Risk analysis of nuclear terrorism in Pakistan

Risk analysis of nuclear terrorism in Pakistan

President Obama’s warning of the risk of nuclear terrorism should be considered seriously, especially when placing Pakistan in this context.

At the March 2016 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) President Obama warned of the possibility of a terrorist group such as the Islamic State (IS) gaining access to a nuclear weapon as a real threat and ‘one of the greatest threats to global security’. While there was focus on this comment shortly after it was made, other news quickly overshadowed it. However, I feel that it should not be dismissed so soon. This is because of the higher likelihood of Obama’s warning coming true. In this specific context of Pakistan, this article explains why.

First of all, Pakistan as a state is not the most stable. The country only recently saw its first transition from one democratically-elected government to another, back in 2013. Prior to that, Pakistan was seemingly stuck in a pattern of interchanging civilian government and military rule. Recent revelations about Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family in the recently leaked Panama Papers highlights the problem that Pakistan has with corruption of its leaders. As an independent country, Pakistan is still relatively young and is set to mark its 69th independence day in August this year. Therefore, within the context of international development, the country is still finding its feet. In combination with the corruption, Pakistan is therefore a malleable state. As a nuclear-armed nation with the close proximity of war-torn Afghanistan, the potential for nuclear weapons to transit through the chaotic Middle East certainly exists.

Contributing to this instability is the growing threat of radicalisation in Pakistan, with the Pakistani Taliban the biggest source of that threat. Recent attacks by the Taliban, such as in Lahore in March 2016 and in Peshawar in December 2014 are the strongest evidence of the country’s vulnerability to radicalisation and subsequent terrorism. The perpetrators of the Lahore attack were known to have been targeting Christians, particularly children, a characteristic that is shared with IS. This seemingly common motivation of attacking non-Muslims has the potential to be a horrifying foundation for collaboration between IS and the Taliban. If one of them somehow obtains a nuclear weapon, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Furthermore, the relationship between the Pakistan state and groups who have committed terrorist attacks is not exactly clear. When Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was killed in May 2011, he was found in a compound very close to a Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad. While there is no clear evidence that the Pakistan military had anything to do with Bin Laden’s location, the proximity to the academy raises questions, especially due to the fact that the power of the military is and has historically been very prominent. Back in the 1980s, the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), was involved with arming and training the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. One of those who was a part of the mujahedeen was Bin Laden himself.  These incidents raise fears that IS or other terrorist groups could exploit some within Pakistan to potentially gain access to nuclear material.

Finally, we must observe IS itself. As a group/unofficial state IS has quickly risen to being one of the foremost threats to world peace in recent years and has amounted huge assets through sales of oil on the black market.  As a result, it is clear that IS has the knowledge and capability of how to access powerful resources and utilize them for their own gain. Its location within the region and proximity to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey-all states with access to or alliances with strong military power-make the possibility of IS gaining access to more destructive material, including nuclear, existent.

Source: http://warincontext.org/2014/11/16/detailed-map-showing-areas-under-control-of-isis-in-syria-and-iraq/

From an economic perspective, this issue is also really important. Pakistan as a country requires investment to address infrastructure and service inefficiencies, with power supplies being unreliable. However, corruption along with a growing risk of radicalisation and terrorism in the country all place a huge barrier to investment and will lead to caution before any relevant decisions are made.

Furthermore, the oil and nuclear industries have risks. Both are now so globally interconnected that there is a danger for money to enter the industry from a legitimate source but unwittingly ends up funding terrorist groups. That has been the case with IS and oil where much of the money they gain on the black market originates from those who are trying to defeat it. This makes it difficult to continue to fund both industries without unwittingly funding threats to international security.

Overall, the combination of a fragile nuclear-armed Pakistan with radicalised elements hiding within it, state-associated institutions with a murky history, and an aggressive but effective IS makes Obama’s warning of a nuclear terrorist attack a lot more likely. While I am not arguing that IS is going to procure a nuclear weapon through Pakistan or through any other state in particular, I am raising concern that it is a potential turn of events. It may seem very far-fetched and require a whole series of other events to occur, but in security and intelligence you have to consider the worst case scenario, principally when it comes to nuclear weapons, and this is one of the worst by far. From an economic perspective, it means that Pakistan will lose out as investors will have to think twice.

About Author

Rayhan Chouglay

Rayhan Chouglay is a GRI Analyst. He holds a BA in History from the London School of Economics with a particular focus on Hindu-Muslim relations in South Asia. His main political risk interests concern relations between India and Pakistan.