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Anatomizing Non-State Threats to Pakistan's Nuclear Infrastructure: The Pakistani Neo-Taliban 

Executive Summary


About This Report
The Federation of American Scientists’ Terrorism Analysis Project (TAP) is conducting a multi-year study of nuclear weapon and fissile material security in South Asia. The researchers’ intention is to highlight specific elements of the nuclear fuel-cycles and nuclear weapon infrastructures of both Pakistan and India that warrant the international community’s greatest concern. TAP’s overarching methodological approach involves quantitative analyses of the specific violent non-state actors most likely to exploit nuclear weapons-related opportunities in Pakistan and India. Thus, while TAP researchers accept that the issue of nuclear security is partially a “supply-side” problem, they strive to identify and assess the “demand-side” of the situation as well. “After all,” terrorism expert Jeffrey Bale has rightly noted, “if violence-prone extremist groups had no interest in acquiring or employing such materials, it would not matter, insofar as terrorism is concerned, whether those materials were accessible or whether the groups in question had sufficient technical capabilities to be able to deploy them.”[1]

The greatest threat to Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure emanates from jihadists both inside Pakistan and South and Central Asia, generally. While there is a broad appreciation of this danger, there are few substantive studies that identify and explore specific groups motivated and potentially capable of acquiring and employing Pakistani nuclear weapons and/or fissile materials. This report fills that gap by exploring the Pakistani Neo-Taliban (PNT) and the dozens of groups that compositely fill its ranks. Originally this report was to be a section of TAP’s South Asian Nuclear Security Report—scheduled for release by FAS in winter 2011-2012. However, when Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, and with the ensuing concerns about Pakistan’s links to jihadist organizations targeting the U.S. and her interests, FAS decided to immediately release the section that explores the PNT as well as its constituent groups and allies.

[1] Gary A. Ackerman, Charles P. Blair, Jeffrey M. Bale, Victor Asal, and R. Karl Rethemeyer; Anatomizing Radiological and Nuclear Non-State Adversaries: Identifying the Adversary. Report prepared for the Science and Technology Directorate, Department of Homeland Security, grant number N00140510629 (College Park, MD: National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 2009), p. 13.

I believe that we are now deeply injured by the simplifications of this time.”[1]

J. Robert Oppenheimer

View the full report (PDF).

The discovery and subsequent killing of Usama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, raises several troubling questions. With regard to the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, commentators note the U.S.’ airborne raid on bin Laden’s compound—undetected by radars in Pakistan, the world’s fifth largest military power—lends credence to the belief that state actors might be capable of successfully seizing and exfiltrating Pakistan’s nuclear assets.[2] As serious a security breach as the raid may have been,[3] of far greater importance is what it reveals about Pakistan’s nuclear insecurities with regard to non-state actors. Indeed, while much attention has rightfully refocused on senior components of Pakistan’s military that aid and abet the Afghan Taliban, elements of al-Qa‘ida, and other jihadist groups that actively oppose the U.S., recent events are also a strong reminder that Pakistan is in the midst of a civil war against many of the these same forces. While it is likely that some senior Pakistani officials were aware of bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad prior to the U.S. assault, one should not entirely dismiss the recent comments of Prime Minister Gilani, especially those in which he notes Pakistan’s own war against terrorism has cost it “some 30,000 men, women, and children and more than 5,000 armed forces personnel [and] billions of dollars lost as economic costs.”[4] (The Figure: Incidents of Reported Terrorism in Pakistan from 2001 – 2010 demonstrates the alarming growth of terrorism in Pakistan since 2003; in the past decade only Iraq and Afghanistan have undergone a greater number of attacks.)

Incidents of Reported Terrorism in Pakistan from 2001-2010
(Click graph to enlarge)

Pakistan may well be attempting to play all sides with its Janus-faced stratagem. Yet Pakistani leaders believe its policies—costly as they may be—are in harmony with their primary goals of blunting Indian influence in Central Asia and ensuring that the geopolitical endgame in Afghanistan conforms to their perceived interests. Fully aware that the U.S. will likely not remain in Afghanistan until it is favorably stabilized, and apprehensive that the power-vacuum left by a U.S. withdrawal will invite meddling by Iran and India, from late 2001 onward Pakistan’s military viewed the Taliban as a tool held in reserve, one that could blunt and counter Indian influence in Central Asia, generally, and offset mounting Indian influence in Kabul, specifically. For example, during the early post-9/11 era Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) not only passively allowed the Afghan Taliban and its jihadist allies to fortify their position in Pakistan’s Waziristan Agencies, but implemented specific plans “to create a broad ‘Talibanized belt’ in its [Federally Administered Tribal Areas – FATA] that would keep the pressure on [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai to bend to Pakistani wishes, keep U.S. forces under threat while maintaining their dependence on Pakistani goodwill, and create a buffer zone between Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns.”[5] Ahmed Rashid has summarized the ISI’s perception of this post-2001 Pakistani strategy as one that would ensure “a Talibanized Pashtun population along the border [that] would pose a threat to Karzai and the Americans but no threat to Pakistan, which would be in control of them.”[6]

Pakistan gravely miscalculated in this regard. For four primary reasons Pakistan’s Talibanized Pashtuns and their allies—collectively referred to in this report as the Pakistani Neo-Taliban (PNT)—challenge not only the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan but also pose a distinct threat to Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure; indeed, in the words of General David Petraeus, the PNT is now a “threat to the very existence of Pakistan … supplanting even India.”[7] Pakistan’s first miscalculation—shared by the U.S.—was a failure to foresee the violent revolt in its tribal areas as a result of the Pakistani military’s unprecedented incursion into FATA. This military campaign—halfheartedly advanced by Pakistani forces against al-Qa‘ida after the latter escaped from Tora Bora in December 2001—was irresolutely advanced only at the insistence of the U.S. and its concomitant and intertwined promise of generous military aid packages. As armed engagements increased, local tribal leaders in FATA came to believe that Pakistan was allowing U.S. forces to operate unfettered within Pakistan.[8] Fearing subjugation by a U.S.-Pakistani cabal, it was only a matter of time before FATA’s tribal chieftains organized their own militias and began to battle Pakistani forces—the civil war had begun.

Second, at the same time indigenous tribal militias battled the Pakistani military, the Afghan Taliban and al-Qa‘ida ruthlessly consolidated their hold in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Their ultimate success in relocating and rebuilding their forces, replenishing materials, and reconstituting command and control capabilities resulted partially from renewed and strengthened ties with sympathetic local tribesmen and erstwhile colleagues from the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad that had remained in the area, married into local families, and become full community members.[9] The newest arrivals to the Waziristan agencies also brought with them money and, consequently, loans and employment opportunities for many of the region’s young men. By 2004, al-Qa‘ida had established 15 training camps in the area and recruitment was booming.[10] The Afghan Taliban cemented the transplantation by eradicating local representatives of state power and many of the area’s religious leaders who opposed their presence. In time these killings created a profound power vacuum that the PNT largely filled. In its early stages this void allowed surviving local Pakistani Pashtun leaders—whose acquiescence to the Afghan Taliban was only exceeded by their determination to resist Islamabad’s perceived efforts to subjugate their tribes—to assume the role of the state, thus further legitimizing their growing power. By 2003-2004 they had created sizable militias to not only police local areas but, more significantly, to engage the Pakistani military in a far more organized and effective manner than before.[11]

Third, following the events of 9/11 and subsequent military actions in Afghanistan, Pakistani-backed Kashmiri militant groups, erroneously believing the close U.S.-Pakistani relationship would help drive India to the negotiation table, intensified their insurgency in hopes of influencing any settlement in their favor. Coupled with increasing Pakistani-supported terrorist actions within India itself, these events led to the 2002 war footing by India.[12] With the Indian military initiating massive-scale troop movements toward its border, Pakistan responded by relocating tens of thousands of its troops from its Afghanistan border to its Indian border, largely abandoning its lackluster efforts to capture bin Ladin and dislodge al-Qa‘ida from its new sanctuary in western Pakistan.[13] Deeply concerned about the effects these developments would have on U.S. efforts to neutralize al-Qa‘ida, the Bush administration reportedly placed enormous pressure on Pakistan to stop its support of anti-Indian fighters, defuse the crisis with India, and refocus military efforts on its western border.[14] Such pressure was compounded by U.S. allegations that many of these groups—for example, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT: Army of the Pure), Jaysh-e-Muhammed (JeM: Army of Muhammed), and Harakat ul-Mujahidin (HuM: The Movement of the Mujahidin)—provided active moral and material backing to members of al-Qa‘ida.[15] After more than six months of negotiation, tensions were eased and the crisis was largely defused. This 2003 rapprochement between New Delhi and Islamabad initiated the latter’s abrupt abandonment of Kashmiri and pan-Islamist jihadists that it had been supporting for years.[16] Their Weltanschauung now further radicalized by their abandonment by Islamabad, these jihadists embraced the idea of the present Pakistani government being Washington’s puppet.[17] With no relocation or recompense plan in place, they were left adrift, largely moved by the currents of jihadist movements in other areas.[18] Naturally, large numbers of these fighters were drawn toward their ideological counterparts in the tribal areas and, once established, showed little compunction about targeting the Pakistani state that once embraced them.[19]

Finally, Islamists with long-standing grievances against the Pakistani government were able to graft their struggle to those of local tribal communities, the Afghan Taliban, al-Qa‘ida, displaced jihadists from Kashmir, and other foreign fighters against Pakistan. Pakistan’s Malakand region, which includes the Swat district, is home to Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM: Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Shāri‘a). After almost a decade of struggle with Pakistan’s federal leadership, the events in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, allowed the group an extraordinary opportunity to redefine its narrative of strict Shāri‘a implementation in the context of resisting the post-9/11 U.S. military and “Western” presence in Central and South Asia. Under the leadership of Maulana Fazlullah, TNSM battled against the Pakistani military, demonstrating, according to one Pakistani military observer, “mind-boggling” tactics and defenses that resembled state military capabilities.[20] Described as both an “army” and a “satellite of al-Qaeda,” TNSM was able to inflict significant losses on the Pakistani army and in doing so displaced millions of civilians.[21] In April 2009, in exchange for a ceasefire, Pakistan’s central government acquiesced to TNSM and established a rigid form of Shāri‘a law in the Malakand region—the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation. Since then sporadic violence has erupted and there is growing apprehension that TNSM will once again challenge Pakistan’s authority not only in the Malakand region, but also in some of Pakistan’s metropolitan centers. Islamized students of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), for example, took inspiration from TNSM’s message of Shāri‘a supremacy and attempted to implement it in the Pakistani capital. Authorities challenged these efforts and the resulting confrontation spiraled out of control. The episode reached a violent crescendo when Pakistani paramilitary units stormed Lal Masjid in July 2007.[22] Casualty figures are inconsistent but at least 73 students died in the siege.[23] Fazlullah, foreign fighters (the IMU: Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, for example), and several leading Pakistani mullahs used the Lal Masjid incident to instigate an armed uprising against the Pakistani state.[24] Some observers reported that Fazlullah’s broadcasts were, in part, intended to activate “certain ‘dormant’ jihadi outfits … to rise in the aftermath of Lal Masjid.”[25] Several students who survived the Lal Masjid siege moved to Swat and Waziristan to join the PNT, and with the phrases, “every mosque in the country is Lal Masjid,” and “Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are our heroes,” they joined other jihadists in an unprecedented campaign of terrorism (see Figure: Suicide Attacks in Pakistan 2004 – 2010). [26]

Suicide Attacks in Pakistan 2002-2010
(Click graph to enlarge)

Collectively PNT-linked forces have conducted dozens of highly sophisticated terrorist operations. Attacks include three sophisticated assaults on Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Regional Headquarters in Lahore, a massive bombing at Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel (“Pakistan’s 9/11”), an ambush of the Sri Lankan Cricket Team, attacks on Lahore’s Police Academy and ISI Provisional Headquarters, partial seizure of Pakistan Army General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi (“Pakistan’s Pentagon), the likely assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a highly challenging and successful attack against a U.S. CIA forwarding base (resulting in the second largest loss of life of CIA officials in the agency’s history), and dozens of other complex operations (see the full report’s LINK TO FULL REPORT Table 1: Summary of Major PNT Related Attacks). Significantly, several attacks were conducted on or near areas believed to house nuclear materials and/or weapons. Indeed, at the time of this writing PNT operatives have finally been neutralized after seizing parts of one of Pakistan’s most secure military bases, Pakistan Naval Station Mehran.[27] The attack—likely the most sophisticated PNT undertakings since the October 2009 assault on Pakistan’s GHQ appears to have benefitted from insider collusion.[28] The well-fortified Naval Station Mehran is located 15 miles from Masroor Air Base, a facility believed to house intact nuclear weapons.[29]

As the full report LINK TO FULL REPORT makes clear, the PNT is clearly the greatest non-state threat to Pakistan’s overall security and, more specifically, its nuclear assets. The PNT’s unique combination of ideology, strategic objectives, organizational structure, relations with other groups (including elements of the Pakistani state), and general resources and capabilities make it unique among the global milieu of violent non-state actors. Although the death of bin Laden has raised questions about Pakistan’s commitment to the U.S. and the latter’s efforts in Afghanistan; equal, if not greater concern, is warranted with regard to Pakistan’s internal and multi-faceted struggle against extremism.

View the full report (PDF).



[1] Robert Oppenheimer, “An Inward Look,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 36, No. 2 (January 1958), pp. 209-220.

[2] For at least a decade both India and the U.S. have developed plans to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. For early accounts see Bruce G. Blair, “The Ultimate Hatred Is Nuclear.”  New York Times, October 23, 2001, and Jon B. Wolfsthal  “U.S. Needs a Contingency Plan for Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal.” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2001.

[3] The incident is similar in some ways to Mathias Rust’s landing of a Cessna 172 near Moscow’s Red Square in 1987. The ensuing irreparable damage precipitated by the nineteen-year-old amateur pilot’s single-engine plane flight resulted in the largest single turnover of Soviet military leaders since Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. See, for example, Tom LeCompte, “The Notorious Flight of Mathias Rust,” Air and Space Magazine, July 2005. Available at: http://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/rust.html?c=y&page=1

[4] “The Prime Minister of Pakistan’s Speech on the Abbottabad Operation and the Death of Osama bin Laden,” Transcript, Centre for Research on Globalization, May 10, 2011. Available at: http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=24701

[5] Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos (New York: Viking, 2008), p. 269.

[6] Ibid, pp. 269-270. Emphasis added. See also John R. Schmidt, “The Unraveling of Pakistan,” Survival, Vol. 51, No. 3 (June-July 2009), p. 34.

[8] Brian Cloughley, “Insurrection in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas,” Pakistan Security Research Unit (PRSU), Brief No. 29. January 24, 2008, passim.

[9] Zahid Hussain, Frontline Pakistan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 142-145.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ahmed Rashid, “Pakistan on the Brink,” The New York Review of Books, June 11, 2009. Available at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/jun/11/pakistan-on-the-brink/

[12] The most serious of these Pakistani-supported terrorist actions was the December 13, 2001, attack on the Indian Parliament. Carried out by members of Jaysh-e-Muhammed (JEM: Army of Muhammed), the attack “was aimed at wiping out the Indian political leadership and delivering a message of strength and resolve by attacking a symbolic target.” This event occurred during the crescendo of the battle of Tora Bora. Gary A. Ackerman, Jeffrey M. Bale, Charles P. Blair, et al, “Assessing Terrorist Motivations for Attacking Critical Infrastructure.” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, UCRL-TR-227068, December 4, 2006, p. 58. Emphasis added. Available at: http://www.llnl.gov/tid/lof/documents/pdf/341566.pdf  For an excellent account of Tora Bara and how it dovetailed with the 2001-2002 India – Pakistan crisis, see Peter Bergen, “The Battle for Tora Bora (How Osama bin Laden slipped from our grasp: The definitive account),” The New Republic (December 22, 2009). Available at: http://www.tnr.com/article/the-battle-tora-bora

[13] Nicholas Kravel, “U.S. Fears Kashmir Strife Endangers War on Terror,” The Washington Post, December 28, 2001.

[14] John F. Burns, “A Nation Challenged: News Analysis; Uneasy Ally in Terror War Suddenly Feels More U.S. Pressure,” The New York Times, December 21, 2007.

[15] Syed Saleem Shahzad, “The Gathering Strength of Taliban and Tribal Militants in Pakistan,” Pakistan Security Research Unit (PRSU) Brief No. 24, November 19, 2007, p. 3.

[16] Author’s interview with Shuja Nawaz, December 14, 2009. See also Hussain, Frontline Pakistan, pp. 111-112.

[17] Peter Chalk, “The Re-Orientation of Kashmiri Extremism: A Threat to Regional and International Security,” Terrorism Monitor Vol. 3, Issue 22 (November 17, 2005).

[18] Peter Chalk correctly observes, “Moves to limit jihadist attacks have clearly been interpreted by groups such as JeM and HuJI as a sell-out of the Kashmiri cause and confirmation that Islamabad, under the present government, is no more than a puppet of Washington. Certain analysts also believe that the strategy has prompted renegade factions within the armed forces and intelligence services—whose raison d’être for most of their existence has been wresting control of [Jammu and Kashmir] from India—to side with and actively support organizations seeking to redirect their ideological fervor against the Pakistani state.” Peter Chalk, “The Re-Orientation of Kashmiri Extremism: A Threat to Regional and International Security,” Terrorism Monitor Vol. 3, Issue 22 (November 17, 2005).

[19] Shuja Nawaz noted in 2010 that when Islamabad “turned its back” on militant groups fighting in Kashmir, it simultaneously lost control of them. “Similar to the disbanding of the Iraqi Army after the U.S. invasion when thousands of trained soldiers and officers were let go,” Nawaz observes, “the LeT was cut loose without a comprehensive plan to disarm, retrain, and gainfully employ the fighters.” Statement of Shuja Nawaz Director, South Asia Center The Atlantic Council of the United States, Committee on House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, March 11, 2010. See, http://www.internationalrelations.house.gov/hearing_notice.asp?id=1163

[20] As quoted in, Ismail Khan and Carlotta Gall, “Battle of Bajaur: A Critical Test for Pakistan’s Military, The New York Times, September 23, 2009.

[21] For TNSM as an “Army” reference see Rashid, “Pakistan on the Brink.” For assertion of TNSM as an “al-Qa‘ida satellite,” see Qandeel Siddique, “The Red Mosque Operation and its Impact on the Growth of the Pakistani Taliban,” Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), October 2008, p. 19.

[22] For a detailed account of the incident and how it directly related to the PNT, see Siddique, “The Red Mosque Operation and its Impact on the Growth of the Pakistani Taliban.” The militants directly associated with Lal Masjid not only had strong ideological and social links to well-known and banned terrorist groups throughout Pakistan, as well as al-Qa‘ida and Taliban members in the tribal areas, but their goals essentially mirrored those of the PNT and their jihadist allies as a whole. Such ideological confluence can be seen from their four primary demands:
1) “Immediate declaration of Shāri‘a in Pakistan by the government.”
2) “Immediate promulgation of Quran and Sunnah in the courts of law.”
3) “Removal of un-Islamic clauses of the Women Protection Bill.”
4) “Immediate discontinuation to declaring jihad as terrorism by the government as it is the great sacred religious duty of Muslims.”
As quoted in Ibid.

[23] “Pakistan Buries its Dead,” BBC News, July 12, 2007.

[24] Siddique, “The Red Mosque Operation and its Impact on the Growth of the Pakistani Taliban,” passim.

[25] Ibid, p. 20.

[26] As quoted in Ibid, p. 19.

[27] “Terrorists Attack Naval Air Base,” Daily Times (Lahore), May 23, 2011. See also, Bill Roggio, “Taliban Assault Team Attacks Pakistani Navy Base,” The Long War Journal (May 22, 2011). Available at: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2011/05/pakistani_navy_base.php

[28] Karen Brulliard, “Pakistani Military Quashes Taliban Attack on Naval Base,” The Washington Post, May 23, 2011. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/pakistani-military-quashes-taliban-attack-on-naval-base/2011/05/23/AFIN2f9G_story.html

[29] See Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Nuclear Notebook: Worldwide Deployments of Nuclear Weapons, 2009, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (November/December 2009), 92. Available at: http://bos.sagepub.com/content/65/6/86.full.pdf+html  See also, Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Nuclear Notebook: Pakistan Nuclear Forces 2011,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, forthcoming

.