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Nuclear shadow

PART 5

A US concern: Pakistan's arsenal

Anti-American mood poses a security risk

By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 8/16/2002

   
A series of occasional articles on the most worrisome threat in an age of terror.
 THE SERIES

Part 1
Russia may be boosting Iran's nuclear aims

Part 2
Russia has loose grip on nuclear stockpiles

Part 3
Mobile teams on hunt for atomic threats

Part 4
Russia's scattered tactical arms a temptation for terrorists

Part 5
Anti-American mood poses a security risk

 GRAPHICS

How Iran's new reactor would breed plutonium

How NEST searches for radioactive material

Russia's sprawling nuclear arsenal

Tracking Russia's nuclear capability

KAHUTA, Pakistan - Past the guard post on the outskirts of town, beyond the rickety buildings perched on a heat-baked plain, lie the crown jewels of Pakistan: the laboratories that produce the country's nuclear arsenal.

Only authorized staff are allowed inside Khan Research Laboratories. In the nuclear world, Pakistan's weapons program is one of the most secretive. At the next checkpoint on the road toward the labs, orders are to shoot all strangers.Since Sept. 11, Western analysts increasingly have questioned whether Pakistan's weapons of mass destruction are secure. At a time when the Bush administration is deeply concerned about nuclear proliferation - from Iraq, Iran, and North Korea - and the prospect of nuclear weapons landing in terrorists' hands, Pakistan's nuclear technology raises particular concerns.

The fear is that even though Pakistan remains an important US ally in the war against Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, its nuclear arsenal could be tempting to rogue elements inside and outside Pakistan.

Concerns that Islamic extremists might get their hands on nuclear weapons to commit acts of terror are not new. Bin Laden made no secret of his interest in acquiring nuclear materials, and recent testimony before the US Congress has underscored Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions. The United States also has expressed unease over Iran's nuclear power program, contending it could be abused to produce nuclear weapons.

Interviews with Pakistani scientists, nuclear critics, military and government officials, and Western specialists and diplomats suggest that Pakistan's estimated 30 to 60 nuclear weapons are relatively safe from terrorist attack or pilferage, largely because they are controlled by the military, one of the most disciplined forces in Pakistani society.

Still, the analysts say they are troubled by the growing anti-American, pro-Islamic sentiments that have filtered into Pakistan's military and scientific elite. Well-known players such as Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan's intelligence service, remain openly sympathetic to the Taliban and dubious of the threat of Al Qaeda. Some blame Israel for the World Trade Center attacks.

"Pakistan has taken many steps to secure its sensitive materials," said one senior State Department official who asked not to be identified. "But Pakistan is in a tough neighborhood, and we know that Al Qaeda is seeking such material."

Troublesome, too, are rising domestic political tensions. Pervez Musharraf, the military coup leader turned president, is a loyal American ally, but he faces a storm of unrest over parliamentary elections slated for this fall. His own tenure is hardly assured. Islamic militants who set off a bomb near the US consulate in Karachi in June said they had intended to kill Musharraf.

"The overall safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons cannot be divorced from the situation in the country," said Michael Krepon, nuclear specialist and president of the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center. "The more destabilized Pakistan becomes through acts of terrorism or acts of war, the more we have to be concerned about."

Washington's anxiety over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal rose in October with reports that two Pakistani nuclear scientists had been in contact with bin Laden in 1999. Nuclear and security specialists also became concerned by reported links between Pakistan's security service, the ISI, and the hard-line Taliban regime in Afghanistan before it was toppled by US-led forces in December.

Alarm about the vulnerability of Pakistan's nuclear program grew when US authorities alleged in June that Jose Padilla - an American accused of planning a radiation attack in the United States - had been schooled in extremist Islamic ideology in Pakistan, where he met with Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah.

There is little doubt that nuclear weapons are important to Pakistan. Nuclear weapons are a source of civic pride, their development glorified in schoolbooks and extolled in the popular press. Pakistan's major cities feature a monument of the Chagai Mountain, where nuclear bombs were first detonated.

A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani metallurgist who reportedly copied plans from the Netherlands for gas centrifuges to enrich uranium, is hailed as a national hero. The date of the first bomb tests - May 28, 1998 - is marked with festivities.

That pride, say Pakistanis, stems from the security of deterrence. With nuclear weapons, Pakistan sees itself as the military equal of archrival India. "It's a symbol of empowerment," said security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa Agha.

But it also flows from the fact that Pakistan was the first nation in the Muslim world to develop the bomb - despite years of US sanctions aimed at halting it. Such conceit spreads beyond Pakistan, where its nuclear weapons are hailed as "Islamic" ones.

"You can go to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and they are very proud Pakistan has this capability," said Shireen Mazari, director-general of the government-funded Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad.

For all the fame surrounding Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, however, little is known about it. Secrecy so cloaks the nuclear program that Pakistan's press rarely covers it.

Requests for information, no matter how benign, are refused by the government. "We asked for permission to see the effects of uranium mining," said A.H. Nayyar, an antinuclear activist and physics professor at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University. "We were told not to ever dare to go near that place."

Specialists say this much can be gleaned: Pakistan has fission nuclear weapons made out of enriched uranium. Three to six are produced at the labs in Kahuta each year. The uranium bombs can be miniaturized, scientists say, so they can be placed on Pakistan's two key missiles, the Shaheen and the Ghauri.

US intelligence specialists believe that, despite Pakistan's claims to have developed its weapons independently, it imports weapons technology from China and North Korea.

Unclassified CIA reports say China has played a large role in developing the weapons labs, and US military experts note the Ghauri is virtually identical to the North Korean Nodong missile. Pakistani military authorities deny such imports.

In addition, Pakistan also has a plutonium reactor in Khusab, aimed at producing the raw material needed for smaller but equally potent weapons. The reactor, which went on line in 1998, is believed to have produced enough spent fuel that has cooled that "they just now have plutonium weapons," Nayyar said.

While Pakistan's nuclear program is relatively modest, such nuclear material must prove a tempting target to bin Laden, if he is still alive, or remnants of Al Qaeda operating in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.

Hamid Mir, the Pakistani journalist who interviewed bin Laden last year after the Sept. 11 attacks, asked the Saudi-born terrorist if he had nuclear weapons.

"Yes, we have," he recalled bin Laden saying, "Yes, we have [a] nuclear deterrent." Mir said he was told by a bin Laden top aide that Al Qaeda possessed suitcase bombs, typically 1-kilogram weapons of enriched uranium or plutonium.

Former and current Pakistani government officials say their country's track record of nuclear safety is impeccable. "We've never had leakage; we've never had theft," said Major General Rashi Qureshi, spokesman for Musharraf.

One reason is that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are not kept in deployed form. The bombs are in one location; their delivery systems in another. According to General Mirza Aslam Beg, the former chief of army staff who now heads a policy group, mating them would take two to three days. "We have a long fuse in a crisis," said one senior Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Tight security also surrounds the nuclear installations. Scientists are carefully screened. Visitors are barred, and foreigners who trespass to Kahuta's outskirts are detained until their credentials can be thoroughly checked.

The labs' guards are born and bred here, and recognize those who belong and those who don't. Each bus bearing villagers not associated with the labs is stopped and screened.

So clandestine is the country's nuclear weapons program that even Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, "was not taken into confidence," said Hamid Gul, who headed the agency until he was dismissed by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

However, the greatest security, authorities argue, is that nuclear weapons are controlled by the Pakistani military, a highly-disciplined force whose origins stem from the era of British colonial rule. Even critics of Pakistan's nuclear program say the country's nuclear arsenal is in good hands.

Today's military is more pro-Islamic than in the past, but Agha, the Pakistan military specialist, says there are strong incentives that ensure the approximately 612,000 troops put duty before faith. Military service, they say, brings privileges in impoverished Pakistan, such as free housing, subsidized health care and travel, and gifts of free land for retirement, that are too valuable to lose.

"Religious sentiments are on the rise in society, and the military is part of society," Agha said. "But forced to choose between abandoning the service or completely supporting jihadis, 100 percent [of the military] would opt for keeping their perks and privileges."

Still, the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal was raised by US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell during a visit last fall. The Pakistani government has feared at times for the safety of its nuclear weapons. Musharraf cited the safety of Pakistan's "strategic assets" as one reason to support the US-led campaign in Afghanistan when he addressed his nation in September.

Musharraf had already taken one precaution the year before, forming a unified command and control system for nuclear weapons. Then, as the US attacks unfolded, he reorganized the military command over the country's nuclear assets and dismissed some key staff. Military specialists saw Musharraf's actions as an effort to sideline officers sympathetic to the Taliban or other religious factions.

Some military officers, particularly those who served in Pakistan's intelligence, had fostered the cause of the Taliban in Afghanistan and were sympathetic to them. Others, though retired, had been outspoken in their support for Al Qaeda: In 1998, General Beg told reporters that "by the grace of God" bin Laden was not in an Afghan training camp attacked by US airstrikes and that he had survived.

Now, Pakistan's nuclear sites and weapons fall under the control of a three-star general, Khalid Kidwai, who is well-respected by American specialists. Kidwai, who, like all those involved in Pakistan's nuclear programs, declined to be interviewed, reportedly took the added safeguard of relocating nuclear devices and their delivery systems last fall.

Concern over links to the Taliban hasn't been limited to the military community. Pakistani authorities last fall detained two retired nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashirruden Mahmood and Abdul Majid, to question them about their contacts with the Taliban and Al Qaeda - a link that reportedly worried US intelligence officials.

Mahmood, who worked at key facilities including overseeing the plutonium-producing plant at Khusab, had already come to authorities' attention as having Islamic extremist leanings. In 1999 he resigned, officials say, when he was transferred to a less important job because he advocated equipping other Islamic countries with nuclear capabilities.

In retirement, he founded a humanitarian organization, Ummah Tameer-E-Nau, or Islamic Reconstruction, in Afghanistan. He and Majid, who had worked with the Pakistani Atomic Energy Commission, met with bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, but only to seek money for their group, whose projects included a flour mill, lawyers say.

The two scientists were arrested, but were eventually released and no charges were brought against them. Pakistani officials and scientists say they are satisfied neither man was in a position to pass on nuclear secrets to bin Laden. "There is no evidence [of that] whatsoever," said Qureshi, Musharraf's spokesman.

But the case raised questions in many quarters as to the ideological leanings of the estimated 50,000 highly trained chemists, physicists, geologists, and other workers in Pakistan's civil and military nuclear programs. Of those, only about 7,000 board the air-conditioned buses that whisk them to the Kahuta restricted area. They live a privileged life, surrounded by a golf course, dining hall, and library, according to one former Kahuta employee who asked not to be identified.

Some leading Pakistani nuclear scientists, however, say contentment does not necessarily come with comfort. Increasingly, they say they hear pro-Islamic, anti-American views from scientists who work closely with nuclear weapons. Someday, they fear these scientists may be tempted to pass on nuclear secrets to terrorists.

"These people are able to see all the faults of the US, but unable to see their own," said nuclear scientist Pervez Hoodboy. "They have come to believe the way forward is a return to the golden past of Islam. Because they are highly placed and in possession of nuclear knowledge, there is a potential for bad things to happen.' He said 10 percent of Pakistan's nuclear scientists hold such opinions, many of them his former students.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/16/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing LLC.