In spring 2000, Lt. Gen. Syed Mohammad Amjad was in his office at Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau when one of his senior investigators delivered the report he was dreading.
The bureau had been created six months earlier to root out corruption among bureaucrats, politicians and the business elite. Amjad, a career army officer known for his integrity, was given authority to arrest anyone.
The investigator had been quietly verifying the contents of a 700-page dossier on Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist whose reputation as the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb made him the country’s most revered figure.
It was clear that Khan was living far beyond his modest government salary, the investigator reported. He had stashed $8 million in banks in Pakistan; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Switzerland, acquired seven expensive houses, paid monthly stipends to 20 journalists to burnish his image and collected kickbacks on purchases by the government lab he ran.
Corruption was easy to prove, the investigator said, but pursuing Khan would entangle the young bureau in a political struggle it was likely to lose. The scientist was shielded by a largely self-constructed myth that he had almost single-handedly ensured Pakistan’s national security by building a nuclear arsenal to counter India’s.
“My humble suggestion is not to open a case at this stage,” the investigator told Amjad, according to a person who attended the meeting. Amjad reluctantly agreed.
Khan’s protective wall did not collapse for nearly four more years.
In February 2004, facing rising international pressure, the government forced Khan to confess that he had run a highly profitable black-market operation that sold nuclear secrets and technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. His activities made him the single most important figure in the spread of atomic weapons beyond a small clutch of nuclear states.
Much about Khan’s network has been discovered since then. Still, mystery surrounds what turned a proud and ambitious man from patriot to proliferator.
Interviews with more than 30 of Khan’s friends, former associates and adversaries in the U.S., Europe and South Asia turned up a varied list of theories about his actions. Defenders portrayed Khan as a patriot who stole secret European nuclear designs out of determination to protect his country from archrival India. To critics, he was a nuclear jihadist devoted to payback for real and imagined grievances suffered by Muslims. Still others saw a tragic figure seduced by his own belief that his scientific contributions put him above the law.
“He believed that Muslim countries had been thwarted over the years while others, like Israel and India, were allowed freer rein,” said retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a defense analyst in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. “From a Western perspective, he cheated in stealing designs, but from his point of view, he did what was necessary to achieve his goal for the country.”
Khan became the public face of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project, a role he embraced and exploited. His bank accounts grew fat. As streets and schools were named for him, he lobbied for more honors and undermined rivals. Along the way he grew reckless, evading global restrictions that had largely prevented the spread of nuclear weapons technology for three decades and forcing a reevaluation of how to halt its flow in the future.
“He started out on an antiIndia track,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist at Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University and a longtime Khan critic. “Selling nuclear stuff came later, when he developed a compulsion to be rich and powerful.”
Whatever turned Khan into a rogue scientist, the consensus is that in the beginnning, he was motivated by nationalism. He embraced that cause after Pakistan’s traumatic defeat in a 1971 war with India, which cut the country in half. East Pakistan became the independent country of Bangladesh.
Khan later described to his biographer how he had watched scenes on television of captured Pakistani soldiers being kicked and caned by Indians while he was thousands of miles away, finishing his doctorate in metallurgy in Europe.
“All he thought of was to make Pakistan so strong that it would never have to face such a trauma again,” wrote Zahid Malik in his 1992 authorized biography, “Dr. A.Q. Khan and the Islamic Bomb.”
Khan soon found a way to help.
When A.Q. Khan walked into the Physics Dynamic Research Laboratory, or FDO, in Amsterdam on May 1, 1972, he was 36 years old, tall and slender with a strong nose, square chin and a broad forehead beneath dark hair.
“He was very friendly and humble,” said Frits Veerman, a technical photographer who shared a small office at the company with Khan. “He was enthusiastic from the start and interested in all the workers and what they were doing.”
Khan was born in Bhopal, in British India, on April 27, 1936. As a boy of 11, he witnessed the communal violence generated by partition of the colony into India and Pakistan. He spoke later of seeing trains packed with the corpses of Muslims killed fighting Hindus.
In 1952, Khan’s father, a schoolteacher, decided it was time for the family to migrate to Pakistan. A minor incident would stay with the 16-year-old, helping create what a number of people who know him described as a sense of inferiority that fueled his future actions.
“I had been traveling with a pen that my brother gave me when I passed my exams, and just as I was crossing out of India, a border guard reached toward me and snatched it from my pocket,” Khan told a Pakistani interviewer years later. “It was something I’ll never forget.”
The family settled in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, and as he grew up, Khan displayed an aptitude for science. He graduated in engineering from the University of Karachi with good enough marks to be accepted for postgraduate work in Europe.
He earned a master’s degree at the Technological University of Delft in the Netherlands and a doctorate in 1972 from Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. His advisor at Leuven, who would later describe Khan as a fair student with a great knack for making friends, arranged his job in Amsterdam at FDO.
It was the start of a pattern: Khan would always be a better self-promoter than scientist, and he would progress by skillfully combining the two.
Khan was hired to work on an FDO contract with Urenco, a consortium created in 1971 by the British, Dutch and German governments to develop a new generation of gas centrifuges to enrich uranium for Europe’s nuclear power industry.
Centrifuges are cylindrical machines linked by the thousands in cascades. They spin at ultra-high speeds for months on end, transforming uranium gas into enriched uranium, which contains more fissionable material than uranium in its natural state. Low-enriched uranium is used to generate power; simple adjustments increase enrichment to the higher levels used for nuclear weapons.
The European centrifuge research was classified as secret. Urenco’s cutting-edge designs and operating plans were kept in secure areas at its main plant, a fenced complex in the Dutch town of Almelo, about 15 miles from the border with Germany.
Complete background checks were mandatory for prospective employees who were not British, Dutch or German. But a later report by the Dutch government said Khan was hired without the required review because his assignment was in an area classified only as restricted and because he said he wanted to become a citizen of the Netherlands. He never followed through on the request for citizenship, and friends doubt he ever intended to pursue it.
Hired to evaluate metal for centrifuge components in Amsterdam, he was nevertheless at Almelo within a week, consulting with engineers working on the centrifuge itself.
Stealing the Fire
As Khan was finishing his education and beginning his career in Europe, dramatic events were unfolding back home in Pakistan.
Within days of surrendering in the war with India on Dec. 16, 1971, Gen. Yahya Khan resigned in disgrace as Pakistan’s leader. The military appointed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a fiery populist, president in his place.
Bhutto had written in his 1967 autobiography that Pakistan needed nuclear weapons to stand against India.
About a month after taking power, he summoned the country’s 50 top scientists to a secret gathering where he spoke emotionally about the shame of losing East Pakistan. The time had come, he argued, to build the bomb.
“He had great charisma and he really moved those people,” Khaled Hasan, who attended the meeting as Bhutto’s press secretary, said in an interview. “They cheered him and they said they could do it. Everyone believed in Bhutto.”
The nation had a small research reactor, and Canada had just finished a plutonium reactor to generate electricity in Karachi. Otherwise, Pakistan had neither the scientists nor the infrastructure.
The urgency of fulfilling Bhutto’s mandate increased dramatically on May 18, 1974, when India tested its first nuclear device.
Pakistani diplomats and agents in Europe, Canada and the U.S. were already trying to buy technology to make a bomb. But Khan had to take the initiative to get noticed.
Not long after India tested its atomic weapon, Khan wrote two letters to Bhutto, offering his services, according to the Malik biography and two of Khan’s former associates.
Khan was still making regular visits from Amsterdam to the Almelo plant, and in October 1974 he was sent to work temporarily in a building there called the “brain box.”
Almelo had shifted from working with the Dutch centrifuge to gearing up to produce a new and advanced Germandesigned machine. The secret plans for the German prototype were kept in the brain box. Khan, despite the lack of proper security clearance, was given the job of translating sections of the design from German to Dutch.
For 16 key days, he worked with the classified plans. He took documents home on occasion so that his Dutch-speaking wife, Hendrina, could fine-tune his translations.
Throughout that period, Khan had almost unfettered access to the technology to enrich uranium, from production plans and design information to a list of Urenco subcontractors.
Co-workers later told Dutch authorities that they often saw Khan in other areas of the plant during his many visits to Almelo; one described him carrying a writing pad in the production areas. But the person who became most suspicious was his closest friend, Frits Veerman, the photographer.
Veerman was a frequent guest at the modest two-story row house in the Amsterdam suburb of Zwanenburg where Khan and his wife lived with their young daughters.
That fall, after Khan’s assignment in the brain box, Veerman was eating fried chicken at Khan’s home when he noticed a stack of blueprints on a table in a corner of the living room. A closer look after dinner shocked him.
“I could see these were very secure drawings for the ultra-centrifuge,” Veerman said in a recent interview. “They should never have left the office. I did not want to ask Abdul why he had them.”
Eventually, Bhutto responded to Khan’s letters. He invited the scientist to meet him when Khan planned to be in Pakistan at the end of 1974, a former aide to Bhutto said. Pakistan was concentrating on building a plutonium-based bomb -- largely because it already had the Canadian-supplied plutonium reactor -- but Khan urged Bhutto to consider a bomb that used enriched uranium.
By then, Khan was already well on his way to secretly acquiring the plans needed for enrichment.
It took a year for Dutch authorities to take action against Khan.
In October 1975, security authorities grew suspicious after learning that Khan had been asking questions about nuclear weapons at an industry exhibition in Switzerland. In response, the Ministry of Economic Affairs ordered him transferred away from centrifuge work, the Dutch report says.
Dutch security wanted to arrest Khan, but first they contacted the CIA, with whom they worked closely during the Cold War. The U.S. asked the Dutch to back off.
“Washington requested the Dutch services to inform them fully, but not to take any action so that they could follow Mr. Khan and try to find out what network was developing,” Ruud Lubbers, minister of economic affairs at the time and later prime minister, told NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster, in a program that aired last month. “So for quite some time, in fact, it was known.”
The transfer probably tipped off Khan. On Dec. 15, 1975, he and his family left for Pakistan, saying they were visiting relatives. He never returned to his job, first calling in sick, then officially resigning March 1, 1976. He had found a new calling.
Building the Bomb
Back in Pakistan, Khan met again with Bhutto and argued that the process to create enriched uranium was faster than that for plutonium and easier to conceal, according to Khan’s statements and other people with knowledge of the conversations.
Bhutto decided to pursue both paths and ordered army engineers to build an enrichment plant for Khan near Kahuta, about 20 miles southeast of Islamabad. Khan would report only to Bhutto and would have a blank check to buy equipment. He turned to the list of Urenco contractors, tapping old colleagues and finding new ones.
Veerman was one of the first to hear from him. At the end of January 1976, Khan’s wife returned to Zwanenburg to collect the family’s belongings. Khan wrote Veerman asking him to escort her to the physics lab so she could get a box of materials he had left behind.
Veerman declined to help, but Khan followed up with a blunter letter. “Very confidentially, I request that you help us,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letter provided by Veerman. He asked for information about several aspects of centrifuge design as well as specific components, adding, “Frits, these are very urgently required, without which the research would come to a standstill.”
Khan also tried to recruit the best of Pakistan’s scientists and countrymen living abroad. He promised good salaries and free housing if they joined what he described in a letter to a Pakistani in Canada as “the elite of the country.”
In 1983, a Dutch court convicted Khan in absentia of trying to steal classified data, based on letters he had written to two former colleagues seeking confidential information. The verdict was overturned by an appeals court because Khan had not been served properly with notice of the charges.
Khan claimed the reversal exonerated him. “The information I had asked for was ordinary technical information available in published literature for many decades,” he said in a speech later.
As late as 1986, Dutch authorities agreed a second time to overlook Khan’s illegal activities at the request of the CIA, according to Lubbers. A CIA analysis that year had estimated that Khan’s laboratory was enriching uranium to 93%, enough for a powerful bomb. But Washington did not want to anger Pakistan because it was serving as a conduit for guerrillas fighting the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan.
Khan’s success had led to the Kahuta facility being named for him, testament that he had eclipsed Munir Ahmad Khan, the head of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission and the architect of the plutonium project. But his role in the weapons program was always less important than the myth that surrounded him. Although he cast himself as a brilliant all-around nuclear scientist, former associates said his skills were restricted to metallurgy and uranium enrichment, and that he played no role in weapons design or assembling the bomb. Munir Khan remained bitter until his death in 1999, warning several times that his rival’s freewheeling ways would cause trouble for Pakistan.
Through most of the 1980s, Khan’s patron was Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who had ousted Bhutto, then prime minister, and imposed martial law in July 1977. Two years later, Zia ordered Bhutto hanged.
Zia died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988, and Benazir Bhutto, the Harvard-educated daughter of the late prime minister, herself became prime minister after elections.
Four years earlier, Bhutto had told American audiences that she opposed nuclear weapons. Now the military worried that she would abandon the program. Khan initially courted the favor of the prime minister. He invoked her father’s patronage and asked her to oust Munir Khan and install him instead as head of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, according to two former senior Pakistani officials.
When Bhutto rebuffed him, he shifted his loyalty to her chief adversaries, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, the hard-line army chief of staff, and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the president. A few months later, the president pinned the country’s second-highest medal on Khan for his contributions to the nuclear program.
In August 1990, at Beg’s urging, the president used his authority to dismiss Bhutto. Later that year, in a speech at the military-run National University of Science and Technology, Khan boasted that he had repeatedly asked Beg to get rid of Bhutto because she was hindering the nuclear program, Hassan Abbas, a former senior Pakistani police official, wrote in his 2005 book, “Pakistan’s Drift Into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror.”
By the early 1990s, however, Khan was outliving his usefulness. He had achieved his goal of enriching uranium and faced being pushed aside, Abbas said in an interview.
“A.Q. Khan knew that the bomb was essentially done and he was out of a job,” Abbas said.
Doling Out His Wealth
At that time, Khan lived in a comfortable villa on Margalla Road, Islamabad’s most affluent neighborhood. The enclave had a swimming pool and a large garden where Khan liked to feed the monkeys. Khan gave money to charities and to people who might help him, including journalists, recycling his wealth to hedge against being marginalized.
“Khan loved to be flattered,” said Hoodbhoy, the nuclear physicist at Quaid-e-Azam University. “Say a nice thing to him and he’d dip into his deep, deep pocket.”
Few seemed to begrudge Khan his money. They assumed that, like many other high-level bureaucrats, he was skimming from contracts and taking kickbacks. But it was thought to be only a small percentage of the money being spent on a project that was a source of great national pride.
Some of his wealth, however, was coming from elsewhere.
In 1987, Khan and two middlemen who had helped Pakistan build its bomb had sold centrifuge components and designs to Iran, which was embarking on its own secret nuclear program. The deal was finalized at a meeting in Dubai by two of Khan’s associates and three Iranians, one of whom was identified this week by an exile group as Mohammad Eslami, at the time a top official of the elite Revolutionary Guards. It is the first known transaction in what would mushroom into the world’s largest private proliferation network.
Investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog based in Vienna, have been unraveling the network’s trail since Khan’s confession in 2004. Earlier this year, they turned up the first evidence of the meeting in Dubai at which the 1987 deal was clinched, but uncertainties remain.
Among them is why Khan would have helped Iran. Beg, who sought an alliance with Iran, might have encouraged the sale, but the timing of the first transaction predates his taking over as army chief of staff and he has denied authorizing it.
Others thought Khan’s patriotism had been augmented by Muslim pride.
Benazir Bhutto said Khan seemed to have adopted a religious side when she encountered him after she was returned to office in 1993.
“My first impression of him was that he was a nationalist,” Bhutto said in an interview. “By the time I returned to office, I felt that he was an Islamist. Something made him change.”
Khan’s newfound religion coincided with a second big order for centrifuge designs and parts from Iran, in 1994, which was worth about $8 million. The deal marked a turning point for the network and its boss.
Khan bought an apartment in Dubai, an ideal spot from which to run the network because of its central location and lax customs controls. But at home, his role in the nuclear program diminished. In spring 1998, with Khan’s role essentially played out, the biggest event in Pakistan’s nuclear history nearly took place without him.
In mid-May, India detonated five nuclear devices in its first public tests since 1974. Pakistan was determined to reply in kind.
The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission had supervised simulated tests of nuclear weapons and was responsible for the design and construction of the country’s atomic devices, but Khan argued that his lab had carried out its own simulations and should conduct the actual tests. Khan lost and it was decided that the commission would handle the live tests on May 28 and 30.
To placate Khan, technicians from his lab were allowed to help with preparations and he was invited to the test site in southwestern Pakistan. There, he pushed his way into the pictures and grabbed the mantle “father of the bomb” with both hands.
The five nuclear tests made Khan a hero to Muslims everywhere, and he was embraced more fervently than ever at home.
Even as the adulation rose, Khan was expanding his sales of Pakistan’s most treasured nuclear secrets. He was arranging the sale of an off-the-shelf atomic bomb factory to Libya and striking a deal to provide enrichment technology to North Korea.
Given the blank check with which he had dealt in the black market to help build Pakistan’s nuclear weapons for 20 years, some see Khan’s deepening involvement in trafficking as perfectly predictable.
Graham Allison, a former Clinton administration arms control official, said: “You don’t find people of integrity who operate in that zone.”
The Long Fall
In early 2000, Khan summoned Hamid Mir, a prominent Pakistani journalist, to the lab at Kahuta to rage about Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who had taken control of the country in a coup the previous October.
Musharraf had had the gall to cut funding for the lab’s program to develop missiles based on the North Korean designs, Khan told him. “Young man, he is trying to appease the Americans by stopping my missile program,” Khan said.
Two former senior military officers close to Musharraf said the new Pakistani leader was actually trying to assert control over Pakistan’s sprawling nuclear establishment, particularly Khan’s operation. But Musharraf had to proceed cautiously because of Khan’s enormous popularity and his own tenuous grasp on power.
Amjad’s inquiry at the National Accountability Bureau did not lead to Khan’s prosecution, and an investigation of two trips Khan made to Dubai later in 2000 also was inconclusive. But Musharraf thought he had enough evidence to take some action.
In March 2001, Musharraf removed Khan as head of the lab and forbade him to set foot inside Kahuta again. He softened the blow by appointing Khan as a presidential advisor.
“Musharraf didn’t want a domestic backlash, and he didn’t want to belittle him,” said the former military officer, who was involved in the decision.
Khan remained defiant. He continued to expand his black-market dealings while denying that he had peddled nuclear technology.
In an interview in fall 2001 for “Stealing the Fire,” a documentary about the spread of nuclear technology, Khan denied ever helping anyone other than Pakistan obtain nuclear equipment or weapons.
“We have not indulged in any proliferation,” he said, according to a transcript of the session provided to the Los Angeles Times by the film’s producers, John Friedman and Eric Nadler. “You cannot buy nuclear weapons. You cannot get a nuclear weapon on a platter.”
That, however, was precisely what Khan was offering Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi. In an agreement reached in 1997, Khan had promised to provide Libya with a complete bomb factory, from uranium enrichment to nuclear warhead. The price tag was $100 million.
But even after he was demoted, Khan was powerful enough to continue using Pakistani government aircraft to fly nuclear goods to Libya.
In the end, Khan and his network were put out of business by one of their own customers, a man long regarded as a terrorist who now wanted to be accepted by the international community.
On Dec. 19, 2003, after months of secret negotiations with British and U.S. officials, Kadafi agreed to abandon his chemical, biological and nuclear programs. As part of the deal, Libya turned over records that directly tied Khan to the sale of nuclear technology and a warhead design.
Musharraf negotiated Khan’s final surrender: The scientist would confess on television to unspecified proliferation in exchange for keeping his wealth and strict confinement to his home.
Mir, the journalist, met the defeated scientist at his government office a few days before he began his house arrest in February 2004. Khan railed that U.S. and Pakistani intelligence had caused his troubles, and he lashed out at Musharraf, predicting that he would do the Americans’ bidding again by turning over Osama bin Laden just before the U.S. elections in November of that year.
“He thought that nobody could touch him because he is a hero,” Mir said. “It was beyond his expectations that Musharraf could arrest him. That shock destroyed his mental health.”
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Building a centrifuge
The network organized by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan touched many points of the globe. It gathered equipment and ex-pertise in a number of countries, generally without the knowledge of their governments, for an off-the-shelf nuclear arms factory for Libya. Parts were obtained for centrifuges, which can be used to enrich uranium for generating nuclear power or building weapons.
Parts and countries of origin
Ring magnets: Pakistan
Noncorrosive pipes and valves: Pakistan; South Africa; Switzerland; Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Aluminum or maraging steel: Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey
Flow-forming or balancing equipment: Pakistan, South Africa, Switzerland, South Korea
End cap and baffle: Pakistan; Malaysia; Dubai, U.A.E.
Vacuum pumps: Pakistan, South Africa
Power supply: Pakistan; Dubai, U.A.E.; Turkey
Source: Center for Nonproliferation Studies
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A shop for nuclear goods
The full extent of Abdul Qadeer Khan’s role in spreading nuclear technology is not known, but reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency and interviews with diplomats and intelligence officials show his network aided the following countries:
The network provided centrifuge designs and components to Tehran after a meeting in 1987. Iran also bought a list of companies in Europe that could sell it technology.
In 1994 Iran purchased designs and components for advanced centrifuges and was promised additional assistance by the Pakistani scientist and his associates.
IAEA officials say privately that Khan’s assistance cut years off Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium.
The nuclear weapons that the U.S. suspects North Korea possesses use plutonium. Khan’s expertise is in enriching uranium, so it is unlikely that he helped the North build its suspected weapons.
But the U.S. has accused North Korea of developing a second method of building nuclear weapons based on enriched uranium technology supplied by Khan.
New information from a Pakistani military official indicates that Khan shipped centrifuges to North Korea as early as June 1998 aboard a Pakistani air force plane. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged last August that Khan had provided centrifuges and components to Pyongyang.
After meetings in 1997, Khan became the principal supplier of nuclear technology to Libya. The network promised to build a complete bomb factory for Tripoli and even provided designs for a nuclear warhead.
International inspectors who visited Libya in early 2004 after it gave up its program found components for thousands of centrifuges, plans for assembly lines and designs for the warhead, but they said Libya was many years from developing a weapon.
Los Angeles Times