The Al Qaeda Weapons Race Continues: Osama Bin Laden's Infamous 'Sorcerer', Midhat Mursi Al Sayyid Umar, Comes Back from the Dead and Rekindles New Fears That Jihadists Are Pursuing Chemical, Biological and Radiological Weapons

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THE EGYPTIAN KNOWN as Midhat Mursi Al Sayyid Umar was supposed to be dead, killed in a US missile strike on suspected terrorists in Pakistan's turbulent northwestern tribal belt on 13 January, 2006. Pakistani generals claimed he was one of several senior Al Qaeda figures slain by Hellfire missiles fired from a Central Intelligence Agency Predator at a clandestine gathering in the village of Damadola near the Afghan border.

But it seems that Mursi, a chemical engineer known as Osama bin Laden's "sorcerer", with a $5m US bounty on his head, is still alive and, the Americans believe, working in secret laboratories across the badlands of the tribal zone to develop chemical, biological and radiological weapons--and maybe even nuclear weapons--for Al Qaeda.

US intelligence officials were never convinced that Mursi, alias Abu Khabab Al Masri, died in Damadola and now even Pakistani intelligence chiefs concede that he's alive and kicking. The Americans say that electronic surveillance of known and suspected Al Qaeda figures in recent months has turned up conversations in which Mursi is mentioned in the present tense.

However, they have not been able to pinpoint his whereabouts because he has gone deep underground and is believed to communicate only by courier. But from what they have been able to piece together, they believe the 45-year-old Mursi has revived the chemical and biological warfare (CBW) programme Al Qaeda had in Afghanistan before the US-led invasion in October 2001. At that time, the Egyptian headed a programme codenamed Project Al Zabadi (Arabic for 'curdled milk') at Al Qaeda's Darunta training complex in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. According to the evidence the Americans have put together from electronic intercepts, informants, the interrogation of captured militants and tracking Al Qaeda's financial networks, Mursi is concentrating on manufacturing cyanide, chlorine and other lethal poisons.

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Chris Quillen, a former CIA analyst who until he left the agency in 2006 specialised in Al Qaeda's efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD), said earlier this year that Mursi and his people may have made major advances in their Pakistani hideouts. "I'm not saying the programmes are great and ready for an attack tomorrow," he said. "But whatever they lost in the 2001 invasion, they're back at that level at this point."

Mursi is believed to have served with the Egyptian Army as an ordnance expert before he became involved in Bin Laden's Project Al Zabadi at the Darunta complex about 120km east of Kabul. He was considered one of Al Qaeda's master bomb-makers and was highly regarded despite his oversized ego and argumentative disposition.

Computer files on Project Zabadi uncovered by the coalition in Afghanistan in 2002 showed that Bin Laden gave Mursi a startup budget in May 1999 to get the project off the ground. Because he had to account for the money, he videotaped his experiments that included using what seemed to be hydrogen cyanide on dogs. The tapes were captured by US forces.

Mursi also worked on developing a pathogen identified as Agent X, which terrorism experts believe is almost certainly anthrax, although US officials have long warned that Al Qaeda was seeking to produce botulinum toxin, smallpox, plague or ebola.

At that time, according to US and western European intelligence agencies, Mursi headed a nine-member Al Qaeda committee that oversaw CBW development and possibly planning for any attacks using its deadly products. This group included some of Bin Laden's top people, underlining the commitment of Al Qaeda Central to developing weapons of mass destruction. That commitment, US and European officials believe, has not diminished and it is likely that the committee has been reconstituted in Pakistan.

The original committee included such people as Assadallah Abdul Rahman, a son of the blind Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the iconic radical convicted of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing in New York. …