the brooklynite

Osama’s Coney Island Connection
Did our neighbors give Al Qaeda the bomb?
By Hasdai Westbrook

IF BORIS AND ALEXY EXIST, and if what they say is true, you could be incinerated before you finish reading this sentence. Don’t look up. If you do, you’ll see a 10-million-degree fireball expanding from its epicenter at the speed of light, turning a hundred thousand people to ash before they even hear the blast.

Osama Bin Laden has nuclear suitcase bombs. And he wants to kill 4 million Americans. He bought the stolen Soviet-era tactical nuclear weapons in Grozny in 1996 for $30 million and two tons of heroin, from Chechen mobsters who used the proceeds to relocate their operations to Coney Island.

That’s according to the recent book Osama’s Revenge: The Next 9/11—What the Media and the Government Haven’t Told You by Paul L. Williams. Williams—a sometimes adjunct at the University of Scranton and the author previously of The Vatican Exposed: Money, Murder, and the Mafia and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Crusades—claims to have been told about the transaction while working undercover as a consultant to the FBI. His sources: two unsavory Chechen mobsters from Coney Island whom the book identifies only as “Boris M.” and “Alexy D.”

Released last year by independent publisher Prometheus Books, Osama’s Revenge is an uneven ramble through the supposed details of Bin Laden’s multi-billion dollar drug operation, the bungled efforts of U.S. and allied forces to capture him in the mountains of Afghanistan, the 5,000 sleeper agents bunked down in our midst, and the inevitable nuclear horrors that await us, signposted with increasingly lurid apocalyptic references to pale horses and Armageddon. Nationally syndicated conservative columnist Cal Thomas cited the book approvingly, slamming “media reluctance to devote more and better coverage to this story.” But despite Thomas’s endorsement and Williams’s sensational claim that Al Qaeda’s nuclear wholesalers are cooling their criminal heels in Brooklyn, the book has failed to attract much attention.

But it’s not, as Thomas suggested, for lack of interest in the topic of nuclear terrorism. Since the September 11 attacks, nuclear terrorism has become the apocalyptic incantation of choice for journalists and politicians alike. President Bush secured backing for war against Iraq by highlighting the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. The New York Times’ Bill Keller (now the paper’s editor) catalogued the ways terrorists might acquire and deploy nuclear bombs in an article titled “Nuclear Nightmares.” More recently, the CIA’s former top Bin Laden hunter, Michael Scheuer, told 60 Minutes that a nuclear terrorist attack was “probably a near thing.”

Asked in private what keeps him up at night, outgoing Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge has reportedly simply answered “nuclear.” And with good reason. A 10-kiloton nuclear bomb in Times Square would obliterate everyone and everything within a one-third of a mile radius. The blast could kill hundreds of thousands in a few seconds. Within days, hundreds of thousands more would die from radiation poisoning, and thousands more after that from cancer and birth defects. Even if the bomb had a smaller payload or failed to fully detonate, the result would still be nightmarish: a one-kiloton blast could still kill tens of thousands.

THE BORIS AND ALEXY of Osama’s Revenge are libidinous beasts—feral proliferators roaring down the street in their stolen Mercedes, simulating fellatio, cackling and grinning like jackals. Williams claims to have met them while investigating a stolen-car ring for the FBI in northeastern Pennsylvania, a region to which Boris and Alexy supposedly took a shine after their Coney Island overlord sent them to straighten out a local mafia boss. Between chugs of vodka, the Colt-wielding enforcers brag to Williams that their boss—“David Z”—supplied Bin Laden’s representatives with nuclear suitcases acquired from former KGB officials. But how credible are the boasts of these “wolves from the steppes”?

Williams offers no other first-hand evidence. The sources cited in his footnotes to support his thesis that Bin Laden has purchased nuclear suitcase bombs include a Times of London report that makes no mention of Chechnya, an article about controversial Al Qaeda watcher and author Yossef Bodansky making the same Chechen claim at a news conference (Williams calls it a congressional committee, but never mind), Arab newspaper articles, and an incorrectly dated reference to an article on the not-always-reliable Israeli Web site that also says nothing about Chechen-supplied suitcase bombs.

Reached by phone, Williams explained his spotty sourcing. “See, that book was written rass-backwards,” he said. “What I did was, I wrote the book and then I went back and documented it.” This documentation was apparently just icing on the yellowcake. Williams told me his real sources were “people in the know” who “fed” him intelligence.

I pressed Williams on who his “people in the know” were. When he said that they were government and intelligence officials, I asked why he hadn’t bothered to mention them in his book, even with a generic description. He told me this is not what a “good reporter” does. Instead, Williams left me with a curious evidentiary loop: he said his anonymous sources had given him information he could verify through secondary sources, but then told me that it didn’t matter if, say, Debka was a questionable source because “Debka could at least verify what I’m saying.”

“I knew that my information was accurate and I had to find a secondary source for it to appease my publisher,” said Williams. He said he acceded to his publisher’s request so that people wouldn’t think he was a “nutcase.”

The concession seems not to have had the desired effect. “No one I take seriously takes his work seriously,” said Michael A. Levi, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, the more I spoke with Williams, the further my eyebrows rose. He told me the Russians had developed a pen-sized tactical nuclear weapon. (“The claim about a pen really does not help his credibility,” a proliferation expert I corresponded with noted dryly.) And he spoke with great enthusiasm about not needing clearance to investigate these matters because he was a “rogue.” Williams eagerly explained how he had lost hearing in one ear from having his head pounded against a concrete floor by gangsters, and how his FBI handlers had nixed a particular assignment after determining that if he “went in there,” he would “never come out.”

Content to publish the confidences of vicious Chechen mobsters in his book, Williams refused to elaborate on his undercover escapades, saying that if he did so he and his family would be “gone.” He said he worked for the Scranton FBI’s “field office” (there is no field office in Scranton, only a resident agency), telling me they would be able to confirm that. When it became clear that I would check, he backpedaled, saying they would neither confirm nor deny it so as to protect him. Indeed, as a weary-sounding FBI spokesperson explained to me, “The FBI and the Scranton resident agency are aware of Mr. Williams, but we are unable to further describe or comment on his past relationship with the FBI.”

THE CONEY ISLAND CONNECTION is a new twist on an old story. Rumors of Chechen gangs getting their hands on missing tactical nuclear weapons first surfaced in Russia’s gutter-snipe press in 1995. Two years later, Alexander Lebed, a deposed national security adviser-turned-political rival to then-president Boris Yeltsin, told visiting U.S. congressmen that Russia could not account for 84 Soviet-era nuclear “suitcase” devices. Lebed reiterated his claim on 60 Minutes, adding that the devices could be carried by hand, and triggered by a single person in as little as 20 minutes.

Russian officials furiously denied that such weapons had ever even existed. And Lebed did his credibility no favors by revising his number of missing suitcase bombs upward with each media appearance, from 84 to more than 100 to up to 500. Soon afterward, Yossef Bodansky claimed there was “little doubt” that Bin Laden had these weapons, and that Russian and Saudi intelligence services believed he had up to 20 of them.

Williams told me that anyone who looked “long and hard” into the matter would conclude that Osama Bin Laden had nuclear suitcase bombs. Experts I spoke to, however, were far from convinced. And several in-depth studies have raised doubts about whether such weapons were ever even manufactured by the Soviets. “It’s unlikely these ever existed in any substantial quantity, extremely unlikely that any that have been produced still work and are out of the hands of Russian security,” said Austin Carson, a researcher for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Starting in the 1960s, the United States developed portable nuclear devices called Atomic Demolition Munitions, or ADM’s, also known as atomic mines. These were intended for tactical purposes, such as blowing up bridges to prevent a Soviet tank advance. According to a report by the Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council (a U.S.-based NGO that goes by the rather disconcerting acronym RANSAC), the lightest ADM measured 16 inches in diameter and 24 inches in length, weighing nearly 150 pounds with a maximum yield of one kiloton. Larger versions had yields of up to 15 kilotons but weighed several hundred pounds.

Whether the Soviet Union developed similar weapons remains a matter of conjecture. Cold War logic dictates that whatever the Americans did, the Soviets did too, and Soviet battle plans called for demolitions of infrastructure for which ADM’s would have been the weapon of choice. Their actual existence, however, never has been verified by inspections. As for Bodansky’s insistence that Bin Laden already has them, the RANSAC report concludes: “Very little information is available to back Bodansky’s claims and they remain in doubt.”

But even if terrorists did acquire Soviet ADM’s, they would most likely find them worthless. According to statements by former Soviet officials cited in a Center for Nonproliferation Studies report, such bombs’ components would need to be replaced every six months. Furthermore, the nuclear material the Soviets would have used deteriorates at a rate that requires replacement every 10 years. Given that the theft of any such devices would most likely have occurred in the early 1990s, when the Soviet arsenal was most insecure, a nuclear suitcase bomb would by now be ready for the junkyard.

WHATEVER THE FLAWS or fallacies of Williams’s scenario, there’s little reason to be sanguine about nuclear terrorism. “The threat is real,” said Austin Carson. “The [Soviet] arsenal included thousands of tactical nuclear weapons—this is a certainty and not debated by anyone.” And though they may be larger and heavier than suitcase bombs, and so far more difficult to steal or smuggle onto the black market, many would still be portable enough to load into a cargo container and ship through America’s porous customs system.

Then again, why steal when you can build your own? “National security experts agree that the most likely way terrorists will obtain a nuclear bomb will not be to steal or purchase a fully operational device but to buy fissile material and construct their own,” writes Graham Allison. Allison, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former assistant secretary of defense, just wrote the book on nuclear terrorism. Literally. Its title is Nuclear Terrorism. Not as catchy as Osama’s Revenge, but Allison’s book is more authoritative, and so far more frightening. “On the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not,” Allison writes. Allison believes that with enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium terrorists could build a nuclear weapon in less than a year.

Al Qaeda’s intentions aren’t in doubt. The organization has made documented efforts to acquire weapons-grade nuclear material, and Bin Laden has proclaimed his right to use nuclear bombs. Other terrorist groups, limited in their political or territorial goals, are unlikely to risk massive retaliation for a nuclear strike. But Al Qaeda seeks catastrophic spectaculars to crumple paper tigers, shrugging off such deterrents.

Still, acquiring enough nuclear material to build a bomb would be extraordinarily difficult, and as far as we know no non-state actor has ever built a working nuclear device. But, as the Brookings Institution’s Michael Levi put it: “However unlikely, the odds [of a nuclear attack] are greater than zero.”

“We have no solid evidence that Al Qaeda has nuclear material or that it could fashion a device; we have no solid evidence they don’t,” Carson said. “We have no solid evidence that a nuclear attack by Al Qaeda is imminent. We just don’t know. Is that really reassuring?” The answer, of course, is no.

Amid all this ambiguity, the one thing that sets Williams apart is his certainty. He has predicted that a nuclear attack will come before the end of 2005. I asked Williams where he thought the attack would be. “If I were living in New York right now,” he replied, “I wouldn’t be investing in real estate.” No doubt Boris and Alexy will still be cackling through the fallout.

Hasdai Westbrook is a former editor of New Voices magazine. He has also written for the Web site Killing the Buddha.