In May 1998, surprise nuclear tests by India and Pakistan transformed regional strategic calculations and added a dangerous new dimension to tensions between the two.
According to Taylor Branch, writing in The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, Indian officials who spoke with Bill Clinton were fully aware of the potential devastation a clash between the two nations could lead to, calculating that a doomsday nuclear volley would kill 300 to 500 million Indians while annihilating all 120 million Pakistanis (although the Pakistani side insisted its rugged mountain terrain would shield more survivors than the exposed plains of India).
But regardless of the accuracy of these numbers, and although the two countries’ military strategies differ, (India’s is based on conventional superiority, while Pakistan tends to emphasize nuclear deterrence to cancel out this advantage) one thing is clear-the threat of nuclear terrorism looms large over both.
In December 1998, Osama Bin Laden told Time magazine that acquiring weapons for the defence of Muslims is a religious duty. ‘If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so. And if I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty,’ he is reported as saying.
Even if the statement was merely rhetoric, it demonstrates intent. However, a number of reports suggest that Bin Laden’s statement was more than just talk.
In August 2001, two Pakistani scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudary Abdul Majeed, met Bin Laden and Mullah Omar in Afghanistan. The two scientists were detained on October 23, 2001, ‘for questioning.’ Majid was a retired nuclear fuel expert from the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, while Mahmood worked on the secret Pakistani gas centrifuge program that ultimately produced the highly enriched uranium used in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
But even without acquiring access to weapons, there are other means of groups such as al-Qaeda engaging in nuclear terrorism. Radioactive dispersal devices, for example, are particularly suited to non-state actors as they are portable and can be used to meet one of the common aims of terrorism, which is to cause significant economic damage. Combined with an explosive device, RDDs can be used to create dirty bombs, which can cause both immediate casualties from their explosions and long-term health and psychological damages from radiation.
Many analysts see Pakistan, and specifically Punjab province, as the most likely source of materials for extremists to undertake such attacks, and the precision of the recent terrorist attacks in Punjab on several Pakistani military facilities suggest there has been some inside help for militants.
On October 10, for example, terrorists dressed as Pakistani soldiers entered the Pakistani Army’s headquarters at Rawalpindi and killed six soldiers, including a brigadier. Subsequent investigations pointed to Illyas Kashmiri, who once served in the Army, as a potential suspect.
Back in 2003, meanwhile, there was a suicide assassination attempt on then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s convoy, from which he narrowly escaped. The investigation, as recorded in a book authored by Musharraf, led to the arrest of low-level army officers who had conspired with Islamists, and who were angry over his co-operation with the United States in cracking down on extremists in the tribal areas.