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Al Qaeda Leader Said to Report A-Bomb Plans

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 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 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 explosive device.

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 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. 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 his capture.

"We have very good reason to keep him alive," said one official.

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 panic.

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