Critical components and specialized tools destined for Libya’s nuclear weapons program disappeared before arrival in 2003 and international investigators now suspect that they were diverted to another country, according to court records and investigators.
Efforts to find the missing equipment have led to dead ends, raising what investigators said was the strong likelihood that the sophisticated material was sold to an unidentified customer by members of the international smuggling ring that had been supplying nuclear technology and weapons designs to Libya.
The equipment -- components for advanced centrifuges, along with material and precision tools to manufacture more of them -- does not constitute an immediate threat, but nuclear experts said it would cut years off an effort to enrich uranium for an atomic bomb.
The mystery of the missing high-tech equipment illustrates both the extensive knowledge investigators have gained about the smuggling operation and the troubling gaps that remain. It also raises the question of whether a rogue nation or group might be secretly building a nuclear weapon.
Two senior international investigators said that the illicit technology had been shipped to Turkey, Malaysia and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, before it disappeared and that it remained unaccounted for.
The equipment was initially meant for a $100-million, clandestine uranium enrichment plant and bomb factory being built for Libya by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and a network of middlemen on three continents.
The seizure by the United States and Britain of a separate shipment of nuclear-related components from a freighter headed for Libya in October 2003 crippled the network and led to Khan’s admission that he had been selling know-how and technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Since then, the biggest concerns for international inspectors and intelligence agencies examining Khan’s operation have been whether an unidentified customer is also pursuing a nuclear weapon or whether Iran might have received the missing technology and, potentially, designs for an atomic weapon.
Investigators said business records and interviews with some participants in the ring suggested the existence of a customer other than Libya. They said the vanished equipment, though not proof, constituted the strongest clue yet.
The list of potential clients for a nuclear weapons program is not long, but it extends to countries in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. Khan traveled extensively and had contacts worldwide. Investigators have identified at least 30 companies and middlemen who sold goods to his network.
“For sure there were other customers,” said one of the senior investigators, who spoke on condition that his name be withheld because the inquiry is ongoing. “We just don’t know who and we don’t know how far along they might be.”
U.S. and Israeli government officials have publicly accused Tehran of operating a nuclear weapons program, and intelligence officials from both countries have suggested that Iran might have hidden installations.
A non-Western intelligence official said it was possible that the missing centrifuge components and other material was sold secretly to Iran by someone in the Khan network as the operation started to unravel after the seizure of the shipment in 2003.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is intended only to generate electricity and that it has opened all of its atomic-related installations to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.
The IAEA has been inspecting Iranian installations for nearly two years and says it has uncovered no proof that Iran is working on weapons.
But concerns remain. Last month, the agency’s deputy director complained publicly that Tehran had not turned over all information related to a 1987 meeting in which Khan’s associates offered to sell weapons designs to Iran.
The complexity of enriching uranium makes it likely that an unknown customer would be a country rather than a terrorist group. Intelligence officials said it was unlikely that even a sophisticated terrorist group would have the resources for such an undertaking, though they could not rule it out.
The primary investigation of the Khan network is being conducted by a small team of nuclear experts from the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna. Intelligence officials and prosecutors from other countries, including the United States, Germany, Britain, France, South Africa and Switzerland, are involved.
Seven people alleged to have ties to the ring have been taken into custody in Dubai, Germany, Malaysia, South Africa and Switzerland, but none has gone to trial.
Khan, 68, regarded as a national hero for helping build his country’s atomic weapons, was pardoned by Pakistan for selling its nuclear secrets. He remains under house arrest, outside the reach of foreign investigators.
Those involved in the inquiry said it was unclear whether members of the network might have sold the missing equipment. Some key members have remained silent.
Tens of thousands of documents and computer files have been recovered from suspected participants in the ring. Other records were destroyed after members suspected that they were under surveillance in late 2002.
The first confirmation that sensitive technology had disappeared was in court records filed this year by German prosecutors trying to extradite Gotthard Lerch, a German engineer who lives outside Zurich.
Lerch was not charged in connection with the missing equipment, but German prosecutors accused him of helping Libya obtain restricted technology for uranium enrichment. He is being held without bond in Switzerland.
His lawyer, Adrian Bachmann, denied that Lerch had any connection to Khan or Libya. “The German authorities are under huge international pressure to produce something and Lerch is the last chance for them to get any result,” Bachmann said in an interview. “He wouldn’t even know how to build a centrifuge plant.”
In a previously undisclosed meeting June 17 in Vienna, Olli Heinonen, the senior IAEA investigator, told German prosecutors that Lerch had helped the Khan network develop the Libyan plant.
Heinonen said nine rotors for an advanced type of centrifuge had been delivered to the network’s base of operations for the Libyan plant in Dubai and he said records showed two of them were later shipped to Libya, according to an account of the meeting written by the prosecutors and filed in the Lerch case.
Heinonen told the prosecutors that the other seven rotors remained unaccounted for. He did not say when the rotors had arrived in Dubai, according to the account. But previous IAEA reports and other interviews indicate that they were shipped there from Pakistan in early to mid-2000.
Libyan officials later told the IAEA that two of the rotors had arrived in Tripoli in September 2000 as samples for an order of 10,000 that was never filled, according to an IAEA report in February 2004.
The rotors are slim cylinders, about 6 feet high, manufactured to exact measurements. The missing ones were for P-2 centrifuges, and experts said they would be extremely valuable prototypes for an enrichment plant.
In addition to the rotors, a shipping container of centrifuge components and a ton of high-strength aluminum intended for manufacturing parts for Libya’s centrifuges also vanished, Heinonen said. Those parts, last seen in Turkey and Malaysia, disappeared after the seizure of the separate shipment to Libya in 2003, according to the account.
Mark Gwozdecky, chief spokesman for the IAEA, and Frauke-Katrin Scheuten, spokeswoman for the German federal prosecutor’s office, declined to comment on the meeting or other elements of the investigations.
Another international official, who refused to permit his name to be used because he is directly involved in the investigation, said the rotors, components and aluminum are still missing.
In addition, he said, a separate container filled with precision tools and key parts for two specialized lathes that were supposed to manufacture the 10,000 rotors for Libya also disappeared at some point after the 2003 seizure.
The components and tools were either manufactured by the network or purchased by it from suppliers for use in the Libya enrichment project. The account by the prosecutors did not provide precise dates about the acquisition of the material or its disappearance.
The most common way to produce fissile material, the biggest challenge in building a nuclear weapon, is to use centrifuges.
The complicated process involves converting uranium ore to a gas and pumping it into an array of thousands of interconnected centrifuges. Rotors inside the centrifuges spin at up to twice the speed of sound to separate isotopes and concentrate the uranium to produce weapons-grade material.
Centrifuges must be manufactured to precise tolerances so they remain balanced as they spin rapidly for long periods. Years of testing and experimentation are usually required before an array of 1,000 or more centrifuges can produce enough material for a single weapon.
Khan used blueprints that he allegedly stole from a European consortium to help build Pakistan’s enrichment plant in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He developed a network of suppliers in Europe and elsewhere to secretly provide much of the equipment.
In 1987, with Pakistan well on its way to its first bombs, the scientist began selling centrifuge know-how and equipment to Iran. The scheme lasted until at least the mid-1990s and remained secret until August 2002, when elements of Iran’s hidden program were exposed by an Iranian exile group.
Since then, Iran has grudgingly drawn back the curtain on its nuclear program in the face of evidence uncovered in a series of IAEA inspections.
Iranian authorities confirmed to IAEA experts this year that Khan’s associates had first provided a written offer to supply both centrifuges and designs for a nuclear weapon in 1987 at a meeting in Dubai.
The Iranians said they had bought centrifuge designs and components and a list of suppliers, but rejected the weapons technology.
Pierre Goldschmidt, deputy director of the IAEA, told the agency’s board last month that Iran showed the IAEA a one-page offer for centrifuges, but he said Tehran refused to produce other documentation from the meeting.
In addition to the sales to Iran, Khan is suspected of transferring enrichment technology to North Korea in return for help developing missiles for Pakistani nuclear warheads.
But the network’s most ambitious -- and now most transparent -- transaction involved engineering and manufacturing the $100-million, off-the-shelf plant in Libya to produce nuclear weapons.
U.S. and British intelligence agencies seized five crates of centrifuge components from a ship bound for Libya in October 2003. The components had been manufactured at a Malaysian factory affiliated with the Khan network.
The seizure helped persuade Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi to give up his nuclear program later that year. Along with equipment and designs for a nuclear warhead obtained from Khan, Libya turned over records of six years of dealing with the network to the U.S. and IAEA.
Tucked among thousands of documents were four pages outlining the journey of two specialized lathes, each of which weighed several tons. Following that trail led investigators to the discovery that critical components and machinery produced for Libya were missing, according to documents and investigators.
Khan and his associates had struck the deal with Libya in 1997. To avoid attracting attention, elements of the engineering and production were farmed out to separate locations. The entire plant was then to be shipped to Libya and reassembled.
An operating system for the plant was being manufactured in South Africa. German prosecutors alleged that Lerch used contacts in South Africa to set up that part of the project. The system eventually filled 11 huge shipping containers.
The centrifuges themselves were to be produced in Dubai, the Persian Gulf port where the network operated quietly from a computer firm and several nondescript warehouses.
On July 7, 2000, two lathes bought from a Spanish manufacturer left the port of Barcelona bound for Dubai, according to the shipping invoice.
Production of some components of the centrifuges was undertaken at a factory in Malaysia. For help on the rotors, according to court papers in South Africa and interviews there, the network turned to Tradefin, a company outside Johannesburg, South Africa, that was already producing the plant’s operating system. Its owner, Johan A.M. Meyer, had worked for South Africa’s nuclear program before it was closed down in the early 1990s.
Meyer agreed to try to make the rotors and records show that one of the lathes was shipped to his company from Dubai in late 2000.
The rotors had to be made from maraging steel, a high-strength alloy that is under export controls because of its use in weapons. A lawyer for Meyer, who was charged with helping the Libyan project and is cooperating with authorities, said he was unable to buy the steel, so the lathe sat unused.
In December 2001, the lathe was shipped back to Dubai. Both lathes later were discovered in Libya along with two of the nine P-2 rotors initially shipped to Dubai. The other seven rotors are still missing.
Heinonen told the German prosecutors that four supposedly had been destroyed and three were still somewhere in Dubai, according to the prosecutors’ account. But investigators have found no evidence that the rotors were destroyed, and searches of the network’s facilities in Dubai did not locate them or other missing equipment.
The senior investigator who suspects the existence of an unidentified network customer said the rotors and other equipment could have gone directly to the other customer or to an undiscovered manufacturing site operated by the network.
The P-2 rotors in particular are too valuable to have been destroyed, even as investigators closed in on most of the network’s operations, he said.