ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2 raises questions about whether he was sheltered by elements of Pakistan’s security services — sympathetic men who could also be part of the security surrounding Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Back in the 1990s, bin Laden said acquiring nuclear weapons was a “religious duty” of Muslim states and the leader of al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2009 said the group hoped to seize and use Pakistan’s arsenal.
“God willing, the nuclear weapons will not fall into the hands of the Americans and the mujahideen would take them and use them against the Americans,” Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the leader of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, said in an interview with Al Jazeera television.
An al Qaeda assault on a nuclear facility in Pakistan would most likely be unsuccessful, given the high security surrounding sensitive sites, but worries remain that militants in the country could obtain some type of nuclear material through infiltrating the security services.
Here are some facts about Pakistan’s nuclear program.
Pakistan began a program to obtain nuclear weapons after its defeat by India in a 1971 war that led to the division of the country and the creation of Bangladesh, previously East Pakistan.
The army sees its nuclear weapons as essential to offset the conventional superiority of its much bigger neighbor.
India sees its nuclear weapons as a deterrent against Pakistan and China, which defeated it in a border war in 1962.
Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in May 1998, shortly after India did so. Both countries faced international sanctions as a result, although India has since won effective recognition as a nuclear power following an accord negotiated with the United States. Neither Pakistan nor India have signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Estimates vary on the size of Pakistan’s and India’s nuclear arsenals, although analysts suggest India has 70-120 nuclear weapons while Pakistan has 60-120. These can be delivered by aircraft, or by missiles, which both countries have been developing and testing.
Analysts believe the nuclear weapons have reduced the likelihood of a conventional war between India and Pakistan. At the same time, they have opened the way to unconventional proxy wars. India accuses Pakistan of using its nuclear umbrella as a cover for what it calls cross-border terrorism by Islamist militants, a charge Pakistan rejects.
Pakistan, which has fought three full-scale wars with India, including two over the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, is believed to have prepared its warheads for deployment twice.
The first time was in 1999 during the Kargil conflict, fought in the mountains on the Line of Control, the ceasefire line dividing Jammu and Kashmir.
The second was during a military standoff between India and Pakistan in 2001/2002 which followed an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, blamed on Pakistan-based militants.
India has a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons but has made clear if it were hit by a nuclear bomb from Pakistan it would strike back in force. Pakistan has indicated it would use its weapons if it believed its existence were threatened in a conventional war. Recent growth in its nuclear program has been seen as an attempt to develop a second strike capability.
Pakistan is believed to have worked closely with the United States to build elaborate security mechanisms to prevent Islamist militants from seizing nuclear material. The nuclear program is controlled by the army and run by the Strategic Planning Division headed by retired Lieutenant-General Khalid Kidwai.
Pakistan has copied “best practice” on security from the United States, including on personnel vetting.
Analysts say Pakistan is believed to have developed its own Permissive Action Link system, modeled on one used in the United States, to electronically lock nuclear weapons. It also relies on a range of other measures including physical security, separation of warheads from missiles and warheads from explosive devices.
U.S. reassurances that it is confident about the security of Pakistan’s weapons have underpinned views that Washington has worked closely with Pakistan on this.
However, analysts also say Pakistan is likely to have kept at least some of its nuclear program secret given its concerns that an outside power might try to neutralize its nuclear weapons in the event of war.
Edited by Rebecca Conway and Chris Allbritton