The Evil Behind the Axis?

Times Staff Writers

If one man sits at the nuclear fulcrum of the three countries President Bush calls the "axis of evil," it may well be Abdul Qadeer Khan.

The 66-year-old metallurgist is considered the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb. He is a national hero at home, where hospitals bear his name and children sing his praises. U.S. and other Western officials do not. They say Khan is the only scientist known to be linked to the alleged efforts of North Korea, Iraq and Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

"If the international community had a proliferation most-wanted list, A. Q. Khan would be most wanted on the list," said Robert J. Einhorn, who was assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation in the Clinton administration.

U.S. intelligence long has known of Khan's activities. But the extent of his ties to all three "axis" nations became public only recently as North Korea admitted resuming its nuclear weapons effort, satellite photos showed that Iran may be conducting clandestine nuclear work and Khan's name appeared in a letter offering to "manufacture a nuclear weapon" for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Pakistan denies giving nuclear assistance to other countries and insists that Khan has done no wrong. But under intense U.S. pressure, President Pervez Musharraf abruptly removed Khan as head of nuclear weapons development two years ago. Bush administration officials, wary of undermining a partner in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, publicly downplay concerns about Islamabad's possible role in spreading nuclear knowledge.

Privately, U.S. officials have confronted Pakistani leaders in recent years with the suggestion that Islamabad might not have complete control over its nuclear scientists. However, some analysts and experts doubt that a maverick scientist working alone -- even one as senior as Khan -- could have engineered such sensitive deals with so many governments.

"We know he's been [to North Korea] at least 13 times, perhaps more," Gaurav Kampani, a nuclear expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, said of Khan. "It's obviously been sanctioned by institutions within the Pakistani government."

Khan, with graying wavy hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache, has shrugged off charges that he is a nuclear Johnny Appleseed. Instead, he portrays himself as a scientist, a patriot -- and a pacifist.

"Some people have the impression that because I built a nuclear bomb, I'm some sort of cruel person," he told a Pakistani journalist in 2001. "That's not the case. I built a weapon of peace, which seems hard to understand until you realize Pakistan's nuclear capability is a deterrent to aggressors. There has not been a war in the last 30 years, and I don't expect one in the future. The stakes are too high."

Unlike two other senior Pakistani nuclear scientists who were questioned by U.S. and Pakistani authorities in 2001 after meetings with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, Khan is not an Islamic radical.

"He is not a fundamentalist, though he is nationalist -- and sometimes nationalism and religion get mixed up in Pakistan," said Pervez Hoodbhoy, an anti-nuclear activist and MIT-trained physicist who teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. "He has been in it for the power, the money and the glory."

Khan has received all three. When he ran Pakistan's bomb-building program, he reported directly to the nation's leader and had free-flowing funds at his disposal. U.S. officials say Khan owns several palatial residences. And he is revered not only at home, where he is hailed for putting Pakistan on an equal nuclear footing with rival India, but also in much of the Muslim world, where he is lionized as the man who built the "Islamic bomb."

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One-Upmanship Begins

It began when India tested a nuclear device in 1974 and Pakistan immediately sought to catch up. Khan kick-started the country's nuclear program the following year, allegedly providing copied plans for gas centrifuges from the Urenco uranium enrichment facility in the Netherlands, where he had worked. He also obtained a list of suppliers that would prove invaluable. Khan ultimately was tried for treason in absentia in the Netherlands, but the case was dropped when prosecutors failed to properly deliver a summons.

"He stole the blueprints," said David Kay, who headed nuclear weapons evaluation programs at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna from 1982 to 1992. "But he's not a cat burglar who snatched some plans. He's a very good scientist."

Khan took charge of Pakistan's uranium enrichment program in 1976. Using the Urenco designs, his team secretly built gas centrifuges at the A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories in Kahuta, a heavily guarded complex near Islamabad. A separate agency, Pakistan's Atomic Energy Organization, built the weapons using what U.S. officials believe were plans obtained from China.

Pakistan detonated its first nuclear devices underground in May 1998, shortly after India launched a second series of nuclear tests. But U.S. officials say Pakistan had produced its first nuclear weapon a decade earlier, thanks to Khan's success at the hardest part of bomb-building: producing fissile material. Islamabad today is believed to have 30 to 60 nuclear weapons.

Khan has proudly recounted how his team procured key components openly from Western companies that were willing to help -- and by subterfuge when they weren't. Khan said in an interview with Pakistan's Defense Journal that Western governments tried to prevent his nation from developing nuclear weapons but were foiled by the greed of their own companies.

"Many suppliers approached us with the details of the machinery and with figures and numbers of instruments and materials," he said. "They begged us to purchase their goods."

For other items, the team used offshore front companies in nations such as Japan and Singapore, sometimes routing the goods through Jordan.

"I am not a madman or a nut," Khan told an interviewer in 2001. "If making nuclear weapons for the sole purpose of safeguarding the existence, independence and sovereignty of your country could be termed madness or fanaticism, there are many thousands in other countries who should be awarded even bigger titles. I am proud of my work for my country. It has given Pakistanis a sense of pride, security, and has been a great scientific achievement."

But international officials worry that Pakistan, through Khan, has spread that nuclear knowledge to other countries. The strongest evidence appears in North Korea.

U.S. officials say Khan initiated talks with the North Koreans in 1992 to obtain 10 to 12 medium-range Nodong ballistic missiles to help Pakistan boost its military profile against India. The Americans say the deal was finalized during a secret 1993 visit to North Korea by Benazir Bhutto, then Pakistan's prime minister.

In April 1998, Pakistan test-fired a knockoff Nodong missile renamed the Ghauri I, which can carry a nuclear payload deep into India. A month later, North Koreans attended Pakistan's first nuclear tests, according to European diplomats.

In exchange for the missiles, U.S. and other officials say, Pakistan gave North Korea designs for Khan's gas centrifuges and other assistance needed to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. After a tense diplomatic standoff with the Clinton administration, North Korea promised to freeze its nuclear program in 1994. It recently admitted that it has a uranium enrichment program, however, and it has reopened nuclear facilities that were closed under the 1994 agreement. Khan has also played a notable role in Iran's nuclear development.

In 1986, Pakistan and Iran signed a nuclear cooperation agreement after Khan visited Bushehr, a nuclear power plant that Tehran is building with Russian help. After subsequent visits by Khan, Western intelligence reported that Iranian scientists received training in Pakistan in 1988 and that Pakistan was helping Iran build a nuclear reactor in 1990. The exchanges seemed to cease by 1993 when Pakistan and Iran became rivals over Afghanistan, said Ibrahim Marashi, a proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute.

Because Iran has abundant oil and other energy sources, U.S. officials long have suspected that Bushehr is a cover for a nuclear weapons program. Concerns increased last month when satellite photos showed construction at two other Iranian facilities, Arak and Natanz, that Iranian dissidents contend are being used for nuclear weapons development. Iran insists that its nuclear programs are for peaceful purposes only.

Khan's role with Iraq is less clear. In October 1990, two months after Iraq invaded Kuwait, an intermediary claiming to represent Khan met agents from Baghdad's secret service. A memo dated Oct. 6, 1990, from Section B-15 of Iraqi intelligence to Section S-15 of the Nuclear Weapons Directorate describes "a proposal from Pakistani scientist Abd-el Qadeer Khan" to help Iraq "establish a project to enrich uranium and manufacture a nuclear weapon."

The middleman said Khan "was prepared to give us project designs for nuclear bombs," according to the memo. The middleman said he was based in Greece and would oversee shipments from Western Europe, using a company he claimed to own in the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai, according to sources who have studied the memo.

U.N. weapons inspectors found the memo in 1995 in a cache of documents hidden at a chicken farm near Baghdad. They determined that Iraq had rejected the middleman's offer, but Iraq refused to identify him.

A letter from the International Atomic Energy Agency to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1997 details interviews with agents from Mukhabarat, Baghdad's secret service, who described Iraq's clandestine nuclear program, code-named the Petrochemical-3 project. The agents said that "PC-3 had adopted a policy of avoiding foreign assistance, believing that the risk of exposure (e.g. through 'sting' operations) far outweighed the likely technical benefits."

In 1998, Pakistan's government investigated the middleman's letter at the IAEA's request and declared the offer a fraud. The nuclear agency concluded that charges of Pakistani proliferation were "inconsistent with the information available," but it listed the memo as a key unresolved issue in a 1999 U.N. report on Iraq's arms programs. Iraq's recent 12,000-page arms declaration referred twice to the "unsolicited offer."

"The memo was taken quite seriously," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington and a former nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq. "There's this pattern of leakage out of Pakistan. These people broke almost every country's law to get their own nuclear components."

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Nuclear Chief's Ouster

In March 2001, Musharraf removed Khan as head of Pakistan's nuclear programs and named him a presidential advisor -- a move that nation's nuclear hero heard about on television and at first refused to accept.

However, U.S. officials suspected that the exchanges with other nations continued, especially after U.S. spy satellites spotted Pakistani military cargo planes picking up missile parts in North Korea last July. The North told U.S. officials that the parts were for surface-to-air missiles, not for a missile that could deliver a nuclear weapon.

In June 2001, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage all but named Khan when he expressed concern that "people who were employed by the nuclear agency and have retired" might be spreading nuclear technology to North Korea.

After North Korea confessed last fall that it had resumed its nuclear weapons program, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell again confronted Pakistan's president about illegal assistance.

"Musharraf assured me, as he has previously, that Pakistan is not doing anything of that nature," Powell said, though he noted that they did not speak of Pakistan's past contacts with North Korea. "The past is the past. I am more concerned about what is going on now. We have a new relationship with Pakistan."

However, a senior U.S. official says the Bush administration keeps a wary eye on the retired scientist as he oversees philanthropic groups, runs seminars and feeds stray animals in his neighborhood.

"How can you stop the transfer of intellectual property?" the official said. "The potential for sharing is always there."

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