After a four-year search for hidden atomic facilities in Syria, U.N. officials appeared this week to have finally struck gold: News reports linked a large factory in eastern Syria to a suspected clandestine effort to spin uranium gas into fuel for nuclear bombs.
But after further probing by private researchers, Syria’s mystery plant is looking far less mysterious. A new report concludes that the facility and its thousands of fast-spinning machines were intended to make not uranium, but cloth — a very ordinary cotton-polyester.
“It is, and always has been, a textile factory,” said one of the researchers, Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and publisher of the blog Arms Control Wonk.
Lewis and his colleagues were initially intrigued by news reports that linked Syria’s al-Hasakah Spinning Co. to the country’s clandestine nuclear program, which came to light four years ago when Israeli warplanes bombed a building that turned out to be a partly completed plutonium reactor.
The reports, citing Western diplomats and former U.N. officials, said aerial images of the factory were being intensely studied by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been scouring Syria for evidence of other hidden atomic facilities.
While the al-Hasakah plant clearly is now used as a textile mill, its size and shape caught the attention of nuclear experts. Viewed from the air, the facility closely resembles a uranium enrichment plant designed by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, the one-time head of an international nuclear smuggling ring.
Khan had extensive contacts with Syrian leaders in the 1980s, and some nuclear experts believe he provided them with blueprints for nuclear facilities. U.S. intelligence officials say Syria eventually launched a clandestine nuclear effort centered around the plutonium reactor that was destroyed by Israeli bombs on Sept. 6, 2007. Syria has never acknowledged seeking atomic weapons, and it only recently granted the IAEA limited access to other sites that the agency believes may have been part of its secret nuclear program.
The IAEA has never publicly identified the al-Hasakah factory as part of Syria’s nuclear network, but the renewed focus on the plant prompted Lewis to dig into old records and satellite photos. With help from a European colleague, he traced the facility’s history and eventually located the 62-year-old German engineer who supervised its construction three decades ago.
The engineer appeared mystified by the accounts suggesting that the al-Hasakah plant was originally designed to make enriched uranium. “He burst out, ‘I built that thing!’ ” recalled Lewis’s colleague, German journalist Paul-Anton Krueger, who interviewed the man.
The engineer described how he oversaw the construction of the plant and the installation of 75,000 machines called spindles to spin cotton and polyester into fabric. He said he had last visited the plant in 1991 and “found the factory working rather poorly, but it was still spinning — cotton, and polyester,” Krueger wrote to Lewis in his account of the interview.
To Lewis, the episode underscores the difficulties of ferreting out nuclear secrets using computers and satellite imagery, but it hardly lets Syria off the hook. The search for hidden nuclear sites continues, he said.
“This exonerates the al-Hasakah Spinning Co.,” Lewis said. “I don’t think it exonerates Syria.”