Nuclear Terrorism Threat Grows, Part 2
NATO officials are not alone in their concern about nuclear terrorism. Last year, at the Nuclear Security Summit U.S. officials expressed concern that atomic weaponry could be obtained by terrorists, particularly from Pakistan.
Heather Von Behren, The U.S. State Department’s chief of the counter nuclear smuggling unit in the International Security and Nonproliferation bureau during the Obama presidency, noted:
nuclear terrorism is a threat to our collective security… The seizure of weapons-grade nuclear material in Georgia in 2010 and Moldova in 2011 suggests that these types of materials could still remain in illegal circulation. In addition to locking down material under government control, the international community is working together to investigate smuggling networks, remove nuclear and other radioactive material from the black market, and arrest individuals involved.
The threat is not new, nor restricted just to ISIS. The Combatting Terrorism Center reported in 2009 that,
Al-Qa`ida has made numerous statements about a desire to obtain nuclear weapons for use against the United States and Western interests . While many of these statements are rhetorical hyperbole, the scale of the potential destructiveness of nuclear weapons, the instability and “nuclear porosity” of the context in Pakistan, and the vulnerabilities within Pakistan’s nuclear safety and security arrangements mean that the risks of terrorist groups gaining access to nuclear materials are real. Moreover, militants have recently attacked a number of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities, including an August 21, 2008 incident at the Wah cantonment, widely understood to be one of Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons assembly sites.
When Pakistan was developing its nuclear weapons infrastructure in the 1970s and 1980s, its principal concern was the risk that India would overrun its nuclear weapons facilities in an armored offensive if the facilities were placed close to the long Pakistan-India border. As a result, Pakistan, with a few exceptions, chose to locate much of its nuclear weapons infrastructure to the north and west of the country and to the region around Islamabad and Rawalpindi—sites such as Wah, Fatehjang, Golra Sharif, Kahuta, Sihala, Isa Khel Charma, Tarwanah, and Taxila . The concern, however, is that most of Pakistan’s nuclear sites are close to or even within areas dominated by Pakistani Taliban militants and home to al-Qa`ida.
The Pakistani Taliban and al-Qa`ida are more than capable of launching terrorist attacks in these areas, including within Islamabad and Rawalpindi. They have also proved that they have good intelligence about the movement of security personnel, including army, ISI and police forces, all of whom have been routinely targeted. A series of attacks on nuclear weapons facilities has also occurred. These have included an attack on the nuclear missile storage facility at Sargodha on November 1, 2007, an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear airbase at Kamra by a suicide bomber on December 10, 2007,and perhaps most significantly the August 21, 2008 attack when Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers blew up several entry points to one of the armament complexes at the Wah cantonment, considered one of Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons assembly sites. The significance of these events is difficult to overstate.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) uses radiation portal monitors, a detection device that provides a passive, non-intrusive means to screen trucks and other conveyances for the presence of nuclear and radiological materials. These systems are capable of detecting various types of radiation emanating from nuclear devices, dirty bombs, special nuclear materials, natural sources, and isotopes commonly used in medicine and industry. CBP notes that,
As the nation’s primary border enforcement agency, CBP must do everything in its power to prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering this country.
Originally published on the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.