April 22 A top leader of Al Qaeda now in custody has told American
interrogators that the terrorist group is close to building a crude
nuclear device and may try to smuggle one into the United States,
officials said tonight.
The officials cautioned that they remained highly suspicious
about information from the captured terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, who was
arrested last month in Pakistan.
Last week, information from Mr. Zubaydah, a Palestinian in his
early 30's, caused the F.B.I. to issue a nationwide alert to banks
about a possible terrorist attack.
The American officials, confirming reports tonight on CBS News
and NBC News, said Mr. Zubaydah had told interrogators that Al Qaeda
had been aggressively seeking to build a so-called dirty bomb, in
which radioactive material is wrapped around a traditional explosive
One official said Mr. Zubaydah, believed to be Osama bin Laden's
operations chief, "is well positioned to know what Al Qaeda has been
up to, and we have to take his information seriously."
The official noted that the government had long warned about the
possibility that Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups might be able to
fashion a crude nuclear device and use it against American targets
here or abroad.
Another official said, "Dirty bombs aren't that hard to make,
Still, officials said, Mr. Zubaydah might well be lying to
interrogators either in hopes of lenient treatment or in hopes of
"This could just be bragging," an official said. "It's impossible
for us to know the truth at this point."
Mr. Zubaydah was captured in a shootout with the Pakistani police
and intelligence agents in Faisalabad, where he and associates had
taken up residence after fleeing Afghanistan. He is considered the
most important member of Al Qaeda taken into custody since Sept.
For several years, Mr. Zubaydah worked as Mr. bin Laden's chief
recruiter for terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, and he is
widely believed to know the identities of Al Qaeda terrorists around
the world, including members of so-called sleeper cells that may be
poised for attacks.
His exact whereabouts have not been disclosed by the government,
which cites security concerns. American officials insist that he is
receiving high-quality medical treatment for gunshot wounds from his
"We have very good reason to keep him alive," said one
Intelligence officials have reported for years that Al Qaeda has
sought to buy nuclear materials, especially from the nations of the
former Soviet Union, and to train its members into fashioning the
material into crude bombs by wrapping it around traditional
Such a device would not necessarily kill large numbers of people,
but intelligence officials say they believe that a dirty bomb would
create extraordinary panic.