Pakistan's Nuclear Bazaar

Dr. Khan's Shady Nuclear Family

Young Pakistani demonstrators hold up a magazine cover featuring Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Covers have been drawn over the vintage cars that once sparkled in the driveway of Abdul Qadeer Khan’s Islamabad house. It seems overt wealth is not the image the “father” of the Islamic bomb would like to portray at the moment.

The vintage cars, along with his big black Mercedes, won’t be much use now that Dr. Khan is under house arrest, unable to leave one of Pakistan’s most exclusive addresses after admitting to one of the worst acts of nuclear proliferation in history.

Last week, the shocked nation sat transfixed as Khan appeared on state television, looking drawn and defeated, and said that he had instigated leaks of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. He reportedly deviated only once from the script he was forced to read in a last-ditch attempt to salvage an image that had taken a lifetime to build. A.Q., as he is called in Pakistan, added the words that it had all been done “in good faith.” He failed to mention that he’d pocketed tens of millions of dollars along the way.

“I used to visit his home quite regularly during the 1980s to take tea and discuss scientific problems and the bomb,” said Islamabad physicist A.H. Nayyer. “Even then, when the program was supposedly secret, he would boast about what he’d achieved and how close they were to an explosion. He always meticulously cultivated this image that he alone delivered the bomb. The facts are that his scientific achievements are actually quite minor.”

If Khan’s knowledge of nuclear science was limited, his acumen in trading nuclear materials was far more capable.

Dr. Shafiq Rahman, an Islamabad physician who lived next door to Khan for many years, added fuel to a recent report that North Korea made a deal with Pakistan to launch a uranium-based nuclear weapons program in 1996, according to a top defector from Pyongyang. A Tokyo newspaper quoted Hwang Jang-yop, a former secretary in charge of international affairs at the powerful Workers’ Party, as saying that the deal was sealed in Pakistan by a North Korean envoy.

Rahman’s father, Sajwal Khan, worked as a civil engineer at Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) and was one of nine employees arrested on Jan. 17. Unlike Khan, these employees have not been pardoned and, while they’ve been held in detention for almost a month, have not been charged or had access to lawyers.

Rahman said his father and Khan had been involved in the transfer of nuclear assets—but that it was done as a trade-off for other technology, such as delivery systems and warheads.

He said Pakistan exchanged information and technology because it did not have the expertise to produce all the components needed for the bomb.

Rahman said that in one operation, in the late 1990s, a C-130 military transport plane was used to fly equipment to North Korea. “There were serious problems when it broke down in North Korea because no spare parts could be found. It created quite a buzz in the echelons of power as they tried to find a solution.” Rahman said his father had traveled to North Korea “on a number of occasions.”

So it would seem that the greatest achievement of Khan—a metallurgist, not a nuclear physicist—was as a good entrepreneur...and a good thief.

In the early ’70s, after years of study in Europe, he worked at a Dutch nuclear facility and pilfered hundreds of designs and plans. In 1976, he returned to Pakistan with a blueprint to build uranium centrifuges (which transform uranium into weapons-grade fuel) and a Dutch wife, Henny. He was later convicted, in absentia, by a Dutch court and sentenced to four years of jail, but the conviction was overturned on a technicality.

After returning from Europe, Khan worked briefly at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) but clashed bitterly with its former chairman, Munir Ahmed Khan. Within a few months he had convinced then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that he needed his own facility if he was to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Within six years, KRL had produced the weapons-grade uranium, but the production of enriched uranium is only one of more than 20 steps in producing a bomb, and it was Dr. Khan’s rivals at the PAEC who eventually put all the pieces together. The enmity between Khan and the PAEC continues to this day, and in 1998 when the PAEC detonated Pakistan’s first nuclear device in the mountains of Baluchistan, they invited him along to watch. One of its scientists remarked that he was invited only “so he’d have some idea what a nuclear explosion looked like.”

This bitterness, Nayyer said, stemmed from the fact that Khan had always taken the glory and the money while scientists who contributed most to Pakistan’s nuclear program got no reward. “I know one of the scientists who made a much more valuable contribution than A.Q.,” Nayyer said. “He still lives in a rented house.”

Khan’s efforts to secure his place in history knew no bounds. During the 1980s, two American journalists wrote a book called The Islamic Bomb detailing efforts by Islamic nations to acquire a nuclear capability. The book, which featured chapters on Khan and Pakistan’s program, was banned for several years in Pakistan.

“He got a copy of the book and changed all the negative references about himself to positives,” Nayyer said. “He then changed any references to work done by the PAEC scientists to negatives. Using government money, he had the book reprinted and distributed for free all over Pakistan. This is how he first built the myth of being the ‘father of the bomb.’ A few years later, I remember going into the university library and seeing both books, the original and the Khan version, on the shelf next to each other.”

In 2001, reportedly under pressure from the Americans, Khan was removed from his post at KRL and given the token title of adviser to the president on nuclear issues. Rahman said that Khan and the others from KRL had been hung out to dry to satisfy the demands of the United States: “There is no doubt we dealt with North Korea and that the government knew we were dealing with North Korea. I cannot deny it. A.Q. Khan cannot deny it. President Pervez Musharraf certainly cannot deny it.”

But he did. In an extraordinary press conference last week, just after pardoning Khan, the president said that the doctor was still a national hero and deserved to be “shielded.” But was he sure that there was no military involvement and that none of this happened under his watch, a reporter shouted as the press conference was winding up. “You just have to trust us that this is the reality,” the general said.