The Terrifying Geography of Nuclear and Radiological Insecurity in South Asia

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Terrorism involving nuclear or radiological materials remains one of the gravest threats to humanity and to global stability. It was a central concern throughout President Obama’s tenure, with efforts to harness international initiatives coming to the fore at the Nuclear Security Summits. The incoming administration, however, should take a fresh look at a region of the world that hosts two states with nuclear weapons and a serious terrorism problem: South Asia.

Analysis on South Asia tends to occur in silos that focus on either nuclear risks or terrorism risks; fewer studies investigate the overlap between the two.

But we’ve mapped the geography of high-risk locations and violence by non-state actors—that is, the target threat environment—in South Asia’s two states with advancing nuclear weapons programs, India and Pakistan. The low probability but high potential cost of an incident of nuclear or radiological terror merits greater attention from citizens and policy makers alike, and the requisite means, motive, and opportunities for an incident of terror via weapons of mass destruction or disruption converge in South Asia.

The upcoming Summit on Countering WMD Terrorism, to be hosted by India in 2018, offers an opportunity bring attention to the issue. But preparations must begin well in advance of that summit, if the slow-moving machine of bureaucratic change is to be turned to address the institutional and governance problems India and Pakistan exhibit in regard to countering WMD terrorism.

Means to achieve mass destruction or disruption. South Asia is home to expanding and maturing nuclear weapons programs and widespread, frequent, and organized domestic and cross-border terror attacks. Recent incidents include a September 18 assault by terrorists who crossed the border from Pakistan to attack an Indian Army camp at Uri. This incident was followed by Indian retaliation, in the form of a publicly touted “surgical strike.” But this clash is one of many. Overall, the region (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) was host to 22,077 terrorist incidents between 2010 and 2015, some 36 percent of the global total. Nearly half of all terrorist attacks in 2015 occurred in four countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, India, and Pakistan. India and Pakistan alone suffered a total of 13,322 incidents and 5,471 fatalities between 2010 and 2015. The Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland classified 30 percent of those attacks as armed assaults.

The different modalities of nuclear or radiological terrorism include: an attack on a nuclear facility, theft of nuclear or radiological material and construction of a “dirty bomb,” and theft of a nuclear weapon. A fourth, and often overlooked, path by which terrorists could precipitate a nuclear incident is to stage escalatory attacks that draw two states into a nuclear crisis or conflict.

The conditions for all four routes are prime in South Asia’s nuclear and radiological threat environment.

The motive for a nuclear or radiological terror attack. A number of violent non-state actors have alluded to their interest in pursuing WMD or precipitating a nuclear event. Some have been even more explicit, demonstrating intent to target a nuclear facility.

Before the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, for instance, the Lashkar-e-Taiba group is reported to have conducted reconnaissance on India’s only plutonium-production facility. The emergence of ISIS in South Asia and the establishment of the Khorasan offshoot, with its wilayat (province) straddling the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, shows the continued presence of large and sophisticated terror groups that may already have the means, motivation, and capability to acquire sensitive materials.

Reports of ISIS developing a presence in India also continue to surface. One worrying indicator of ISIS’ interest in the destructive potential of nuclear and radiological material became evident in November 2015, when the Belgian police discovered that some ISIS members involved in the Paris attacks had taken hours of surveillance video at the home of an official working at the Belgian nuclear research center with a substantial amount of HEU on-site.

Opportunity for breaking the WMD terror taboo. Pakistan’s complicated relationship with domestic and regional non-state actor groups, together with India’s lack of an independent nuclear regulatory agency or a comprehensive safeguards agreement for the majority of its declared civilian-use nuclear facilities, highlight vulnerabilities that motivated actors could exploit in the future.

Several documented security blunders connected to nuclear materials and facilities in India over the past two decades raise concerns regarding India’s threat environment. In Pakistan, terrorists have carried out direct attacks on facilities believed to have a nuclear weapons role. Some of these incidents are suspected of having being conducted with insider help.

Facilities with the radiological material necessary to create a “dirty bomb” are even more widespread and insecure. While data on Pakistan’s radiological material stocks are not readily available, India is one of the largest producers of radiological material in the world. In recent times, India has been searching for a suitable alternative to the isotope cobalt 60 because of its short half-life (i.e. it doesn’t stay radioactive as long as other isotopes). India has recently veered towards using cesium 137 as a replacement because of its longer half-life, becoming the first country in the world to use cesium 137 vitrified radioactive sources in the commercial domain. India is estimated to have 57,443 medical X-ray units and more than 12,000 devices that use radioactive materials for industrial and medical applications.

We have created a map of India and Pakistan showing: in yellow, nuclear facilities and likely nuclear-capable military bases identified by experts; in red, the known, open-source history of terrorist attacks, incidents of theft, transportation accidents, or personnel reliability program failures involving nuclear or radiological materials and facilities in India and Pakistan; in blue, all terror attacks in India and Pakistan in 2015; and in green, all terror attacks in India and Pakistan in 2014. From the map, it’s clear that sensitive materials and facilities in India and Pakistan suffer from vulnerabilities, and violent non-state actors have demonstrated the capability to carry out attacks on and around these vulnerabilities.

The expanding threat environment in South Asia. Past attacks, thefts, transportation accidents, and personnel reliability issues show that while security failures involving sensitive nuclear materials appear to occur infrequently, they do occur—in both countries. Even more concerning: India and Pakistan are primed to expand their nuclear facilities, production of fissile material, and types of delivery systems, multiplying risks. These expansions make for an even more target-rich environment for motivated non-state actors to exploit. Further, the prevalence of terror attacks in districts where sensitive materials and facilities are located demonstrates that violent non-state actors have demonstrated the capacity (that is, the networks, intelligence, and resources) to reach these areas and threaten hardened targets. While the vast majority of attacks lack sophistication, the low probability but extremely high-risk threat of nuclear and radiological terror highlights the need for swift policy shifts to bolster sensitive material security on the subcontinent.

Addressing vulnerabilities to WMD terrorism around the world will take time and concerted policy effort. In 2018, India plans to host a summit on countering WMD terrorism. Preparation for this global initiative will be well served by a serious reevaluation of the geography of nuclear and radiological material security and non-state actor violence in South Asia. In India and Pakistan, we find that the means, motive, and opportunity not only exist but also overlap geographically, revealing an insecure threat environment with the potential for alarming consequences. While nuclear energy trade deals with India have been politically and economically expedient in the last decade, it is dangerous to continue to overlook South Asia’s shortcomings in material security. The 2018 Summit in particular is a key opportunity for India to demonstrate regional and global leadership on this issue.


This article was published by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists here.

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