US rings nuke alarm bells

Bhagat Singh

Regular Member
May 17, 2009
Al-Qaida seeking nuclear secrets from Pakistan
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington

Al-Qaida is trying desperately to get its hands on nuclear secrets from Pakistan, according to a top US official.

US Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, told a congressional reception, “Al-Qaida is still there in the region, ever dangerous and publicly asking people to attack the US and publicly asking nuclear engineers to give them nuclear secrets from Pakistan.”

This alarming accusation is being taken seriously in light of Pakistan’s history of leaking nuclear secrets and comes on the heels of similar claims made in a report to US lawmakers.

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report — “Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues” — Al-Qaida has also sought assistance from the Khan network. Former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet said the United States ‘received fragmentary information from an intelligence service’ that in 1998 Osama bin Laden had ‘sent emissaries to establish contact’ with the network. Other Pakistani sources could also provide nuclear material to terrorist organisations. According to a 2005 report by the commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States regarding weapons of mass destruction, Al-Qaida ‘had established contact with Pakistani scientists who discussed development of nuclear devices that would require hard-to-obtain materials like uranium to create a nuclear explosion.’ Tenet explains that these scientists were affiliated with a different organisation than the Khan network. Congressional Research Service, a bipartisan independent research wing of the US Congress, prepares reports for lawmakers.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, was notorious for running a nuclear black market that proliferated nuclear technology to rogue nations. He was placed under house arrest in 2004 following a confession made to former President Pervez Musharraf that he had leaked nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. The Lahore High Court ruled last month that Khan should be released from his five-year house detention, but in a fresh order restricted his movements “for his own safety.”

The US, which has unsuccessfully sought access to Khan in order to learn the extent of his nuclear black market, continues to view him as ‘radioactive’.

US lawmakers in March introduced legislation aimed at cutting off military aid to Pakistan unless US officials could question Khan. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly also noted, “Our concerns over the potential for … proliferation activities by Dr Khan are well known to the Pakistani government. We believe that he remains a proliferation risk.” The CRS report noted that since the 2004 revelations of an extensive international nuclear proliferation network run by AQ Khan, as well as possible connections between Pakistani nuclear scientists and Al-Qaeda, Islamabad has made additional efforts to improve export controls and monitor nuclear personnel. “The main security challenges for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal are keeping the integrity of the command structure, ensuring physical security, and preventing illicit proliferation from insiders,” the report says.

Meanwhile, Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday that nations have become safer due to an accumulation of knowledge about Al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups. This data “enables us to be more aggressive in expanding that knowledge and stopping things before they happen,” he said, adding, “The ability to be more aggressive is founded upon the much larger and more sophisticated understanding of the adversary that we have gained across various administrations in recent years.”

Blair said Al-Qaida has an ‘avowed goal’ of conducting attacks on the United States in western Pakistan, where it is seeking safe haven with various Taliban groups. “These groups have more recently also said that they are in favour of attacks in the West. So it’s a shifting calculus, but it’s fundamentally based on the harm that they would do to the United States’ troops and allies,” he said.

At another event in Washington, India’s ambassador to the United States, Meera Shankar, said in light of recent claims by Musharraf that Pakistan diverted US military aid to beefing up its capabilities against India, Shankar said the US government should build safeguards into military assistance to Pakistan. “We do feel that in the security field, the assistance should be more tightly focused on building counterinsurgency capabilities rather than conventional defence equipment, which can be diverted for other purposes,” said Shankar.

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