Pakistani intelligence officials on Thursday dismissed suggestions that the country’s nuclear arsenal could be at risk of falling into terrorist hands in the volatile political climate created by General Pervez Musharraf’s imposition of a state of emergency and brushed aside concerns expressed by a senior US general and Nicolas Sarkozy, French president .

“Pakistan has come a long way since the A.Q. Khan episode,” one senior Pakistani official told the Financial Times, referring to the illicit trade in nuclear secrets conducted by Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist that was exposed in 2004. “The problem is that the west doesn’t believe us. No matter how much we clarify, they will still suspect our intentions.”

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defence analyst and former visiting professor of Pakistan studies at Columbia University, said mounting instability was bound to trigger fresh international concerns for the security of the country’s nuclear assets: “If we head towards growing confrontation on the streets, there is bound to be growing global pressure on Pakistan on the nuclear front.”

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Lieutenant General Carter Ham, director of operations for the US joint chiefs of staff, said the Pentagon was watching developments in Pakistan closely. “Any time there is a nation that has nuclear weapons that has experienced a situation such as Pakistan is at present, that is a primary concern,” he said.

Adding his voice to calls for swift elections, Mr Sarkozy, on a visit to the US, said: “This is a country of 150m people, which happens to have nuclear weapons. This is very important for us that one day we shouldn’t wake up with a government, an administration in Pakistan which is in the hands of the extremists.”

The US has stepped up its nuclear security co-operation with Pakistan in the wake of Mr Khan’s activities, famously described as a “nuclear Wal-Mart” by Mohamed ElBaradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency chief. Islamabad, however, has made it clear that it will not allow US visits to its sensitive nuclear sites and the effectiveness of US monitoring is unknown.

In his recently published memoir George Tenet, former Central Intelligence Agency chief, recalled a conversation with Gen Musharraf in which the president assured him that Pakistani nuclear experts had dismissed the possibility that “men hiding in caves” could build a nuclear bomb. “Mr. President, your experts are wrong,” Mr Tenet said he replied.

“Securing the Bomb 2007”, a report by Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government on behalf of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-proliferation advocacy group, concluded that Pakistan posed a serious challenge to efforts to prevent terrorist groups from obtaining nuclear weapons.

It said Pakistan’s relatively small nuclear stockpile faced “huge threats” from al-Qaeda and other jihadi terrorist groups, as well as from insiders with a demonstrated willingness to sell sensitive nuclear technology throughout the world and proven sympathy for extreme jihadi causes.

“If al-Qaeda terrorists can twice come close to assassinating President Musharraf with help from Pakistani military officers, who can rule out the possibility that other military officers guarding nuclear weapons might be convinced to help al-Qaeda?” the report, written by Matthew Bunn, said.

Recent US intelligence assessments, including the National Intelligence Estimate, suggest that al-Qaeda’s central command has been reconstituting its ability to direct complex operations from the border areas of Pakistan. The Pakistani government has rejected suggestions that al-Qaeda has found a haven in the tribal areas.

Islamabad claims that Mr Khan’s export of sensitive nuclear technology to third countries, believed to include Iran, were unauthorised, suggesting that his activities over two decades represented a massive security failure. Pakistani officials say they have since taken wide-ranging – but unspecified – measures to ensure that rogue proliferation cannot happen again.

A non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, Pakistan may have up to 100 nuclear weapons in a number of locations, analysts say. Facilities are heavily guarded, though probably not equipped with state-of-the-art protection and material control and accounting technologies, according to Securing the Bomb 2007.

Get alerts on Terrorism when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article