosion, according to the report, "kills or injures through the initial blast of the conventional explosive and by airborne radiation and contamination, hence the term 'dirty.'"

Peter M. Leitner, president of the Higgins Counter-Terrorism Research Foundation, tells Insight that the threat of a dirty bomb is "enormous." And, he says, "The materials are not hard to get - it is available at hospitals, X-ray clinics and industrial sites." As a terror weapon designed both to kill and to create panic it is very nasty indeed [see "Searching for 'Dirty Bombs,'" Jan. 21-Feb. 3].

This leads back to McMaster University, which now has denied to Canada's National Post that there is any nuclear material missing from its reactor. The newspaper quotes Dave Tucker, a physicist "who manages radiation safety for the university," as saying there is no indication that any nuclear material is unaccounted for. According to Tucker, "There is a very small number of people who have access to our nuclear facilities and we know who they are and we know that [El Shukrijumah] isn't one of them. There are few enough that we know personally the people who have unescorted access to the reactor."

It is important to note the distinction being made between missing radioactive material and material missing from the university's nuclear reactor. There also is radioactive waste on the campus in areas other than the reactor, such as the School of Nuclear Medicine. However, university officials and local police respond to questions about the potential loss of medical radiological waste with answers about the security of the reactor - a separate matter.

An official of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission told Insight that there were no "reports of any significant material" missing from the McMaster School of Nuclear Medicine.

According to Leitner, access to the reactor is not necessary to obtain components for a dirty bomb. "They can have a full accounting of the material used to fire the reactor," he says, "but that wouldn't include items that are irradiated." This could include radiated material used in hospitals such as the McMaster University School of Medicine. Officials for the university, however, dodged Insight's questions about missing radiated medical waste.

The CFR report states that such radioactive substances are not always well-guarded. The report says, "The [International Atomic Energy Agency] notes that virtually every country has radioactive substances that could be used to make dirty bombs." It cites a U.N. report stating that "Iraq tested a one-ton radiological bomb in 1987 but gave up on the idea because the radiation levels it generated were not deadly enough."

But U.S. authorities analyzing this information may find a terrorist-threat trifecta in El Shukrijumah, says a terror specialist. In addition to the sighting of the suspect in Hamilton and the hint of missing nuclear material from McMaster, El Shukrijumah was being sought for questioning because his name came up in documents belonging to senior al-Qaeda figure Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal terrorist deputy to Osama bin Laden. Mohammed was apprehended in Pakistan last spring and is believed personally to have cut the throat of captive Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in February 2002. A Cable News Network report last March stated that "Mohammed identified El Shukrijumah as one of his deputies, according to sources." That same report said federal authorities had linked El Shukrijumah to Josť Padilla, an American converted to Islam who was arrested last May and is suspected of being involved in an al-Qaeda plot to explode a radioactive bomb inside the United States.

As Time magazine reported in July, "The FBI believes that al-Qaeda recruiters are aggressively enrolling youths ... with U.S., Canadian or Western European passports and good command of the English language and the North American interior." Time quotes outgoing counterterrorism chief Larry Mefford as saying that al-Qaeda is "refocusing its efforts" to recruit "disaffected Americans, green-card holders and Muslims who had spent time in the U.S. as students or visitors" with good English skills and a "working knowledge of American society and culture." Both El Shukrijumah and Padilla fit that profile, say Insight sources. Federal authorities believe the two first met while residing in Pembroke, Fla.

Scott L. Wheeler is a contributing writer for Insight magazine.
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