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Investigators probe nuclear scientists' possible links to al Qaeda

Majeed, left, and Mahmood are in detention.  

By Sheila MacVicar

KARACHI, Pakistan (CNN) -- The gates to Abdul Majeed's house are locked. His family sees no outsiders. He has been in detention, this time, for at least three weeks.

Bashir ud-din Mahmood's family confirms that he's back in detention too, in spite of his heart condition.

Charges? There are none. For now, they are watched.

"They are in preventive detention," said Rifaat Khan, a political analyst. "All of their contacts are being monitored."

Retired nuclear scientists who've spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, Mahmood and Majeed are in detention because of what they know and where they've been.

The reasons for concern, especially among American officials, are clear: Osama bin Laden has boasted about having a nuclear weapon. Coalition officials have acknowledged that the al Qaeda terrorist organization possesses radioactive materials.

If bin Laden's operatives possess radioactive material, these two men would at least know how to safely contain it, intelligence sources say.

The questions now facing investigators: What, if anything, did Mahmood and Majeed tell the Taliban and al Qaeda? Could they have leaked classified Pakistani nuclear secrets? And what were their links, if any, to terrorist organizations?

Their supporters say the two men visited Afghanistan for humanitarian reasons. Others are not so sure.

Blankets or knowledge?

The gates at Majeed's house have been locked since the retired nuclear scientist was detained.  

The two have much knowledge to share, said Pervez Hoodboy, a nuclear scientist at Quaid-e-Azam University in Pakistan. "Both of these men have extensive experience with the production of radioactive materials."

Dr. Assam Mahmood, son of the Bashir ud-din Mahmood, insists that his father went to Afghanistan to share blankets, not knowledge.

"They (Mahmood and Majeed) were providing them blankets, providing them clothing, providing them food for the people in Afghanistan," the son said in an October interview.

More than six weeks after Pakistani and American intelligence agencies began investigating the two, embarrassed Pakistani officials have tried to play down any alleged involvement of the two retired nuclear scientists with the Taliban and al Qaeda.

None less than Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's chief executive, has tried to distance the pair from terrorist activities.

"There were suspicions they were in contact with someone across the border" in Afghanistan, Musharraf says. "They have no (dealings) with the institution that is involved with the nuclear program."

Pakistan's government has acknowledged that Mahmood and Majeed made at least four unauthorized trips across the border to Afghanistan; that they went to Kandahar and Kabul; and that they met with Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban.

The scientists have told investigators they attended meetings to support Tameer-E-Nau, a humanitarian relief organization they founded with others, including two retired military officers.

All the founders of Tameer-E-Nau, a charity known for its work in reconstruction and development, are now in detention.

"They (Mahmood and Majeed) were very religious people and they entertained extremist beliefs," says Khan of Pakistan's Foreign Ministry. "Both of them, after they left the Pakistani nuclear establishment a couple of years ago -- even though they were under an oath of secrecy not to work for any other (non-governmental) organization for another three years under the laws -- they chose to participate in the activities of Tameer-E-Nau."

Links to terrorists?

Documents found in the Barakati Islamic Trading Company in Kabul detail a meeting between the chief executive and Mahmood.  

In Kabul, CNN has found evidence that suggests the scientists' interests were more than humanitarian.

Inside the dowdy lobby of Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel are the offices of the Barakati Islamic Trading Company. The offices have been deserted since the Taliban fled Kabul in November.

Intelligence sources in the region tell CNN the office is another branch of the Barakat network, which the Bush administration suspects of laundering money for al Qaeda. The U.S. government has frozen its assets.

According to documents CNN found in the office, Mahmood and Ghali Alshamri, the chief executive of Barakati Islamic Trading Company, met on May 15. The pair signed a document agreeing to share office space, plus financial, technical and human resources in everything from business to banking, the documents show.

Tameer-E-Nau also agreed to cooperate with Barakati in the areas of energy, minerals and mining, records show. Other documents CNN obtained detail plans for multimillion-dollar investments in business ventures.

CNN found more possible ties to al Qaeda at another Kabul house the charity rented.

The piles of abandoned, wet and rotting documents indicate that the charity was dealing with Herakat al Mujahedin, another group associated with bin Laden. Founded in Pakistan, the group has been banned by the Pakistani government and has been named by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.

The documents in the house describe the daily routine of a terrorist organization. There are copies of letters sent to parents in Pakistan about sons held as prisoners of war as well as approvals of requests to the Taliban defense ministry for weapons or trucks, the documents show.

That house, and another the charity rented, contained documents and drawings that suggested an interest in biological weapons. A marker board at one dwelling featured drawings for what appeared to be a crude system for delivering anthrax by balloon.

'Technical violations'

Pakistani officials insist the scientists are under investigation only for "technical violations of national security."

"There are areas of rules and regulations which determine the conduct of people involved in Pakistan's atomic energy commission," says Pakistani government spokesman Gen. Rashid Quereshi. "That is an area that is being investigated."

Intelligence sources operating in the region acknowledge that the Pakistani government knew of the scientists' ties to the Taliban, but was not aware of any alleged close links to al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations.

CNN Producer Ingrid Arnesen contributed to this report.


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