Is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal theft-proof? Former President Pervez Musharraf and his successor Asif Ali Zardari and their army and intelligence chiefs repeatedly have assured both the Bush and Obama administrations that their 80-odd nuclear weapons are as secure as the U.S. arsenal of some 7,000 city busters. The Pakistanis have separated warheads from delivery systems and stored them in different secret locations throughout the second-largest Muslim country in the world after Indonesia. The United States has given Pakistan copies of its own blueprint to ensure full-proof, total safety. Yet Pakistan’s secret nuclear storage sites are known to Islamist extremists and have been attacked at least three times over the last two years, according to two recent reputable reports.

The Baltimore-based Maldon Institute, whose worldwide staff consists mostly of retired intelligence officers, and the Times of India’s Washington-based Foreign Editor Chidanand Rajghatta both report attempted nuclear thefts that have been tracked by Shaun Gregory, a professor at the University of Bradford in Britain. The first such attack against the nuclear missile storage facility was on Nov. 1, 2007, at Sargodha; the second, by a suicide bomber, occurred Dec. 10, 2007, against Pakistan’s nuclear air base at Kamra; and the third and most alarming was launched Aug. 20, 2008, by several suicide bombers who blew up key entry points to a nuclear weapons complex at the Wah cantonment, long believed to be one of Pakistan’s main nuclear weapons assembly points, where warheads and launchers come together in a national emergency.

Gregory’s research paper was first published in West Point’s Counter Terrorism Center Sentinel and elicited no attention or reaction. Renowned terrorist expert Peter Bergen, one of the very few journalists to interview al-Qaida chief Osama Bin Laden before Sept. 11, 2001, reviewed Gregory’s paper and was baffled by the lack of reaction from the rest of the media.

While not denying the three incidents, Pakistan has said repeatedly that its nuclear weapons are fully secured and there is no chance of them falling into the hands of Islamist extremists, a phenomenon that has attracted a limited number of officers. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89), Islamist extremism was encouraged by the three powers funding the anti-Soviet insurgents, known as the mujahedin (whose sons and grandsons are today’s Taliban guerrillas). The fear in those days was communist expansion into Pakistan. And madrassas, Koranic schools for boys only, funded by Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Wahabi clergy, were set up along the border as an “ideological barrier” against Moscow’s godless state religion.

Since then, the madrassa phenomenon has spread to the entire country, and today’s reform movement has touched roughly 250 madrassas out of 12,500. The rest are still producing jobless teenagers who are easily seduced by the jihadi siren song to fight the imperialist apostates from the United States, Israel and India. Still more worrisome is the number of younger army officers who embraced Islamist extremism in the heady days of the February 1989 Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. When the United States began punishing Pakistan with all manner of sanctions for its secret nuclear weapons program throughout the 1990s, the young officers, reared in what became a bitterly anti-American environment, are today’s one-, two- and three-star generals.

Relations between Pakistan’s generals and their U.S. counterparts are now middling to good, but at arm’s length. Following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a Pakistani general with the Inter-Services Intelligence agency toured the tribal areas along the Afghan border to tell tribal elders that Pakistan would be next on America’s list of Muslim targets. The American government, this general explained to a tribal chief who is a longtime friend of this reporter, is determined to seize “Islam’s” nuclear weapons. This was when Gen. Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief, spread the word that Sept. 11 had been concocted by the CIA and Israel’s Mossad to provide a pretext for attacking Muslim countries. Sadly, many well-intentioned Pakistanis still believe to this day what is straight disinformation designed to manipulate public opinion against the United States.

Gregory points out that during Pakistan’s secret nuclear weapons buildup in the 1970s (after East Pakistan was conquered by the Indian army in 1971 and turned into Bangladesh) and 1980s (when the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan), its principal concern was the risk of India overrunning its nuclear facilities in a blitzkrieg armored offensive if they were located close to the 780-mile border between the two countries. Instead, most of the nuclear weapons infrastructure was moved to the north and west and to the region around the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi (a military garrison city).

This brought these installations close to where Taliban insurgents were operating, in Pakistan proper, as close as 60 miles to the capital. American and Pakistani perceptions of the growing threat to its nukes narrowed accordingly. Gregory says the army “conducts a tight selection process drawing almost exclusively on officers from Punjab province who are believed to have fewer links with religious extremism, or with the Pashtun areas” of the North-West Frontier province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas abutting the Afghan border.

The Times of India and the Maldon Institute reported Pakistan also operates an analog to the U.S. Personnel Reliability Program “that screens individuals for Islamist sympathies, personality problems, drug use, inappropriate external affiliations, and sexual deviancy.” Gregory reckons that “in total, between 8,000 and 10,000 individuals from the army’s security division and from the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Military Intelligence and Intelligence Bureau agencies are involved in the security clearance and monitoring of those with nuclear weapons duties.”

Pakistan also uses dummy sites to confuse would-be attackers. Formal command authority is under President Zardari and his Cabinet. But Army chief Ashfaq Kayani has complete control over the country’s nuclear weapons. But Gregory also says that despite “elaborate safeguards, empirical evidence points to a clear set of weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Pakistan’s nuclear safety and security arrangements.”

How the thousands employed by the nuclear establishment feel about the United States is not known. The question is not considered relevant, perhaps because U.S. and Pakistani views still differ on the nature of the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban was useful after the Soviets left Afghanistan. Many of ISI’s senior officers believe it will be useful again after the United States and its NATO allies leave.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is editor-at-large at UPI.  This essay was previously published by UPI as “Pakistan nuke thefts foiled.”