United States Of Common Sense


A Real Nightmare
Pakistan woman protester
Pakistan woman protester
Pakistan protesters burn and rage in the streets of Karachi, the largest city, main seaport and financial centre of Pakistan, as well as the capital of the province of Sindh. | Photo: Associated Press | Pakistan, Protest, Woman, Terrorist, Violence,

Islamic Militants Threaten Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons

Within the small circle of terrorist WMD experts in the Intelligence Community it is the stuff of nightmares. When I served as head of CIA's terrorist WMD unit within the Counterterrorism Center it was one of those things that kept me awake in the middle of the night.

A terrorist group succeeds in getting its hand on a functioning nuclear weapon. It moves it to a city in Western Europe or the United States, and it detonates it. The resulting damage is catastrophic.

In 2005 the RAND Corporation prepared a study on the effects that a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon, smaller than that used at Hiroshima, would have if detonated in a shipping container on the docks in the port of Long Beach in California. The study's findings were terrifying.

  • 60,000 people would be killed instantly or would die shortly thereafter from radiation poisoning.
  • 150,000 people would require emergency medical treatment for radiation exposure.
  • The entire infrastructure of the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles would be destroyed.
  • 6,000,000 people would become refugees.
  • The refineries at Long Beach would be utterly destroyed, creating widespread fuel shortages in the western United States.
  • The economic cost of such an attack would be in the neighborhood of $1 trillion. 9/11, by way of comparison, caused $50-100 billion in damage.

We have seen this scenario unfold countless times on the screen and in the pages of popular novels. My own 2011 novel, Barbarossa, dealt with a scenario in which Al Qaida had succeeded in acquiring a Soviet "backpack" nuclear weapon and smuggling it out of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, we are now seeing that what was once fiction is now in danger of becoming reality.

Two weeks ago heavily armed Islamic militants in Pakistan fought their way into the heart of a Pakistani airbase, which has been widely reported in the press to house nuclear weapons. It took two hours of heavy fighting for Pakistani security forces to repel that attack.

Minhas, the base in question, is located only about twenty-five miles from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Minhas houses, in addition to whatever nuclear weapons are stored there, fighter jets and a factory that makes aircraft and other weapons systems.

The attack on the air base began about 2 a.m. when Taliban militants opened fire on the installation with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. At least one of the rockets hit a hangar inside the base in which aircraft were parked. The attackers, many of them wearing suicide vests, then scaled the walls of the facility and gained entry.

One soldier and nine militants were killed in the ensuing battle. The commander of the base personally directed the defense of the installation and was wounded in the process. Reports indicate that before they were stopped, the attackers succeeded in getting to the base's runway itself and in damaging at least one jet aircraft.

According to press reports, Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal of between 80 and 100 operational nuclear weapons. This is not a static number. Pakistan is continually adding to it as part of a buildup of its nuclear arsenal, which shows no signs of slowing. It is also continuing to create material for additional weapons.

All of Pakistan's weapons are considered to be fully functional. They have been tested. They are ready to be deployed on short notice. The Pakistanis are not the Iranians. They do not hope to one day field nuclear weapons. They have in their possession a large, robust, operational nuclear force.

Pakistan may be part of the elite club of nuclear weapons states. It is also a basket case. Its economy is virtually non-existent and is deteriorating further at an alarming rate. Its political system has been riddled with corruption since the creation of the nation. Periodic military coups have left the democratic process weak and incapable of confronting critical issues. Its people are poor, desperate and increasingly radicalized by a virulent brand of militant Islam.

For years the danger posed by a growing nuclear arsenal located in a failing state at the epicenter of Islamic terror has been obvious. We have consoled ourselves, however, with the belief that the Pakistani military remained staunchly secular and that it maintained sufficient strength and professionalism to repel all threats to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Neither one of those assumptions appears to remain valid any longer.

In 2011 Pakistani security officials arrested a Pakistani brigadier-general and several other field grade officers and charged them with membership in an outlawed Islamic extremist organization, Hizb-ut-Tahrir. At the time of his arrest, the general was working in a senior position inside Army headquarters in Rawalpindi. The group to which the general belonged was linked at the time to efforts to convince Pakistani soldiers to mutiny against their commanders.

All of the arrested officers were recently convicted and sentenced to prison terms. It was also revealed that the object of their efforts was to overthrow the Pakistani government and to install an Islamic state in Pakistan with the express purpose of recreating the Caliphate, an Islamic nation uniting all Muslims and governed by Sharia law. In pursuit of that objective, Hizb-ut-Tahrir has been engaged in widespread recruitment activity within the Pakistani military and on Pakistani military bases.

These revelations only added to the growing sense that Islamic militants have increasingly begun to infiltrate the Pakistani military and to challenge the authority of the national secular government.

Pakistan protesters
Pakistan protesters

The insurgency in the Indian state of Punjab originated in the late 1970s, as the Khalistan proponents turned to militancy. The roots of the insurgency were very complex. Almost all of the Sikh militant groups in Punjab aimed to created an independent state called Khalistan through acts of violence directed at members of the government or army. | Pakistan, Protest, Terrorist, Violence, Burn,

On May 22, 2011 a team of terrorists dressed in naval uniforms attacked a naval air station in Karachi. The attack was executed in such as way as to suggest that the terrorists had inside knowledge of the layout of the facility, and were familiar with security procedures inside the base. They cut through a perimeter fence at exactly the location where it was not covered by security cameras.

It took 18 hours for the attackers to be killed, but not before they took hostages, destroyed several aircraft and killed a number of military personnel.

In October 2009, militants laid siege to Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi.

In August 2008, teams of suicide bombers staged a coordinated assault on the Wah cantonment where Pakistan's nuclear weapons are assembled.

In November 2007, a suicide bomber killed eight people in an attack on a nuclear missile storage facility at Sargodha.

Extremism is on the rise in Pakistan generally, and the military is no exception. Speaking to his country's National Defense University in 2011, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States asked the Pakistani officers in the audience to name the main security threat to Pakistan. The majority of the officers in the audience said the "United States." The vote was consistent with the contents of a diplomatic cable that was leaked as part of the WikiLeaks revelations. In this cable, the US Ambassador to Pakistan noted her grave concerns about the rising levels of anti-Americanism in Pakistan's military.

The day we have dreaded for so long is close at hand. We have reached the point where it has become a very real possibility that Islamic extremists in Pakistan will succeed in acquiring one or more operational nuclear weapons. They may steal them. They may be given them. It will make no difference. We will be confronted with a nightmare become suddenly all too terrifying and all too real.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:29 PM EST | More details


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