Fatwas for fission: Assessing the terrorist threat to Pakistan’s nuclear assets

By Charles P. Blair | November 16, 2011

Pakistan has long been considered a potential source of nuclear weapons for terrorists, even before it had a full-fledged nuclear program and decades before it demonstrated a yield-bearing nuclear explosive capability. In 1976, distressed by the dissemination of nuclear technologies and expertise to “politically unstable countries,” military intelligence historian Roberta Wohlstetter warned that a nuclear-armed Pakistan increased “the probability of terrorist use of nuclear weapons considerably.” Thirty-six years later, an international chorus still warns that Pakistan — presently armed with 90 to 110 nuclear weapons — is the epicenter of violent Islamism where terrorist groups actively seek nuclear weapons. But how real is the risk? Two groups of experts stand on opposite ends of the risk spectrum — these “optimists” and “pessimists” consider valid variables but fail to evaluate all the critical factors necessary for a methodologically robust and defensible threat assessment of Pakistan’s nuclear assets.

The pessimists contend the risk has grown and “the safety and security of nuclear weapons materials in Pakistan may very well be compromised at some point in the future.” Indeed, for almost a decade there have been calls for US contingency plans to destroy, temporarily secure in place, or “exfiltrate” Pakistani nuclear assets — its nuclear weapons and fissile materials — in the event of widespread civil unrest or a governmental coup empowering Islamist forces. In contrast, optimists maintain Pakistan’s nuclear weapons infrastructure is secure and the threat posed by terrorists is overblown. Optimists say perceptions of vulnerability do not adequately consider the implementation of various technical precautions and advances in Pakistan’s personnel reliability program. For example, optimists emphasize that Pakistan likely maintains its nuclear arsenal in a disassembled state: a bifurcated manner where the weapons’ fissile cores are separated from the non-nuclear components (e.g., firing circuitry and conventional explosives) and delivery platforms. Pakistani officials maintain that even during times of crisis, the 2001–2 standoff with India for example, these components are not mated. When handling components or an intact weapon, Pakistan claims to abide by “two-man” or “three-man” rules “and very tight selection [processes] for vetting personnel involved with nuclear weapons — mirroring in many ways, some believe, the US Personnel Reliability Program.” Additionally, they downplay the threat posed by violent Islamists and the risks associated with domestic political instability (e.g., an Islamist coup). In short, Pakistan’s nuclear assets are either on the brink of successful seizure by terrorists or they are secure. Based on unclassified information, neither the optimists’ nor the pessimists’ positions are defensible — in fact, both positions only review assumed terrorist capabilities and putative vulnerabilities of Pakistan’s nuclear assets.

Today, few assessments consider whether or not relevant Pakistani groups are motivated to attack these assets and what their operational goals might be. Because of these gaps in current threat assessments, no definitive determinations can be made with regard to the security of Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure (e.g., facilities housing nuclear weapon components, fissile materials, and critical transportation nodes)

A holistic threat assessment. Risk assessments typically are comprised of two broad components: chance and consequence. The latter is not relevant here, apart from how the attacker’s perception of consequence management affects his or her motivation and method of attack. Chance is addressed by means of a threat assessment, a process that considers three elements. The first and second are assessments of the value and vulnerability of the asset in question. Likelihood of attack, the third broad element of threat assessment, is dependent on who the attackers might be, their motivations for an attack, and their perceived capabilities. In assessing likelihood of attack, one cannot overemphasize the importance of the attacker’s perception of the target’s value and vulnerability. Figure 1 illustrates these interconnected threat assessment relationships, with the attacker’s perception represented by a dotted line.

The full contents of this article are available in the November/December issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and can be found here.

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