Oct 13, 2002

Orlando Sentinel review nuke terror documentary

Copyright 2002 Sentinel Communications Co. THE ORLANDO SENTINEL October 12, 2002 Saturday, FINAL SECTION: LIFE & TIMES; Pg. E1 LENGTH: 834 words HEADLINE: PROGRAM TAKES VIEWERS DEEP INTO NUCLEAR THREAT; AN AL-QAEDA EXPERT EXAMINES BIN LADEN AND RUSSIAN SECURITY LAPSES. BYLINE: Hal Boedeker, Sentinel Television Critic BODY: With a top al-Qaeda expert as the guide, Nuclear Terrorism: Blinding Horizons offers a credible, chilling journey through scenarios many news organizations ignore and many viewers avoid. Peter Bergen, the author of Holy War Inc., examines Osama bin Laden's nuclear plotting and the security lapses at Russian nuclear facilities that terrorists could exploit. "Two important things about al-Qaeda: They're extremely patient," Bergen says in a phone interview. "They took two years to plan Sept. 11. And with this group, all bets are off. They could care less about how many people they kill." The hour program premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on MSNBC as part of National Geographic Explorer. Bergen's expertise and contacts are the program's chief draws as he travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia. He traces a mysterious shipment of radioactive materials from Kazakhstan that vanished two years ago in Pakistan, a case that underscores the dangers of nuclear trafficking in Central Asia. Physics Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy raises concerns about Islamic extremists in the Pakistani nuclear program. "We shall be very lucky if we avoid a catastrophe in the next 10 or 20 years," he says. Near Moscow, Bergen meets a desperate engineer who stole weapons-grade material from a research center. The man simply wanted money to fix up his apartment. His heists in the 1990s stopped when police arrested him, but Bergen says today's Russian establishment is reluctant to acknowledge security problems. In the United States, Bergen talks to such experts as former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. All three offer pessimistic observations. "We are truly in a race with terrorists to shut them down before they shut us down," Shays says. "And it's a race right now that I don't think we're winning." Nuclear Terrorism makes so many intriguing points that it's unfortunate the program settles for melodramatic production techniques. Re-enactments, jarring mood music and rumbling narration spoken by Jonathon Bryce detract from the information. In self-important flourishes, the program plays up Bergen as globe-trotting journalist. But the 39-year-old has deservedly won renown as a CNN analyst and a leading expert on al-Qaeda. Born in Minneapolis, Bergen moved to Europe at an early age and received his education in England. His biography notes that he did the first Western television interview with bin Laden, in 1997. Bergen says al-Qaeda has been severely disrupted, and its ability to mount conspiracies has been limited. But he senses the terrorists are moving away from military targets to economic ones. He cites the recent explosion of a French oil tanker off Yemen. "They understand from 9-11 the economic impact is something people focus on," he says. There's no evidence that bin Laden is dead, Bergen says, and he's probably in such poor shape that he's not showing himself. "I believe he's in Afghanistan or northwestern Pakistan," Bergen says. "He knows the area very well. In leaving, he'd reveal himself. From common sense, why would he go anywhere else?" Bergen finished his work on Nuclear Terrorism in August, but he's glad the program is airing now. More people are paying attention, although the program doesn't discuss Iraq. He says the connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda are minimal. "We asked bin Laden what he thought of Saddam Hussein," Bergen says. "He said he's a bad Muslim. Calling someone a bad Muslim is as bad as it gets." President Bush has made "a slight mistake" in trying to link Iraq with the terrorists, he adds, because "the al-Qaeda thing is a red herring that opens him up to criticism." Bergen says the administration's position improves by sticking to one issue and going through the United Nations. The analyst hopes viewers recognize that it's a critical national security issue to help the countries of the former Soviet Union secure their nuclear material. But Bergen, too, sounds pessimistic about nuclear terrorism. "The general public wasn't worried about al-Qaeda until Sept. 11," he says. "This will only become real when it happens, which is unfortunate. . . . I think generally that most experts believe a radiological bomb is something that could be deployed. A crude atomic bomb is not inconceivable." The radiological weapon marries radioactive waste to conventional explosives and would disperse matter over city blocks. On nuclear terrorism, the program quotes a Department of Defense computer program theorizing that an attack on New York could kill 50,000 immediately and several hundred thousand shortly afterward. It's a positive sign that the war in Afghanistan disrupted al-Qaeda's nuclear plans and its program to acquire material, Bergen says. "But we're going to see more of these apocalyptic groups," he says. "The IRA has a more rational form of terrorism. These other people have these suicidal impulses."