As suicide bombings continue to rack Pakistan, more evidence is emerging of Al Qaeda's open presence in the country's tribal belt. That comes at a time when the country's military continues to be attacked, raising US concerns about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and the possibility of the region becoming a launching pad for terrorist operatives.
A suicide bomber on a motorbike rammed into a minibus carrying security personnel, detonating a blast Monday that killed at least six people and wounded more than 30 in the latest attack in the Pakistani garrison city of Rawalpindi, officials said.
The bus was destroyed during the blast on a road running through a bazaar near the offices of the army's National Logistics Cell, said Bisharat Abbasi, the local police chief....
In recent months there have been a series of suicide bombings in Rawalpindi, a city where the army has its headquarters, about seven miles from the capital, Islamabad. President Pervez Musharraf also stays in the city, and he was in his office several miles from the scene at the time of the blast.
Since the Dec. 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the US has increased public pressure on Pakistan to fight terrorists, an offer Pakistan has so far rebuffed. Recent attacks appear to indicate that Al Qaeda operatives operate openly and may use the region as a base for terrorist attacks against Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries.
The Los Angeles Times reports that a wanted Al Qaeda operative may be alive and well in Pakistan, despite reports last year that the operative had been killed by a US Predator drone in the tribal belt, near the border of Afghanistan.
Recent intelligence shows that Abu Khabab, 54, is training Western recruits for chemical attacks in Europe and perhaps the United States, just as he did when he ran the "Khabab Camp" at Al Qaeda's sprawling Darunta training complex in Afghanistan's Tora Bora region before the Sept. 11 attacks, according to one senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the CIA's intelligence is classified...
Abu Khabab, whose real name is Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, is believed to have set up rudimentary labs with at least a handful of aides, and to have provided a stable environment in which scientists and researchers can experiment with chemicals and other compounds, said several former intelligence officials familiar with Al Qaeda's weapons program....
[Officials] say Al Qaeda has regenerated at least some of the robust research and development effort that it lost when the U.S. military bombed its Afghanistan headquarters and training camps in late 2001, and they believe it is once again trying to develop or obtain chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear weapons to use in attacks on the United States and other enemies.
Those fears come as The Washington Post reports that Al Qaeda operative Abu Laith al-Libi operated freely in Pakistan despite a heavy ransom on his head. Al Libi was reportedly killed last week in Pakistan by a US Predator drone.
"A Libyan al-Qaeda commander who was killed last week in northwestern Pakistan had lived there for years and, despite a $200,000 U.S. bounty on his head, felt secure enough to meet officials and visit hospitals, according to officials and residents of this city.
As he organized suicide bombings and other attacks in neighboring Afghanistan, Abu Laith al-Libi found a comfortable refuge in Pakistan's border region, the sources said in interviews. He met openly with a Pakistani politician and a Libyan diplomat and called on foreign fighters recovering from their wounds."
The possibility that Pakistan has created havens for Al Qaeda, coupled with growing militancy in Pakistan, has raised increased fears in Washington that Pakistan's nuclear weapons may not be safe, reports the BBC. But the BBC explains that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is better protected than is often feared:
After 9/11, the US became fixated on the idea of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons…
But others are less sure that this scenario is realistic, partly because of the safeguards Pakistan has put in place.
As with most countries, these are kept secret but, because of the growing concern, Pakistan has begun to reveal some of the measures it takes:
The weapons are kept in parts, with the fissile material and the delivery system (the missile) separate from the rest of the weapon
The exact location of those facilities is kept secret and they are well guarded by a Strategic Forces Command consisting of thousands of soldiers
The weapons themselves can only be launched by someone who has access to electronic codes
These codes are a Pakistani version of Permissive Action Links (PALs), used by the US and other countries.
"Pakistan has developed its own PAL systems which obviously ensures that even if an unauthorised person gets hold of a weapon he cannot activate it unless he also has access to electronic codes," explains retired Brig Gen Naeem Salid.
Intelligence reports would seem to indicate that more attacks will be launched. The Daily Times, a leading English language newspaper in Pakistan, reports that 600 potential suicide bombers may be stationed in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city.
Six hundred suicide bombers are present in Karachi and they are planning a major attack, revealed Qasim Toori and Danish alias Talha during interrogations by law-enforcement agencies...
...a source privy to the interrogation told Daily Times that the militants had confessed, "Around 600 Jundullah militants are present in Karachi. They are mentally prepared and trained to commit suicide attacks." They confessed that they had robbed foreign banks and dispatched the money to their headquarters in Wana [South Waziristan], from where their needs for weapons, explosives and other necessities were being met.