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Is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal vulnerable to terrorists?

Analysis: The deteriorating US-Pakistani alliance shakes up a volatile cocktail of instability, extremism and plutonium.

Pakistan nuclear safe 2011 6 13Enlarge
A member of the Pakistani navy stands guard outside the Mehran naval air base in Karachi on May 24, 2011. A siege on the major naval base in the heart of Pakistan's biggest city took 17 hours to quell. (Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: this article is part of "Too Dangerous to Fail," an occasional series on nuclear security issues in Pakistan and beyond.

BOSTON — Pakistan, it appears, badly flubbed its role as America’s key partner in the global manhunt for Osama bin Laden.

The incident raises a critical question: can a government implicated in such profound incompetence or duplicitousness be trusted to safeguard the world from a nuclear catastrophe?

The stakes couldn’t be much higher. Pakistan is volatile cocktail of instability, extremism and nuclear warheads. While Western leaders routinely pay lip service to Islamabad’s efforts to safeguard its deadly weapons, the truth is that the U.S.-Pakistani alliance is marred by mistrust and ideological differences. As a result, the U.S. knows little about where the nukes are and whether they are well-protected.

As relations deteriorate, recent events add evidence to what U.S. officials have long alleged: that elements within the Pakistani government cooperate with international jihadi networks. Meanwhile, these networks appear increasingly sophisticated in their ability to infiltrate and attack the Pakistani military, the stewards of the world’s most vulnerable nuclear arsenal.

“Clearly some Pakistani security maintain connections to jihadis ... Whether that could become the Frankenstein monster that turns on the doctors remains to be seen.”
~Scott Sagan, Stanford professor

As such, the risk of terrorists grabbing Pakistani plutonium for a dirty bomb or nuclear explosion in a major city lurks as one of the world’s biggest threats, and the Obama administration lacks options to do much about it.

In recent years, Pakistan has launched a nuclear surge. Its arsenal — already twice the size of China’s, and more than adequate to level India’s cities — is the world’s fastest growing, poised to surpass France’s within the next decade. Last month, Newsweek published satellite photos that showed yet another new reactor under construction at its main weapons-plant. This fourth reactor will enable Pakistan to produce enough plutonium for 19 to 26 new bombs a year, according to the Institute for Science and International Security.

We also know that terrorists would like to get hold of bomb-grade material, either to use as a dirty bomb or to detonate in a Western capital. They only need about 11 pounds of plutonium to make a bomb as powerful as the one that decimated Hiroshima. That’s a small fraction of Pakistan’s annual production, and an amount that’s smaller than a grapefruit.

U.S. security officials remain concerned about the risk. Last week, CIA chief Leon Panetta told a Senate committee that the nukes worry him, “because of the danger [they] could end up in the wrong hands.” Underscoring the troubled relationship, on Friday, Panetta flew to Pakistan to confront generals with evidence of collusion between their officers and Taliban militants. 

Likewise, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a 2008 speech, “To the best of my ability to understand it — and that is some ability — the weapons there are secure. ... [but] there are limits to what I know. Certainly at a worse-case scenario with respect to Pakistan, I worry a great deal about those weapons falling onto the hands of terrorists and either being proliferated or potentially used.”

On a reassuring note, it’s important to remember that Al Qaeda’s leadership has suffered numerous recent setbacks, with the killing of bin Laden, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (architect of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings) and Ilyas Kashmiri (implicated in the 2008 Mumbai attack). Moreover, much of what the group has done in recent years has shown signs of genuine ineptitude — take, for example, the 2009 Christmas day underwear bomber and the 2010 Times Square car bomber.  

Indeed, some Western experts caution against panicking. “Nuclear terrorism is a serious threat, but reporting on this issue can be rather alarmist,” said Eric Auner, Policy Analyst for Nuclear Security at the American Security Project, a Washington think tank. “The Pakistani military … has a lot of incentives to protect the country’s nuclear assets. The weapons are the ultimate insurance policy against aggression from India. Pakistan would have much to lose if a terrorist group managed to use nuclear materials of Pakistani origin,” Auner wrote in an email to GlobalPost.

The insider threat

Pakistan vehemently denies the possibility of nukes escaping their hardened security measures. But analysts worry about two scenarios through which they could fall into the wrong hands: either quietly via a radicalized insider, or through an assault by a highly-sophisticated outsider.

The insider threat is considered more likely. An estimated 8,000 to 12,000 people work on Pakistan’s nuclear program, so there are plenty of opportunities for well-organized terrorists to get inside the door. Although only a smaller number have real access, it’s not hard to imagine that someone senior enough to do real damage could be persuaded to cooperate.

There is, in fact, precedent. Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, the former head of Pakistan’s plutonium program, became radicalized while working on the weapons program. In the latter years of his service, he shocked colleagues by telling them he wished to share Pakistan’s bomb with Muslims intent on making Islam the world’s dominant religious force, according to a NY Times report. He was forced to resign in 1999. Two years later, just as Al Qaeda was making final preparations for its attack on the U.S., he met with Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Times reported. He was later arrested. (He was never prosecuted, probably to protect nuclear secrets; instead he’s been kept at home under tight surveillance, as has A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, who shared technology with North Korea, Libya and Iran).

To counter the threat of a secretly-hostile insider, Pakistan has been exposed to the “personnel reliability programs” that the U.S. uses — essentially, screening operations to ensure the stability and trustworthiness of people working at nuclear facilities — according to Scott Sagan, a Stanford professor who co-directs the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Global Nuclear Future Project. It’s difficult to know whether this has worked, however. “How effective [are] those programs in a radicalized country? We don’t know the details, so we need to hope that the Pakistanis are taking it very seriously,” Sagan said in a GlobalPost interview.

Read a GlobalPost interview with Scott Sagan.

In the past, when the country’s nuclear program was smaller, Sagan noted that Pakistan’s military had many more jihadi sympathizers, operating openly in its ranks. “They called them long-beards,” he said. Military brass encouraged religious devotion among officers in the 1970s and 80s, and in accordance with the conservative Muslim tradition, they didn’t shave. After 9/11, then-President Pervez Musharraf reportedly removed dozens of long-beards from the officer corps. These days, of course, it’s more difficult to recognize the radicals, and it’s impossible to know how many remain in the ranks.

Events in recent weeks have bolstered the evidence that there are powerful insiders in Pakistan’s government acting against the interests of the U.S.

In April, Chicago prosecutors quietly indicted a major in Pakistan’s spy agency for helping to plot the murders of six Americans as part of the November 2008 terror attacks that killed 166 people in Mumbai, India, many of them at the Taj Hotel — a bastion of wealthy foreign guests.

In mid-May, David Coleman Headley, a confessed Pakistani-American terrorist, delivered five days of testimony to a Chicago court describing “a close alliance between Pakistan's intelligence service and the Lashkar-i-Taiba terrorist group,” according to ProPublica.  It was the Lashkar-i-Taiba that was deemed responsible for carrying out the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

While there’s no indication that terrorists have gotten close to Pakistan’s nukes, these cases show that the country is failing to keep its anti-Western radicals away from the levers of lethal power. As Sagan put it, “clearly some in the Pakistani [security forces] still maintain interest in and connections to jihadis, because they are utilizing some of them for [Pakistan’s] conflict with India. Whether that could become the Frankenstein monster that turns on the doctors who think they’re controlling it remains to be seen.”

A snatch and run operation

And what about the threat of nukes being seized through an attack by very capable outsiders, or by jihadis who are both sophisticated and who benefit from inside information?

Pakistani nuclear expert Brig. (retired) Shaukat Qadir told the BBC that highly trained troops would find it almost impossible to storm the country’s nuke facilities. The weapons are located hundreds of feet under ground, and their whereabouts are protected by intense secrecy, Qadir said. According to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report, the sites are protected by a force of 10,000 troops, commanded by a two-star general. Since 9/11, some of them have reportedly received military training in the U.S.

But consider the events of May 22, when six militants attacked the PNS Mehran naval air station in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.