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Let's Hope Pakistan's Nukes Are More Secure Than Its Prisoners

During his recent European public relations tour, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was asked the world’s most pressing question by a London-based journalist named M. Ziauddin.

How can Pakistan hang on to its nukes, if it can’t hang on to its prisoners?

The question came after Musharraf had finished addressing members a British defense and security think tank. Journalist M. Ziauddin wondered, “you have talked very high[ly] of our custodial control of our nuclear assets but when high profile suspected terrorists like Rashid Rauf give us a slip and escape, then the people here as well as in Pakistan start suspecting [our] skills in these matters.”

For those unfamiliar with Rashid Rauf, he’s the 26-year old British citizen of Pakistani origin believed to be the mastermind of the 2006 London Planes Plot. Rauf was captured in Pakistan and imprisoned there-until he escaped from his Rawalpindi jailers just last month. The escape of such a high profile terror suspect has been highly embarrassing for Musharraf. Scotland Yard’s Counter-Terrorism Command considers Rashid Rauf a key link between foreign terrorist groups and the groups in Britain who are sending young men to terrorist training camps in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

After a December court appearance, Rauf’s guards-driving in Rauf’s uncle’s van because it was more comfortable than an army vehicle-made two quick stops with the Jaish-e-Mohammed/Al Qaeda operative. First they went to McDonalds and then they went to a local mosque to allow the prisoner to pray. The guards uncuffed Rashid Rauf to make him more comfortable. Somehow, he managed to slip away.

In his question, journalist Ziauddin was touching upon the obvious. Elements of Musharaff’s intelligence agency, ISI, clearly had a hand in Rauf’s escape. And if they could allow that to happen, then what else could they allow? That enraged the President who blew up at the journalist, saying Ziauddin was “casting aspersions,” falsely suggested that members of Pakistan’s “armed forces are were with the Taleban,” and that his intelligence agencies were disloyal. During his rant, Musharraf said “these things happens [sic], it happens.”

Later that same day, while addressing 800 Pakistanis at the Hilton Hotel, Musharraf took things a step further. Speaking in Urdu this time, Musharraf said that journalists who ask these kinds of questions should be hit (audio from BBC Urdu).

The Committee to Protect Journalists quickly condemned Musharraf’s tirade. The editors at the Guardian and the Telegraph expressed shock. Pakistani students in London threatened legal action. Musharraf’s thuggery is an important part of the story. But it’s not nearly as critical as the journalist’s question.

How can Pakistan hang on to its nukes, if it can’t hang on to its prisoners?

Musharraf says, “these things happen.” And indeed they do-with frightening regularity in lawless Pakistan. In fact, there’s a bizarre narrative in Musharraf’s 2006 autobiography In the Line of Fire that underscores the problem. There, Musharraf tells the story of a different prisoner escape, by another high profile terrorist. In this case, it was by a man named Mustaq Ahmad, the Jaish-e-Mohammed/Al Qaeda operative who almost succeeded in assassinating Musharraf in 2003.

“Mushtaq…escaped from a base of the Pakistan Air Force in Rawalpindi, where he had been kept in custody. Not being a regular prison, the air base had slack security. An opportunity to escape came at six AM on November 25, 2004, when Mushtaq asked the guard on duty to let him take a shower. When he came out of the shower, he found the guard asleep.”

There’s more. You see, according to President Musharraf, there just so happened to be a pair of fresh overalls lying around-that would be the uniform worn by the army men who patrol the air base. (In his memoirs, Musharraf neglected to mention the BBC’s discovery that the prisoner was a former member of Pakistan’s air force.) President Musharraf writes:

“Mushtaq put on a pair of overalls and slipped past the sleeping guard and out through a window. He then managed to hoodwink the guards at the main gate, since he was in Pakistan Air Force overalls and they did not suspect he was one of their prime prisoners.”

There’s a great opportunity here for Peter Sellers to show up at the party-with his Indian accent and bejeweled turban, to add bubbles to the swimming pool and maybe fall in. Except this isn’t a Blake Edwards’ film. What is at issue here are nuclear weapons.

In his autobiography, the President of nuclear Pakistan writes “Not being a regular prison, the air base had slack security.” Hello out there? Is anybody home? Is this simply what happens in nuclear Pakistan? Just a few days before Rashid Rauf’s escape last December, there was a suicide attack by Al Qaeda at a Pakistani Air Force Base, in Kamra-which is, according to journalist and academic Bill Roggio, the “likely location for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.” The suicide bomber targeted a bus belonging to Pakistan’s air force and filled with 35 children of Pakistani Air Force officers. The driver, two adults, and five children were wounded in the strike; the suicide bomber was killed.

In his Long War Journal, Roggio raises the world’s most serious question in lieu of this attack. “While Taliban and al Qaeda suicide bombers have targeted secure military facilities over the past year, it is unclear if the suicide attack was a target of opportunity or a demonstration of the groups’ capacity to penetrate security at sensitive locations.”

Then Roggio arrives at what could be world’s most deadly conclusion: “Al Qaeda is clearly looking to overthrow President Musharraf, with the ultimate prize being the state of Pakistan and its nuclear weapons stocks.”

Annie Jacobsen writes about aviation security and homeland security for a variety of newspapers, magazines and blogs. She is the author of the book, Terror in The Skies, Why 9/11 Could Happen Again.