Anil Athale

Last weeks news that Plutonium and weapon grade fissile material is freely available on sale in Pakistan, ought to have sent shivers down the spines of most of the sane people around the world. Unfortunately, after the shrill comment by the British Foreign Office, the media and world at large seems to have forgotten about the implications of this event. During the cold war the entire attention of strategic community was focused on preventing the least likely possibility, an all out nuclear war. The importance of insurgencies and the bush fire wars that were fought more frequently was realised when it was too late. Similarly, all attention is today focused on the spread of wmds (weapons of mass destruction) to more nations. The real danger, of terrorist groups getting hold of these and making use of them, has received scant attention. A nation state at least can be deterred by a counter threat. But a terrorist group with no fixed territorial base is immune to deterrence. Even against revolutionary or rogue states, the current control regimes have no real answer unless the rogue states target one of the nuclear weapon powers. Else how would the West be so cosy with the usurper Parvez Musharraf of Pakistan ? Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material.

There has often been talk of a terrorist made ‘suitcase bomb’. The point is that while today it is relatively easy to assemble a nuclear weapon in backyard, the crucial ingredient, the fissile material, be it Plutonium or Uranium-235, cannot be made without elaborate industrial infrastructure. For the terrorists to use nuclear weapons, the only way out is to steal it. Control on fissile material if effectively enforced, can virtually eliminate the threat of terrorists using it. Population growth, industrialisation and imminent exhaustion of oil has increased the need for nuclear energy and consequent spread of fissile material. Irrespective of the Nuclear Non –Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, the world has to accept the fact that more fissile material is going to be available in future.


The NPT permits the five ‘recognised’ nuclear powers to continue their possession as well as increase in their fissile material stockpile. The only restrictions are placed on the non-nuclear nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors all the nuclear power plants operating there, the so called full-scope safeguards. The Nuclear powers do provide selective access to their civilian nuclear power plants. But their military installations operate in TOTAL SECRECAY AND ARE NOT ACCOUNTABLE TO THE WORLD. The spread of nuclear weapons has occurred as countries like China gave ready made weapons to Pakistan ( though in fairness to the Chinese, they did this before they signed the NPT in 1992 ). The fissile material has come to Pakistan also through another nuclear power, Russia and its erstwhile facilities in the defunct Soviet Union. Since 1945 there have been 43 instances of nuclear threats. Out of these 22 or half, were against non-nuclear powers. After signing the NPT there have been 9 nuclear threats, eight of which were administered to non nuclear weapons states. All the major powers, though signatory to the ban on chemical and biological weapons, continue their research in these areas. This duplicity robs the international control regimes of all legitimacy.


Attention of the defence establishments as well as strategic analysts has been long focussed on the countering the threat of nuclear chemical and biological weapons by adversary nations. Nations with fixed territory and populations can be deterred by threat of retaliation. As a nation state continues to be the unit of action in the international arena, even the so-called crazy states are unlikely to want to commit mass suicide. The concept of Pan Islam is Universalist without a state. Islam does not accept pluralism. Its memories of having dominated the world is also a powerful impetus for expansion. Being an absolutist ideology, pure destruction is part of the Islamic psyche. In near future, Islamic fundamentalist groups with or without the patronage of some Islamic states, are the most likely users of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons for mass destruction. The extra national groups do not need elaborate and easy to detect means of delivery. Since they aim at random targets, defensive measures have their limitations. As the world gets increasingly urbanised, many more ‘soft’ targets become easily available. Last year Pakistan inducted a mixed force of its soldiers and Islamic terrorists into Kargil and flatly denied any responsibility for this aggression. The logistical backing it provided the intruders as well as constant artillery and helicopter support, were noted by all, yet Pakistan insisted in calling it a Mujhideen operation. At some future date, a ‘Kashmiri Freedom fighters’ initiated nuclear explosion in some Indian city will similarly be disowned by Pakistan. The international pressure will also be on us, again, to show restraint and not retaliate. Unfortunately we have established a wrong precedent in Kargil, of unilateral restraint. Will the narcissist West see the danger of unleashing nuclear anarchy ? The chances are slim, witness the hue and cry over Osama Bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan and contrast it with deafening silence over the presence of Dawood Ibrahim ( the Bombay bomb blast fame) in Karachi in Pakistan! The West must know that if it is India today it will surely be the US or UK tomorrow. After all the Jehadists not only bombed the Bombay Stock Exchange, they also did the same to World Trade Centre in New York.


Threat of nuclear terrorism is a global problem like the locus threat or issue of environmental degradation. There can be no national solution to an international problem. Ahead of all the push for Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or NPT, the UN ought to first concentrate on ENFORCING TOTAL , CUMPULSORY ACCOUNTABILITY ON PRODUCTION OF ‘ALL’FISSILE MATERIAL. Each country must account for every gram of Plutonium and Uranium, whether for civilian or military purposes, and be responsible for its safe custody. Any country refusing to join this arrangement should be declared outcaste and cut-off from the rest of the world with mandatory economic and travel sanctions. The time to act is now, tomorrow may be too late.