By News Analysis
NBC News
updated 2/8/2004 3:19:46 PM ET 2004-02-08T20:19:46

In the past, U.S. officials worried about Pakistan’s nuclear forces in the context of a potential war with India, one that a U.S. Air Force study said could result in the deaths of 150 million people on the subcontinent.

Now, however, in the aftermath of 9/11, the fears have shifted to the possibility that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of al-Qaida and the loss of life would occur not in Bombay or Islamabad, but in New York and Washington.  “It’s your worst nightmare,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official, describing the nexus of terror and nuclear weapons that Pakistan occupies.

The issue is very sensitive.  Pakistan, or at least some elements of the Pakistani government, has been very helpful in the war on terror, but other elements of the Pakistani government have participated in single most dangerous proliferation of nuclear weapons in the atomic age.

Not only was Khalid Sheik Mohammed grabbed in Rawalpindi, but Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the on-ground organizer of the Hamburg cell was grabbed in Karachi, Abu Zubaydah, the al-Qaida “dean of students” was grabbed in Faisalabad, and Khallad, the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing was grabbed in a Karachi suburb. And of course, the United States believes strongly that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are holed up in a remote area of south Waziristan, in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier. Pakistani troops are searching for the two of them, although there are disputes as to how hard they are looking. 

On the other side, U.S. officials have determined that Pakistan, or at least some elements of the Pakistani government, has supplied sensitive nuclear weapons technology, perhaps the most sensitive nuclear weapons technology, to at least North Korea, Iran and Libya and, say some officials, that list may have to be expanded to encompass a Pakistani plan to create a nuclear armed Islamic bloc or worse, a nuclear armed al-Qaida. 

U.S. officials understand the combustible mix of terror, nuclear weapons and Islamic fundamentalism that is Pakistan. I have heard U.S. officials refer to Pakistan as a “crazy soup” of those elements, “the scariest place on earth”, and a place where “anything can happen and none it would be good."

The best example several cite: in August 1998, when the United States retaliated for the East Africa embassy bombings by bombing bin Laden’s camps, officials say most of the 20 or so killed that day were Pakistanis, sent by the Inter Services Intelligence [ISI] service for training with al-Qaida. There are even officials — and high ranking officials — who believe the ISI had tipped off bin Laden that day to an impending attack by U.S. cruise missiles.

One very senior CIA official told me, “I can imagine a scenario a decade from now or even sooner where the Indian Prime Minister would call the President of the United States and say, ‘Mr. President, we can no longer take it and we are going into Pakistan tomorrow’ and the President would respond, ‘OK’.  “It’s a dangerous, dangerous place.”

The nuclear force
At the center of the fears is the Pakistani nuclear force. Conventional wisdom has always held that India, with its advanced industrial base and wealth of scientific knowledge and experience, has significantly more nuclear weapons than Pakistan. The reverse is true. 

New U.S. intelligence analyses of nuclear weapons in South Asia indicates that Pakistan now has greater nuclear capability — both in terms of numbers of weapons and quality of delivery systems — than India.  Moreover, its weapons are more secure, say people with knowledge of the two programs.

The numbers, if known with specificity, are classified, but a senior U.S. intelligence official said the Pakistanis have an “almost 2-1 margin” in nuclear weapons. The best guess is that Pakistan has about 40+ weapons with India having somewhere in the high 20’s. 

Nuclear standoffWhen asked about frequent reports that India has between 25 and 100 nuclear weapons one U.S. intelligence official said that the Pakistanis “are more likely to have those numbers than the Indians.”  The most frequently cited number for Pakistan had been around 15 nuclear weapons.  Moreover, the official said that the number of nukes ready for use may be greater in Pakistan than in India.  “I don’t think their [the Indians’] program is as advanced as the Paks’.” 

Pakistan also has greater air and missile capability and both are “fully capable of a nuclear exchange if something happens.” the official added. Other officials noted that Pakistan’s air force, with its U.S. F-16’s and its French Mirage fighter bombers has some of the best penetrating fighter-bombers in the world.

In addition, it has around 30 missiles: the Chinese M-11 short range missile and its Pakistani variant, the Tarmuk, as well as the North Korean Nodong intermediate-range missile known locally as the Ghauri.  India on the other hand has no nuclear-capable missiles and fewer and less capable MiG fighter bombers, although it has twice tested the Agni missile, an intermediate range missile that could provide the basis of an ICBM force. Current U.S. analysis is that the Agni will not be fielded with nuclear warheads for another 10 years. The Pentagon document states that Indian “research into missile warhead design probably is underway” but is not complete. Also underway but not complete is research into the miniaturization of nuclear weapons, critical for both warhead and other weapons design.

The location of the weapons, of course, is the most highly classified secret in Pakistan, but there were indications a significant number of them had been stored in the western desert of Baluchistan, near the Pakistani test site at Chagai and an F-16 base at Dalbandin.  But that was before September 11.  

’The Islamic Bomb’: But in whose service is the bomb?
Pakistan is aiming for a “nuclear armed Islamic bloc around the world” says a U.S. intelligence analyst who has followed the country’s program for more than a decade. A senior U.S. intelligence official agreed, saying it is “Islamic nationalism” more than any other factor that has guided Pakistani dispersal of nuclear technology around the world.

“I do not think that this could be just an issue of personal greed — of the bomb makers wanting to make a fast buck,” Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, Pakistan’s leading anti-nuclear activist, agreed. “It’s got to be much more than that.”

“It is nationalist, the greater glory of Pakistan. It’s Islamist, I think that’s quite true,” says Robert Oakley, who was U.S. ambassador to Pakistan in the early 1990’s. “And it’s personal, ego, the man who thinks of himself as a towering figure. So it’s all those things plus money. I think it’s all of them together.”

The man, of course, is Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, who has now admitted sending or offering weapons designs, uranium enrichment technology and his own rolodex of suppliers to virtually every nation on the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terrorism — ”the entire kit”, as the analyst put it.

He added that in addition to deals Khan made with Libya, Iran, and North Korea, similar offers were made to Syria and Iraq, but were declined. And there is at least one other Islamic nation who benefited from Khan’s largesse, he said. The senior intelligence official declined comment when asked if other Islamic nations beyond Iran and Libya had received nuclear technology from Pakistan.  “I have nothing for you on that,” he said.

Moreover, according to the analyst, that not all the deals are one-way. Islamic nations have supplied money, training, equipment, expertise, etc. to the effort. Saudi has supplied money to Pakistan’s “Islamic bomb” over the past several decades and other states are at best looking the other way when materials are being transferred. He says another telling indicator is that subcomponents of the Pakistani centrifuges found in Libya were made in a fabrication facility in Malaysia. And Indonesia has employed Pakistanis in its nuclear research reactor.

“Their aim is to thwart what they see as the U.S nuclear hegemony. They want an Islamic bomb as a deterrent for the Islamic world to counter what they see as the Christian bomb, the Jewish bomb, the Hindu bomb,” the analyst added.

He pointed to historical quotes from Khan, as well as those of former Pakistani presidents and prime ministers.  In particular, the analyst noted an interview the notoriously anti-American Khan gave to a journalist in 1984. Khan was reported to have said, “All western countries, including Israel, are the enemies not only of Pakistan, but in fact of Islam. Had any other Muslim country instead of Pakistan made this progress, they would have conducted the same poisonous and false propaganda about it.  The examples of Iraq and Libya are before you.”

General Zia ul-Haq was military dictator of Pakistan during the 1980’s, when coincidentally or not Pakistan made its biggest strides in nuclear weaponry and was the paymaster of the U.S. war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  He told a journalist in 1986, “It is our right to obtain this technology. And when we acquire this technology, the entire Islamic world will possess it with us.”  

Even the man Zia overthrew and had hanged, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was reported to have told then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976 that with other civilizations having the bomb, “the Islamic civilization” should have one too.

The analyst also pointed to quotes this week from retired General Mirza Aslam Beg, head of the Pakistani army form 1988 to 1991 and the man most believe had overall charge of the nuclear weapons program. Beg told the New York Times that Muslim countries should not be asked to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons until India and Israel destroyed their nuclear arsenals.  “Why don’t you start from there?” General Beg asked. “This is the discrimination and duplicity which gives heartburn and humiliation to the Muslim world.”

The analyst rejected the spin that high government officials like Beg then or Musharraf now didn’t know about the nuclear transfers.  He pointed to the one case not involving an Islamic state, that of North Korea.

“They traded nuclear technology, centrifuges and other things, for missiles, big missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. You don’t FedEx missiles. It involves shipping or aircraft delivery, integration of the missiles into your war plans. These are decisions made by governments."

"If Musharraf doesn’t know the details," he said, "there is a precedent and a dangerous one."

“Does he know? If he doesn’t that is even more frightening. Remember what happened in 1988 and 89, when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister. She said she didn’t know and when she started to ask questions, they dumped her, she lost control. That could happen to him.”

“The question is ‘is there a shadow government that runs the nuclear program?’  We keep hearing ‘oh, this is a rogue operation’. We have heard that for decades now. But we do know.  The best intelligence we ever had on any weapons of mass destruction program was from Pakistan. We knew everything, but we chose to ignore it because we were in bed with these people on Afghanistan. Now we are in bed with them on terrorism.  We can’t get out of bed with these people!”

As for Pakistani officials’ claims that the transfers of technology was driven by money, the official said that while he would not dismiss the possibility that money played a role — “you can never dismiss the role of money” — he and others believe that money was a “secondary consideration” to the overarching dream of arming Islam with a nuclear arsenal, saying instead it was Islamic nationalism, if not fundamentalism, driving the diversion, which he said didn’t just begin in the past few years. “It’s been going on for more than a decade,” he said. 

The senior U.S. intelligence official agreed that the motivating factor in the dispersal of the technology has been “Islamic nationalism”. As for the money, “you might as well make some money while you’re doing this”.

The idea that Pakistani officialdom didn’t know about the leakage of nuclear secrets doesn’t make sense for Hoodbhoy either. “The bomb makers and the bomb factories and the enrichment plant and everything — was under the strictest possible control. It was a multi-tiered layer of security, all under the supervision of the army,” said Hoodbhoy.

“Nothing could get out from there without the army security knowing about it. No scientist, bomb maker or whoever could meet with anyone without that conversation being fully reported on. There’s no question of such people being allowed to travel overseas without the closest supervision at every point. And so there is complicity — complicity of the state. And that’s what nobody’s willing to talk about it.”

And why does the United States permit this to happen, why does it turn a blind eye to what is the greatest proliferation of nuclear weapons technology in modern times?

“Had the United States not been dependent on Pakistan, had a normal relationship and no war on terrorism then I’m sure there would be very tough American sanctions on Pakistan,” said Stephen Cohen, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, at the Brookings Institution. “But the view in Washington is, rightly or wrongly, that we absolutely must have Pakistan’s support in the war on terrorism.”

Nuclear security
Leaving aside physical security, there is no nuclear arsenal as insecure as Pakistan’s is today.  The litany of evidence is remarkable. Pakistan is more historically unstable than any other nuclear nation, regularly the subject of both violent and non-violent military coups. One democratically elected prime minister was overthrown and then hung.  His daughter, who was elected to the same job, was overthrown and exiled. The man who overthrew her father was assassinated in the yet unexplained and unsolved sabotage of the presidential aircraft. Its current president, who overthrew a civilian Prime Minister, has been the subject of two assassination attempts in the last few months, both apparently inside jobs.  Its top nuclear scientists have been selling key nuclear technology to terrorist states and most frightening of all, other nuclear scientists have even met with al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s Mullah Omar to discuss “in academic terms” nuclear weapons.

How insecure?  Musharraf ordered Pakistan’s military to move its nuclear arsenal to at least six new secret locations within two days after the terrorist attacks on the United States, senior Pakistani officials told The Washington Post in November 2001. The order supposedly stemmed from concern that foreign countries could try to strike the arsenal. Musharraf also wanted to move the weapons out of military locations from which the United States might attack Afghanistan, but U.S. officials believe the Pakistanis wanted to keep the weapons out of the hands of either al-Qaida or Pakistani military elements friendly with al-Qaida or the Taliban. 

One knowledgeable Pakistani source stated that as of late 2001, he “was certain that none of the Pakistani nuclear weapons had Permissive Action Links”, the combination of hardware and software that permits only those with proper codes to arm a nuclear weapon for use.  In some advanced PAL systems, like the kind used by the United States and Soviet Union, a weapon will automatically and permanently disarm if the wrong code is entered a certain number of times.

Since October 2001, when CIA Director George Tenet met secretly with Musharraf in Pakistan, the U.S. and Pakistan’s “Strategic Program and Development Cell” have met “every two to three months” to review the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, according to documents reviewed by NBC News. Musharraf agreed to the exchange after the U.S. provided him with intelligence on security concerns regarding the Pakistani weapons stockpile.

According to the documents, a U.S. “Liaison Committee” has had “a series of meetings” with Pakistani General Khalid Kidwai, whose responsibilities include both weapon security and the illegal transfer of nuclear technology. The same documents describe the meetings as a “fruitful exchange”. Among those who have traveled to Pakistan are representatives of the National Security Council, the D.O.E.’s National Nuclear Security Agency, the national weapons labs, the Office of Secretary of Defense and the CIA. 

Specifically, say the documents, the United States and Pakistan have been “reviewing crypto and security requirements”, meaning the encryption of weapons authorization codes, aka the PAL’s, as well as the physical security of the weapons themselves. The United States has not supplied any equipment to the Pakistanis. 

Former ambassador Oakley thinks this is a good thing. “Well I would watch the Kidwai thing,” said Oakley, who is as one U.S. official said “still wired”. “He’s been working very quietly, very slowly with us.  But that’s why the president of the United States can speak with some confidence about the military side of the nuclear program and the fact that it is under control.  And the chances of leakage are very, very slim and the chances of accidents are very slim."

“Whereas before, the chances of leakage or accident were greater than when they begin to work with us.”

As to where the weapons are located, there is little specific information.  The belief has always been that the weapons and firing mechanisms are kept separate, except in times of crisis, but the question remains how close are the two.  By one estimate, the weapons can be assembled “within hours” meaning they would have to be fairly close by.  No nation is going to risk having to fly key components to a single location. Two knowledgeable U.S. sources say the U.S. does not have good intelligence on where the weapons are located. 

However, a senior Pentagon official admits there are “contingency teams” ready to go if Musharraf is assassinated or if the U.S. determines the nuclear arsenal is at risk. Not everyone believes that is realistic. “They’re ready?” asked the analyst. “Do we even know where the weapons are? I’m not sure we do.”

Oakley said such plans fit into Pakistani nationalists’ worst fears … and could lead to some of our own being fulfilled. “Right after September the 11th they felt we might come sweeping in to seize their nuclear weapons which would have produced a holocaust because we never would have gotten them.”

Al-Qaida attempt to get to the nukes
The easiest way for al-Qaida to gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would be for them or their allies, Jaish E Mohammed, to kill Musharraf and take over the country in a civil war or, more likely, have radical Islamic elements of the Pakistani army mount a coup. But there is ample evidence that al-Qaida has long been interested in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons technology. 

Sultan Bashiruddin Mehmood and Abdul Majid were two of the most important managers of the Pakistani nuclear program. Mehmood ran Khusab, the nuclear reactor where Pakistan produces its plutonium, Majid ran New Labs, where the bombs are actually manufactured. Both see themselves as Islamic nationalists as well as scientists and ran a pro-Taliban charity after they had resigned their posts in the late 1990s. The charity is viewed as so radical, so pro-al-Qaida that it has been placed on the U.S. black list of terrorist organizations. 

But the links to bin Laden and the Taliban are much stronger than just the charity links. In August 2001, as the final plans for September 11 were being worked out and the last of the terrorists were arriving in the United States, the two scientists admit that they visited Kandahar in Afghanistan and met with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, and discussed nuclear issues, but only “in academic terms”.

So dangerous was the perception of that meeting that CIA Director George Tenet took it up with Musharraf in October 2001. Not long afterward, both were detained and questioned for weeks by U.S. and Pakistani officials about their links to al-Qaida and the Taliban. Still, at the end of the day, they were released, their meetings with the two terrorists described as inconsequential and evidence only of individual interest, not part of any larger scheme … much like the sale of weapons technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya are now portrayed.

Of the two, Mehmood was the more important, the more radical and the more unstable. In the 1980s he was ridiculed for putting forward a scientific method for calculating the temperature of hell and for suggesting that genies could be controlled and their energy harnessed, according to a BBC report.

He is the author of the book "The Mechanics of Doomsday: Life after death." IslamicBookstore.com, calls the book “a most interesting scientific analysis of the actual mechanics of Doomsday and the fate of the various planetary bodies, based on signs derived from statements in the Koran”. As strange as Mehmood sounds, he is typical of many of the key scientists in his devotion to Islamic fundamentalism. 

“This meeting is a cause for concern,” admitted Hoodbhoy, but says it also speaks to the rationale behind the meeting. “It symbolizes the fact that there are many within the Pakistani nuclear establishment who do share the idea of a bomb for the Umma — for an Islamic bomb — and I think that that is indeed dangerous.

“Of course the question is: why is there such a strong impetus for this? And this then, brings us to the issue of the growing conflict between the United States and Muslims the world over. That’s a very, very significant conflict, and unless there’s something done about that, I don’t think that nuclear dangers or the dangers of terrorism can ever be done away with.”

NBC's Robert Windrem is a producer for Nightly News

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