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Could Terrorists Attack Pakistan’s Nuclear Facilities? They Already Have

Last month, terrorists launched six major attacks in Pakistan in less than two weeks. Several of these were highly organized commando-type raids on security facilities, which included the police-run Central Investigation Agency building, the Pakistani military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, the Federal Investigation Agency building, the headquarters of the Elite Force of the police, and two police training centers. This newest round of anarchy and instability has brought on a fresh wave of public concern that terrorists could hijack one of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. In at least two of the recent security facility attacks, the terrorists wore army uniforms.

And yet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says there is nothing to fear. “We have confidence in the Pakistani government and military’s control over its nuclear weapons,” she said during a visit to England on October 11.

The basis for Clinton’s confidence comes from the suggestion that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not fully assembled, as CBS News reported on October 12:

[Pakistan] protect(s) its nuclear weapons from attack by the Taliban or other militants by storing the warheads, detonators, and missiles separately in facilities patrolled by elite troops.

This argument has found its way around the world. Writes the Globe and Mail:

Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons security is modeled on long-standing safeguards developed by the major powers and includes separately storing the physical components needed for a nuclear warhead and keeping them apart and heavily guarded.

The unasked question: Pakistan keeps its nuclear weapons safe — according to whom?

Earlier this month, while touring one of America’s nuclear weapons facilities with a former Manhattan Project scientist, I asked this very question. “According to Pakistan,” the 87-year-old nuclear engineer responded.

This is not confidence-building news. “No one has been able to ascertain the validity of Pakistan’s assurances about their nuclear weapons security, writes the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) on its website. FAS is the organization founded in 1945 by the Manhattan Project scientists who developed the world’s first atomic bomb and then regretted it.

If Pakistan’s nuclear bombs are safe because Pakistan says so, perhaps Hilary Clinton should add that to her pitch. In the meantime, the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point disagrees. In the July 2009 issue of CTC Sentinel, Professor Shaun Gregory writes that “the risk of the transfer of nuclear weapons, weapons components, or nuclear expertise to terrorists in Pakistan is genuine.”

Even more alarming, Gregory confirms that Pakistan’s nuclear facilities have already been attacked at least three times by terrorists in the last two years. These attacks include:

  • A November 2007 attack on Pakistan’s nuclear missile facility at Sargodha.
  • A December 2007 attack on Pakistan’s nuclear airbase at Kamra.
  • An August 2008 attack at the Wah cantonment, “widely understood to be one of Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons assembly sites.”

Because Pakistan’s nuclear warheads can reach neighboring India, the Times of India reports extensively on Pakistan as a nuclear threat. In August the paper featured a news report and a television program on the West Point report. One of its reporters interviewed terrorism expert and CNN analyst Peter Bergen on the subject. “[Gregory] points out something that was news to me … which is that a series of attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities have already happened,” Bergen said.

How many nuclear weapons does Pakistan have? Reports vary. In 2002, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) put the number between 24-48 nuclear warheads. Carnegie puts the number around 55. Hans Kristensen of FAS said Pakistan could have as many as 90 nuclear warheads.

Bruce Riedel, who has been a senior advisor to three U.S. presidents (including Obama) on Middle East and South Asian issues, sums up the reality of the nuclear threat. Pakistan has “has more terrorists per square mile than anyplace else on Earth, and it has a nuclear weapons program that is growing faster than anyplace else on Earth,” Riedel says.

One wonders what gives Hillary Clinton so much confidence?