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Monday, June 20, 2011

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal may be ‘compromised’: report

Recent terrorist attacks on military installations suggest the “safety and security of nuclear weapons materials in Pakistan may very well be compromised,” says an article published in the Combating Terrorism Center’s magazine, Sentinel, at the U. S. Military Academy West Point.

“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,” writes Dr. Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Unit at the University of Bradford in Britain.

Pakistani terrorists have already shown their ability to carry out violent attacks at facilities that were reliably identified as being part of the country’s nuclear weapons program, he says.

But Pakistan’s push to double the size of its nuclear arsenal, by building 12 to 15 nuclear weapons a year over the last three or four years, greatly increases its vulnerability to terrorist attacks on nuclear targets.

“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,” Dr. Gregory writes.

As many as 70,000 people in Pakistan already have access to or knowledge of some element of the nuclear weapons production, storage, maintenance and deployment cycle, he says.

“Some may be willing to collude in various ways with terrorists,” he adds.

When Pakistan first developed its nuclear program in the 1970s and 1980s, its main concern was attack by India.

As a result, most nuclear infrastructure was placed in the north and west of the country or near Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where it is less likely to be overrun by India during a war.

But in recent years, Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists have been active in all those areas. Since 2007, they have launched several attacks on nuclear weapons facilities. These include:

? November 2007 A suicide bomber killed eight people in an attack on a nuclear missile storage facility at Sargodha, south of Islamabad.

? December 2008 A suicide bomb assault on an airbase at Kamra.

? August 2008 Teams of suicide bombers staged coordinated attacks on the armament complex at the Wah cantonment, where Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are believed to be assembled.

Even more worrying, says Dr. Gregory, are recent attacks on some of the country’s most secure military sites

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty ImagesOn May 22, a team of 10 terrorists attacked the Mehran naval aviation base in Karachi. They stormed the high-security base from several places and appeared to know the location of its intruder detection cameras. Using rocketpropelled grenades, explosives and small arms, they destroyed several aircraft, took hostages and occupied the base for nearly 18 hours.

The Karachi attack mirrored an equally stunning 2009 raid by radical Islamists on the Pakistan Army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi.

In that case, terrorists dressed in military uniforms, driving army vehicles and with a “sensitive map” of the sprawling complex, staged a 20-hour hostage taking in which 20 were killed.

“The modalities of this attack add up to a virtual blueprint for a successful attack on a nuclear weapons facility,” Dr. Gregory says.

Pakistani terrorist groups have shown they can penetrate layers of security, use army uniforms and vehicles with the appropriate licence plates and forge identification cards to deceive military guards, he says.

They have also had knowledge of sensitive military information and protocols, and have been able to develop detailed intelligence on their targets weeks before an operation.

“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,” he says.

“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 pay-off.”

Pakistan Nuclear Arsenal

Rising Threat

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