On Feb. 4, 2004, Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan's chief nuclear scientist, went on national television and confessed that he had secretly sold nuclear designs and technology to other countries. “It pains me to realize in retrospect that my entire lifetime achievements providing foolproof national security to my country have been placed in serious jeopardy on account of my activities,” Khan said.
The next day, President Pervez Musharraf announced that he had pardoned Khan, and, while declaring him placed under house arrest, called him “my hero” and said, “I revere him for his contribution to making the defense of the country impregnable.” Pakistanis were stunned. A.Q. Khan (as he is usually known) was a national hero who in the eyes of many had delivered their country from the threat of a nuclear attack by India by developing Pakistan's own strategic capability.
India had tested a nuclear weapon in 1978. Under Khan's direction Pakistan was successful in producing its own nuclear response, carrying out six decisive tests in 1998.
But Khan's success had a dark side: Recognizing a major business opportunity, he also organized the largest known international nuclear black market ring. Robert L. Gallucci, a former top State Department nuclear proliferation expert, calls it “one of the greatest threats to international security of which I am aware.”
By his own admission, Khan had between 1989 and 2000 provided technology and expertise to Iran, Libya and North Korea. In a complex ongoing investigation, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials have still not ruled out other possible customers.
Born in Bhopal, India, Khan migrated with his Muslim family to Pakistan when the two nations split in 1947. He trained as a metallurgist in Germany, and in December 1972 was hired by an Amsterdam-based engineering firm with links to a manufacturer of nuclear equipment with an enrichment facility in Almelo, the Netherlands.
By 1974, Khan had an office in that facility and became familiar with centrifuges and the enrichment process. But the story starts earlier, in 1971, as Khan watched Pakistan lose the war with India and vowed to help prevent another defeat from happening.
Three years later, as India tested its nuclear device, he offered Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto his help in creating the world's first Islamic nuclear bomb. In 1975, when his Dutch employers discovered that Khan had stolen centrifuge blueprints he fled back to Pakistan.
“The Pakistan-based network traded everything from blueprints for centrifuges that enrich uranium to weapons' designs and parts,” according to a Council on Foreign Relations background briefing paper. “It also included a sophisticated transportation system to move the goods from the supplier to the buyer.”
Khan began transferring nuclear technology to the Iranians in 1989, even before Pakistan's own weapons had been fully developed. The help started with a centrifuge design and went on to hardware; the IAEA says Khan's assistance to Tehran continued until 1996, with the ruling ayatollahs paying millions of dollars for his expertise.
Abdul Qadeer Khan tossed the world of nuclear proliferation into consternation by admitting to passing nuclear designs and technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea in 2004. (www.will-wright.com)
Starting in 1994 Khan was also involved in a technology trade with North Korea. The regime in Pyongyang exchanged its knowhow in nuclear-capable long-range missiles for Pakistani nuclear technology. One source says that Khan made 13 trips to North Korea to help with the design and equipping of uranium-enrichment facilities.
Libya was to prove Khan's downfall. Western intelligence and the IAEA for some time had indications that the head of Pakistan's nuclear program was engaged in nuclear proliferation on a large scale. For example, IAEA inspectors in Iran discovered that some centrifuge components in Iranian reactors had originated in Pakistan and that the Iranian enrichment program resembled Pakistan's.
A major breakthrough came in October 2003 when Italian authorities intercepted a German ship bound for Libya with thousands of parts for uranium centrifuges. They had been made in Malaysia from Khan's designs.
The discovery is said to have “tipped the balance” for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, “forcing him to agree in December to disclose and dismantle his own nuclear program.” Qaddafi's decision put “a mother lode of information” in the hands of the IAEA investigators. Documents turned over by the Libyans included centrifuge designs and even precise blueprints for the design and construction of a half-ton nuclear bomb. It was “the Libyans who blew up the Pakistanis,” and who made the role of Khan's black market known, according to a New Yorker article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.
While the nuclear black market goes back almost to the dawn of the nuclear age, Khan's approach broke new ground in scope and concept. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called it “the Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation” because — as the CFR study states — Khan “created a centralized one-stop shop that offered technical advice, parts, and customer support.” Shipment of the Malaysia-produced centrifuges tended to be through a shipping company in Dubai, on the Persian Gulf.
A 2006 report by the Stockholm-based Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission charged that Khan's network could not have functioned “without the awareness of the Pakistani government.” This has long been the belief of intelligence sources and experts. Islamic fundamentalists in the Pakistani intelligence service, they say, provided help and protection.
Pakistani officials from Musharraf on down have consistently denied this. Moreover, a spokesman at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, Mohammed Akram Shaheedi, says there was no question of trying Khan because of his popularity: “It would have been difficult for the government to undertake an open trial,” he says.
U.S. and British officials have complained publicly that efforts to learn which other countries Khan was in touch with prior to his discovery have been blocked by Pakistani authorities. But the consensus is that he has made the world more dangerous because some of the members of his wide organization could still do business. Already in 2004, ElBaradei was quoted as saying, “the information is now all over the place, and that's what makes it more dangerous than in the 1960s.” And, says Gallucci, “Bad as it is with Iran, North Korea having nuclear-weapons material is much worse. The worst part is that they could transfer it to a non-state group.” In other words, to terrorists.