LONDON (Reuters) - Security experts fear Pakistan’s nuclear materials could fall into the hands of Islamic militants as the country’s instability deepens in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
In early 2005, a joint security assessment by the CIA and the U.S. National Intelligence Council predicted Pakistan would become “a failed state, ripe with civil war, bloodshed, inter-provincial rivalries and a struggle for control of its nuclear weapons and complete Talibanization” by 2015.
Following Bhutto’s death in Rawalpindi on Thursday, some experts believe the timeframe on that assessment may now have been brought forward, with political upheaval pitching Pakistan, a nuclear-armed power since 1998, towards breakdown.
“It’s a very, very valid risk,” said M.J. Gohel, the head of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London-based security and intelligence think-tank, describing the possibility that parts of Pakistan’s nuclear technology could fall into militant hands.
“It’s only a matter of time before al Qaeda or somebody sympathetic to them gets hold of nuclear weapons, and if al Qaeda or its sympathizers are to get hold of them, then Pakistan is at this point the weakest link in the chain.
“It is the most unstable country in the world that has nuclear weapons. Iran may want nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t have them today. Pakistan does.”
Despite the concerns frequently raised by nuclear experts, especially since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Washington believes Pakistan’s arsenal remains secure.
U.S. military and defense officials say the weapons are safely under the control of the Pakistani military, and the Pentagon on Friday counseled calm despite recent turmoil.
“Our assessment is that the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is under control,” spokesman Colonel Gary Keck said. “At this time we have no need for concern.”
The security of Pakistan’s nuclear program, begun in the early 1970s, has, however, been of international concern since the 1990s when suspicions emerged that A.Q. Khan, the head of the program, was trading know-how with China and North Korea.
Khan confessed on national television in 2004, admitting that Iran and Libya had been among his clients. The next day he was pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf. Despite the proliferation breach, the United States imposed no sanctions.
Musharraf, a former head of the army who came to power in a military coup in 1999, once said that “not an army bolt” could go missing without his knowledge, and yet Khan managed for years to export sophisticated technology with little restraint.
Given that Musharraf, an important U.S. ally in the battle against militants, also has to juggle the fact that elements of his military have sympathy with the Taliban and al Qaeda, the possibility of nuclear security being compromised exists.
“In the long run, if you have all these nuclear assets and a government that’s having to pander to extremists to stay in power, it’s not a good look,” Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, told Reuters.
“These weapons and these assets are a potential headache wherever they are, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that they are a threat somewhere like Pakistan.”
If Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal were to be compromised, experts are not suggesting that whole nuclear bombs or armed missiles, of which Pakistan is estimated to have up to 100, would somehow pass into militant hands.
More probable is that nuclear material, such as small quantities of radioactive uranium, would be passed on, allowing groups such as al Qaeda to develop so-called “dirty bombs”.
Al Qaeda’s desire to get hold of such weapons is long held — Gohel says the group has had a Weapons of Mass Destruction committee for several years, with most members still at large.
Paul Wilkinson, the former head of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University, said an unstable Pakistan could lead to a “nightmare scenario”.
“We could have a situation where extremists were able to control the nuclear facilities of Pakistan,” he told the UK’s Press Association. “That would be a very dangerous, nightmare scenario, and one that we really ought to be concerned about.”
Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna and Andrew Marshall in Dubai and Kristin Roberts in Washington; Editing by Giles Elgood