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Pakistan nuclear terror: an interview with Stanford's Scott Sagan

Interview: A leading expert on South Asian nuclear security discusses the risks of terrorists seizing materials from Pakistan's arsenal.

I wouldn't state that it's a virtual blueprint, but it shows that there's a serious risk of an Al Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban attack on a military base and the Pakistani military must train and take that mission very seriously. It's all the more reason that we want India-Pakistani relations to stay calm, so we can keep the Pakistani weapons in a well guarded and protected storage site inside the bases.

What about the scenario of a radicalized insider helping to seize nuclear materials for terrorists? With 8,000 to 12,000 people in the Pakistani nuclear program, how likely do you think this scenario is?

I don't think anyone can provide an accurate estimate in terms of the probability of insider threats. What we do know is that the Pakistanis have learned about the personnel reliability programs that the United States has put into place at our nuclear weapons facilities. Indeed, a number of years ago, after the Pakistani foreign minister was briefed on such programs by an American academic team from Stanford University, the Pakistani military responded by saying that they're going to study and develop such personnel reliability programs [which are essentially screening operations to ensure the stability and trustworthiness of people working at nuclear facilities]. He also said they would develop emergency search teams to get a weapon back if they're ever stolen.

So they're aware of these problems, and they're very sensitive to them, but how effective those systems are in a radicalized country? We don't know the details, and we have to hope that the Pakistanis are taking it very seriously.

Clearly in the past, they had many more radical jihadi sympathizers within the ranks of the military. After 9/11, when President Pervez Musharraf decided to support the United States, many of those people were purged from the ISI [Pakistan's spy service] and the military. Those people were called long-beards — they were they guys who didn't shave, they didn't have the British clean-shaven with a mustache look that the Pakistani military often has. These days, you can't recognize a long-beard ideological sympathizer because they can shave their beards. So we presume there are ongoing personnel reliability programs to identify who might be susceptible to bribery or ideological empathy inside the Pakistani military.

But 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.

Should the latest attack in Karachi make us more concerned about the possibility of extremists trying to seize a nuclear device?

It and the attack on the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi show that terrorist groups can mount a serious military operation, not just suicide bombings. So it is very disturbing. This should increase what's called the design basis threat, used by the Pakistani military. All organizations trying to protect sensitive technology have to develop the threat against which to measure their security. The reasonable level of security depends on the threat. And clearly those attacks demonstrated that Pakistani Taliban are capable of launching a significant attack.

According to a recent Newsweek report, Pakistanis are working on a fourth nuclear reactor, enabling the country's weapons program to grow at an even faster pace than it currently is. Does this add to the threat of a security breach?

Yes. More sites and more materials mean that there are more individuals who could be potential insider threats. And more sites that have to be protected.

In addition to the possibility of new materials at an additional reactor, the Paksitani military has reportedly started flight tests of a new missile, the NASR, or the HATF-9, which the Pakistani military has announced will be a short-range missile that could carry nuclear warheads. According to retired Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, the director of the strategic plans division, the HAFT-9 is a quick-response system — necessary, he said, to deter evolving threats. I think what he's referring to here is India's "cold start doctrine," which is an Indian conventional military option to respond to a Pakistani provocation, like another Mumbai attack, by sending conventional forces quickly into Pakistani territory.

General Kidwai's statement suggests that these short-range missiles would carry nuclear warheads and could be used to try to deter the Indians from launching such an attack and having such an attack go deeply inside Pakistan and create vulnerabilities.

The danger here is partly that both sides might misunderstand each other and that escalation could occur. It is also that this kind of short-range system must be put on a missile launcher outside military bases. These are mobile trucks carrying the missile with a nuclear warhead. If the Pakistanis are trying to deter India from crossing the border or the international line of control in Kashmir by deploying those kinds of nuclear forces, the HAFT-9 might have some deterrent effect on the Indian military, but that's exactly the kind of Pakistani nuclear force operation that raises the risks of a terrorist seizing a weapon, either through a direct attack or through an insider cooperating with militants.

Pakistan can already destroy major Indian cities. Why isn't that enough? Why does it need to grow its weapons capacity so quickly?

Do I think Pakistan needs to expand their nuclear forces to provide a credible deterrent? My answer would be, no. But it really doesn't matter what Americans or Western officials think. What matters is what the Pakistani military believes is necessary for the sake of deterrence. They seem to be indicating by their behavior that they believe expanding their arsenal is necessary.

And finally, what should the U.S. be doing that it's not doing already?

I believe that we should continue to engage the Pakistani military authorities and especially civilian authorities including those in the Atomic Energy Commission of Pakistan about what are the best practices that we and others in the international community use to protect fissile materials.

There are threats of terrorist attacks not just in Pakistan but around the world, and the international community has developed — through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Institute for Nuclear Security — sets of best practices that can be useful for Pakistan and for us. I think it can be useful to continue and heighten the dialogues about what we've done and others have done to protect our own nuclear materials from potential terrorist seizure, and learn therefore what Pakistan might be able to do themselves.

It has some very unusual aspects to its security challenge because of their own use of terrorists against India, but Pakistan is not alone in facing this threat. We need to share our best practices with each other, and we could learn from each other in that regard.

Read more GlobalPost coverage of Pakistan’s nuclear risks.

Follow David Case on Twitter: @DavidCaseReport