ZAHEDAN, IRAN—Yaquub Akhtar, the leader of an eight-man cell linked to a terrorist organization known as the Army Of Martyrs, admitted Tuesday that he "doesn't have the slightest clue" what to do with the quarter-kilogram of plutonium he recently acquired.
"We had just given thanks to Allah for this glorious means to destroy the Great Satan once and for all, when [sub-lieutenant] Mahmoud [Ghassan] asked, 'So, what's the next step?'" Akhtar said. "I was at a loss."
The 28-year-old fanatic said he and his associates had initially assumed that at least one member of their group had the physics and engineering background necessary to construct a thermonuclear device.
"Many eyes were upon me," said Basim Aljawad, whose knowledge of physics did not extend to the principles of nuclear fission. "I make nail bombs. That's it."
Not knowing where to turn, the eight men consulted the Muslim holy book the Quran, which proved unhelpful. Said Akhtar: "Even Umar Abd al-Malik, who interprets the ancient scripture more freely than the rest of us, could not find an instructive passage."
Morale was temporarily buoyed when cell member Dawoud Bishr, a former student at the Sorbonne in Paris, was found intently examining the exposed plutonium, which he had lifted from its protective lead footlocker. Two days later, however, the others had to bury Bishr in a landfill outside the city.
Akhtar, in hiding in a small, spartan cellar in one of Zahedan's poorer neighborhoods, said that the only use he's found for the encased lethal substance so far is as a flat surface on which to lay out a map of a government armory outside Islamabad and a large piece of paper to make a blueprint for transferring the plutonium to an effective delivery system.
"I drew a circle to represent the plutonium," Akhtar said. "Then I drew a line pointing to it, and beside it wrote 'plutonium.' After that, I just hit a wall."
Akhtar and his associates initially planned to create a "suitcase bomb," but soon after they obtained the plutonium, they learned that such bombs weigh over 700 pounds, and are therefore too heavy for any of them to lift alone.
Said Akhtar: "The only thing this weapon of mass destruction is destroying right now is our ability to kill infidels."
"I have heard many in the corrupt Western media say that Muslim terrorists have acquired harmful radioactive materials that can be readily deployed," al-Malik said. "Whoever this terrorist group is that's all but ready to strike America with a nuclear device, we sure could use their help."
Unable to search for bomb-making instructions on his laptop for fear of being monitored, Akhtar has been forced to send another of his sub-lieutenants, 23-year-old Ibraheem Jaalal, to a local Internet café in hopes of acquiring the necessary data. According to Jaalal, the process so far has proven "unbearably slow" and "outrageously expensive," claiming he can't believe the coffee shop charges $4.95 for an hour of dial-up-speed Internet use.
The cell's lack of contacts with professional scientists and engineers has also undermined their bomb-building efforts. "A friend of mine at university studied metallurgy," Jaalal said. "I have his e-mail address, but I can't just write him and say, 'Oh, hello, Suleymann, long time no see. Say, I'm a terrorist now, and I was wondering: How do you go about building a nuclear bomb?'"
After three days without progress, the plutonium, once a source of pride for Akhtar and the other men, has increasingly become a fountain of frustration.
"I guess we got carried away with the idea of making a nuclear weapon before thinking the whole thing through," said Akhtar, who admitted that even if he "could bombard that plutonium nuclei with enough electrons, whatever those are," getting the bomb to North America would prove another logistical mess.
"I still believe in taking the lives of American civilians as revenge for the atrocities committed on our brothers, our wives, and our daughters," Akhtar said. "I'm just not entirely sure it's worth a headache this big."