Nuclear expert questioned over Taliban taken to hospital

War on Terrorism: The Bomb
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A former Pakistani nuclear scientist being questioned by the American authorities about his links with Afghanistan's Taliban has been hospitalized after complaining of chest pain during interrogations

Sultan Bashir-ud-Din Mehmood was admitted to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology on Tuesday, according to his son, Asim Mehmood, who is a doctor. Government officials confirmed the scientist was being treated.

Dr Mahmood was arrested last week at his home in Lahore by Pakistani secret service agents and, with a former colleague, Dr Abdul Majid, was interrogated by a team of FBI and CIA agents. He was released, but has since been the subject of further questioning.

No charges have been laid against either man, but the stark facts about Dr Mahmood – that he has the most intimate knowledge of and role in Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, and that he is a zealous Islamist and supporter of the Taliban – make him a focus for fears about the Taliban's and al-Qa'ida's ambitions and capabilities.

Osama bin Laden is known by Western intelligence agencies to have made several attempts to procure nuclear material, though one deal fell through and in another he was defrauded. "He has tried very hard to obtain fissile material," said a senior Western diplomat in Delhi. "That means he has spent a lot of money on it."

Dr Mahmood, since retiring from the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission in 1998, has constructed a useful front for aiding the Taliban and their friends in Afghanistan. He is founder and president of Ummah Tameer-e-Nau, which calls itself "an organisation engaged in relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction activities". Ummah refers to the greater Islamic community, transcending national boundaries. Most of the group's members are nuclear scientists and military officers.

Dr Mahmood's organisation was one of the few non- governmental groups permitted to function freely in Afghanistan, and the Taliban gave it permission to cut business deals on the Taliban's behalf. This has led to suspicions among Western intelligence agencies that Dr Mahmood was hoping to supply the Taliban with the means to make nuclear weapons. Whether that was the case and, if so, how far it has succeeded, is unclear.

One of the subjects on which he has been questioned is a complex of buildings outside Kandahar, which his organisation helped to build. It has been described as a flour mill. The buildings were the target of recent bombing raids but so sketchy is Western intelligence that it is unclear what the buildings contained or whether any compromising installations might have been removed.

Dr Mahmood is only the most conspicuous example of the problem confronting the West in its dealings with its critical frontline ally, Pakistan.

Intelligence about both Pakistan and Afghanistan is 10 years old, dating back to when America precipitately dropped Pakistan after the Red Army's pullout from Afghanistan. Intelligence is hard to muster, given that hardly any, or maybe no, CIA agents speak Pashtu, the language of 45 per cent of Afghanistan's population and of the Taliban.

The West is therefore thrown back on the resources of Pakistan's military intelligence, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, but the soundness of many of its agents is in doubt: the ISI brought the Taliban into existence, and many of its officers remain loyal to them.

Like Dr Mahmood, many in the agency have also succumbed to the creeping fundamentalism that has infected Pakistan's professional class in recent years. The West depends on these people – yet many are highly undependable.

Hence the desperate stratagems revealed by Seymour Hersh in the latest New Yorker magazine, claiming that "an élite Pentagon undercover unit" is apparently working in tandem with Israel's Unit 262 – the commando force that rescued the hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda in June 1976. Members of the unit arrived in the United States after 11 September and have been training intensively for the theft and destruction – "exfiltration" in military jargon – of Pakistan's nuclear warheads, in the event that Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, is threatened by an Islamist coup or an insurrection from within the army.

But the comment of an unnamed official quoted by Mr Hersh suggests the plan is a council of despair. "How are you going to conduct a covert commando operation in the middle of the country? We don't know where this stuff is, and it would take far more than a commando operation to get at it."