Features | Security | South Asia

‘Jihadists Take Nuclear Step’

Recent terrorist trends show some worrying signs, says Rajeev Sharma. Are they infiltrating Pakistan’s last line of defence?

For anyone keeping track of terrorism trends, it has been a depressing 16 months since the carnage of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Terrorists have continued to be deadly and innovative in their tactics and expansive in their reach since then, demonstrating a breathtaking diversity in their methods. But the most disturbing trend is the increase in attacks on security forces in charge of nuclear installations, attacks that are a reminder of a sobering fact—jihadists want to go nuclear.

High-profile terror attacks in recent months have underscored the variety of strategies among the ever-mutating terror outfits. On the one hand, they’ve shown a penchant for organized attacks involving hostages and maximum damage, something exhibited to great effect in the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008.

Perhaps most troubling about these kinds of tactics is that they bear the hallmarks of the commando-style operations employed by Pakistan’s elite unit the Special Services Group (SSG), a potentially revealing and disconcerting development.

However, individuals have also employed what can be dubbed a KISS strategy—Keep It Simple Stupid. The axe-and-knife attack by a Somali man on Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in Copenhagen in January is a good example of this.

In addition, there has been a growing trend toward militant outfits displaying transnational ambitions. The Kurdish Workers Party, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Hizbollah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, among others, are all active in Western countries. Indeed, if the LTTE were to ever stage a comeback, it would largely be because of its Western network.

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But most alarming of all is the jihadists’ quest for access to Pakistan’s nuclear arms. There are indications that Pakistan’s elite para-military force, the Frontier Constabulary, which has been at the forefront of operations against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the Pashtun belt, has been infiltrated by terrorists.  Such a development poses a serious challenge to an international community trying to help secure Pakistani nuclear assets from Islamic terrorists, as the Pakistan army uses FC units for security duties at nuclear establishments.

An incident in October last year offered a glimpse of the dangers. On October 5, the Islamabad office of the UN’s World Food Program was attacked by a suicide bomber, resulting in the deaths of five UN officials.

The event itself was covered widely by the international media. However, one crucial detail that emerged from this bombing went largely unnoticed. The suicide bomber was dressed as an FC soldier. It seems likely that this allowed him to gain entry to the building without being checked either by the on-site security guards from a private company or the FC unit deployed in Islamabad to provide security to VIPs and critical sites.

The next day, a report appeared in the Dawn newspaper that should have rung alarm bells in the international community. The story said:

‘Senior investigation officers said they had not ruled out the possibility that the bomber was an FC man.  The investigators detained an FC man on duty and a private security guard posted at the office’s gate. An official said it was premature to say anything about the bomber’s identity, but the possibility that he was a serving or ex-member of the paramilitary force could not be ruled out. Another top security official said if it was established that the attacker belonged to the FC, it might change the entire dynamics of not just the investigation, but the counter-terror operation.’

This wasn’t the first incident that suggests jihadist infiltration of the FC—the FC personnel guarding the building came from the same unit that was attacked by a TTP suicide bomber in April last year, an attack  that claimed the lives of at least eight FC members.

This all raises the prospect of the FC becoming the jihadists’ passport to acquiring access to Pakistani nukes. The FC, which consists almost entirely of Pashtuns recruited in North West Frontier Province, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Pashtun majority areas of Balochistan, is showing itself to be a leaky bucket, with the loyalties of recruits, especially in the tribal belt, regularly open to question.

The implications of all this are particularly troubling for India. The case of David Coleman Headley, a US citizen arrested in Chicago over claims he was planning terror attacks against India, has shed light on the potential dangers.

During the course of his interrogation it has been reported that he reconnoitered several Indian nuclear installations across several states. This is all the more troubling because his main handler in Pakistan, according to the US Department of Justice, was Islamic militant Ilyas Kashmiri, reportedly a former commando in the SSG. And among the critical sites in Pakistan that the SSG is tasked with guarding are its nuclear installations.

The implication of the transfer of skills and knowledge speaks for itself. Indian and Western policymakers should take note.