CAIRO – A storage facility housing some radioactive material in Yemen, home to one of the most active branches of al-Qaida, was left unguarded for up to a week, according to a secret U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks on Monday.
The message dated Jan. 9 relates the worries of a Yemeni official about the unguarded state of a National Atomic Energy Commission facility. It said the material was not secured for a week after its lone guard was removed and its surveillance camera was broken.
The official, whose name was removed, presses the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa to urge his own government to secure the material.
"Very little now stands between the bad guys and Yemen's nuclear material," the official is quoted as saying in the cable.
Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, hosts a particularly active offshoot of al-Qaida. Militants there have attacked Yemeni government forces and facilities and plotted attacks against the U.S., including this year's failed attempt to bring down American planes with explosives hidden in ink cartridges and an attempted bombing of an airliner bound for Detroit last Christmas.
Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University expert on nuclear theft and terrorism, said the material in Yemen included some "very nasty" substances and could be far more dangerous if "dispersed" in a terrorist attack.
"But I believe it has since been removed to a secure location," he said.
The widespread fear by counterterrorism officials of al-Qaida militants finding access to radioactive material has its roots in the concept of a "dirty bomb," which combines radioactive material like the ones left unguarded in Yemen and conventional explosives.
Radioactive sources are used for a wide variety of peaceful purposes in industry, medicine, agriculture, research and education. When they are safely managed and protected, the risks to the public are considered low.
Yemeni Foreign Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told the U.S. ambassador in Yemen on Jan. 7 that "no radioactive material was currently stored in Sanaa and that all 'radioactive waste' was shipped to Syria."
According to the cable, the radioactive material was used by local universities for agricultural research, Sanaa hospitals and by international oil companies.
The facility's lone guard was removed on Dec. 30, 2009, according to the cable. The site's single closed circuit TV camera had been broken for the last six months, it added.
Yemeni officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The cable said the embassy routinely pushed senior Yemeni officials to account for the nation's radioactive material and ensure the security of storage facilities.
Yemen is struggling to contain an increasingly bold al-Qaida branch despite generous help from the United States and other Western nations.
The Obama administration's counterterror chief John Brennan said Friday that despite the tension in U.S.-Yemeni relations over counterterrorism issues, the two nations were ratcheting up efforts to capture or kill militants.
Brennan's comments appeared to reassure Americans that Yemen was cooperating in the hunt for al-Qaida. They were made one day after U.S. officials said they had intelligence indicating al-Qaida's Yemen offshoot was planning another attack during this holiday season.