By Maimuna Ashraf*
The stranglehold of Islamic State (ISIS) in Middle Eastern states, expanding tentacles in Eastern Afghanistan and its wildfire movement across borders has lately pulled out several ‘hypothetical scenarios’ involving allegiance of it obtaining the most destructive weapon, the ‘nuclear weapon’. Specifically, given the rising monstrous face of group in Afghanistan, the footprints of IS has not merely alarmed neighboring countries including Russia, Pakistan and Central Asian states but also revived the debate on threats of nuclear terrorism. Recently, several stories emerged with epic claims of IS infinitely closer to buy or steal a nuclear bomb, precisely from Pakistan. Hopping on the bandwagon, Indian officials also recently sparked the likewise fears and supported the feasibility of IS purchasing or stealing a nuclear weapon from Pakistan. So here raises the question, rationally, how real is the threat?
Pragmatically, nuclear analysts believe that the terrorist organization may succeed in conducting a nuclear explosion if they succeed in: 1) Constructing or acquiring a warhead 2) Acquiring delivery means and 3) Having will to use it to a desired target area. Thus, to get successful in acquiring a nuclear weapon or delivery means, terrorists may adopt four ways. First, terrorists may attempt to produce the highly enriched uranium or plutonium to fuel a nuclear bomb. This option is most difficult and less likely to happen because manufacturing fissile material is the most crucial and complicated phase to make a nuclear weapon. Second, the terrorist organization may look for a state-sponsor, already having nuclear weapons so that they can directly acquire nuclear weapon. This option sounds the easiest route to have a nuclear weapon but scholars believe it is not likely to happen, because neither any state will be agreed to share this valuable product with any non-state actor nor any state will take the risk to share nuclear weapon with terrorists which can be used against them.
Even no state, thus far at least, has ever given another state (even friendly allies) a nuclear weapon. For instance, during cold war North Korea tried to acquire nuclear weapon from its close allies but was firmly refused. Third, terrorist organization can plan to steal nuclear weapon. This option is also not at all an easy task. Even if terrorists succeed in acquiring a nuclear weapon it would be impossible for them to break the security features of heavily guarded weapons. Charles Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) stressed, “You’d have to run it through a specific sequence of events, including changes in temperature, pressure and environmental conditions before the weapon would allow itself to be armed, for the fuses to fall into place and then for it to allow itself to be fired. You do not get it off the shelf, enter a code and have it go off.” Conversely, if the terrorists would seek people to help them in unauthorized explosion of a nuclear bomb, then there are only few persons in the world who know the unauthorized detonation of a nuclear bomb.
Every person working with nuclear weapons is trained for only few sets of functions and no one has the complete knowledge about how the weapon works and how to set it off. Fourth, there is a huge possibility that any terrorist group may seek to buy fissile material from black market or may seek to steal it from civilian or military facility to use it in nuclear weapon. Most of the nuclear security analysts are of opinion that terrorist may pursue this option as it appears most suitable to manufacture a nuclear weapon. However, analyst Robin Frost opined “there seems to be no real commercial market for fissile material, each sale would be a one- time affair, not a continue source of profit like drugs, and there is no evidence of established underworld commercial trade in this illicit commodity”. On the contrary, any of the risks highlighted above, poses threat to all states possessing nuclear technology. Any country having nuclear weapons or running and operating NPPs share the same concerns and vulnerabilities around the world. Pakistan is not an exceptional case.
Notwithstanding the technicalities involved in stealing or unauthorized handling of nuclear weapon, Pakistan is frequently brought up in the context of nuclear sabotage by IS. Generally, the attacks on GHQ, Mehran and Kamra bases are portrayed as vulnerability to nuclear facilities to terrorists, but the physical security of nuclear installations is much stronger than any other area or defense installation. Even under chaotic conditions, nuclear weapon would remain under heavy guarded security. The nuclear installations are protected by multilayered security system and each one is no-fly zone, guarded by special trained forces and intelligence, monitored by most sensitive sensors, cameras and equipments. The impression that few thousands militants, from a distant or backward region can take control over a country with population of 190 million, which also possessed large army, sounds a movie script rather than reality. Any worst terrorist tragedy would require not only a failed state but insider involvedness and anti-state decisions. Such a scenario is less likely to take place.
Significantly, in order to enhance the secrecy and survivability, Pakistan reportedly has not revealed the sensitive information about its nuclear weapons. While, to avoid any escalation, accidental launch or nuclear sabotage, Pakistani nukes are stored in disassemble form and cores of fissile material are placed separate from nuclear weapons. Surely, Pakistan must have installed the coded-secured devices too that demands access by entering a secret code to arm an assembled nuclear warhead, As General Khalid Kidwai explained Pakistan’s nuclear system as ‘functional equivalent’ of permissive action links (PALs). This means that other than coding, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons might also comprised of environmental sensing devices that would assure a specific environment before the warhead can set off.
On the security of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Shaun Gregory opined “In the fifteen years since Pakistan emerged as an operational nuclear weapons state in 1998 there has been no credible report of a terrorist seizure of nuclear weapons or nuclear-weapons related material in Pakistan, nor of terrorists penetrating and holding space within a confirmed nuclear weapons facility such as might allow them to gain access to, or otherwise create a threat with, nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons related material. This track-record, and indeed Pakistan’s similarly unblemished history during the decades since the 1950s over which Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program has reached maturity, has persuaded many within and outside Pakistan that the risk of a terrorist threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is at best overstated and at worst a myth designed to impugn the reputation of Pakistan and its Army”.
To conclude, despite of all the reasoning, Pakistan would be habitually associated to nuclear terrorism and unfavorable options to secure its nuclear program would be persistently presented in broader strategic calculus. Thus the hearsays linking IS with Pakistan servers more the purpose of verbal strokes than addressing validate schema because our nukes are not nuts and not accessible to acquire by any mean.
The writer is a member of an Islamabad based think-tank, Strategic Vision Institute (SVI) and can be reached at [email protected]