Pakistan's Ultimate Nightmare Scenario: Preventing Islamic Extremists from Acquiring Nuclear Weapons

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

The burning embers of the World Trade Center had barely setded over the lower Manhattan skyline when Washington insiders were already convinced that the next terrorist attack would be nuclear. For many, it was not a question of if, but when.1 The nightmare of nuclear terrorism is a rare unifying force in Washington, as most policymakers agree that nuclear terrorism is the most perilous global security threat of them all.2 Preventing nuclear terrorism is thus a vital strategic imperative. Despite the popular lore about "loose nukes" in Russia, many surmise that Islamic extremists3 need look no further than their own backyard, in Pakistan.4 In many respects, Pakistan appears to be an ideal target for Islamic extremists shopping in the nuclear market. Pakistan has a new nuclear arsenal;5 it is ravaged by instability and is a sanctuary for many terrorist groups.6 After September 11, 2001, many feared rogue elements in the Pakistani army might provide nuclear weapons or fissile material to Islamic extremists.7 This paper discusses the likelihood of this scenario occurring by reviewing Pakistan's existing nuclear security protocols and investigating any connections between the Pakistani army and Islamic extremists. Afterwards, this paper argues that preventing Islamic extremists from acquiring a Pakistani nuclear weapon requires (1) bringing Pakistan (and India) into the non-proliferation regime; (2) sustained economic programs to promote development in areas of Pakistan affected by Islamic extremism; and (3) investment in a genuine democratic process in Pakistan to serve as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.

II. PAKISTAN'S EXISTING NUCLEAR SECURITY PROTOCOLS

A. The Target: Pakistani Nuclear Weapons

Little is known in open sources about Pakistan's nuclear weapons.8 Current estimates suggest that Pakistan has approximately 60 nuclear weapons,9 stored in at least six locations throughout the country.10 Some reports suggest that Pakistan has developed two different weapons, one for aircraft delivery and another for missile delivery.11 The weapons are widely believed to be of an implosion design, 2 with a fissile core of highly enriched Uranium 235 weighing approximately 15 to 20 kilograms.13 The fissile cores are reportedly surrounded by spherical Beryllium/U-238 shields fitted with HMX explosive lenses.14 This data suggests a high degree of sophistication in the Pakistani design. Consequently, the weapons are a highly desirable target for Islamic extremists, yet extremely difficult to operate without vast technical expertise. Pakistan is understood to store the shields separately from the fissile cores,15 yet senior officers indicate that the weapons can be assembled quickly in a crisis.16 This leads some scholars to conclude that the shields and cores may be stored either in separate areas of the same site17 or at different facilities separated by a short distance. Analysts note that likely sites for warhead manufacture include the Air Weapons Complex at the Wah Cantonment, the Central Ammunition Depot at Sargodha and the National Defense Complex at Fatehjang.18 However, the precise number and location of sites used for warhead construction and storage are likely classified at the highest level. One retired Pakistani officer posits that many warhead storage sites are probably buried deep underground.19

Pakistani storage practices offer many benefits to preventing an attempted theft by Islamic extremists. Although primarily designed as a buffer against conventional attack, the storage procedures provide a measure of protection against a direct assault by Islamic extremists. First, Islamic extremists will require real-time information identifying the precise location of Pakistan's nuclear weapons components. Second, Islamic extremists desiring to steal a Pakistani nuclear weapon must have sufficient intelligence to differentiate between storage sites that house shields and storage sites that house the fissile cores. …