Nuclear Security in Pakistan: Reducing the Risks of Nuclear Terrorism

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Today's frightening instability in Pakistan comes in a world in which global terrorists are actively seeking nuclear weapons and the materials and expertise needed to make them, a quest that has been underway for more than a decade. Rapid action is needed to keep the Taliban's advances in Pakistan from creating new opportunities for these deadly adversaries.

Yet, assessing nuclear security in Pakistan should not be viewed in isolation. The challenges faced by Pakistani authorities must be seen in their broader context to be properly understood and effectively countered. All countries in possession of nuclear weapons are concerned about the possibility of losing control over a bomb or weapons-related material. Consequently, states must pay utmost attention to securing these means of mass destruction. Recent years have seen increased international cooperation on nuclear security, improvements in international material protection control and accounting procedures, and increased funding for nuclear security-related initiatives. Despite increases in the scope and sophistication of security measures, much work remains to be done in order to lock down all nuclear materials to a Fort Knox standard. The fact remains that missing weapons-usable material turns up regularly on the nuclear black market.[1] The most worrisome aspect of these recurring incidents is that facilities from which the materials originated did not report them missing. In addition, there have been some notable lapses in warhead security, even in the United States.[2]

Despite such troubling developments, global security efforts until now have been good enough to avert a nuclear catastrophe. The bad news is that nuclear threats are growing.

According to former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, "Pakistan is the most dangerous country in today's world."[3]

Daunting Security Task

Ensuring complete control over nuclear equipment, material, and technology is more difficult now than at any time in the past. There is a burgeoning global interest in all things nuclear. More states are seeking nuclear technologies, power, and weapons. Production, transportation, and storage of nuclear materials will expand throughout the 21st century. The presence of more material in more places increases the odds of a security breach leading to the loss of a bomb or the theft of materials to make a bomb. The anticipated global renaissance in nuclear energy will pose new challenges in this regard unless the associated proliferation risks are fully taken into account in decisions on materials processing, transportation, and storage. In this light, it is essential to secure not only weapons-grade plutonium and uranium from military programs, but also plutonium, highly enriched uranium, and other materials from civilian programs. Materials that would not meet the standards required for a nuclear weapon developed by a state might be usable in a terrorist's yield-producing bomb.[4]

Thus, a zero tolerance standard must be adopted for the loss of any nuclear weapon or of materials that may be fashioned into a bomb. Terrorists know that they can exploit any vulnerability to their advantage. In December 1998, Osama bin Laden expressed al Qaeda's intent when he stated in an interview, "Acquiring weapons [of mass destruction] for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty."[5] In November 2001, he added, "I wish to declare that if America used chemical or nuclear weapons against us, then we may retort with chemical or nuclear weapons. We have the weapons as deterrent."[6]

In its efforts to achieve the stature of a state, a terrorist group is most interested in producing a nuclear yield-a mushroom cloud. Consequently, a terrorist group would improvise a nuclear device or essentially build a crude nuclear bomb, one that has a low yield and may be unpredictable, inefficient, and unsafe in comparison with the complicated weapons systems in a national nuclear arsenal. To counter this qualitatively new threshold of nuclear-related threats, states must ensure that terrorists do not acquire any nuclear materials. This risk increases the demands that must be placed on security measures for materials at all stages of their use, i.e., production, processing, transportation, and storage, in research reactors as well as weapons facilities. The bottom line is that it is not enough to preclude terrorists from getting their hands on a bomb. States must eliminate any possibility that terrorists will acquire sufficient materials to build a bomb or successfully attack or take over a facility containing weapons or materials.

After the September 11 attacks, for example, the United States raised the level of the security for nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. As a centerpiece of this effort, President George W. Bush signed a National Security Directive in August 2006 establishing the U.S. government's Nuclear Materials Information Program. This program directed the consolidation of all U.S. information pertaining to all nuclear materials worldwide, in all forms and at all levels of enrichment. It included radioactive sources that could be fashioned into a dirty bomb. Every country was considered as a potential source of a crude terrorist weapon, including the United States. The directive prescribed a systematic approach to assessing the security status of all nuclear materials in facilities and in transit. It required the construction of a forensics database containing all U.S. holdings.[7]

In addition, substantial new investments were made in upgrading security throughout the U.S. nuclear establishment. To that end, security planners in the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made assumptions about the likelihood that malicious insiders at nuclear sites would work with outsiders to allow access to facilities and materials. The Energy Department and the FBI dramatically increased intelligence and counterintelligence efforts to mitigate threats posed by malicious insiders. Defense in depth-multiple, reinforcing layers of security-was strengthened to catch any leakage of materials or information that could enable an outside group in its pursuit of a bomb.

In spite of such upgrades, serious security lapses have occurred in the U.S. nuclear establishment over the past several years.[8] Others will surely happen in the future because no security is perfect. Thus, constant vigilance is required; it is important to strive continuously toward the elimination of nuclear threats, knowing that it may never be possible to achieve this ideal standard. The surest way to fail is to become complacent, to believe it cannot happen here.

That is certainly true in Pakistan. Nevertheless, all signs indicate that the professional and disciplined Pakistani military establishment that maintains control over the nuclear arsenal understands the dangers of a breakdown in nuclear security. Senior Pakistani military officers have consistently expressed a high degree of confidence that they are prepared to counter a range of plausible threats in this regard.

These officers have a lot to worry about, notwithstanding high-level reassurances from Pakistani authorities that everything is under control. Three worrisome trends are exerting mounting pressure on the Pakistani military's ability to secure its nuclear assets and prevent a nuclear catastrophe. First, growing extremism in Pakistan increases the odds of insiders in the nuclear establishment collaborating with outsiders to access weapons, materials, or facilities. Second, the rapid expansion of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program will introduce new vulnerabilities into the security system. Finally, growing instability within the country could lead to unanticipated challenges to nuclear command and control procedures, resulting in a "loose nuke" scenario, a takeover of a facility by outsiders, or, in the worst case, a coup leading to Taliban control over the nuclear arsenal.

Collaboration Scenarios

The greatest threat of a loose nuke scenario stems from insiders in the nuclear establishment working with outsiders, people seeking a bomb or material to make a bomb. Nowhere in the world is this threat greater than in Pakistan. Pakistani authorities have a dismal track record in thwarting insider threats. For example, the network run by the father of the Pakistani bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, channeled sensitive nuclear technologies to Iran, Libya, and North Korea for years under the noses of the establishment before it was taken down in 2003, to the best of our knowledge.[9] The Umma-Tameer-e-Nau (UTN), founded by Pakistani nuclear scientists with close ties to al Qaeda and the Taliban, was headed by Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, who had been in charge of Pakistan's Khushab reactor.[10] He discussed al Qaeda's nuclear aspirations with bin Laden. According to Mahmood, bin Laden asked him how he could construct a bomb if the group already had the material.[11] It is stunning to consider that two of the founding fathers of Pakistan's weapons program embarked independently on clandestine efforts to organize networks to sell their country's most precious secrets for profit.

Although the UTN network apparently was neutralized before it had a chance to fulfill al Qaeda's long-held aspirations to obtain what bin Laden has called a "Hiroshima bomb," this was the first known case in which a "WMD for hire" network had been created specifically to provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorist and extremist groups. In this context, members of the UTN group represented the broad set of scientific- and engineering-related capabilities necessary to construct an improvised nuclear device. They had an international reach. Most importantly, some prominent members of the group had once held positions in the Pakistani establishment and had connections to people on the inside with access to nuclear materials. It is not certain that this group had the wherewithal to have succeeded in its desire to enable al Qaeda's quest for a bomb, but it is encouraging that resolute Pakistani and U.S. follow-up action apparently nipped in the bud a potentially serious threat.[12]

There are troubling indications that these insider threats are not anomalies. In the Khan and UTN cases, the rogue senior officers and their cohorts in the nuclear establishment were not caught by Pakistan's security establishment. It would be foolhardy to assume that such lapses could not happen again. The Pakistani military, intelligence, and nuclear establishments are not immune to rising levels of extremism in the country. There is a lethal proximity between terrorists, extremists, and nuclear weapons insiders. Insiders have facilitated terrorist attacks.[13] Suicide bombings have occurred at air force bases that reportedly serve as nuclear weapons storage sites.[14] It is difficult to ignore such trends. Purely in actuarial terms, there is a strong possibility that bad apples in the nuclear establishment are willing to cooperate with outsiders for personal gain or out of sympathy for their cause.

Relying on Secrecy

Pakistani authorities certainly recognize the gravity of this problem. One of the ways they are coping is to emphasize secrecy and clandestinity over the more visible manifestations of nuclear security. The U.S. and Russian model of nuclear security relies on redundant layers of high walls, gates, and guards at sites in order to produce a highly visible image of impenetrability that will deter those seeking to gain access to them. Essentially, Pakistan has sacrificed some of the advantages of the traditional approach to security in favor of reducing unique vulnerabilities and threats arising from the circumstances in which it finds itself.

The thrust of the Pakistani military's strategy is to reduce its vulnerability to a nuclear security incident by systematically denying outsiders opportunities to gain illicit access to nuclear weapons. Consequently, the nuclear establishment is distributed geographically: Materials processing and weapons production facilities are consolidated in sites near Islamabad in areas under tight government control. Special nuclear material is reportedly stored apart from the weapons themselves. Warheads are reportedly stored separately from delivery systems.[15]

Another precaution taken by the Pakistani military is to maintain strict secrecy over the location of storage sites and to transport and deploy weapons clandestinely rather than in convoys that have a stronger, highly visible security profile. These security precautions produce fewer visible signs of movements, thereby lowering the risks associated with possible theft of or attack on weapons at their most vulnerable point, in transit.[16]

Paradoxically, this dependence on secrecy over physical security could backfire in the event a malicious insider gained access to locations of weapons storage sites, transportation routes, and similar insider information, especially because more moving parts are involved in assembling weapons when they are being deployed. In such a case, there would be fewer barriers between an outside group and the bomb.

The emphasis on maintaining clandestinity and secrecy in nuclear activity may hold other unintended consequences. For instance, Pakistan's development of indigenous weapons-use controls-permissive action links (PALs)-for partially disassembled weapons systems is more challenging than for PALs built into a fully integrated weapons system.[17] Moreover, although unpredictability in nuclear-related movements and activity is good from the standpoint of frustrating would-be attackers, it could conceivably increase the chances of a dangerous miscalculation of Pakistan's actions by India, especially in a crisis in which Pakistan's archrival interpreted a nuclear terrorist incident as a threat against its security.

Another trend that militates against achieving perfect nuclear security is the rapid expansion of the Pakistani nuclear program. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal roughly doubled from 1998 to today's total of a hundred weapons, in round numbers.[18] In the coming years, as new plutonium-production capacity at the Khushab site comes online, the total number of nuclear weapons could increase dramatically.[19] Using plutonium as the nuclear-explosive material also would allow Pakistan to build smaller nuclear weapons.

The expansion of the nuclear weapons program will mean more material, more construction of facilities for processing material and manufacturing weapons and delivery systems, and more demands for waste storage and transportation. More of everything means more vulnerabilities, more places for something to go wrong.

Finally, Pakistan's expanding nuclear program and the insider threat that accompanies it is taking place in the context of the broader trend of increasing instability in the country. In terms of assigning probabilities to a potential nuclear meltdown, the most likely scenario that Pakistan may confront is not a loss of control over one of its nuclear weapons, although that risk certainly must be addressed. Rather, threats are more likely to emerge from the increasing number of potential pathways to a bomb, specifically, the increasing threats posed by a slow hemorrhaging over time of technology, design, and construction knowledge and materials that might ultimately cross the threshold and produce a terrorist bomb. This phenomenon is more complicated and subtle and more difficult to counter than the scary, well-hyped scenarios involving loose nukes stolen by terrorists from a storage site or in transit.

Rising Risks

Unfortunately, there is growing rationale and shared motivation for insiders and outsiders to cooperate out of shared hatred toward the United States. This kind of externally directed hostility may not be readily recognized in its formative stages by those guarding the nuclear weapons arsenal, because these threats are not being directed against the Pakistani government. Countering such insidious trends will require not only a strengthening of defenses, but also a weakening of the threats, the sources of anti-U.S. antipathy that contributes to the possibility that al Qaeda will be able to convince an insider to help its cause. In terms of assessing any spike in these risks, the overall direction of pro-Taliban and anti-Taliban sentiment in the country should be closely watched.

The National Command Authority (NCA) that controls the use of nuclear weapons remains under the tight reins of the Pakistani military, not the civilian leadership. It is not obvious how effectively the military might respond to unprecedented challenges to its nuclear command and control procedures. The bifurcation of civilian and military roles seems to have been left deliberately ambiguous under the NCA; certain responsibilities that nominally have been given to the civilian leadership may be carried out by the military. The potential discrepancy between constitutional authorities and actual execution of those authorities raises the risks of uncertainty and confusion in a crisis. For example, the Pakistan civilian leadership, especially if a more extreme government assumed power, might issue orders or make statements concerning the status and control of nuclear forces contradicting those made by the Pakistani military commander-in-chief.[20]

Confusing and chaotic conditions would likely accompany a deterioration of the general security situation in Pakistan. One can only imagine how difficult it might be for the military to respond effectively to an unanticipated challenge to command and control communications that results from a surging Taliban offensive. Worse yet would be the potential uncertainties caused by an extremist bid to seize power. In such cases, some elements of the military's loyalties might be divided, even in the event that overall control over nuclear forces continues to be assured. By way of example, if a colonel in charge of hundreds of troops decided to take over a nuclear weapons site, would the military be able to resolve such a situation in a way that did not lead to catastrophe?

It is not likely that the Pakistani military and nuclear security establishment can fully consider all such challenges to its authority in advance or, even if it can, that such scenarios would unfold precisely as anticipated. For example, how would the military be able to respond to a breakdown of security involving a loose nuke, an ambushed convoy, or a takeover of a nuclear facility? Even if the military managed to resolve any threats on the ground immediately, there are questions concerning the military and civilian roles in the NCA that are not well understood outside Pakistan or perhaps even within the country. It is possible that, in extreme circumstances, the Pakistani government would be hard-pressed to reassure the outside world, especially India, that all its nuclear assets are under the full and authoritative control of the military.

Fortunately, it appears that the odds of such a security breakdown are very low, at least from an assessment based on the current realities of the security situation in Pakistan. The authorities appear to be serious about countering Taliban advances in the country. That is vital because ensuring continued stability and law and order is the most important factor in averting the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe. As Pakistan moves forward to face an uncertain future, the government faces an ongoing challenge to its authority and myriad threats against which it must defend. With the passage of time, the odds steadily increase that Pakistan will face a serious test of its nuclear security.

For its part, the United States must be fully prepared to respond to this eventuality. The United States should continue to do all it can to assist Pakistan in upgrading its nuclear security. U.S. government assistance to Pakistan has been a wise investment, even without full transparency into the expenditure of funds. The United States should be satisfied that anything that helps upgrade Pakistan's nuclear security is an investment in its own security. No country, including Pakistan, can be expected to risk exposing the details of its nuclear security posture and readiness to another country. Most importantly, U.S. assistance has improved bilateral nuclear ties between Washington and Islamabad, engendered trust, established more reliable lines of communication, and enhanced the possibility of more effective consultation and coordination in a crisis.[21]

Pakistan and the United States should be prepared to take cooperation one level higher. Both countries should consider unprecedented ways to address the more extreme contingencies on a cooperative basis to the extent that such action is feasible and realistic. In the interest of bridging gaps in nuclear security planning, senior-level officials should use existing channels of communication to discuss, behind closed doors, their specific concerns, including various security vulnerabilities that may emerge. Having such a dialogue early on, before an incident occurs, might help lower the risks of either side making a serious misstep based on miscalculations arising from inadequate information, misplaced assumptions, or the sensitivities that inevitably accompany nuclear-related decision-making. In addition, Pakistan should receive high-level reassurances concerning U.S. nonintervention in a crisis, possible means of assistance, and so on. Moreover, senior officials in both countries should agree to pursue specific joint actions and special communications mechanisms to be activated during a crisis, such as responses to a stolen or missing nuclear weapon or takeover of a nuclear facility.

Finally, increasing the level of transparency and predictability between India and Pakistan is absolutely vital. Neither party can afford to make a miscalculation in the heat of the moment that might escalate into a nuclear confrontation.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Until January 2009, he headed the U.S. Department of Energy's intelligence and counterintelligence office and before that served as a CIA officer for 23 years in various domestic and international posts.


1. Council on Foreign Relations, "Loose Nukes," Backgrounder, January 2006,

2. Zachary Hosford, "Congress, Pentagon Probe Nuke Overflight," Arms Control Today, October 2007, p. 48.

3. John Barry, "How to Fight Al-Qaeda Now: An Ex-CIA Analyst Talks About the Terrorists' Power and Their Vulnerabilities," Newsweek, October 27, 2008,

4. Michael Levi, Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security, July 27, 2006,

5. Rahimullah Yusufzai, "Conversations With Terror," TIME, January 11, 1999,,8599,174550,00.html.

6. Hamid Mir, "Osama Claims He Has Nukes: If US Uses N-arms It Will Get Same Response," Dawn, November 10, 2001,

7. Steven Aoki, "Testimony on H.R. 2631, the Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act," Washington, D.C., October 10, 2007 (testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security).

8. "Tennessee: Plea Deal in Nuclear Case," Associated Press, January 27, 2009.

9. John Lancaster and Kamran Khan, "Musharraf Named in Nuclear Probe; Senior Pakistani Army Officers Were Aware of Technology Transfers, Scientist Says," The Washington Post, February 3, 2004, p. A13.

10. Dennis Overbye and James Glanz, "Pakistani Atomic Expert, Arrested Last Week, Had Strong Pro-Taliban Views," The New York Times, November 2, 2001,

11. George Tenet, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), pp. 264, 268.

12. Steve Coll, "What Bin Laden Sees in Hiroshima," The Washington Post, February 6, 2005, p. B1.

13. Omar Waraich, "Cricket Attack: Suspicions Grow That Ambush Was an 'Inside Job,'" The Huffington Post, March 5, 2009,

14. Bill Roggio, "Suicide Attack at Pakistani Nuclear Weapons Complex," The Long War Journal, December 10, 2007,

15. Steven Mufson, "U.S. Worries About Pakistan Nuclear Arms," The Washington Post, November 4, 2001, p. A27.

16. Chaim Braun, Pakistan's Nuclear Future: Worries Beyond War, ed. Henry D. Sokolski (Carlisle Barracks, PA : Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2008), pp. 261-262.

17. Gordon Correra, "How Secure Is Pakistan's Bomb?" BBC News, February 4, 2008,

18. Heather Maher, "Expert Says Pakistan Improving Quality of Nuclear Arsenal," Radio Free Liberty Radio Europe,

19. Ibid.

20. Mark Thompson, "Does Pakistan's Taliban Surge Raise a Nuclear Threat?" TIME, April 24, 2009,,8599,1893685,00.html.

21. Bryan Bender, "Pakistan, U.S. in Talks on Nuclear Security," The Boston Globe, May 5, 2009,