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Al-Qaida Leader: Dirty Bomb Possible
WASHINGTON (AP) - Abu Zubaydah, the senior al-Qaida field commander in U.S. custody, told his interrogators that the terrorist network knows how to build a ``dirty bomb,'' a terror weapon capable of dispersing radioactivity over a wide area, a U.S. official said Monday.
Officials don't know whether to believe Abu Zubaydah, who also recently claimed al-Qaida is targeting banks in the northeastern United States. That report was the basis of an FBI alert last week.
``It could be he's not being truthful,'' the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. ``It could be that he's boasting.''
Abu Zubaydah's statements further confirmed al-Qaida's interesting in acquiring weapons of mass destruction, but they don't suggest the group has any unknown capabilities, the official said. News of his comment was first reported by CBS-TV and NBC-TV.
Captured in Pakistan and turned over to U.S. authorities last month, Abu Zubaydah did not claim that the group had built any of the weapons.
Such a weapon - also called a radiological dispersal device - would use conventional explosives to spread industrial or medical-grade radioactive material in a populated area to cause widespread fear of exposure.
They are not thought to be difficult to build. Acquiring enough radioactive material to do harm is regarded as the greatest challenge for terrorists.
A radiological device detonated by terrorists would require evacuation and decontamination of the immediate area and disrupt the local economy, officials from U.S. nuclear laboratories said at a recent Senate committee hearing. Hospitals would be overrun by worried people from the affected area.
Depending on factors ranging from the bomb's construction to wind direction on the day such a weapon was used, a potent dirty bomb could kill a few people quickly if they were exposed to enough radiation, officials said. Others would face a greater likelihood of developing cancers later in life.
Severe contamination could require that buildings be razed, and the economic fallout could reach billions of dollars in a big city, officials said. An orderly evacuation would limit the population's exposure to radioactive materials, and health effects would be minimal as long as victims avoided the contaminated area.
Much of the U.S. government's thinking on the subject is theoretical, because no one has detonated a radiological weapon.
They do exist. In 1995, separatists from Russia's embattled Chechnya region announced they had placed Cesium-137 in a Moscow park; it was recovered by authorities. The Chechens, who are believed now to have links to al-Qaida, threatened to covertly release additional materials.