Shortly after Navy SEALs raided the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in May and killed Osama bin Laden, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani chief of army staff, spoke with Khalid Kidwai, the retired lieutenant general in charge of securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Kidwai, who commands a security apparatus called the Strategic Plans Division, had been expecting Kayani’s call.
Kayani, the most powerful man in a country that has only a simulacrum of civilian leadership, had been busy in the tense days that followed the bin Laden raid: He had to assure his American funders (U.S. taxpayers provide more than $2 billion in annual subsidies to the Pakistani military) that the army had no prior knowledge of bin Laden’s hideout, located less than a mile from Pakistan’s preeminent military academy; and at the same time he had to subdue the uproar within his ranks over what was seen as a flagrant violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by an arrogant Barack Obama. But he was also anxious about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and he found time to express this worry to Kidwai.
Much of the world, of course, is anxious about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and for good reason: Pakistan is an unstable country located at the epicenter of global jihadism, and it has been the foremost supplier of nuclear technology to such rogue states as Iran and North Korea. “The single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short term, medium term, and long term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon,” President Obama said last year at an international nuclear-security meeting in Washington. Al‑Qaida, Obama said, is “trying to secure a nuclear weapon—a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using.”
Pakistan would be an obvious place for a jihadist organization to seek a nuclear weapon or fissile material: It is the only Muslim-majority state, out of the 50 or so in the world, to have successfully developed nuclear weapons. Its central government has serious trouble controlling the many corners of its territory. Its security services are infiltrated by an unknown number of jihadist sympathizers; a number of jihadist organizations are headquartered there and have relations with the government. And the weapons are stored on bases and in facilities spread across the country—possibly including one within several miles of Abbottabad, a city that, in addition to having hosted bin Laden, is home to many partisans of the jihadist group Harakat-ul-Mujahideen.
“There are three threats,” says Graham Allison, an expert on nuclear weapons who directs the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. The first is “a terrorist theft of a nuclear weapon, which they take to Mumbai or New York for a nuclear 9/11. The second is a transfer of a nuclear weapon to a state like Iran. The third is a takeover of nuclear weapons by a militant group during a period of instability or splintering of the state.”
Pakistani officials adamantly defend the safety of their nuclear program. In times of relative quiet between Pakistan and India (the country that would be the target of a Pakistani nuclear attack), they say that their weapons are “de‑mated”—meaning that the warheads are kept separate from their fissile cores and their delivery systems. This makes stealing, or launching, a complete nuclear weapon far more difficult. In an interview this summer in Islamabad, a senior official of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the Pakistani military’s spy agency, told National Journal that U.S. fears about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons were entirely unfounded. “Of all the things in the world to worry about, the issue you should worry about the least is the safety of our nuclear program,” the official said. “It is completely secure.” He went on to say, “It is in our interest to keep our bases safe as well. You must trust us that we have maximum and impenetrable security. No one with ill intent can get near our strategic assets.”
Like many statements made by Pakistan’s leaders, this one contained large elements of deceit. Militants have already targeted at least six facilities widely believed to be associated with Pakistan’s nuclear program. To hide weapons from the prying satellite eyes of the United States, Pakistan moves warheads around in unmarked vans with low security profiles down busy roads. In fact, Pakistanis see jihadists as less threatening than Washington, which they believe wants to seize their nuclear weapons. After the Abbottabad mission, Kayani wanted to know what additional steps Kidwai was taking to prevent an American raid on their nuclear arsenal. Kidwai promised to redouble efforts to keep his country’s weapons far from the long arms of the Americans.