by Gordon Thomas

The world's Terror Network has been given a new weapon. It can overcome the most stringent of airport and airline security checks. Far more lethal than Semtex, it can be smuggled with virtual impunity from one country to another, one terrorist cell to another.

For the 80 terror groups listed on the computers of the CIA, MI5, MI6 and Germany's BND, the weapon once more tips the scales in their favour. It is a new type of plastic explosive that was used by the two young British radical Muslims in last week's suicide bomb attack on the club in Tel Aviv. Three were killed and 50 injured. One of the suicide bombers escaped, leaving behind some explosive. After a week of intensive investigation by chemists at Israel's ultra-secret research centre in the Tel Aviv suburb of Nes Ziona, its lethal qualities and country of background have been discovered. It was at the centre, in one of the most guarded places on earth, the explosive was analysed behind two-feet thick dun-coloured concrete walls and bombproof sliding doors. The conclusion of the scientists sent a collective shock wave through the intelligence community.

The Israeli experts concluded that the explosives were manufactured in the laboratories of ZDF, one of China's leading military defence contractors. The first hint that China was working on a new type of explosive had come in March, 2001, when a top-ranking Chinese defector, Senior Colonel Xu Junping in the China's People Liberation Army and one of the nation's leading military strategists, had defected to the United States and was personally debriefed by CIA director George Tenet. So important was the debriefing that President Bush had authorised his closest aide, Condoleeza Rice, to sit in.

Over several days Xu detailed the work that was being done to create the explosives in the ZDF laboratories situated some 60km to the west of Beijing. He also detailed how China had secretly been helping rogue states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea. But, most critical of all, he outlined China's contacts with terror groups - through its powerful intelligence services: Military Intelligence Department (MID) and its Science and Technology Department (STD).

Employing some 5,000 field agents and defences analysts, both agencies operate globally. They are supported by satellite surveillance and state-of-the-art equipment. Xu told the CIA that part of the work of the two services was to maintain contact with not only terror groups in the Middle East, but also those in the Philippines, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. But what astonished the CIA was Xu's revelations of Chinese intelligence contacts in Colombia with FARC, in Spain with ETA, in Peru with Shining Path.

In the past year, MI5 have also picked up hints that Chinese agents have had contacts with extreme Islamic groups in London and the East Midlands. M J Gohel, a terrorism and security expert with the prestigious Asia-Pacific Foundation in London, said there was an "urgent need to grasp the reality of the situation".

Now, two years after Xu's revelation, intelligence services are bracing themselves to confront this latest weapon of choice for terrorists. The Chinese explosive is so sophisticated it even escaped detection by Israel's ultra-vigilant border controls. Mossad has now established that the two British suicide bombers smuggled in their explosive from Jordan. It had arrived there from Pakistan - whose intelligence service has had long and close links to China's.

CIA agents have established that, in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, it was from Pakistan that Osama bin Laden made three separate visits to Beijing. Each time he was accompanied by China's Ambassador to that country and the head of Pakistan's powerful and many-tentacled intelligence service, PIS. Bin Laden made those visits to Beijing prior to the 9/11 attacks. He had gone to organise a defence contract for the Taliban worth $1 billion.

"We now believe that during those visits he was appraised of the progress with the new explosives", said a senior Mossad source in Tel Aviv. He agreed there "is a very strong possibility" that al Quaeda had been provided with a quantity of the explosive - a tiny portion of which had been given to the two British suicide bombers. "Following the attack in Tel Aviv, airports and airlines around the world are urgently looking at security again. This takes terrorism into a new dimension", an MI5 source said in London. Already Israeli military censors have placed a news blackout on all local media reporting any details about the new explosive. But speaking under a guarantee of anonymity, one source did say that the "explosive is far lighter and easier to conceal than previous kinds. It makes Semtex look outdated. This has tipped the scale back in favour of the terrorist".

Gordon Thomas is the author of Mossad: La Historia Secreta (Ediciones-B).

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