Al-Qaeda?s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons may have been thwarted by Russian con men, according to the Pentagon.

After analyzing containers, computer discs and papers found in their deserted Afghanistan hideouts, intelligence officers found no trace of materials which could have been used to construct a nuclear bomb.

However, they did find some canisters painted with skull and crossbones that turned out to be harmless. The manufacture of the canisters was so crude that, had they been genuine, the sellers, as well as the terrorists, would have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation just from handling them.

Intelligence officials speculate that the canisters could have been dipped in medical waste by black-market salesmen so that a Geiger counter would register radioactivity, making it seem as if they contained nuclear material.

A search of 110 different sites brought up just three containers that were considered dangerous enough to be sent back to the US for full analysis. ?We did not find any type of serious radiological material,? an official says. ?The stuff we found in Afghanistan was not the real stuff. They were swindled, like a lot of other people.?

General Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of military operations in Afghanistan, says, ?We have seen evidence that al-Qaeda had a desire to weaponize chemical and biological capability, but we have not yet found evidence that indicates they were able to do so.?

Nuclear experts say the con was probably done by crooks from the former Soviet Union. ?There have been several similar cases in eastern Europe,? one source says. ?There is not a lot of consumer protection in this area. Unless you’re a chemical engineer with proper testing facilities, it?s impossible to tell whether you are getting what you?re supposed to be getting.?

The Pentagon?s findings don?t rule out the possibility that al-Qaeda units hasn?t obtained real bomb-making materials. Daryl Kimball, of the Arms Control Association, says, ?It?s good news as far as it goes that they haven?t found anything but this does not mean that al-Qaeda have not taken stuff with them. The idea that al-Qaeda have powerful nuclear weapons has always been far-fetched. Even if they have a small quantity of plutonium and other material, there are still a lot of different engineering processes along the way before they could deliver anything. But there is still a possibility that they are looking to produce some kind of radiological weapon.?

A report to Congress by the National Intelligence Council confirms that real smuggling of nuclear materials has gone on from Russia over the past 10 years. The report says Russian nuclear sites are well protected against an external threat, but wide open to internal theft. Last August, an anonymous military officer said on Russian television that terrorists could easily seize a warhead, because nuclear storage sites are short-staffed, employees badly paid, and the alarm systems operate only half the time.

To learn more about the state of Russian nuclear safety,click here.

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