Documents found strewn on the floor of a Taliban recruitment centre in Kabul, apparently describing how to build a thermonuclear device, may not be as frightening as they first seem.
The papers were picked out by BBC correspondent John Simpson and showed, he said, "how dangerous Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network aspired to be".
But the sentences shown in focus by the camera also come from a famous document called "Weekend Scientist: Let's Make a Thermonuclear Device", which was first published in 1979 as a humour piece by The Journal of Irreproducible Results.
The paper was written in response to US court decisions of the time that restricted popular magazines from detailing how to make a bomb. Since all the information is freely available in public libraries anyway, the author said, he decided to provide a humorous "ten easy steps" proving how easy bomb building can be.
Written in jest
While the gist of these instructions may be accurate, for example giving suggested relative proportions of plutonium and TNT, they are written completely in jest.
The first instruction tells readers to obtain weapons grade plutonium at their "local supplier". It continues: "A nuclear power plant is not recommended, as large quantities of missing plutonium tends to make plant engineers unhappy. We suggest you contact your local terrorist organization."
The US Department of Energy generally refuses to comment on the accuracy of such documents. But they do say that about five kilograms of plutonium is theoretically enough to make a nuclear explosive device, while the recipe in The Journal of Irreproducible Results calls for 110 kilograms of plutonium.
The BBC film only allows a few parts of the documents to be read, but these few phrases are exactly as found in the 1979 paper: "Theory of operation ... the device basically works when ... critical mass then produces a nuclear chain reaction ... Plutonium (PU), atomic number ... and is similar in ...".
"From what I've seen, this is certainly a shortened version of the original article," says Marc Abrahams, former editor of The Journal of Irreproducible Results.
Some of the more obviously absurd parts of the original are missing from the document in Kabul, such as a paragraph starting "in next month's column, we will learn how to clone your neighbor's wife in six easy steps." The Kabul document also has paragraph returns in odd places, as if someone had cut and pasted the text.
Even so, says Abrahams, "if you spend half a second scanning any of this you should be able to tell it's a joke." He adds that if the instructions were made more believable by removing the ridiculous parts, there would be practically nothing left.
Simpson noted that the Afghan secret service had visited the centre before him and removed documents. He also qualified his report by saying that "maybe the really dangerous-sounding documents on nuclear fission and missiles were just fantasy".
BBC press officer Chris Reed in London: "It's safe to say that he chose his words with care. I need to get to the bottom of it."
Posted on Nov 20, 2001, 10:33 PM from IP address 126.96.36.199