by Philip Shenon, New York Times
WASHINGTON 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
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
The American officials, confirming reports last night
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
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, unfortunately."
Still, officials said, Mr. Zubaydah might well be
lying to interrogators either in hopes of lenient
treatment or in hopes of creating panic.
"This could just be bragging," an official said.
"It's impossible for us to know the truth at this
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. 11.
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
"We have very good reason to keep him alive," said
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 easy-to-obtain explosives.
Such a device would not necessarily kill large
numbers of people, but intelligence officials say they
believe that a dirty bomb would create extraordinary