The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP’s) recent attack on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport has reignited security concerns about Pakistan’s sensitive installations. On earlier occasions, the TTP has attacked several heavily-guarded State installations — the Mehran naval base in 2011, the Minhas airbase (possibly a nuclear weapons storage base) and the Peshawar airport in 2012. The TTP’s continuous attacks on airports and naval bases have successfully exposed the capacity gaps in Pakistan’s security apparatus. It cannot be ignored that TTP militants might next be emboldened to target Pakistan’s nuclear weapons installations. The results of such an attack can be globally catastrophic.
The 2004 revelations of Abdul Qadeer Khan’s illicit nuclear trade were an eye-opener. The nuclear smuggling network revealed the complicity of Pakistan’s nuclear scientists with al Qaeda. An increase in terrorist attacks, political instability and expansion of nuclear arsenal has aggravated the challenges that Pakistan’s nuclear security structure faces. The collusion of these factors raises the spectre of a destabilised political State apparatus wherein the foolproof security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets cannot be ensured.
Pakistan’s nuclear security faces the critical challenge of insider threat. The fear of nuclear weapons and materials escaping the protective custody of Pakistan’s army is well founded. Former United States ambassador to Pakistan Anne W Patterson expressed her concern that someone working in Pakistan’s nuclear facilities might smuggle enough nuclear materials out to make a weapon. The TTP’s repeated attacks on Pakistan’s key installations suggest possible connivance between the state officials and militants. The ease with which the TTP reached the heavily-secured commercial hub in Karachi depicts a major intelligence failure and a serious security breach.
Through the string of attacks the TTP has communicated that it’s not yet finished. There will be more violence in the future to weaken the Pakistani establishment. To safeguard against such threats, Islamabad must reassess its threat perspectives. Its strategy must comprise focusing on the epicentre of terror. Pakistan must purge its political and military establishments of militant sympathisers. It must factor in terrorist groups, like al Qaeda and TTP, in their threat assessments and fill in the capacity gaps of their critical security institutions. This will help devising calibrated counter-terror responses against terrorists.
(Reshmi Kazi is associate fellow, Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses. The views expressed by the author are personal.)