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Could Taliban get keys to Pakistan's A-bomb?

Experts see the Islamic fighters as less of a risk than radical insiders gaining access to nuclear materials.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 2009

This military handout picture taken December 11, 2007 shows a nuclear-capable Pakistani cruise missile being tested at an undisclosed location in Pakistan. This Babur (Hatf 7) missile has a range of 440 miles.



Islamabad, Pakistan

Some of Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy's nuclear physics students will go on to oversee Pakistan's atomic bombs. That gives him pause.

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"The student body has become very conservative, very Islamist, their outward appearance has changed," says Professor Hoodbhoy, the chair of the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "It's row after row of these burqa women."

Students avoid talking politics with Hoodbhoy, a cautionary voice on nuclear weapons in a nation that takes boisterous pride in having them. "They think I'm on the wrong side," he says.

International concerns are mounting again about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons as fighting rages with the Taliban. But thanks to safeguards, experts worry much less about the Islamic fighters in the hills making off with a warhead. It's the radicals among the educated – potential insiders – who are in a more realistic position to abscond with nuclear material and know how to use it.

"Nuclear weapons are just about as safe as the people who are their custodians," says Hoodbhoy. The threat comes not from the "mountain barbarians," he says, but from "Al Qaeda, together with their Islamist allies within the Pakistani state and society. These are urban people, engineers, technicians, people in fairly high offices."

Clinton worries about Taliban getting A-bomb

According to research compiled by the Federation of Atomic Scientists, Pakistan has several suspected nuclear facilities near regions with Taliban infiltration. Media reports that the Taliban fighters had moved within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the capital prompted the latest concern.

"One of our concerns is that if the worst, the unthinkable were to happen, and this advancing Taliban were to essentially topple the government ... then they would have the keys to the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan," said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton late last month.

But the notion of the Taliban as a conventional force able to overrun such sites overlooks the massive size of the Pakistani military, centered on the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, near where much of the nuclear infrastructure also lies.

After a week of requests, Pakistani military officials failed to offer comment on their program's safeguards. But Pakistan has assured the West that certain procedures are in place. These include keeping warheads in a disassembled state, requiring multiple people to sign off on any activation orders, and so-called permissive action links that electronically lock the warheads unless codes are provided and environmental conditions – such as atmospheric pressure for plane-dropped bombs – are met.

$100 million US investment in nuke security

The US also spent $100 million to help Pakistan beef up nuclear security. Several experts said it's unknown exactly how that money was spent, but presumably it went toward these safeguards, enhancing perimeter fencing, and advanced training of personnel.

"It was money well spent," says Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who was the head of nuclear intelligence at the US Department of Energy until January. "There's not a lot of transparency into it though, and going into it I think the US felt like that was acceptable."

Presuming Pakistan has indeed implemented the safeguards it says it has, experts say the chance of outsiders snatching a usable warhead is extremely small.

"It would be very hard for pure outsiders to take over a facility," says Mr. Mowatt-Larssen. "My big concern is the insider threat combined with outsiders."