Regarding terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear sites

When to worry a little and when to worry a lot

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.

5 thoughts on “Regarding terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear sites”

  1. Having served in the Pakistan military in sensitive posts for over three decades, at both the PAF bases where the purported terrorist attacks took place for over a decade and having interacted with the author on occasions, in person and through e-mail, I have to say that I have not come across a more ludicrous piece of writing. On one hand, he admits that Pakistan has been able to establish a ‘robust’ nuclear weapons security system while on the other, he shocks the reader by construing three blatant albeit ‘routine’ acts of terror to be attacks against Pakistan’s amply secure nuclear weapons arsenal.

    Both of the attacks in the vicinity of the PAF bases were on vehicles plying on main thoroughfares – the one at Sargodha was on a military bus carrying personnel on their way to work at Kirana and occurred on the main Sargodha – Faisalabad road. The attack near Kamra was on a school bus which was travelling on the main road connecting Kamra with Attock. Since the school children were from PAF families, the bus conveying them was in military livery.

    The point is that even if any nuclear facilities exist in Sargodha and Kamra, both these attacks were typical terrorist attacks targetting human lives, and innocent ones at that too. He conveniently forgets to highlight that since these two attacks on the vehicles occurred on main inter-city roads, there was no breach of security whatsoever in both instances.

    As to the third attack on the main entrance of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories in Wah, his assumption that this was targeting Pakistan nuclear weapons is proved incorrect by the following:

    • POF Wah, although headed by a serving Lieutenant General, is a civilian manned and run organization which comes under the Ministry of Defence. To think that the Pakistan military would select these factory premises for storing / assembling nuclear weapons is, to say the least, preposterous. The military which guards Pakistan’s nuclear assets jealously would never permit any significant involvement of a civilian set-up in such sensitive matters. To prove my point further, I might add that to my knowledge, there is no active unit of the Pakistan Army deployed in or around Wah with even the security of the POF being delegated to elements of the paramilitary Defence Services Guards (DSGs). Could anyone believe that the Pakistan military would have entrusted the security of an installation of nuclear significance to elements of the ill-equipped and inadequately trained DSGs.

    • The attack in Wah also was aimed at causing maximum loss of human lives and did not target any facility or infrastructure whatsoever. Those who have travelled on the branch of the old Grand Trunk Road between Islamabad and Peshawar which traverses through POF Wah would know that the main worker’s entrance to the POF is located just a few hundred yards away from this busy thoroughfare and approaching it does not require one to negotiate any significant security barriers.

    While I concur with Dr. Gregory in that the extremist militants have an eye on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, I would fault his conclusion which is based on painting the above mentioned three acts of terrorism as attacks against Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. This incorrect depiction of these three acts of terrorism has tainted an otherwise scholarly treatise with ‘sensationalism’ and has made the author’s conclusions border on the ridiculous.

  2. Ahsan,

    Shuja Nawaz’s remarks support the hypotheses in my post—that Prof Gregory’s conclusions are tenuous.

    There is nothing in Mr Nawaz’s remarks—to the extent that he know anything more about the management of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal than is in the public domain—to invalidate my other conclusions.

    No retractions or conclusions are necessary.

  3. Haan fair enough, I read this post when it first came out and didn’t read it closely a second time when writing my comment which was a few days later. My bad.

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