Usama bin Laden and his terrorist organization were not only investigating the use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons against the West: they had conducted preliminary experiments on animals. 

These unnerving revelations are the conclusion of detailed examination of documents discovered by The Times in abandoned Al Qaeda houses in Kabul last month. 

The documents, which have been translated in full, prove that among other atrocities, Al Qaeda was studying how to produce botulin poison in batches strong enough to kill 2,000 people. 

The hundreds of pages of photocopied, handwritten and printed material were in a mixture of Arabic, Urdu, Persian, Mandarin, Russian and English. They came from a number of Al Qaeda houses in the Afghan capital a day after it fell to Northern Alliance forces on November 13. 

Samples were photographed and sent to British-based professional translators with scientific qualifications, and to experts in the field of weapons of mass destruction, including John Large, a British nuclear consultant. 

They confirm that Al Qaeda cells were examining materials to make a low-grade, “dirty” nuclear device; they had an understanding of bomb-related electronic circuitry to a level that matched, and in some areas exceeded, that of the Provisional IRA’s experts; they were investigating “supergun” theories; and they were training terrorist units to assassinate Middle Eastern leaders sympathetic to the West. 

According to Mr. Large, while the organization would not have been able to make a large-scale missile or nuclear device from the documents found, “it was obviously prepared to consider the use of such weapons, so that if it could not manufacture such for itself then, given the opportunity, it would acquire such for use." 

Among the documents obtained by The Times pertaining to nuclear physics was a chart showing a portion of a periodic table dealing solely with radioactive materials. “It contains all the elements you would need if constructing a ‘dirty’ domb. This type of table is only of interest to a nuclear scientist,” Mr Large said. 

The experts’ reports reinforce claims by the British and American Governments that bin Laden had been looking into ways of making a nuclear bomb. On November 9, President Bush said of Al Qaeda: “They are seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.” Days later, after the discovery of the documents in Kabul, Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Defense Secretary, dispatched specialist units to Afghanistan to conduct their own studies. 

Subsequently, American intelligence services learned that earlier this year a member of Al Qaeda had left Afghanistan after flourishing a canister containing what he claimed was radioactive material at a meeting attended by bin Laden. 

The breadth and detail of Al Qaeda’s aspirations have taken the security services by surprise. At one point the documents discuss creating an explosion using 500kg of TNT — almost twice the amount that killed two people in the London Docklands bomb in 1996. Similarly, Al Qaeda’s plans for chemical weapons were drawn up with large-scale production in mind: each recipe contained a step-by-step guide explaining how to produce batches that would kill thousands of people. 

Many of the pages had the feel of teachers’ handouts, such as photocopies explaining how a device or chemical could best be put to terrible effect. Others asked questions about terror techniques that they themselves used. Only time will tell what they have been able to learn. 

The experts concluded that in the field of chemical and biological warfare, Al Qaeda’s studies were so far crude, but that their intent was clear. Although the dispersal of chemical and biological weapons was difficult, they said, some of the terrorists’ literature about their manufacture was easily available in public libraries. 

However, they observed that the documents showed that Al Qaeda had gone so far as to manufacture and test certain types of chemical weapons on rabbits, including cyanide gas, which was used by Saddam Hussein to kill hundreds of Kurds in Halabja in 1988. 

As disturbing as the substance of these findings is their context. The documents did not come from a single source of expertise. They included material produced by men of several nationalities at different stages of education, varying from recruit to degree level student and professor, and were being reproduced for wide distribution. They were the work of a variety of autonomous cells, who conducted their own experiments, without collusion. 

“Rather than being assured by Al Qaeda’s diversity, in fact this proves a huge problem to the Western security forces,” one intelligence expert said. “What we can see is the work of different, potentially self-replicating cells, united only by an ideal. They will be far more difficult to extinguish than a centrally organised terrorist force.”  

Another source revealed that although the public in the West may be encouraged by the success of the war in Afghanistan, intelligence agencies estimate that as many as 70,000 recruits may have passed through Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in the past six years before dispersing to countries that include the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Russia. 

“Even were bin Laden to be killed or captured soon,” the source added, “he is only a figurehead, and the worst may yet be far from over.”