Selling the Bomb
Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan is the Johnny Appleseed of nuclear weapons technology
Pakistanis know him as a gentle man who reads poetry and feeds the wild monkeys in the forest by his house--but also as a patriot of the first order. Abdul Qadeer Khan is revered as the father of Pakistan's crash program to make atomic weapons, the first so-called Islamic bomb. But in recent days Khan's larger-than-life persona has been recast by extraordinary revelations that expose him as the master of a shadowy world of nuclear intrigue.
Khan, 67, who confessed last week to trading nuclear equipment and know-how to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, was a pioneer of sorts in a dangerous growth industry: marketing the means to make the bomb. U.S. and other officials count Khan's outing as a major success in the fight to stop the spread of nuclear technology to rogue states and perhaps terrorists. "The source of the goodies is dried up," says a senior State Department official.
But all is not well. A Pakistani probe launched under pressure from the Bush administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency, a United Nations watchdog, revealed an eye-popping global network of suppliers and middlemen--from agents in Germany to brokers in Dubai to a factory allegedly making gas-centrifuge parts in Malaysia.
The IAEA and U.S. intelligence funneled to Pakistan evidence of the proliferation schemes, though until recently President Pervez Musharraf roundly denied them. The IAEA, the CIA, and other spy agencies are now trying to pick their way through Khan's network, honed over a quarter century of buying parts for Pakistan's own drive for a nuclear arsenal. The European-trained metallurgist began his labors in the 1970s by allegedly stealing centrifuge technology from a Dutch firm.
Some suspects in the procurement network have been detained for questioning. "Khan is seemingly the guiding hand, but after you cut off the head of the serpent, there are still a lot of little serpents left around," says a western diplomat who follows the IAEA's investigations. Another knowledgeable diplomat tells U.S. News that the IAEA and spy agencies are "deeply concerned" over whether any terrorist cells sought to buy nuclear designs or equipment through the network and are probing the matter.
The Bush administration is pleased that Khan has been "neutralized," as one senior official puts it. It has asked Musharraf to permit American experts to question Khan and his associates, which Pakistan is resisting. Yet U.S. officials last week were protective of Musharraf, a key ally in the war on terror, and they said they accept his assurances that military leaders did not approve of or wink at the nuclear deals.
Secret deals. But nuclear analysts and many Pakistanis suspect a coverup. Indeed, it's unlikely that Khan instigated such wide-ranging nuclear transfers from the late 1980s to late last year without the military's involvement. Khan maintained several houses, foreign bank accounts, and a flamboyant lifestyle--all on a government salary of $2,000 a month. Western diplomats say Iran received both parts and designs for the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium into bomb-grade material. Libya got all that--and a blueprint for a nuclear warhead. And North Korea took centrifuge know-how in exchange for ballistic missile technology vital to developing Pakistan's military deterrent against India.
Khan reportedly told a friend--before his confession--that three Army chiefs, including Musharraf, knew about the North Korea trade. And according to Robert Oakley, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, one of Musharraf's predecessors as Army chief of staff told him in 1991 that Pakistan would provide nuclear assistance to Iran in return for oil and political support. "Khan's been allowed to run loose," Oakley says. "They [the Army] knew something was going on, but I suspect they decided not to ask too many detailed questions."
Many Pakistanis find Khan's humiliation appalling. They believe he is being scapegoated to appease the Americans and protect the military--an accusation Musharraf denies. In a televised apology, a contrite Khan took full responsibility and absolved the government of complicity. The next day, Musharraf pardoned him. "Dr. Qadeer is our hero. He is being penalized just because he has given us the nuclear bomb to face India," says Wahid Hussein, the owner of an auto-parts store in Karachi. If Musharraf cannot convince Pakistanis otherwise, he may yet face their wrath.
With Aamir Latif
This story appears in the February 16, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.