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The Star Online: World Updates


Could bin Laden have reached Pakistan nuclear sites?

Posted: 05 May 2011 05:48 AM PDT

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Revelations that Osama bin Laden spent years in Pakistan before he was killed there must be rattling anyone who believes al Qaeda and its allies can get their hands on the unstable country's nuclear arsenal.

A policeman stands guard outside one of two gates of the compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad May 3, 2011. (REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

During his time at a fortified compound, did the world's most wanted man manage to sneak supporters into Pakistan's nuclear sites to gain the ultimate weapon for global holy war?

That's a question that could haunt some policy makers in Western capitals for many years.

The answer among experts is a resounding no, but bin Laden's stay here is fueling concern about Pakistan's overall stability, vital for securing its nuclear weapons.

Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said the fact that bin Laden had managed to evade capture for so long in Pakistan should not raise additional red flags about the security of the country's nuclear arsenal.

Measures used to monitor people are completely different in intensity than that used to keep track of nuclear weapons.

Realities on the ground did not change while bin Laden was living in a mansion in the city of Abbottabad -- which is near a military academy -- before U.S. special forces killed him.

Experts say weapons are not mated with delivery systems and mastering the nuclear command system could take years - even if al Qaeda, which is known to be actively seeking nuclear material, was able to plant its own nuclear scientists.

So al Qaeda or its allies launching a Pakistani nuclear warhead seems inconceivable.

Militants could exploit Pakistan's chaos to steal enough radioactive material to build a dirty bomb, which does not require as much technical know-how.

Pakistan, a South Asian nation that often lurches from one political or economic crisis to another, has long insisted that its nuclear arms are secure.

Bin Laden's presence in the country, however, has deepened suspicions that al Qaeda and its Taliban partners have sympathisers in Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency. Pakistani officials deny any collusion with al Qaeda.

"If a portion of the intelligence community knew he was there but the Pakistani government at an official level did not, then it raises another host of issues about whether you have these sort of pockets of dissidents ... within the system that for their own reasons .... choose to do things that are not official policy," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

Personnel assigned to sensitive nuclear facilities are all vetted by the Pakistani intelligence service.

"CHECKERED HISTORY"

The possibility that the ISI knew bin Laden was in Pakistan is troubling for the United States, which has poured billions of dollars in military aid into Pakistan hoping it would be a reliable partner in the war on militancy.

"There are a set of vulnerabilities around Pakistan's ever-increasing nuclear arsenal; and there are burgeoning efforts by terrorists to get nuclear weapons/technology," said Professor Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford.

"Many of the most likely vectors of that transfer involve the possibility of collusion by one or more of those with access to nuclear weapons or materials in Pakistan, which probably number 50,000 to 70,000 people."

Pakistan's nuclear programme has been under suspicion since 2004 in part because of leading scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan's smuggling ring stretching to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

In December, Pakistan dismissed Western concerns over the security of its nuclear weapons programme following the publication of U.S. State Department cables by anti-secrecy organisation WikiLeaks.

A fresh cache of U.S. diplomatic cables showed widespread concern about the safety of the weapons with worries stretching from Washington to Riyadh to Moscow.

The stakes are getting higher. Experts say Pakistan has been building additional nuclear weapons by boosting its plutonium, and now may have up to 100 weapons.

Olli Heinonen, senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, noted in a blog that at the end of this decade Pakistan is poised to have the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal, trailing only the United States, Russia and China.

Western countries fear al Qaeda will press on with its global holy war despite losing bin Laden so the security of Pakistan's nuclear programme will remain under close scrutiny.

Heinonen suggested more assurances were needed that nuclear materials and facilities are fully under Pakistani government control and are operated safely.

"Pakistan's nuclear program has had a checkered history. The death of bin Laden creates an opportunity for Pakistan to chart a new nuclear future," wrote Heinonen, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency's nuclear safeguards inspections worldwide.

Pakistani security analysts say it would have been very difficult for bin Laden to infiltrate Pakistan's nuclear establishment. But some say his presence in Pakistan sent a troubling signal.

"It would have been difficult for al Qaeda people to get even a menial job in a Pakistani nuclear facility," said Imtiaz Gul, author of "The Most Dangerous Place", a book about Pakistan's lawless frontiers, strongholds of militant groups.

"Still. It is worrying for all Pakistanis that the most wanted person in the world lived in this country undetected."

(Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Rebecca Conway in Islamabad; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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Legal questions remain over bin Laden killing

Posted: 05 May 2011 05:48 AM PDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - International law experts in the United States said important legal questions remained about the killing of Osama bin Laden even as the Obama administration defended the action.

Local residents try to look past the gates into the compound where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad May 4, 2011. (REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood)

While an act of Congress a week after the Sept. 11 attacks gave the U.S. president broad powers to act against terrorism, the legality of the commando killing of the al Qaeda leader is less clear under international law, some experts said.

President Barack Obama got a boost in U.S. opinion polls, but the killing raised concerns elsewhere that the United States may have gone too far in acting as policeman, judge and executioner of the world's most wanted man.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations made capturing or killing bin Laden a top priority. Each was willing to act alone on intelligence toward that goal even if bin Laden was in Pakistan across the border from Afghanistan.

"It's a complicated question as a legal matter," said Steven Ratner, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. "A lot of it depends on whether you believe Osama bin Laden is a combatant in a war or a suspect in a mass murder."

Under the theory that the government is at war against al Qaeda -- which the Obama administration has adopted -- one could argue that the killing of bin Laden was legal.

"Whether he has a gun or not really doesn't matter," said Ratner. "You're lawfully permitted to kill combatants."

"LAWFUL," HOLDER SAYS

Attorney General Eric Holder, the country's top law enforcement officer, told a U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday that the operation was legal.

"He was the head of al Qaeda, an organization that had conducted the attacks of September the 11th," Holder said. "It's lawful to target an enemy commander in the field. We did so, for instance, with regard to Yamamoto in World War Two, when he was shot down in an airplane."

The White House said on Tuesday that bin Laden was not armed, contradicting an earlier U.S. account that he had taken part in a firefight.

At the Senate hearing, Holder said that even if bin Laden had tried to surrender, "there would be a good basis on the part of those very brave Navy SEAL team members to do what they did in order to protect themselves and the other people who were in that building."

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served in the Bush administration, said the analysis should end there.

"He was a military target," Gonzales told Reuters. "We're in a conflict -- there's no question about that. I'm not sure what the debate is about."

COMPLICATED PICTURE

Gonzales added that whether bin Laden was armed or not was irrelevant. "Suppose we fired a missile," said Gonzales. "Would we be asking the question if he was armed or not?"

The legal analysis of a U.S. operation is different if bin Laden is considered a mass murder suspect, Ratner said.

"If you're operating in that framework, you would only be able to kill a suspect if they represented an immediate threat to you," he added.

Complicating the picture is that bin Laden was indicted in Manhattan U.S. District Court in 1998 for conspiracy to attack U.S. defense installations, said David Scheffer, director for the Center for International Human Rights at the Northwestern University School of Law.

"Normally when an individual is under indictment the purpose is to capture that person in order to bring him to court to try him," Scheffer said. "The object is not to literally summarily execute him if he's under indictment."

Ratner and Scheffer said key questions remained about the operation, such as what instructions the Navy SEALs who carried out the mission were given and what efforts bin Laden had made to surrender.

Scheffer said if the Navy SEALs were ordered to kill bin Laden without trying first to capture him, it may have violated American ideals if not international law.

"It seems to me that with the character of our society, it might have been more consistent with American values to have at least ordered his capture with rules of engagement," he said.

(Additional reporting by Jim Vicini in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller)

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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