After bin Laden, militants closer to Pakistan nukes

Neo-Taliban groups rely on bold attacks, military connections

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Pakistani troops gather next to a burnt plane inside the naval aviation base following an attack by militants in Karachi, Pakistan, Monday, May 23, 2011. A team of Taliban militants attacked and occupied the facility for 15 hours, destroying two U.S.-supplied planes and killing 12 security officers.

AP/Shakil Adil

Terrorist factions in Pakistan with growing firepower and connections inside the nation’s military and intelligence communities have increased their capability to capture a nuclear weapon, according to a new report by the Federation of American Scientists.

The FAS report says Pakistan militants now pose a greater threat to nuclear installations because of their “unique combination of ideology, strategic objectives, organizational structure [and] relations with other groups (including elements of the Pakistani state).”

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reviewed the report, which will be presented by FAS Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The report, “Anatomizing Non-State Threats to Pakistan’s Nuclear Infrastructure: The Pakistani Neo-Taliban,” says emerging militants are highly motivated in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death and are “potentially capable” of capturing Pakistani nuclear assets. Pakistan is believed to have approximately 100 nuclear weapons.

The Pakistani Neo-Taliban refers to Taliban, Kashmiri jihadists and Punjabi Taliban militant groups that have carried out deadly attacks recently at Pakistani military bases.

Charles P. Blair, director of the Terrorism Analysis Project at FAS and the author of the report, told ICIJ that the worrisome ease of recent attacks by militants — and the covert assistance the groups reportedly get from elements in the Pakistan military — has changed the nuclear threat in Pakistan.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago if Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were likely to fall in the hands of the Islamic groups, I would say it was very unlikely,” Blair said. “But now it is getting more likely.”

Critical to the Pakistani militants’ capabilities are their connections to “the radicalized elements inside the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] who actually run Pakistan,” Blair said, “and the inside support from the military to elements who attack the country’s military installations.”

Release of the FAS report comes in the wake of terrorist attacks on Pakistan military installations — operations militants have said were revenge for the U.S. military strike in the town of Abbottabad that killed bin Laden. The al-Qaida leader was thought to have been hiding there with the help of Pakistan military and intelligence insiders.

The FAS report, two years in the making, was due to be released later this year. But an intensified public discussion on the nuclear threat in the region became immediately necessary after the bin Laden raid and revelations of security gaps in Pakistan’s military infrastructure, Blair said.

“The killing of bin Laden prompted us to instantly release the sections of the report which explore the Pakistan Neo-Taliban and its allies because of increased public attention on Pakistan,” said Blair, who lectures on weapons of mass destruction at Johns Hopkins University.

“The jihadists linked to 9/11 attacks seem to have achieved pretty much everything they wanted and they are continually succeeding,” Blair said. “In the U.S., we may argue that [militants] have had some tactical losses, such as the killing of bin Laden, but they have managed to take the U.S. Army out of the country to engage it in different wars across the world.”

The FAS report comes a week after the arrest of a top official in the Pakistani army, Brig. Ali Khan, on suspicion of having alleged contacts with the banned Islamic extremist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

In the new report, FAS researchers cite a series of damaging attacks by militants as evidence of troubling holes in the security around nuclear installations:

  • A raid by 10 militants in October 2009 that left the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan’s equivalent of the Pentagon, under militant control for nearly a day.
  • A Nov. 11, 2007, suicide bomb attack at Sargodha Airbase that killed 10 people and wounded 40. According to FAS, nuclear materials are likely present in Sargodha.
  • A Dec. 10, 2007, suicide bomb attack on an Air Force bus in Kamra, another likely location of nuclear weapons.
  • A Neo-Taliban attack on the Pakistan Ordinance Factory in Wah, where the FAS report says nuclear weapons are likely kept. That raid, on Aug. 20, 2008, killed 70 people and injured more than 100.
  • A suicide attack on the country’s Federal Investigation Agency on March 11, 2008, that claimed 30 lives, including 15 police officers.
  • A March 30, 2009, raid by 10 militants who overpowered 1,000 police recruits, most unarmed, at a police academy in Lahore, the nation’s second-largest city. At least 10 people were killed and 90 were injured. Six of the terrorists managed to escape.
  • Another raid on May 27, 2009, by three or four militants against the provincial headquarters of the ISI, which killed 29 and injured 316 others.

One of the most astonishing recent attacks, the siege of the Pakistani naval base in Karachi on May 22, further raised questions over the safety of Pakistan’s defense installations. A team of 20 militants held the base for several hours and destroyed two P-3C Orion aircraft, valued at $36 million each and obtained from the U.S. in 2010.

David Albright, founder and the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said the attack on the Pakistani naval base raised concerns to a new high.

“It shows an inside trait of collaboration inside the army with the Islamists,” Albright said in an interview. “If armed groups in the United States get into the nuclear installations, they cannot ever get out. In Pakistan, if they get into the production complex, they may carry out suicide attacks inside the complex.”

Albright said Pakistan’s nukes are vulnerable to falling into the hands of extremist groups when they are transported.

“Some people in the country’s army and nuclear program cannot be trusted,” he said. “It requires a lot of money to guard the nuclear installations, and we wonder if Pakistan has the money to protect its nukes.”

In its new report, FAS looks at who specifically represents the threats to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and how they will go about attempting to obtain fissile material. FAS, founded in 1945 by scientists who helped develop the atom bomb, devotes researchers, engineers and technology experts to monitor the use of nuclear technology.

FAS estimates that Pakistan, the only Muslim country known to possess nuclear weapons, has from 90 to 110 nuclear weapons and is moving them around the country. But this strategy increases the cost of safeguarding the weapons and makes it easier for jihadist groups to attack individual facilities.

Albright said Pakistan fears an attack by India or Israel on its nuclear installations. Blair said because of that fear, Pakistan is avoiding one central location for all nukes.

Blair added that the ISI has not given up its role as the enabler of the Taliban and other jihadists.

FAS divides the rise of Pakistan’s Neo-Taliban into three phases, starting from late 2001 to mid-2004, when top al-Qaida leaders fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan.

In the second phase, late 2004 to 2007, they spread to the tribal region of Waziristan in Pakistan and different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan. From there they spread to Pakistan’s largest cities.

Since then, Neo-Taliban groups have grown to the point where in January 2010, then-Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. David Petraeus said the militants posed “the most pressing threat to the very existence of Pakistan … supplanting [in Pakistanis’ perceptions] even India.”

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