The insider threat to Pakistan’s nukes
CQ‘s Jeff Stein has given us permission to repost the following item, which follows up on the debate Peter Bergen’s blog post re-sparked last week on the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities. What could Islamic terrorists actually do if they were able to blast their way into a Pakistani base where nuclear ...
CQ's Jeff Stein has given us permission to repost the following item, which follows up on the debate Peter Bergen's blog post re-sparked last week on the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons facilities.
CQ‘s Jeff Stein has given us permission to repost the following item, which follows up on the debate Peter Bergen’s blog post re-sparked last week on the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities.
What could Islamic terrorists actually do if they were able to blast their way into a Pakistani base where nuclear weapons are stored?
The short answer is: Not much. They’d be surrounded.
That fact got buried in last week’s flash of hysteria over reports of militant Islamist attacks on Pakistani nuclear facilities.
In any event, incinerating hundreds of thousands of fellow Pakistanis in an atomic fireball is not what followers of the Taliban or al Qaeda are after.
It’s us. And the terrorist’s modus operandi would be stealth, not a frontal assault that would leave most of them dead.
Moreover, it’s not the specter of terrorists carting off a nuclear warhead that has scientists and intelligence professionals wringing their hands.
"What really worries the experts," a top nonproliferation consultant told me over drinks this week, "is HEU [highly enriched uranium] – before it is weaponized and delivered to the Pakistani army, and while it is still in the hands of the scientific and technical establishment at the enrichment facilities."
Some of the scientists and technicians are rigorous Muslims, whose wives — they are almost all men — wear the hijab or chador. That is cause for worry to some.
But it’s the X-factor — the unknown number of secret Islamicists — that gives the experts pause.
According to some published reports, such civilians are not vetted nearly as heavily as the military personnel responsible for protecting nuclear sites and materials.
"In Pakistan, the military provides generally respected security for the (mostly) HEU-based nuclear weapons material in their possession, and carefully vets the responsible personnel," said the nonproliferation expert, who cannot be identified because he works on sensitive U.S. government programs.
"However, there’s concern over security at the civilian plants where the HEU is actually produced."
"HEU," he added, "is far easier to fashion into a nuclear weapon than is plutonium."
And easier to slip off the base.
The Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier is a border in name only, its border guards easily, and routinely, bought off.
And from there, it’s not a hard shot to the United States.
The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, signed by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in 2006, is a work in progress.
Its only signatory in Southeast Asia is Cambodia, not Indonesia or the Philippines, where Islamic terrorists are organized and active.
Its Balkan member is Croatia, not mostly Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, mostly Muslim, have signed up, but their borders are porous, as are Chechnya’s.
There’s not a Predator in the sky that can find a device smaller than a bowling ball, hidden in a truck or a wooden cart.
A barrel of water or fiberglass can conceal the weapon’s radioactive emissions.
All the satellites whirling the globe cannot detect a carefully laid plot to smuggle spheres of HEU out of Pakistan and onto a ship headed for, say, Long Beach, Calif.
A few good spies. And who can be confident we’ve got them?
AfPak Channel contributor and Harvard PhD candidate Vipin Narang touched on the insider threat to Pakistan’s nukes, and Shuja Nawaz has also pushed back on the intentions behind the attacks on the nuclear facilities.
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