The audacious assault by Islamic militants on Pakistan’s army headquarters has again raised fears of an insurgent attack on the country’s nuclear weapons installation.
Pakistan has sought to protect its nuclear weapons from attack by the Taliban or other militants by storing the warheads, detonators and missiles separately in facilities patrolled by elite troops.
But security experts say the weapons are less secure than they were five years ago, and Saturday’s attack would show a ‘worrisome’ overconfidence by the Pakistanis.
While complex security is in place, much depends on the Pakistani army and how vulnerable it is to infiltration by extremists, said a Western government official with access to intelligence on Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal.
The experts say a more realistic scenario would involve militant sympathizers getting work as scientists at the facilities and passing information to extremists.
“It’s not thought likely that the Taliban are suddenly going to storm in and gain control of the nuclear facilities,” said Gareth Price, head of the Asia program. “There are enough command-and-control mechanisms in place to prevent that.”
A US counterproliferation official in Washington said strong safeguards are in place and there is no reason to believe the nuclear arsenal is in imminent jeopardy of seizure by militants.
The official, said there is a major difference between attacking a nuclear site and actually seizing and using the nuclear material stored inside.
Security at Pakistan’s isolated nuclear installations is believed to be significantly higher than at the army headquarters.