August 17, 2012

Militants Strike Suspected Pakistani Nuclear Facility


Published: 8/16/2012

Pakistan's giant aeronautical complex at Kamra has been attacked by the domestic Taliban. The base may contain components of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme.

IHS Global Insight Perspective



The Pakistani Taliban has launched another attempted suicide-siege attack against an air base.


It is possible the base contains components of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons programme, although Pakistani officials deny this.


The militant attack included planning errors that limited its effectiveness, reducing fears about the safety of dangerous technologies.

In Kamra

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has attacked the Kamra aeronautical complex near Attock in an escalation of its operations within Punjab province, which is more stable than the west of the country and where the majority of Pakistanis live. In the early hours of 16 August a squad of nine TTP militants stormed the Pakistan Air Force's PAF Minhas base, which is adjacent to the complex. The private Geo News channel reported that they were disguised in military uniform. The breach began at 2am and was concluded only after a four-hour gun battle in which the base's commander, Air Commodore Mohammad Azam, received a serious bullet wound when leading the counter-attack. One soldier died, as did all the militants. The PAF said six of the TTP operatives were wearing suicide vests, but not all of these were detonated. The militants had time to emplace a number of improvised explosive devices, and a bomb disposal squad was called in to dismantle these.

The TTP assault was similar to that on the PNS Mehran air base in Karachi in May 2011 (see Pakistan: 23 May 2011: Pakistan's Taliban Stages Unprecedented Attack in Karachi). It was, however, less successful on this occasion. Whereas the assault in Karachi succeeded in destroying some of Pakistan's most prized aircraft—P-3C Orion surveillance planes acquired from the United States—on this occasion it appears that only one aircraft was damaged, by a rocket-propelled grenade. Moreover, in the Karachi attack a dozen service personnel died and the siege lasted for more than 15 hours, rather than just four at Kamra.

This failure would appear to be due to basic planning errors by the TTP. Any advantage conferred by the cover of darkness must have been reduced by the fact that, it being Ramadan, many of the base's personnel were awake for their pre-dawn breakfasts. Close to the Kamra facility is Attock Fort, a base of the Special Services Group (SSG)—the elite commando unit that eventually ended the Mehran siege and whose presence nearby posed a serious threat to the TTP militants involved. Nevertheless, TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters that the group was "proud of this operation" and that its leadership had been planning the attack for a "long time". This was the third attack by the TTP's cell in Punjab in a little over a month (see Pakistan: 12 July 2012: Pakistani Taliban Claim More Killings in Punjab); Ehsanullah had warned to expect more after those in July. Geo News reported that the Pakistani interior ministry suspected the cell to be led by Adnan Rasheed, a TTP militant who was one of several hundred to escape from prison in April (see Pakistan: 16 April 2012: Militants Stage Mass Jail Break in Pakistan). A former PAF servicemen, he may have had the insider knowledge necessary to breach Kamra's perimeter.

A Sensitive Target


Security personnel guard the Pakistan air force base in 
Kamra, 16 August 2012, PA.14318487

This was not the first attack on Kamra—suicide bombers targeted the facility in 2007 and 2009. There are a variety of reasons why it is a tempting target for the TTP. It lies on the border between Punjab and the Pashtun-majority Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and is therefore relatively close to the TTP's base in the semi-autonomous tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, on the border with Afghanistan. Kamra is also the nucleus of Pakistan's aeronautical industry. Alongside the air base are four factories—three for assembling aircraft and one for avionics and radar. They contain state-of-the-art equipment, including for the manufacture of the joint Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder combat aircraft. Several reports suggested the presence of Chinese personnel at the base during the raid.

Moreover, although PAF officials deny the base contains warheads or materials connected to the country's nuclear weapons programme, this contradicts numerous other expert assessments, including by reliable IHS Jane's sources. The security of Pakistan's nuclear sites continues to be a major concern for the United States. Speaking at a Pentagon news conference on 14 August, before the Kamra raid, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that it was particularly important for Pakistan to confront its internal terrorist threat. Panetta said: "The great danger we have always feared is that if terrorism is not controlled in their country, those nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands." In July, the US Congressional Research Service issued a report suggesting that Pakistan had somewhere between 19 and 110 nuclear warheads and that it is expanding its nuclear weapons capability.

Outlook and Implications

Despite such worries, the overall US military assessment is that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are secure, and that Pakistan's leadership is aware of the importance of them remaining so. There is no particular reason to alter this assessment as a result of the latest TTP raid. Although the militants were heavily armed, it appears that they did a minimal amount of physical damage to the site and were swiftly intercepted, although this was in part due to planning failures that were absent in the 2011 attack in Karachi. Although the TTP may attempt to conduct similar operations in reprisal for an impending Pakistani army operation against the group in North Waziristan, announced by Panetta on 14 August (see United States - Pakistan: 14 August 2012: US Claims Deal with Pakistan for New Anti-Militant Operation) that operation—should it materialise—is also likely to inflict significant damage to the TTP.

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