August 12, 2009al-qaedaForeign Affairsjihadismilitary-jihadi complexnuclear terrorismnuclear weaponsPakistanproliferationSecurityUnited States

Regarding terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear sites

When to worry a little and when to worry a lot

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

In an article for West Point’s CTC Sentinel (pdf) Bradford University’s Shaun Gregory draws attention to a serious matter—the terrorist threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. (linkthanks Swami Iyer)

Before we discuss the controversial part, let’s look at his conclusion.

The risk of the transfer of nuclear weapons, weapons components or nuclear expertise to terrorists in Pakistan is genuine. Moreover, knowledge that such a transfer has occurred may not become evident until the aftermath of a nuclear 9/11 in Pakistan or elsewhere in the world. It remains imperative that Pakistan is pressured and supported, above all by the United States, to continue to improve the safety and security of its nuclear weapons and to ensure the fidelity of those civilian and military personnel with access to, or knowledge of, nuclear weapons. The challenge to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from Pakistani Taliban groups and from al-Qa`ida constitutes a real and present danger, and the recent assaults by the Pakistan Army on some of these groups in FATA and in the NWFP is a welcome development. Nevertheless, more steps must be taken before the threat is neutralized and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons no longer pose an existential danger to the rest of the world. [Shaun Gregory/CTC Sentinel]

Despite reassurances by the heads of governments of Pakistan, the United States and India, this is a conclusion that few serious analysts can find fault with. Unless you are the editorial board of the New York Times you will use every opportunity available to mitigate the risk that terrorism and nuclear proliferation will come together from and/or in Pakistan. Prof Gregory does well to bring this important issue into public discussion.

The controversial part of Prof Gregory’s article was his assertion that Pakistan’s nuclear facilities have already been attacked at least thrice by its home-grown extremists and terrorists over the last two years.” Unless he has more evidence than he reveals in the article, this argument is tenuous.

Pakistan observers have known about jihadi attacks on military and nuclear complexes and personnel, but there is little evidence in the public domain to suggest that these attacks involved an agenda to take control of nuclear weapons or radioactive material. There are a number of other possible motives: opportunism, signaling, publicity and probing.

In other words, it is possible that these targets were attacked because it was possible to attack them; they were attacked as a way of scaring Pakistanis and international donors; they were attacked because this would gain them a lot more publicity; or they were attacked to find out how well-secured the nuclear weapons complex is. Only the last is connected to nuclear terrorism, but it is still at the lower end of the scale at the other extreme of which lies an attack specifically intended to snatch or damage a nuclear weapons site. As one US official told a NYT blogger, these are large complexes (and therefore present easy targets) and an attack at the front gate cannot immediately be assumed to be the worst case scenario.

Indeed, the leadership of the military-jihadi complex might want you to believe the worst-case scenario, especially when that means you will open up your wallet to prevent it from happening. So while Prof Gregory is not wrong any analysis of terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear sites must not ignore the possibility of nuclear blackmail: the use of deliberate, calibrated insecurity to rustle up some no-strings-attached foreign aid.

Like many other analyses of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, Prof Gregory neglects the opacity with respect to how the weapons are secured: do they use permissive-action links (PALs) or are they kept in a physically de-mated state? The two methods are likely to be mutually exclusive. As discussed in earlier posts, the answer to this question opens up a very little studied—at least in the public domain—area of risk. If there is an secret arsenal-within-an-arsenal then we should all be much more worried than we already are.

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