'Europe becomes a breeding ground for terror'

European officials received a stark warning of threats posed by nuclear terrorism during an unprecedented simulation showing how al-Qaeda could kill 40 000 people and plunge the continent into chaos by exploding a crude device in Brussels.

“We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe,” said former United States Senator Sam Nunn, who helped organise the exercise at Nato headquarters. “To win this race, we have to achieve cooperation on a scale we’ve never seen or attempted before.”

Nunn spoke to reporters on Tuesday, a day after the closed-door war games attended by top officials including the European Union’s security chief, Javier Solana, and his new counterterrorism czar, Gijs de Vries.

In first part of the scenario, European officials were asked how they would respond to intelligence that al-Qaeda has obtained enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb.

In the second, they were confronted with computer projections and video displays illustrating the impact of terrorists exploding the device at Nato’s headquarters on the outskirts of Brussels, immediately killing 40 000 people, overwhelming hospitals with hundreds of thousands of injured, spreading panic through Europe and plunging the world economy into turmoil.

“Once you are in this phase there are no good options,” said Michele Flournoy, senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, who helped prepare the exercise based on an assessment of al-Qaeda’s objectives and capabilities.

More than 50 people from 15 countries and a dozen international organisations attended the exercise, mostly EU ambassadors but also civilian and military officials from Nato, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Interpol and other bodies.

Nunn appealed for the Europeans to step up funding for increased protection at sites where weapons-grade uranium and plutonium are stored—particularly in former Soviet states.

He said preventing al-Qaeda from getting its hands on such material was the best chance of stopping the group from building a bomb.

“It’s well within al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities to recruit the technical expertise needed to build a crude nuclear device,” he said. “The hard part is getting the nuclear material, but we do not make it nearly hard enough.”

Nunn helped push through a $10-billion programme through the US Senate in 1991 to destroy and safeguard weapons of mass destruction in Russia and other former Soviet republics, but 13 years later he said at least 60% of sites still needed to be secured.

He said European leaders should make good on pledges made two years ago as part of a $20-billion committment by the Group of Eight to provide more funding for that programme over 10 years.

They should also push US President George Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to do more when the G8 group of world leaders meets next month in the US state of Georgia, he said.

Solana and Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer convened the exercise to bring home to European officials the extent of the danger.

“The threat of catastrophic terrorism is not confined to the United States or Russia or the Middle East,” Solana said.

“The new terrorist movements seem willing to use unlimited violence and cause massive casualties.”

Also attending was Rolf Ekeus, a former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq.
He warned Europe could be a prime target for nuclear terrorists both because of the ease with which Islamic extremists can hide and recruit among the continent’s Muslim communities, and because Russian nuclear material could be more easily smuggled into Europe than the United States.

“Europe has become the breeding ground, the place where planning for terrorism takes place,” Ekeus said.

Among measures to prevent an attack, Nunn called for increased protection for weapons-grade uranium kept at research sites, which are often poorly guarded university facilities; accelerated destruction of tactical nuclear weapons by both the United States and Russia; enhanced international intelligence sharing; and more help to find new jobs for poorly paid Russia nuclear scientists. - Sapa-AP

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