Al Qaeda, Taliban targeting Pakistani nuclear sites


Map of major Pakistani Air Force bases, including the nuclear sites of Kamra and Sargodha. Pakistani air bases are the most likely sites to house nuclear weapons storage and launch facilities. Click to view.

Yesterday's suicide bombing at the Kamra Air Force Base in Punjab was not the first strike at a nuclear weapons storage facility. After a closer look at the bases struck inside Pakistan since August, at least two more strikes occurred either on or near nuclear weapons storage facilities, based on open source information on Pakistan's nuclear weapons programs. Since August 2007, there have been two suicide attacks at or near the Sargodha Air Force Base, a nuclear weapons and missile storage facility in central Punjab province. Other attacks in Punjab and the Northwest Frontier Province may be aimed at facilities providing regional security for Pakistan's nuclear program.

On August 2, Pakistani police prevented a suicide bomber from attacking a parade at a police training facility in the city of Sargodha in eastern Punjab province. Police shot and killed the suicide bomber after he climbed the wall of the police academy, fired on a security detail, and ran towards the parade grounds where over 900 recruits assembled. One police officer was killed and another wounded in the exchange.

On November 1, a suicide bomber drove his motorcycle into a bus carrying military and intelligence officers at the air base in Sargodha. Eight were killed and 27 wounded in the strike.

The Sargodha Air Force Base serves as the "headquarters of the Pakistan Air Force's Central Air Command and home base for nuclear-capable F-16 combat aircraft, and Hatf-III/Ghaznavi/M-11 ballistic missiles," NTI reports. The base houses F-16 fighters believed to be converted to deliver nuclear weapons. "Analysts believe that the F-16s have been most likely modified for nuclear delivery. Some analysts believe that components or partially assembled air-deliverable nuclear devices might be stored at an ammunition depot at the Sargodha air base."

The Sargodha Air Force Base also houses "Pakistan's nuclear-capable, short-range, solid-fueled Hatf III/Ghaznavi/M-11 (total number estimated at 34-80) ballistic missiles," which are thought to be stored "at facilities near the Central Ammunition Depot on Kirana Hills at Sargodha. The evidence captured on US satellite imagery includes missile crates; storage sheds for transporter-erector launch vehicles; missile maintenance facilities; and housing for missile crews."

The Taliban and al Qaeda have hit several military and police bases near Pakistani nuclear facilities in northern Punjab and the Northwest Frontier Province over the past year. A suicide bomber killed 45 army recruits as they trained outside the military base in Dargai in the Northwest Frontier Province in November 2006. The Dargai base "serves as the headquarters of a Pakistan's army corps," the New York Times reported. "Mechanized infantry, armor and artillery are stationed in the garrison."

The Kharian military base in Punjab was attacked by a suicide bomber in March. Two recruits were killed and eight wounded as they were conducting training. The 17th Infantry Division is based out of Kharian.

In July, a suicide bomber attacked near the main hall of the police recruitment center in Dera Ismail Khan as about 200 recruits were being tested. Up to 20 recruits were killed and 50 wounded. In Hangu, at least eight people were killed and 26 wounded in the suicide attack on the Police Training College in the Northwest Frontier Province district of Hangu. The bomber drove his explosive-laden car into the main gate of the training facility. Also in July, terrorists attempted to shoot down President Musharraf's airplane in Rawalpini as he was flying with his senior military staff.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban also conducted several suicide attacks in the military garrison city of Rawalpindi since September. Rawalpindi also houses the Pakistani Nuclear Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, but the attacks appeared to be related to military command and control. On September 4, two suicide bombers targeted a bus carrying Inter Services Intelligence personnel and the Royal Artillery bazaar in the military garrison city of Rawalpindi. Pakistani military and intelligence officers were the direct target of two suicide attacks. Over 25 were killed and 68 were wounded in the dual bombings.

On October 30, a suicide bomber detonated his vest outside of the Pakistani Army headquarters in Rawalpindi. Seven were killed, including two police officers, and another 14 were reported wounded in the strike. The suicide bomber struck as Musharraf was conducting talks with his senior leaders. "The blast happened at a police checkpost a less than a kilometre (half a mile) from where Musharraf was holding talks with top government officials about a spate of attacks, including a recent bid to kill Benazir Bhutto," AFP reported.

On November 23, two suicide bombers targeted the military and intelligence agencies in the capital of Islamabad and in Rawalpindi. "One was at a check post near GHQ [general headquarters] and the other was on a bus of sensitive institution near Faizabad," said Major General Waheed Arshad, the Director General of the Inter Services Public Relations. "Both were suicide attacks."

The spate of attacks at military bases has largely targeted officers, new recruits, and the families of those serving. The Taliban and al Qaeda's objective may be two-fold: intimidate officers either on the fence or who do not support the Islamists, and erode the military's capacity to defend nuclear installations if the Taliban and al Qaeda can mount a raid to seize nuclear weapons. While the Pakistani nuclear weapons are under tight security according to the government, US intelligence officials have repeatedly expressed concerned over the safety of Pakistan's arsenal.

The Taliban's campaign to take control of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and its strong presence in Quetta and wider Baluchistan Province also plays into the West's fears over Pakistan's nuclear program. The Northwest Frontier Province not only serves as a base for the Taliban and al Qaeda Central Command, the territory directly abuts sensitive nuclear sites in the province of Punjab.



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READER COMMENTS: "Al Qaeda, Taliban targeting Pakistani nuclear sites"

Posted by Neo at December 12, 2007 12:52 AM ET:

This brings up questions about motive and capability. Is the Teliban attacking higher level military installations part of a well planned out strategy, or are they doing so because they can, out of hubris. Are they looking for weaknesses to exploit down the road or are they trying some sort of crude intimidation toward the Pakistani army.

If the Teliban is trying to intimidate Pakistan's military class, I could see making high profile attacks against the Pakistani army working either way, for or against the Teliban. It might further embolden insurgents that the Pakistani army is vulnerable. On the other hand, it might harden attitudes against the Teliban within the Pakistani military establishment. There is a certain amount of panic in the recent political decisions of Musharaff and the Army. Maybe the Teliban is trying to get a feel for just how boldly they can strike. Winning fast is probably still their best hope of overthrowing the Musharaff government. In the long term I'm not sure the Pashtuns will fair so well once they antagonize the rest of the Pakistani population. I see more blame being gradually shifted to Al Qaeda and the Teliban for making a mess of things, for killing fellow Muslims, for having no decency, or even an ounce of restraint, and for bringing the Americans into the region.