May 29, 2011

Signalling the launch of nuclear jihad!

May 29, 2011 2:09:24 PM

Kanchan Gupta!.html

After the Taliban’s daring raid on PNS Mehran, a heavily guarded naval base in Karachi, the world, and not only the US, has reason to worry, if not be alarmed. This is not just another incident of radical Islamists demonstrating their ability to strike terror with the help of brainwashed young men desperate to die in the hope of frolicking with 72 nubile nymphets in the other world; it signals enhanced capability on part of Pakistan’s terrorists to attack high security targets. As Prof Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at Bradford University (we shall return to him later) says, “This is a blueprint for an attack on nuclear facilities.”

That fear has been stalking nations around the world ever since Pakistan’s descent into jihadi violence and chaos began in the closing years of Gen Pervez Musharraf’s rule. The fig leaf of order that had been held in place by the General and his men dropped the evening Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. After that, the Pakistani state, such as it existed, began imploding with an effete civilian Government, happy to be putty in the hands of a corrupt, unreliable and unstable Army, watching from the sidelines. With each passing day of blood-curdling violence — a suicide bombing here; a shootout there — the jihadis are inching closer to achieving their goal: Capturing the world’s only Islamic state with a nuclear arsenal.

Till recently, Pakistan posed a different kind of problem. It was a terror-sponsoring state with little or no control over its Army and rogue institutions like the ISI. It was, as former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said, “An international headache.” There was also the fear that unless terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and its affiliate organisations like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, treated as ‘strategic assets’ by the Pakistani Army, were brought under control (destroying them root and branch was never quite an option as the dragon’s teeth sown by Gen Zia-ul Haq, ironically with the help of the Americans, would ensure a fresh crop of jihadis after one lot had been put down) they would lay their hands on ‘strategic assets’ of another kind: Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Every time that fear was expressed, Pakistan would retort with the standard response: “Our nuclear facilities are safe and secure.” There is also the other detail which would be touted in defence of Pakistan — nuclear bombs are not readymade gadgets that one picks up and detonates at will. True, that’s not how nuclear weapons are stored. The fissile core is kept separately from the device that triggers the explosion, which is not coupled with the launch vehicle. It’s only when the three are mated that you have a weapon of mass destruction.

If the Pakistanis (and their patrons in America) are to be believed, getting hold of the fissile core, the explosive device and the launch vehicle will not necessarily equip terrorists with a ‘nuclear bomb’; they would still need ‘Permissive Action Links’, a multiple set of codes, to activate the contraption. Unless those in the nuclear weapons command and control structure collaborate (a possibility that can no longer be entirely ruled out) the ‘Permissive Action Links’ will remain inaccessible, rendering the seized ‘bomb’ ineffective.

But we can only seek cold comfort in such facts, or ‘claims’, that are put out every time there’s talk of jihadis gaining access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. For, there are three other aspects which are, frankly, of equally, if not more, serious concern. Perhaps Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had these in mind when he said that while he was confident Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were safe, “it (the Taliban’s raid on PNS Mehran) was a matter of concern”.

The concern stems from very real possibilities. First, at this stage the jihadis may be aiming at getting hold of either processed material in the form of fissile cores or spent fuel stored at nuclear reactors. These could be turned, with the help of collaborators from the nuclear establishment, into ‘dirty bombs’ with disastrous consequences within and beyond Pakistan. Both Islamabad and Rawalpindi will no doubt insist that there is no reason to doubt the integrity of the staff at these establishments or weapons storage facilities as they have been ‘vetted’. But that’s poppycock. AQ Khan ran a nuclear kala bazaar right under the nose of Pakistani authorities using military facilities, including planes that took off and landed at high security Army bases.

Second, there is reason to believe that Pakistan now has a ready-to-use stockpile of ‘tactical battlefield nuclear weapons’ — weapons that are designed to be used during a limited war and hence easily mated and extremely mobile. The jihadis could be hoping to lay their hands on these. What are meant to be weapons to be used against Indian forces in the event of a cold start war could end up being used against anybody anywhere.

The third possibility has long-term implications: Pakistan becoming captive in the hands of radical Islamists, either in form of a coalition comprising rogue elements of the Pakistani military/ISI and terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, or an Al Qaeda-backed conglomerate led by the Pakistani Taliban. In other words, jihadis getting hold of a readymade nuclear weapons state which they will then use to blackmail others or stage attacks elsewhere. Congressional testimonies and US documents suggest that in such a situation America would have no other option but to intervene. What is obvious but not stated is that intervention by then would be too late, apart from being fraught with untold danger.

Which brings me back to Prof Shaun Gregory. In August 2009 he had written an article, “The terrorist threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”, in the monthly journal of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the well-known military college in the US, warning, “The risk of the transfer of nuclear weapons, weapons components or nuclear expertise to terrorists in Pakistan is genuine.” (See Coffee Break, August 16, 2009.) He had then gone on to explain how empirical evidence shows the claims of foolproof security and safeguards at nuclear establishments in Pakistan were over-hyped and unreliable. He had listed at least three attempts by jihadis to storm nuclear weapons storage facilities.

“Civilian nuclear weapons sites — those sites where Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are manufactured, assembled or taken for refurbishment — are typically less protected than military sites where nuclear weapons are stored, deployed and operated,” Prof Gregory wrote, adding, “The attacks at the Wah cantonment highlight the vulnerability of nuclear weapons infrastructure sites to at least three forms of terrorist assault: a) an attack to cause a fire at a nuclear weapons facility, which would create a radiological hazard; b) an attack to cause an explosion at a nuclear weapons facility involving a nuclear weapon or components, which would create a radiological hazard; or c) an attack with the objective of seizing control of nuclear weapons components or possibly a nuclear weapon. On the latter point, Pakistan’s usual separation of nuclear weapons components is compromised to a degree by the need to assemble weapons at certain points in the manufacture and refurbishment cycle at civilian sites, and by the requirement for co-location of the separate components at military sites so that they can be mated quickly if necessary in crises.”

Everybody thought Prof Gregory was exaggerating unfounded fears. He was not. The raid on PNS Mehran tells us so!

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1 comment:

Charles Frith said...

No mention of the CIA selling nukes a few weeks ago?