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What do we know about Egypt's arsenal?

By Robert Windrem
NBC News investigative producer for special projects

NBC News has obtained more than a dozen documents from the United States, Russia and Israel that shed some light on several Egyptian weapons of mass destruction programs, including its nuclear potential and details of a joint North Korean-Egyptian missile development agreement.

The documents, stretching back two decades, reveal an Egyptian commitment to research and development of WMDs, the acronym for weapons of mass destruction that thrust itself into the common lexicon during the Iraq war. They also reveal that Cairo is interested in nuclear and radiological weapons, though the extent of that interest is far from clear.

The U.S. has long known about but tolerated because of Egypt’s central role in both the Middle East peace talks and counterterrorism. To quote one congressional expert on arms proliferation, "If they were any other Arab state, we would be all over them every day on these issues."

Related story: Concerns grow over Egypt's WMD research

At the same time, U.S., Israeli and Russian officials have expressed concerns that the Egyptian weapons programs — particularly its missile expertise – has the potential to destabilize the relative peace that has reigned in the Middle East for several decades. Despite these concerns, the officials say, Egypt has continued to work on many of these programs.

Egyptians have defended its development of WMDs as a necessary counterbalance to Israel's weapons capabilities, which are daunting even to the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state. With an estimated 200 nuclear warheads — bigger than Great Britain’s arsenal — and 100 medium-range missiles, Israel is in a world of diminishing nuclear programs, a regional superpower — at least.

Here is a breakdown on the Egyptian programs, drawn from the U.S., Russian and Israeli documents, all of which were either publicly disseminated or declassified under the Freedom of Information Act: 

Nuclear proliferation
The most revealing document in the trove is a Jan. 28, 1993, report by the Foreign Intelligence Service, the KGB's successor organization. The report, titled “Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” was issued at a time of extraordinary public openness in Russia and has not been updated since.

The report stated that while Egypt had "no special program of military-applied research in the nuclear sphere" at the time, it had made significant advances on nuclear technology.

Among other things, it said Egypt had:

  • Built a research reactor at Inshas, north of Cairo, built with help from Argentina.
  • Contracted with Russia to supply a MGD-20 cyclotron accelerator, which would be helpful in exploring uranium enrichment technologies.
  • Begun construction of a facility at its Inshas research center that “in its design features and engineering protection could in the future be used to obtain weapons-grade plutonium from the uranium irradiated in the research reactors."

In addition, NBC News obtained a U.S. Customs Service account of a debriefing of an Egyptian-American spy, Abdel Kadr Helmy. Helmy, who was jailed in the 1980s for trying to obtain various missile technologies  including Pershing-II guidance packages – said in the interviews that Egypt had an active nuclear weapons development program that included sending uranium to Pakistan for enrichment to bomb-grade levels. He also said that an Egyptian Brigadier General, Ahmad Nashet, ran both the civilian nuclear establishment in Cairo as well as the nascent bomb program.

Helmy subsequently disavowed the claim, and Egypt has steadfastly denied interest in nuclear weapons.

Chemical weapons
The Egyptians are also interested in chemical weapons. Specifically, the FIS document notes: "Techniques of the production of nerve-paralyzing and blister-producing toxic agents have been assimilated."

Furthermore, the FIS said, "There is information to the effect that Egypt is displaying interest in purchases overseas of warheads intended for filling with liquid chemical warfare agents. The stockpiles of toxic substances available at this time are insufficient for broad-based operations, but the industrial potential would permit the development of the additional production in a relatively short time." It may be that the warheads the Russians discussed were ultimately bound for Iraq. 

Biological weapons
Similarly, the Egyptians have a biological weapons program, according to statements from the FIS, the CIA and the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency dating back to the 1990s.

"At the start of the 1970s," the FIS report stated, "President Sadat confirmed this, announcing the presence in Egypt of a stockpile of biological agents stored in refrigerating plants. Toxins of varying nature are being studied and techniques for their production and refinement are being developed at the present time in a (unnamed) national research center."

In response to a question during a congressional hearing on WMD proliferation on Feb. 24, 1993, CIA Director R. James Woolsey confirmed that Egypt is counted as a nation with biological weapons capability.

And in three annual reports to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 1995, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency has used the same language to assess the Egyptian program: "The United States believes that Egypt had developed biological agents by 1972. There is no evidence to indicate that Egypt has eliminated this capability and it remains likely that the Egyptian capability to conduct biological warfare continues to exist."

What is intriguing about these reports is that, unlike a similar report in 1994, they did not include this sentence: "The United States however has not, however, obtained recent information on this program" — the implication being that the U.S. did receive information about the program starting in 1995, though it’s not clear what that information was.

The area where Egypt excels is in missile development.

The FIS report noted: "By 1990, Egypt's missile forces were armed with a regiment each of Soviet Scud-B (with a range of 300 kilometers) and Frog 7 (70 km) transporter-erector-launchers and also a certain quantity of Sakr 80 and Sakr 365 Egyptian-Iraqi-North Korean short-range missiles. It is technically possible to fit the Scud and Frog warheads with chemical weapons.”

The report also noted that China had reached an agreement with Egypt to assist in modernizing a manufacturing plant to build “new modifications of the Scud B-class missiles and three domestic types of Egyptian surface-to-surface missiles."

A 1992 Israeli Defense Forces memorandum on Mideast missile programs provided this appraisal of the Egyptian program aimed at acquiring and supporting ground-to-ground missiles, or GGM in weapons-speak:

"During the 1950s, and aided by German Nazi scientists, a concerted effort was made to build factories which would manufacture missiles,” it said. “This effort continued over the years; at present the Egyptian army diverts resources to this endeavor.”

The memo said that the Egyptian program was focused on the Scud, and that North Korea was its main ally. In the early 1980s, it said, North Korea bought tens of Russian-made medium-range Scud-B missiles from the Egyptians and, in exchange, helped the Egyptians set up the infrastructure for missile production and assembly. The Egyptian factories are said to have begin active production in 1993.

An even bigger concern among foreign intelligence services is the medium-range Condor II missile program, a joint project of Egypt, Argentina and Iraq.

In congressional testimony on April 18, 1991, U.S. Customs Service agent Daniel Burns stated that Abdelkader Helmy, the Egyptian-American rocket scientist who had pleaded guilty to helping Egypt obtain equipment and material for the Condor-II missile discussed with him several projects, including an “Egyptian effort to develop a nuclear warhead, including the Cobalt-60 effort and the purchase of uranium from France."

Helmy’s statement is of particular concern as Cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope that could be used in a radiological or "dirty" bomb, which disperses radioactive material on detonation.

As stated above, Helmy later disavowed the statement and returned to Egypt. Egypt has denied any interest in nuclear weapons.