At 11 p.m. on Sept. 5, 2007, 10 F-15 fighter bombers climbed into the sky from the Israeli military base Ramat David, just south of Haifa. They headed for the Mediterranean Sea, officially for a training mission. A half hour later, three of the planes were ordered to return to base while the others changed course, heading over Turkey toward the Syrian border. There, they eliminated a radar station with electronic jamming signals and, after 18 more minutes, reached the city of Deir al-Zor, located on the banks of the Euphrates River. Their target was a complex of structures known as Kibar, just east of the city. The Israelis fired away, completely destroying the factory using Maverick missiles and 500 kilogram bombs.
The pilots returned to base without incident and Operation Orchard was brought to a successful conclusion. In Jerusalem, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his closest advisors were in a self-congratulatory mood, convinced as they were that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was seeking to build a nuclear weapon and that Kibar was the almost-completed facility where that construction was to take place. They believed that their dangerous operation had saved the world from immense harm.
But they also wanted to prevent the situation from escalating, which is why they didn't even inform the US of their plan prior to the bombing run. Olmert only called Washington once the operation had been completed. Orchard was also to remain secret in Israel so as to avoid anything that smacked of triumphalism. Nor did they want it to become known that North Korean nuclear experts had been spotted in Deir al-Zor helping out with the construction of the reactor. They hoped to provide Assad an opportunity to play down the incident and to abstain from revenge attacks.
And that is in fact what happened. Assad complained about the violation of Syrian airspace and the bombing of a “warehouse,” but the official version also claimed that the Syrian air force chased away the attackers. The public at the time did not learn what had really taken place.
Now, secret information obtained by SPIEGEL indicates that the world is once again being misled by Assad. Syria's dictator has not given up his dream of an atomic weapon and has apparently built a new nuclear facility at a secret location. It is an extremely unsettling piece of news.
Suspicious Uranium Particles
Back in 2007, it proved impossible to completely quell rumors about the mysterious building complex in the desert and its possible military purpose. In contrast to Israel and Pakistan, Syria is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and is thus committed to using nuclear power only for peaceful purposes. And the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna demanded access to the site. In June 2008, Assad finally gave in to the IAEA's pressure and experts under the leadership of Olli Heinonen, a native of Finland, were allowed to inspect the destroyed Kibar facility.
Map: The site of a possible new nuclear facility in Syria.
It quickly became apparent that Damascus had done everything it could to destroy all traces of what had been going on there. But the atomic detectives from the IAEA were nevertheless able to find suspicious uranium particles — a discovery that the Syrian government sought to explain away as a potential act of sabotage. Though the IAEA noted that its investigation did not turn up definitive proof, the organization requested access to three other facilities due to ongoing suspicions. The IAEA suspected that the trio of nuclear sites may be connected to Kibar, particularly the suspected enrichment facility Marj as-Sultan, located 15 kilometers north of Damascus. The Syrians refused, angered by what they called “unfounded defamation.”
A clear picture of the background of the Israeli operation and the details of the commando raid was only made possible by a precise reconstruction by SPIEGEL in 2009, assembled following interviews with political leaders, nuclear experts and secret service experts. Assad, to be sure, denied having nuclear ambitions in a 2009 interview with SPIEGEL, saying: “We want a nuclear-free Middle East, Israel included.” But the IAEA investigation report in May 2011 and a story in the New Yorker in 2012 made it clear even to skeptics that Syria had been playing with fire. “The Agency concludes that the destroyed building was very likely a nuclear reactor,” the IAEA report notes with uncharacteristic clarity.
Afterward, all activity ceased at the destroyed site, as shown by regularly analyzed satellite images of the area. But did that mean that the Israeli attack really brought an end to all Syrian plans for the development of a bomb?
Continued Pursuit of the Bomb
The factory had been on the verge of completion and many observers believed at the time that there could be a secret cache of fuel, at least enough for a year, standing by. According to IAEA research, Syria possesses up to 50 tons of natural uranium, enough material for three to five bombs once the enrichment procedure is completed.
The Institute for Science and International Security in Washington D.C. likewise has strong indications for the existence of such stockpiles and expressed its concern in September 2013. “This large stock of natural uranium metal poses nuclear proliferation risks,” the institute wrote. “It could be obtained by organizations such as Hezbollah or al-Qaida or undeclared nuclear programs of states such as Iran.”
According to findings of Western intelligence agencies, however, the situation is much more explosive than previously assumed. Based on documents that SPIEGEL has in its possession, the agencies are convinced that Assad is continuing in his efforts to build the bomb.
Analysts say that the Syrian atomic weapon program has continued in a secret, underground location. According to information they have obtained, approximately 8,000 fuel rods are stored there. Furthermore, a new reactor or an enrichment facility has very likely been built at the site — a development of incalculable geopolitical consequences.
Some of the uranium was apparently hidden for an extended period at Marj as-Sultan near Damascus, a site that the IAEA likewise views with suspicion. Satellite images from December 2012 and February 2013 show suspicious activity at Marj as-Sultan. The facility, located not far from a Syrian army base, had become the focal point of heavy fighting with rebels. Government troops had to quickly move everything of value. They did so, as intelligence officials have been able to reconstruct, with the help of Hezbollah, the radical Shiite “Party of God” based in Lebanon. The well-armed militia, which is largely financed by Iran, is fighting alongside Assad's troops.
Intelligence agency findings indicate that the material was moved to a well-hidden underground location just west of the city of Qusayr, not even two kilometers from the border with Lebanon. They managed the move just in time. Marj as-Sultan ultimately did fall to the rebels, but has since been retaken by government troops.
Since then, experts have been keeping a close eye on the site outside of Qusayr, one which they had largely ignored before, believing it to be a conventional Hezbollah weapons depot. Analysts compared earlier satellite images and carefully noted even the slightest of changes. Soon, it became clear to them that they had happened upon an extremely disconcerting discovery.
According to intelligence agency analysis, construction of the facility began back in 2009. The work, their findings suggest, was disguised from the very beginning, with excavated sand being disposed of at various sites, apparently to make it more difficult for observers from above to tell how deeply they were digging. Furthermore, the entrances to the facility were guarded by the military, which turned out to be a necessary precaution. In the spring of 2013, the region around Qusayr saw heavy fighting. But the area surrounding the project in the mines was held, despite heavy losses suffered by elite Hezbollah units stationed there.
The most recent satellite images show six structures: a guard house and five sheds, three of which conceal entrances to the facility below. The site also has special access to the power grid, connected to the nearby city of Blosah. A particularly suspicious detail is the deep well which connects the facility with Zaita Lake, four kilometers away. Such a connection is unnecessary for a conventional weapons cache, but it is essential for a nuclear facility.
But the clearest proof that it is a nuclear facility comes from radio traffic recently intercepted by a network of spies. A voice identified as belonging to a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary can be heard referring to the “atomic factory” and mentions Qusayr. The Hezbollah man is clearly familiar with the site. And he frequently provides telephone updates to a particularly important man: Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.
The Hezbollah functionary mostly uses a codename for the facility: “Zamzam,” a word that almost all Muslims know. According to tradition, Zamzam is the well God created in the desert for Abraham's wife and their son Ishmael. The well can be found in Mecca and is one of the sites visited by pilgrims making the Hajj. Those who don't revere Zamzam are not considered to be true Muslims.
North Korean Expert in Syria?
Work performed at the site by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard is also mentioned in the intercepted conversations. The Revolutionary Guard is a paramilitary organization under the direct control of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It controls a large part of the Iranian economy and also plays a significant role in Iran's own nuclear activities. Not all of its missions abroad are cleared with the government of moderate President Hassan Rohani. The Revolutionary Guard is a state within a state.
Experts are also convinced that North Korea is involved in Zamzam as well. Already during the construction of the Kibar facility, Ibrahim Othman worked closely together with Chou Ji Bu, an engineer who built the nuclear reactor Yongbyon in North Korea.
Chou was long thought to have disappeared. Some thought that he had fallen victim to a purge back home. Now, though, Western intelligence experts believe that he went underground in Damascus. According to the theory, Othman never lost contact with his shady acquaintance. And experts believe that the new nuclear facility could never have been built without North Korean know-how. The workmanship exhibited by the fuel rods likewise hints at North Korean involvement.
What approach will now be taken to Zamzam? How will the West, Assad and Syria's neighbors react to the revelations?
The discovery of the presumed nuclear facility will not likely be welcomed by any of the political actors. It is an embarrassment for everybody. For Syria and North Korea, both of which have periodically sought to shed their images as international pariahs. For Hezbollah, which hopes to emerge as Lebanon's strongest political power.
A New Assessment
But the new development also comes at an uncomfortable time for the US government. Despite all official denials, Washington is currently operating in the region more-or-less in concert with Assad in the fight against the Islamist terrorist militia Islamic State. Furthermore, following the well-monitored and largely efficient destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, the US, Britain and France all believed that Assad's ability to wage unconventional warfare had been eliminated. The possible development of a Syrian atomic weapon, should it be confirmed, would necessarily lead to a new assessment of the situation.
The discovery presents a particularly difficult dilemma to Israel. The country has, to be sure, continued to bomb Hezbollah supply lines, but it apparently knew nothing of a possible new nuclear facility. Israeli leaders would be faced with the impossible decision between ignoring Zamzam or undertaking an extremely risky attack against a facility built deep underground. In contrast to 2007, bunker buster bombs would be required, with unforeseeable consequences for the environment. It would be an irresponsible decision, but one which Israeli hardliners could ultimately make.
The international monitors in Vienna also don't look good, with IAEA boss Yukiya Amano having been deceived by Assad. In September 2014, the Japanese national urged “Syria to cooperate fully with the agency in connection with all unresolved issues.” He hasn't yet received a reply. A sanction of last resort would be that of expelling Syria from the IAEA, an unlikely step given that Moscow continues to protect Assad, in the IAEA as in the United Nations.
Islamic State recently invited IAEA inspectors to investigate in areas under their control. The terror organization conquered the area around Deir al-Zor several months ago and offered the IAEA the opportunity to have another look around the Kibar facility. But the Vienna-based organization declined, not wanting to provide Islamic State with any kind of legitimacy.
Plus, Deir al-Zor is no longer the focal point. The international experts in Vienna now find themselves confronted with new challenges across the country on the border with Lebanon.