Terror Strikes Hint at Pakistani Nuke Security Gaps: Expert

Recent extremist strikes on several armed forces sites in Pakistan indicate the nation might not be capable of protecting its nuclear weapons and related assets from a direct attack, a British analyst wrote in a journal article published this month (see GSN, June 13).

“A frontal assault on nuclear weapons storage facilities, which are the most robustly defended elements of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons cycle, is no longer an implausible event,” the National Post on Tuesday quoted Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, as stating (see GSN, July 21, 2009).

“As the number of nuclear weapons facilities grows, and the number of those with access to nuclear weapons or related components rises, the complex challenge of assuring the security of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons components will become ever more difficult,” the expert said.

Islamabad's pursuit of a twofold nuclear arsenal expansion in recent years has significantly increased the stockpile's exposure to extremists, Gregory wrote in the article published in Sentinel, the publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (see GSN, May 16). Pakistan has produced between 12 and 15 new nuclear weapons on an annual basis since 2007 or 2008, Gregory said.

Gregory said up to 70,000 individuals in Pakistan are familiar with or directly involved in manufacturing, holding, sustaining or fielding the country's nuclear weapons.

“Some may be willing to collude in various ways with terrorists,” he wrote in his analysis, "Terrorist Tactics in Pakistan Threaten Nuclear Weapons Safety."

Gregory said al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have increasingly asserted their presence over the past several years in regions hosting the bulk of the country's atomic assets: its northern and western sectors and the vicinities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Pakistani originally chose locations it believed offered superior protection against potential military incursions by neighboring rival India.

Eight people were killed in a 2007 suicide bombing at a nuclear missile holding site south of the Pakistani capital, according to Gregory. Suicide bombers in 2008 attacked entry points at Pakistan's Kamra air base -- a suspected nuclear weapons holding site -- and a Wah Cantonment facility thought to be involved in putting nuclear weapons together.

A militant siege last month on the Mehran Naval Station in Karachi raises even greater concern, Gregory said, noting that the 10 gunmen involved in the strike had apparently been aware of the placement of surveillance cameras at the facility (see GSN, May 24). Extremists mounted a comparable assault in 2009 against a top army site in Rawalpindi, he said (see GSN, Oct. 13, 2009).

“The modalities of this attack add up to a virtual blueprint for a successful attack on a nuclear weapons facility,” the expert wrote.

Extremists in Pakistan have demonstrated their ability to breach multiple protective measures and mislead security forces by disguising themselves as military personnel, driving in correctly tagged automobiles and falsifying personal documents, Gregory said. In addition, militants have proven to be familiar with the knowledge and procedures of Pakistan's armed forces, and they have conducted thorough reconnaissance at attack locations weeks ahead of a strike, he said.

“Almost certainly (the terrorists) learned their tactics from the SSG (the Pakistan Army's elite commandos, the Special Service Group), which had trained earlier generations of Pakistani/Kashmiri militants in similar tactics for operations against India,” Gregory said.

“Terrorist groups have now shown themselves capable of penetrating even the most securely defended of Pakistan’s military bases and of holding space within those bases for many hours, even against the elite SSG, more than enough time with the right equipment and sufficient numbers to carry out terrorist acts with enormous political or destructive payoff,” the expert said (Peter Goodspeed, National Post, June 14).

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said his country's nuclear facilities are adequately protected, Newsweek reported.

"Pakistan has always been very conscious of the fact that we have a unique strategic (nuclear) capability," Aziz said, addressing last month's attack on the Mehran Naval Station. "The protection, the control of these, has been discussed many times. It is, in my mind, very, very secure, and to the best of what anybody can do."

"We have had the best advice from within and without to make sure that this is done properly," he added. "Pakistan is a responsible country. Every major country in the world has had incidents where the system fails to pick up things which it should have picked up."

"Do not underestimate the responsibility that comes with any country having nuclear weapons. And Pakistan certainly is very conscious of that and has taken all (necessary) measures. What happened in Karachi is very disappointing, but the nuclear assets are well secured and will always remain so," he said (Newsweek Pakistan, June 17).

June 14, 2011

Recent extremist strikes on several armed forces sites in Pakistan indicate the nation might not be capable of protecting its nuclear weapons and related assets from a direct attack, a British analyst wrote in a journal article published this month (see GSN, June 13).