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Illicit Procurement Infrastructure

[Iraqi Procurement Channels] [Role of Embassy Officials] [Role of Iraqi Intelligence Agencies]
[Responding to Tightened Controls][Breaking an Embargo]

To supply a nuclear weapons effort, a proliferant state needs to establish a procurement strategy and infrastructure. Many necessary items are not sensitive and can be openly sought from a foreign company. However, some items will require an export license or otherwise would raise suspicions. Thus, those items will more likely be acquired in secret.

In some cases, a proliferant state may obtain assistance from a state that chooses to ignore international export control norms. Brazil, for example, secretly provided Iraq with sensitive uranium processing equipment and technology in the 1980s. China has often been linked to the supply of unsafeguarded nuclear and nuclear-related items to Iran and Pakistan. This type of assistance, however, is occurring less frequently.

In most instances, a covert nuclear weapons program will need to acquire sensitive items in violation of export control laws of targeted countries. Toward this goal, a proliferant state may set up a dedicated procurement organization that is in charge of policies, priorities, orders, follow-up, and coordination among projects desiring sensitive items.

The central purpose of such an organization is to obtain necessary items while not creating suspicion about the true end-use of the item, or worse, revealing the state's nuclear weapon activities. Domestic companies fronting for a nuclear weapons effort may seek items overseas directly from companies, or use agents to procure items secretly. It may establish an overseas procurement network. If suspicions arise, this organization can then help develop plausible cover stories about a particular item and subsequently devise more elaborate procurement strategies.

Proliferant states have approached the challenges of illicit procurement in many ways. The following outlines an approach taken by Iraq.

Iraqi Procurement Channels

Iraq has stated that it had established different "procurement channels" within its nuclear weapons program. The goal of these channels was to avoid attracting attention to the large quantities of materials and equipment Iraq needed for nuclear weapons projects, and to tailor the proposed channel to the type of item needed. For example, Iraq's central procurement office often divided a project's list of desired items into different lists comprised of items taken from several distinct project lists. In this way, the resulting lists of equipment would not have any resemblance to the original lists. Thus, the final lists would be less likely to raise suspicions among foreign intelligence agencies, which can spend a considerable effort in analyzing exports looking for patterns suggesting secret technical nuclear projects.

The table contains a list of several of the major procurement channels used by Iraq's nuclear weapons program during the 1980s. Members of the nuclear weapons programs were assigned to these establishments or entities. As the table indicates, these establishments or offices are often innocuous sounding, and their names imply a non-military industrial purposes.

In the late 1980s, the Iraqi gas centrifuge program established a number of its own procurement channels or companies that were staffed by centrifuge personnel. The first and most important company was the Industrial Projects Company (IPC). Later, Iraq established the Scientific Iraqi Company (SICO) to obtain scientific hardware and equipment for laboratories. The Electromechanical Equipment Company (EMEC) was established last to procure electrical and mechanical equipment.

The centrifuge program also acquired items through state-owned establishments, including Nassr General Establishment, Badr General Establishment, General Establishment for Heavy Engineering Equipment, General Establishment for Electrical Industries, and the Al Fao General Establishment.

Iraq placed trusted agents overseas to organize purchases for its military programs. In some cases, these agents interacted closely with both Iraqi procurement channels and the underlying nuclear programs. Iraq established elaborate procurement networks to obtain military items. These networks often included foreign companies secretly purchased by Iraq to facilitate the acquisition of sensitive items.

Role of Embassy Officials

Iraq used employees at its embassies to procure items for its military programs in the 1980s. Embassy personnel were involved in procuring desired items from overseas companies or in receiving illicit items for shipment back to Iraq. An example of the latter is when Iraqi gas centrifuge experts dropped off classified gas centrifuge drawings and documents at the Iraqi embassy in Austria in the late 1980s that they had just received from German gas centrifuge expert Karl Heinz Schaab.

The best known example of an Iraqi embassy official procuring items involves Ali Abdul Muttalib, who was Iraq's commercial attaché in Bonn, Germany. Ali was at the center of a massive procurement network aimed at acquiring a wide range of high-technology items. He was also deeply involved in the creation of false cover stories for items.

He developed extensive relationships with German companies. He also worked with Iraqi procurement agents in Britain and other countries. He identified the best companies in Europe to meet Iraq's requests. His involvement in negotiations helped convince companies that a proposed purchase was serious. He learned which companies or company representatives were more willing to cooperate with Iraq. He also learned who was willing to describe a proposed illicit export in such a way as to increase the chance of obtaining an export license.

Ali worked in several ways to obtain items. One way was to receive a list of items from a specific Iraqi project. In this case, he tried to obtain those items directly from European companies.

Other times, he facilitated direct negotiations between companies and members of an Iraqi project. In the nuclear area, he often used this procedure because the companies would ask detailed questions about the purpose and specifications of the items. Because these items typically belonged to sensitive categories under export regulations, the companies needed to follow special procedures to export these items.

In August 1987, an Iraqi delegation headed by Khidhir Hamza, the then-head of Iraq's nuclear weaponization program, visited Germany in search of items for processing HEU metal and specialized high-speed measuring equipment for use in developing the high explosive lenses for an implosion-type nuclear weapon. Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, had directed Hamza to contact Ali. A discussion of Hamza's efforts to obtain the processing equipment from the German firms Leybold and Degussa can be found here. In the case of the explosive testing equipment, Ali recommended Werner Sonntag, the representative of both the Neuero Company and the Inwako Company. The Inwako company had large contracts with Iraq, and Ali thought it might cooperate in obtaining the necessary equipment. Ali and a member of Hamza's delegation visited this representative and gave him a list of equipment for explosive testing. They also asked Sonntag for a specific technology for designing a facility to conduct high explosive tests.

Role of Iraqi Intelligence Agencies

Iraq used its intelligence agencies to acquire items for its nuclear weapons program. In these cases, the nuclear program would send its requests to the intelligence agency, which then used its assets to acquire the items. Some of the requested items were innocuous, such as books, manuals, technical guides, and unclassified governmental reports. Although these items are benign, Iraq worried that their acquisition would cause suspicions. As a result, the intelligence agency took steps to ensure that the supplier did not know that Iraq was the purchaser.

Other items were unquestionably sensitive. For example, Iraq's intelligence agency sought streak cameras and materials, such as beryllium, for the nuclear program.

The intelligence agency would also approach the nuclear program to gauge its interest in sensitive materials or technology its agents had obtained or could acquire overseas. In many cases, these items were scams of little value. For example, a sheik of a Gulf nation informed Iraqi intelligence in the fall of 1989 of the possibility of providing several kilograms of uranium and one kilogram of "red mercury." (The latter is a mysterious material purported to be a super explosive, but widely believed to be fictitious.) The sheik provided the specifications of the materials, both of which appeared to originate in Zaire. Whether Iraq ever purchased the material, or whether the material was real, is unknown, although the Iraqi nuclear scientists were usually dismissive of these offers.

In another case, the Iraqi intelligence agency received a recommendation from an unstated source in the fall of 1990 to use highly enriched uranium (HEU) mixed with powder sulfur to make air-exploding capsules for use against enemy troops. The goal was to create a "flash" bomb that would spread the mixture over a wide area, causing an area of radioactive contamination that would be difficult for the enemy to use or traverse. The person or group making the recommendation said that the manufacturing of these capsules could be Iraq's substitute for an atomic bomb, and at the same time be more effective than a chemical weapon. It was envisioned that the capsules could be used to contaminate oil fields, military establishments, or military support industries. The Iraqi nuclear scientists immediately rejected the recommendation as unscientific and impractical. They cited that HEU is one of the least radioactive materials. They also stated the ease of protecting people and equipment from contamination. Overall, the scientists judged the resulting danger of radiation exposure or contamination extremely low. More important, the nuclear scientists wanted to use their HEU to make a nuclear explosive, a far deadlier weapon.

Responding to Tightened Controls

During the late 1980s, Iraq faced tougher export controls in Europe and the United States. Western countries were becoming more aware of, and worried about, Iraqi nuclear procurement efforts that were increasingly recognized as aimed at building nuclear weapons.

Iraqi nuclear program managers worried about losing money and time seeking items covered by the stricter controls. They were concerned that the delays in receiving the purchases would impact the weapon project's timetables. In response, the Iraqi intelligence agency and nuclear weapons program, code named Petrochemical-3 (PC-3), formed a joint committee to explore ways to obtain several advanced materials and equipment without causing further suspicion or discovery.

The committee decided on establishing covert cover or front offices abroad. An intelligence agency representative recommended in late July 1990, shortly before Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait, that they consider operating in southeast Asia, Argentina, or Brazil, because he said that there were greater opportunities there. The PC-3 representative preferred to set up such a project in an industrialized European country, such as the recently reunified Germany. He worried about problems of creating, managing, and operating such an office outside industrialized countries.

The committee recommended that the office be established in western European or east Asian countries. These countries with free markets would permit "large, unhindered purchasing," the committee observed. However, these countries also watched closely any activity by a country with a centralized government, such as Iraq. The operation must therefore be an intelligence mission, the committee concluded.

The plan called for the intelligence agency to set up or create connections with companies in these countries, using non-Iraqi citizens or a series of non-Iraqis. Those carrying out the sensitive purchases must not know that Iraq would have been the actual purchasing country. The committee recommended that first purchases should be ordinary, and then move gradually, over a several month period, to more sensitive purchases.

Breaking an Embargo

After the UN Security Council established an embargo on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Iraq instituted several special procedures to try to acquire sensitive items banned by the embargo. The nuclear weapons program generally devised these efforts with the assistance of Iraqi intelligence.

In October 1990, PC-3 told the intelligence agency that it had coordinated with several people, companies, and official establishments in Jordan and Tunisia to facilitate the importing and re-exporting of material and equipment to Iraq. The nuclear officials asked the intelligence agency to investigate the reliability of these entities. Iraqi intelligence apparently recommended Jordanian trading companies, but urged caution in using Tunisian companies. The intelligence chief said that the situation in Tunisia was not secure because of the presence of hostile foreign intelligence agencies, particularly those of France, Israel, and United States.

Iraq subsequently established contacts with Jordanian trading companies which did receive sensitive items, but many were not forwarded to Iraq. The Iraqi gas centrifuge program approached several European companies supplying centrifuge-related equipment, including Alwo, Trebacher, ROSCH, and CETEC, and asked them to sign new contracts with the Mitramas company in Singapore. According to Iraq, the companies agreed to send the items to Singapore and then Iraq would have to find a way to get the items to front companies in Jordan and then to Iraq. Most of these items never got past Jordan, and were found by inspectors many years later stored in warehouses in Amman.

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