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Is Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal Safe?

Interesting Article: The Ally From Hell By Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder / DC published in The Atlantic December 2011 edition

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine quoted unnamed American military and intelligence officials as saying the U.S. has trained extensively for potential missions in Pakistan to secure nuclear weapons or material that fall into the wrong hands. A statement from Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs termed the cover story of The Atlantic's December 2011 issue "pure fiction, baseless and motivated." Writers Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder wrote that Pakistan is "an obvious place" for militants to seek nuclear weapons or materials because of a weak government and infiltration of its security forces by jihadist sympathizers. The article said U.S. officials have grown increasingly disenchanted with Pakistan efforts to root out sympathizers on its territory, particularly after the May 2 raid by American special forces that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a town about two hours outside of Islamabad home to the country's premier military academy. Since then, Pakistan fears that the Pentagon plans similar raids to forcibly "de-nuclearize" it. The authors, citing unnamed sources, said those fears are valid. The article details contingency plans involving hundreds of U.S. commandos specially trained in securing weapons of mass destruction who would swoop in and disable or seize Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in the event of the collapse of the state or a jihadist coup. That fear explains perhaps the most startling allegation: that Pakistani authorities transport assembled nuclear weapons in civilian vans without heavy security, moving in regular traffic to avoid being noticed. This, the authors said, makes Pakistan's nuclear weapons "vulnerable to theft by jihadists," compromising security in a country where numerous militant organizations of various stripes are believed to be headquartered. So is the Pakistan's nuclear arsenal safe, and if it is not, what organization might have the ability to cause a security issue at a nuclear site?


On Monday USA Today reported that Pakistan is training 8,000 additional people to protect the country's nuclear arsenal, which the U.S. fears could be vulnerable to penetration by Islamist militants at war with the West, the Pakistani military said. Those fears were heightened by The Atlantic news piece that quoted unnamed Pakistani and American officials as saying Pakistan transports nuclear weapons components around the country in delivery vans with little security to avoid detection — a claim denied by Islamabad. Pakistan rarely reveals details about its nuclear program or the security around it. The announcement by the Pakistani military that it is training an additional 8,000 people to protect the nuclear arsenal could be seen as a response to the magazine article. "This (group) comprises hand-picked officers and men, who are physically robust, mentally sharp and equipped with modern weapons and equipment," said the Pakistani military in a written statement Sunday. The statement was released in conjunction with the graduation of 700 of these security personnel. The ceremony was attended by Maj. Gen. Muhammad Tahir, head of security for the Strategic Plans Division — the arm of the Pakistani military tasked with protecting the nuclear arsenal. Despite billions of dollars in American aid, 69% of people in the country view the U.S. as an enemy, according to a poll conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center in June. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. An article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in July estimated that Pakistan has a nuclear weapons stockpile of 90-110 nuclear warheads. Militants have continued their attacks throughout Pakistan. A suicide bomber detonated his explosives Monday as a former government official greeted others outside a mosque in northwestern Pakistan on an important Islamic holiday, killing the official and his guard, police said. The U.S. has increased pressure in recent months on Pakistan to act against militant groups in its territory, especially the Haqqani militant network that has launched brazen attacks against U.S. and other targets in Afghanistan. Washington says the Haqqani network is based in Pakistan's North Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan. The former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, admiral Mike Mullen, said in September that the Haqqani group is a "veritable arm" of the ISI. What makes me believe there might be a genuine threat is that, right after the Mumbai attacks, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) claimed that they had numerous Punjabi recruits, some of whom they claimed, came from the towns and cities that the Pakistan Army recruits their guards from for the nuclear sites. LeT draws its rank and file mainly from the Pakistani state of Punjab. Pakistan's politics, government, military, and other institutions are dominated by the Punjabi elite. Punjabis as a group are holding prominent places of authority in the Pakistani military hierarchy and important institutions. Pakistan is a proven nuclear power with its arsenal increasing with each passing year. How safe are Pakistan's nuclear weapons? In the words of Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who teaches physics at Islamabad's government-run Quaid-i-Azam University, Pakistan's establishment lacks the ability to keep its nuclear weapons safe (claims to the contrary made by the Pakistan Army notwithstanding). Hoodbhoy says, "It seems to me that the Pakistan Army is playing with fire. It knows that these nuclear weapons are ultimately in the hands of their own people and their own people have been affected by decades of radicalization. They may claim that they have personnel reliability tests, but I do not believe that answering questions on a form may indicate his [true] intentions." In recent times, we have seen the infiltration of radicals into the ranks of the army. Militants have even targeted the Police Training Academy in Lahore and Pakistan Army General Headquarters on March 30, 2009, and October 10, 2009, respectively, with inside assistance. LeT has strong bonds with the Pak army, especially the ISI, and continues to enjoy its patronage because LeT has proven itself to be an important instrument to pursue Pakistani interests through terrorist pressure against India. Pak military installations and their leadership are vulnerable to infiltration by radical elements. LeT has remained close to authorities and therefore has the right contacts to arm itself and the militant Islamic supremacists in pursuit of their global agenda. In a report a few years back, during trips to southern Punjab, reporters were repeatedly told that a sophisticated jihadi recruitment network had been developed in the Multan, Bahawalpur, and Dera Ghazi Khan Divisions. The network reportedly exploited worsening poverty in these areas of the province to recruit children into the divisions’ growing Deobandi and Ahl-eHadith madrassa network from which they were indoctrinated into jihadi philosophy, deployed to regional training/indoctrination centers, and ultimately sent to terrorist training camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). During visits to the southern Punjabi cities of Multan and Bahawalpur, reporters’ discussions with religious, political, and civil society leaders were dominated by discussions of the perceived growing extremist threat in Seraiki and Baloch areas in southern and western Punjab. Locals repeatedly stressed that recruitment activities by extremist religious organizations, particularly among young men between the ages of 8 and 15, had increased dramatically in 2008. According to the locals, current recruitment activities generally exploit families with multiple children, particularly those facing severe financial difficulties in light of inflation, poor crop yields, and growing unemployment in both urban and rural areas in the southern and western Punjab. Locals identified three centers reportedly used for this purpose. The most prominent of these is a large complex that ostensibly has been built at Khitarjee. Locals placed this site in Bahawalpur District on the Sutlej River north of the village of Ahmedpur East at the border of the districts of Multan, Bahawalpur, and Lodhran. The second complex is a newly built “”madrassa”" on the outskirts of Bahawalpur city headed by a devotee of Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Maulana Masood Azhar identified only as Maulana Al-Hajii (NFI). The third complex is an Ahl-e-Hadith site on the outskirts of Dera Ghazi Khan city about which very limited information was available. Locals asserted that these sites were primarily used for indoctrination and very limited military/terrorist tactic training. They claimed that following several months of indoctrination at these centers youth were generally sent on to more established training camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and then on to jihad either in FATA, NWFP, or as suicide bombers in settled areas. Many worried that these youth would eventually return to try and impose their extremist version of Islam in the southern and western Punjab and/or to carry out operations in these areas. A jihadi recruiting network relying on Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith religious, charitable, and educational institutions is increasing its work in impoverished districts of southern and western Punjab. Local economic conditions coupled with foreign financing appear to be transforming a traditionally moderate area of the country into a fertile recruiting ground for terrorist organizations. The provincial and federal governments, while fully aware of the problem, appear to fear direct confrontation with these extremist groups. Despite the growing fears of Islamization, the Pakistani Army remains a professional force and is in no immediate danger of falling prey to the forces of radical Islam. There is certainly a greater sensitivity within its rank and file and officer corps towards Pakistan's identity as an Islamic nation. However, the emphasis within the military on Islam is more ideological and inspirational, and not necessarily political. The majority of the Pakistani Army's officers continue to see themselves as good Muslims and competent professionals. Regardless of their social and religious beliefs, these officers are also extremely sensitive to the corporate interests of the military. However, it would be theoretically possible for a rogue military unit or commander to seize highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the two facilities at Kahuta and Golra Sharif, or weapons-grade plutonium from the Khushab research reactor. The troubling factor in this regard is that all three facilities are located in the Punjab, the political, economic, and military heartland of Pakistan. In addition, all three facilities are located deep inside Pakistan. Further, the three facilities are located close to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. The Taliban are a lightly armed militia. They are incapable of deploying artillery, rockets, armor, or combat aircraft against the better organized and trained Pakistani military far away from the Afghan heartland. The Taliban's problems are further compounded by the closure of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Although the Afghan-Pakistan border is highly porous, the mountainous nature of the terrain and closure of key border crossings effectively rules out the use of heavy military equipment by the Taliban for any operations inside Pakistan. In theory, the Taliban could infiltrate Pakistan and launch attacks on nuclear facilities using light weapons and guerilla tactics. However, the small number of these facilities and their location deep inside Pakistan make the task of the attacker more difficult. In this regard, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar has indicated that his government takes the Taliban's threats "very seriously." Other media reports also suggest that the Pakistani government has enhanced the security of its nuclear installations by deploying elite commando units to guard them. The possibility that the Taliban or Taliban-backed militias within Pakistan could seize nuclear weapons is also remote. This is largely because Pakistan has a small nuclear arsenal. According to publicly available sources, Islamabad has an inventory of 585-800kg of HEU, enough to probably build 30-52 fission bombs. In addition, the Khushab research reactor, which became operational in March/April 1998, is capable of producing 10-15kg of weapons-grade plutonium annually. The small number of nuclear warheads and still smaller number of facilities actually used to manufacture fissile material make it simpler for national command authorities to exercise tight centralized control. Other than LeT, I do fear one organization that might have the capability to do so, the Lashkar al-Zil or Shadow Army (also known as Jaish al Usrah, or the Army of the Protective Shield) is a paramilitary organization linked to al Qaeda and descended from the 055 Brigade. According to reporters, it "comprises the Pakistani Taliban, 313 Brigade, the Afghan Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan and former Iraqi Republican Guards". The Lashkar al-Zil has been involved in attacks in Afghanistan's eastern and southern provinces. News reports have linked it to several specific attacks, including the Camp Chapman/CIA base attack (December 30, 2009). The 055 Brigade (or 55th Arab Brigade) was an elite guerrilla organization sponsored and trained by Al Qaeda that was integrated into the Taliban army between 1995 and 2001. It comprised mostly foreign guerrilla fighters (Mujahideen) from the Middle-East, Central Asia and South-East Asia who had some form of combat experience, either fighting the Soviet invasion during the 1980s or elsewhere. Estimates on the strength of the 055 Brigade vary, however it is generally believed that at its peak it comprised somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 personnel. According to the 2005 "Warlords Rising: Confronting Violent Non-State Actors" the 55th Arab Brigade was a mechanized unit. Under the command of Ilyas Kashmiri, its intelligence network's coordination with its special guerrilla action force has changed the dynamics of the Afghan war theater. Instead of traditional guerrilla warfare in which the Taliban have taken most of the casualties, the brigade has resorted to special operations, the one on the CIA base being the latest and one of the most successful. Unlike the Taliban's mostly rag-tag army, Laskhar al-Zil is a sophisticated unit, with modern equipment such as night-vision technology, the latest light weapons and finely honed guerrilla tactics. It has a well-funded intelligence department, much like the Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan had during the resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s when it had access to advance information on the movement of the Red Army. The effectiveness of the Shadow Army can be seen in a video taken by an Al Jazeera reporter during an operation in Loisam in the Bajaur tribal agency in the fall of 2008. The Taliban forces drive off a battalion-sized assault from regular Pakistani Army troops that are supported by at least a platoon of tanks. The Pakistani tanks are seen racing away from the fighting, and the Pakistani infantry moving in behind them does the same after taking fire. The reporter describes the Pakistani tank commander as "quite shaken." The tank commander calls for airstrikes to take out the Taliban positions, but the infantry and tanks go into full retreat and return to base after the Taliban counterattacks. The Pakistani unit involved in the fighting was the 63rd Battalion of the Frontier Force Regiment. This is a regular Army unit, not part of the paramilitary Frontier Corps. I think though, one has to credit Pakistan's Personnel Reliability Programs (PRP) that monitors all the guards at the nuclear sites, the program involves background checks that may take "up to a year", screening and monitoring of family and relatives, investigation of religious background and beliefs to detect "radicalism", probationary monitoring of new employees "for months" before they are granted access to "sensitive areas", monitoring by fellow employees, who issue reports to superiors on personnel reliability, "Periodic" psychological exams, monitoring of the phone activity and travel of top program officials and even repetition of screening process every two years. Overall, I think the nuclear material is safe in Pakistan, but I believe one of the most important concerns of the Pakistani PRP must be identifying religious radicalism among sensitive personnel. The establishment of a true set of PRP best practices will serve as a necessary game plan for the strengthening of these programs in Pakistan, now and in the future.


References:
http://in.reuters.com/article/2011/11/06/idINIndia-60351920111106
http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2011-11-07/pakistan-nuclear-protection/51107786/1
http://www.homeland1.com/domestic-international-terrorism/articles/1172729-Lashkar-e-Taiba-A-threat-beyond-the-India-Pakistan-equation/
http://cns.miis.edu/archive/wtc01/spna.htm
Roggio, Bill (2009-02-09). "Al Qaeda's paramilitary 'Shadow Army'". The Long War Journal. Retrieved 2010-01-07.
Troy S. Thomas, Stephen D. Kiser. Warlords Rising: Confronting Violent Non-State Actors. Google books. p. page 172.
http://www.thediplomatictimesreviewonline.com/2010/01/was-killing-of-cia-agents-in-afghanistan-a-lashkar-al-zil-operation.html
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/LA05Df01.html
http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2009/02/al_qaedas_paramilita.php#ixzz1d7fNhLiN 


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