Here is what we do know: That Osama bin Laden has been seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction for years. What we also know is that he claims to have them. But what we don't know is whether or not, in fact, he does have them.
For obvious reasons this question that has taken on a new urgency ever since September 11. Here's what 60 Minutes II discovered when it decided to test the market to see if it was possible to acquire the kind of weapons that Bin Laden was seeking.
It is suspected that Osama Bin Laden may have escaped into a part of Pakistan called the Northwest Frontier. It is a black hole of lawlessness where even the Pakistani government has no authority. It also happens to be the one place in the world where everything is for sale, certainly the place you would go if you were interested in weapons of mass destruction. 60 Minutes II headed up there for a look at the region and the market. What we found was startling.
Correspondent Bob Simon and Producer George Crile report.
"Welcome to my shop. Come in. Have a look." You hear that invitation every few seconds in a bazaar there. And why not accept? In other times, this market which looks like it came straight out of the Middle Ages, would have been a five-star tourist attraction. But today, it is just the kind of place to look for weapons of mass destruction.
Our guide to this world was Shahid Malik. His father is a retired Pakistani general. His entire family is closely tied to Pakistan's military establishment. He says that Pakistani authorities have "no idea" what is being bought and sold in the Northwest Frontier. "It's a security nightmare, absolute security nightmare," he says.
Malik could reveal just what a nightmare. He showed what he was able to buy in this lawless region: an exotic-looking vial made of thick glass and filled with what appeared to be a chemical or biological weapon.
"Imagine, there's no opening anywhere and it's airtight, so its been formed with the stuff inside," says Malik.
Six months ago, Malik volunteered to put together a 60 Minutes II investigation. He wanted to show how you can make such a buy in this part of the world. It worked like this: Malik, who is an experienced gem dealer operating in the secretive markets of northern Afghanistan, had been told weapons of mass destruction were available for him to buy. Just to see them, he had to offer $50,000 of uncut gems to the Afghan merchant as a good faith deposit. In return he was able to get these samples and bring them to a room where 60 Minutes II George Crile had was waiting for them.
How was it supposed to be used? "They said just break it and throw it into the water, that's it," said Malik.
Malik says he was told the material in that vial was enough to poison an entire city. And in his second meeting with the merchants, Malik was given a list of forty items for sale. A catalogue from hell, relly. He was shown a picture of what was described as a nuclear suitcase, also for sale. And this is the sample Malik was given in that meeting and which he brought to show us.
"They say that it's the worst known biological agent made in Russia. And specifically from Ukraine they said. And they said theres 70 of them," Malik told Crile.
We had no way of testing what was in that vial because Malik had to get it back to the Afghan merchants. If he failed, he faced certain and severe punishment. But what we had seen seemed potentially so alarming that we sought an immediate consultation with the man who had run Americas biological warfare program; Dr. Bill Patrick.
"This raises a red flag to me because both of these ampules have the potential of fitting into a process that I am absolutely familiar with and that is the weaponization of a biological warfare agent," he said.
Although Patrick says he cannot tell us exactly what's in those ampules without testing the material, he believes it came from the biological warfare stockpiles of the former Soviet Union.
Patrick had previously had his suspicions, but said that this is the first time that he had seen such disturbing concrete evidence: "I'm disturbed with the ampule because it's heat-sealed. It means that you could store that material at temperatures below freezing. So, heat-sealed ampules represent a very important part, a very important element, of our old business program."
Patrick's Cold War counterpart, Dr. Ken Alibek, who ran the Soviet Union's biological warfare program, was even more certain. "It's absolutely obvious that it came from the Soviet Union. Because everything is written in Cyrillic."
The smaller vials, he says, look like a test kit to detect mustard gas in the air. But he believes the larger vial probably contains crystals of either snake venom or mustard gas, which was the first chemical weapon ever used in World War I. "It's old, but it's lethal," he said.
Says Patrick: "If mustard or snake venom, why not biological agents? You know, they're all in the same classification. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union several years ago, you can probably get anthrax, smallpox, botchulanim toxin, plague, you name it."
For years, there have been persistent reports that material out of the old Soviet chemical, biological and nuclear stockpiles have been moving from the Ukraine, through Tajikistan, into the markets of Afghanistan. A two-way trade of heroin for weapons, as the story goes.
Some suggest that the Northern Alliance, which is now allied with the U.S. and Pakistan, may have had something do with this transfer.
But alliances shift in this part of the world whenever there is anything in it for anyone to make them shift. But the one constant is the market. The one absolute law, the law of supply and demand. Malik said the merchants were gathering near the border; To learn what was being bought and what was being sold. So Crile set out alng the fabled Grand Trunk Highway, a place you dont go without friends.
In this case, the friend was Mahmoud Afridi, a man with many credentials: tribal chieftain, son of a reputed drug lord, editor of the first newspaper to report that Osama Bin Laden was acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Mahmoud offered to arrange safe passage for Crile to go to the Kyber region of the northwest frontier, a forbidden zone, where anything goes. It is his tribal homeland.
There, he says, one can buy anything - hashish, heroin, many kind of weapons - anything Mahmoud jokes, but a Ferrari or an airplane. What about weapons of mass destruction? "It will take time," he says.
Mahmoud decided he was too busy that day to take the trip, so he passed the job to his younger brother Jamal, a California-bred university student, who in turn passed it along to his uncle, who happened to be free that day.
As the group moved down the trail, Crile had distinct impression that civilization had been left behind. The region, which is a tribal area, is a "no man's land," the uncle said. "The laws of Pakistan just apply on the road. Just five feet off the road if you're murdered they don't do anything about it," he said, seriously.
In fact, just about everyone visible from the car seemed to be armed. But they were not in uniform. And they didnt seem to represent any familiar kind of law. Just across the border, U.S. forces were closing in on Bin Laden, and fears were beginning to focus on the possibility that he had weapons of mass destruction.
In the office of an abandoned Islamic relief agency in Kabul, drawings of anthrax balloons were found, along with pictures of planes shooting them down. It was clearly a blueprint for an anthrax attack.
Who ran this agency? A man named Bachiruddin Mahmoud, a Pakistani nuclear scientist who played a key role in the development of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. He is also a quirky Islamic scholar and a devout Muslim. Before September, Crile filmed him while he met with radical activists. It is now known that he also met with Bin Laden in Afghanistan, a meeting that led to his detention and interrogation by U.S. and Pakistani authorities.
Bashiruddin is an example of how it is not only weapons that are seeping out of government control, but knowledge. This knowledge could be used by terrorists to build more weapons, which are more suited to their way of waging war.
But while Bin Laden and his followers enjoy threatening the West with weapons of mass destruction, theyve been very secretive about what they actually have. The day after Jalalabad fell, four journalists were killed. They were taken from their cars and shot to death. What is interesting about this? Just the day before, two of them, Julio Fuentes of the Spanish paper "El Mundo" and Maria Grazia Cutuli, an Italian reporting for "Corriere De La Sera," filed reports about vials of sarin gas they had discovered in an Al-Qaeda training cap near Jalalabad. The day after they filed their reports, they were murdered.
"I think this is really very, very important," says Bill Triplett, a former military intelligence report who also served eight years as counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "They went to Afghanistan. They went to a kind of box canyon area where a laboratory was and they found 30 boxes of sarin gas in cardboard boxes with Russian lettering on the side. And of course they were murdered."
Is there a connection between the discovery of the sarin and the murders? "I think we cant rule it out," he says.
This week, at a terrorist training camp, U.S. Special Forces discovered Bin Ladens laboratory for weapons of mass destruction. There were barrels of chemicals, formulas for making nerve gas, and manuals for deploying chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. The material from the camp has been taken for testing. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took this warning to NATO headquarters Tuesday.
"The nexus between states with weapons of mass destruction and terrorist networks raised the danger that September 11th could be a preview of what's to come," he said.
The journey into the tribal zone ended abruptly. Shortly after we entered the tribal zone, two miles after we passed the no foreigners allowed sign, Crile was arrested.
So he never go to see first hand what was being bought and sold in this strange region where there is no law other than the law of the marketplace. But we'd learned quite a bit: What's going on in these alien and exotic bazaars is all too close to our homes and lives. By gaining some control over Afghanistan we may have pushed the nightmare to the Northwest Frontier, where no one has any control at all.
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