Alarmed by a slew of terror attacks on sensitive military installations in Pakistan, the US is putting in place "a crack unit" of its elite troops to seal off that country's nuclear weapons and ensure they do not fall into the hands of militants, a media report claimed today.
The US army is training the crack unit so that it could seal off and snatch back Pakistani nuclear weapons in the event of militants, "possibly from inside the country's security apparatus," getting their hands on a nuclear device or materials that could make one, The Sunday Times reported.
It said the specialised unit would be charged with recovering the nuclear materials and securing them.
"The move follows a series of attacks on sensitive military instalations over the past two years, several of which housed nuclear facilities, and rising tension that has seen a series of official complaints by the US authorities to Islamabad in the past fortnight," the report said.
Citing Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who used to run the US energy department's intelligence unit, it said: "What you have in Pakistan is nuclear weapons mixed with the highest density of extremists in the world, so we have a right to be concerned."
"There have been attacks on army bases which stored nuclear weapons and there have been breaches and infiltrations by terrorists into military facilities."
Pakistan is thought to possess about 80 nuclear warheads.
Although the weapons are well guarded, the fear is that materials or processes to enrich uranium could fall into the wrong hands.
"All it needs is someone in Pakistan within the nuclear establishment and in a position of key access to become radicalised," said Mowatt-Larssen. "This is not just theoretical. It did happen - Pakistan has had inside problems before."
Bashir Mahmood, former head of Pakistan's plutonium reactor, formed the Islamic charity Ummah Tameer-e-Nau in March 2000 after resigning from the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.
He was arrested in Islamabad on October 23, 2001 along with his associate Abdul Majeed for alleged links to Osama Bin Laden. The Al Qaeda leadership has made no secret of its desire to gain weapons for a 'nuclear 9/11'.
"I have no doubt they are hell-bent on acquiring this," said Howatt Larssen. "These guys are thinking of nuclear at the highest level and are approaching it in increasingly professional ways."
Nuclear experts and US officials say the biggest fear is of an inside job amid growing anti-American feeling in Pakistan.
Last year 3,021 Pakistanis were killed in terrorist attacks, more than in Afghanistan, yet polls suggest Pakistanis consider the United States to be a greater threat than the Taliban. "You have 8,000-12,000 people in Pakistan with some type of role in nuclear missiles - whether as part of an assembly team or security," said Professor Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan security research unit at Bradford University who has tracked a number of attempted security breaches since 2007.
"The terrorists are at the gates," he warned.
In a counter-terrorism journal, published by America's West Point military academy, he documented three incidents.
The first was an attack in November 2007 at Sargodha in Punjab, where nuclear-capable F-16 jet aircraft are stationed.
The following month a suicide bomber struck at Pakistan's nuclear airbase at Kamra in Attock district.
In August 2008, a group of suicide bombers blew up the gates to a weapons complex at the Wah cantonment in Punjab, believed to be one of Pakistan's nuclear warhead assembly plants. The attack left 63 people dead.
A further attack followed at Kamra last October.
Pakistan denies that the base still has a nuclear role, but Gregory believes it does.
A six-man suicide team was arrested in Sargodha last August.
Fears that militants could penetrate a nuclear facility intensified after a brazen attack on army headquarters in Rawalpindi in October when 10 gunmen wearing army uniforms got inside and laid siege for 22 hours.
Last month, there was an attack on the naval command centre in Islamabad.
The Pakistani police said five Americans from Washington who were arrested in Pakistan last month after trying to join the Taliban were carrying a map of Chashma Barrage, a complex in Punjab that includes a nuclear power facility.
Pakistan's military leadership, which controls the nuclear programme, has always bristled at the suggestion that its nuclear facilities are at risk, the report said.
The generals insist that storing components in different sites keeps them secure.
One US official admitted that the United States does not know where all of Pakistan's storage sites are located.
"Don't assume the US knows everything," he said.
Although the United States has provided $100 million worth of technical assistance to Islamabad under its nuclear protection programme, US personnel have been denied access to most Pakistani nuclear sites, the paper said.
The report also spoke about the rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan owing to repeated drone attacks inside Pakistan territory.
Concerns about hostility inside the army to the United States first surfaced in 2007. At a meeting of commanders at Kurram, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a
Pakistani major drew his pistol and shot an American, the report said.It claimed the incident was hushed up as a gunfight.