How ISIS can get hold of nuclear weapons from Pakistan

The Islamic State is rewriting the whole idiom of al Qaeda type jihadi warfare.

 |  4-minute read |   26-05-2015
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Periodically, international media carries news items about terrorists trying to procure nuclear weapons to add to their increasingly sophisticated weaponry. The British daily The Independent’s recent speculative story about the Islamic State (ISIS), the world’s most notorious terrorist group, trying to get a nuclear weapon from Pakistan probably belongs to this genre of reports.

The report was based on an article appearing in the ISIS propaganda website Dabiq under the name of British photojournalist John Cantlie, who was kidnapped by the terrorist group in Syria in November 2012. He said the ISIS had "billions of dollars in the bank" and they could purchase a nuclear device through weapon dealers in Pakistan who had "links to corrupt officials" in the region, though it was "far-fetched".

Is the ISIS really capable of adding nuclear weapons to its increasingly sophisticated armoury? Usually Western analysts have dismissed such reports as not credible because jihadi groups lacked the resources, access and technical skill to procure nuclear weapons and use them. There are also problems of portability and transportation of nuclear weapons across the globe. The ISIS has enough money thanks to its well heeled global patrons and sale of oil from captured oil fields.

The Dabiq article was timed to coincide with the ISIS’ sensational capture of Ramadi (Iraq) and the ancient city of Palmyra (Syria) in quick succession. Ramadi is the capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province in Iraq and Palmyra was the last Syrian-controlled border crossing between Syria and Iraq. Thus the ISIS now controls a seamless swathe of territory across both Syria and Iraq increasing its options and flexibility to coordinate operations on both fronts. Therefore, the strategic situation in the Levant has clearly swung in favour of the ISIS. So even if the article in The Independent was speculative, it might be articulating the ISIS’ desire for "big ticket" acquisition of nuclear weapons to add to its arsenal.

Such a thing could further dislocate the US leadership, already reeling under strong criticism from within. Though US President Barack Obama continued to claim, "I don't think we're losing", the dismal failure of the US and its coalition partners and allies to stem the tide of the ISIS now swamping both Iraq and Syria has exposed the bankruptcy of the current US strategy.

The ISIS is rewriting the whole idiom of jihadi warfare of the al Qaeda type. The US strategists do not seem to have factored this in their strategy, which seems to treat it as yet another jihadi terror group. The ISIS has continued to demonstrate that its cadres are highly motivated, tech-savvy, Western-educated youth with worldwide tentacles. They are using social media as an effective propaganda weapon to enlarge tactical victories to further strategic objectives.

Their successes are sustaining the ISIS’ high morale and mettle despite more than 3,000 airstrikes carried out by the US-led coalition forces since June, 2014 in Iraq alone. In addition to this, some of its key leaders including al Baghdadi have been put out of action by targeted drone attacks. These attacks have assisted the jihadis to widen their recruiting base in the Muslim world as "collateral damage" caused by the drone attacks among innocent civilians (including the killing of two Western hostages) have created huge international backlash against the US. This is fast eroding President Obama’s credibility back home. International criticism against American "exceptionalism" is increasingly becoming strident.

In contrast this, the US-backed Iraqi government had to call upon the Iran-assisted Shia militia’s assistance to boost a counter-offensive to recapture Ramadi after its American-trained and equipped troops fled when the jihadis launched a series of suicide attacks inside the city. The Iraqis also left behind half a dozen tanks, some artillery pieces and a large number of armoured personnel carriers and about 100 Humvee trucks!

None among the US or coalition partners seem to be succeeding because they are fighting for their own narrow self interest rather than common good.

The US' ignominy may well be leveraged by the ISIS to muddle the waters further by procuring a nuclear weapon. But can it do so from Pakistan? That is a question India should be analysing as the ISIS is slowly spreading its tentacles into India, having won over some of the active anti-India terrorist outfits in Pakistan.

According to a report of the Institute for Science and International Security, Pakistan had been doubling its nuclear weapon-producing capability since 2011. It now has the capability to produce 19 to 26 nuclear weapons annually. In an analytical article on May 19, this year in its website on new constructions in Pakistan’s Khushab nuclear reactor, David Albright and Serena Kelleher Veragntini have quoted an unnamed former senior Pakistani official who said that the purpose of the plutonium produced in the reactors at Khushab was "to build smaller, shorter range nuclear weapons, including tactical nuclear-tipped missiles".

This is the latest affirmation of information known for some time. Tactical, nuclear-tipped missiles are easily portable. So the Pakistan establishment, which seems to have many open and clandestine links with jihadi groups, has the option to tell the ISIS: "If you have the inclination, we have the weapon". And that could spell doomsday for not only India but also Pakistan. One can only hope better sense prevails everywhere.


Colonel R Hariharan Colonel R Hariharan @colhari2

The writer is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia with rich experience in terrorism and insurgency operations.

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