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The Man Who Sold the Bomb

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  • The Man Who Sold the Bomb

    From TIME Magazine

    The Man Who Sold the Bomb
    How Pakistan's A.Q. Khan outwitted Western intelligence to build a global nuclear-smuggling ring that made the world a more dangerous place

    Not long ago, Abdul Qadeer Khan used to walk into a wooded park across the street from his mansion in Pakistan's capital city and feed the monkeys who lived there. That was when he was a national hero and a multimillionaire, owner of a fleet of vintage cars and properties from Dubai to Timbuktu. But Khan, 68, no longer crosses the street to feed the monkeys. These days he is almost never seen outside. His house, which lies just over a grassy hillside from Islamabad's King Faisal Mosque, is modern, squat and dark, its facade concealed behind a vine-covered wall. To the casual observer, the house provides just one clue to its owner's sinister profession. At the end of his driveway sits a large jasmine bush, trimmed into an odd but unmistakable shape: that of a mushroom cloud.

    When President George W. Bush identified the main threats to global security in his State of the Union address last week, the name A.Q. Khan was not on the list. In some respects, that's not surprising.

    Khan is under house arrest, his every move monitored by Pakistani government agents. He is said to be in failing health, and will probably live out his days a recluse. And yet one year after Khan appeared on Pakistani television and confessed to selling some of that country's most prized secrets, the world is only beginning to uncover the extent of his treachery—and comprehend how one man did more to destabilize the planet than did many of the world's worst regimes.

    For more than a decade, Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, masterminded a vast, clandestine and hugely profitable enterprise whose mission boiled down to this: selling to a rogues' gallery of nations the technology and equipment to make nuclear weapons. Among Khan's customers were Iran and North Korea—two countries identified by Bush as members of the "axis of evil," whose nuclear ambitions present the U.S. with two of its biggest foreign policy quandaries.

    At a moment when the international community is focused on a potential showdown with Iran, a [B]TIME investigation has revealed that Khan's network played a bigger role in helping Tehran and Pyongyang than had been previously disclosed. U.S. intelligence officials believe Khan sold North Korea much of the material needed to build a bomb, including high-speed centrifuges used to enrich uranium and the equipment required to manufacture more of them.[/B] Officials are worried—but have not yet seen proof—that Khan gave those countries rudimentary but effective designs for nuclear warheads. Officials in Washington and at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna say they suspect that Iran may have bought the same set of goods—centrifuges and possibly weapons designs—from Khan in the mid-1990s. Although the IAEA says so far it has not found definitive proof that Iran has a weapons program, its investigators told TIME that Tehran has privately confirmed at least 13 meetings from 1994 to 1999 with representatives of Khan's network.

    Who else did business with this merchant of menace? The list of suspected nuclear clients is dizzying. Investigators believe that as head of Pakistan's main nuclear-research laboratory, Khan traveled the world for more than a decade, visiting countries in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. According to a source in Pakistan's Defense Ministry, U.S. officials are investigating whether Khan's network might have sold nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. The U.S. has submitted questions to Khan asking whether North Korea and Iran sold such equipment to third parties.

    The ultimate fear: that one of Khan's clients may pass along nuclear technology and expertise to terrorist groups. Although the U.S. does not have concrete evidence that[COLOR=Blue] Khan did business with al-Qaeda, there is reason to suspect such a link exists.[/COLOR] A few members of Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment, which worked closely with Khan in his role as the government's top nuclear scientist, are known to sympathize with Osama bin Laden. The more investigators have learned about the reach of Khan's network, the more alarmed they have become. Says a U.S. official involved with analyzing Iran's nuclear program: "You're dealing with a supplier who didn't appear to have any qualms."

    Despite the U.S.'s obvious interest in uncovering the scope of the nuclear bazaar, neither the Administration nor the IAEA has been allowed to interrogate Khan directly. Knowledgeable sources tell TIME that at a meeting at the White House in December, Bush told Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that he believed Khan had not fessed up to all his nefarious transactions. Musharraf agreed but refused to allow non-Pakistanis to quiz Khan.

    So who is Abdul Qadeer Khan, and what kind of threat does his illicit enterprise still pose? When you piece together the details of Khan's career, his business dealings and the covert operation that brought him down, what emerges is a portrait of a brainy engineer who devoted his life to the pursuit and proliferation of the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Born to humble beginnings, he became a globe-trotting magnate who relished the luxury that fame and savvy brought him. But colleagues say he was also driven by a devout faith and a burning belief that Muslim possession of nuclear weapons would help return Islam to greatness. Just how far Khan was able to spread that vision is a question, says a former U.S. intelligence official, "that still keeps a lot of us up nights."

    Khan was born in 1936, in Bhopal, India, 11 years before the founding of Pakistan. His youth was shaped by the communal violence that plagued India after the end of colonization. He has told his biographer of witnessing the massacre of Muslims by Hindus that followed the partition of the old British colony in 1947. By the time he immigrated to Pakistan in 1952, Khan had developed an interest in science and a loathing for India.

    In 1953, Khan enrolled in Karachi's D.J. Science College. But he soon uprooted again, moving to Europe and earning degrees in electrical engineering and metallurgy. After finishing his studies, he threw himself into the burgeoning field of nuclear science in the Netherlands. With oil prices soaring, interest in harnessing nuclear power for civilian energy was high. In 1975, Khan took a job at the Dutch branch of a European nuclear-research consortium, Urenco, which specialized in uranium enrichment. Khan soon recognized that the centrifuges Urenco had developed to enrich uranium for civilian use were powerful enough to produce the fissile material needed for a nuclear weapon.

    When he returned home in 1976, he displayed his talent for enterprise. He brought with him the Dutch woman who would become his wife—and extremely sensitive centrifuge designs, which the Dutch say he had stolen from his nuclear employer. In the context of Pakistan's rivalry with India, Khan's perfidy was considered an extreme form of patriotism. Since India had a nuclear program, Pakistan needed one too. Soon Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto appointed Khan to run Pakistan's nuclear-research program, with the goal of developing a weapon as soon as possible. "Pakistan's choice was either to reinvent the wheel or buy it," says Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group in Islamabad. Khan decided to buy it.

    There are two basic paths to producing bomb-grade material. One involves reprocessing the plutonium contained in spent nuclear fuel, a path taken by North Korea in the 1980s. But that method requires first building a nuclear reactor, a costly and cumbersome endeavor.

    Khan's experience in Europe steered him toward the cheaper option.

    Working the contacts he had made in Europe, he set out to acquire the rotational machines, known as centrifuges, that enrich uranium into bomb-grade material. Pakistan's bomb program took years to mature, but in 1998, on the back of Khan's labors, the country detonated five underground nuclear bombs. At a time of high tensions with India over the disputed region of Kashmir, the event turned Khan into a national hero. His glowering, wavy-haired portrait was hand-painted on the backs of trucks and buses all over the country. He was twice awarded Pakistan's highest civilian honor, the Hilal-e-Imtiaz medal.

    Celebrated in textbooks, he was probably Pakistan's most famous man.

    But Khan had a secret life. In hindsight, there were some obvious tip-offs. Although still a civil servant in a poor country, he owned dozens of properties in Pakistan and Dubai and invested in a Timbuktu hotel, which he named after his wife. He donated $30 million to various Pakistani charities and had enough money left over to buy his staff members cars and pay for the university education of their children. He had an ego to match his newfound fortune: after paying to restore the tomb of Sultan Shahabuddin Ghauri, an Afghan who conquered Delhi, Khan put up a portrait of himself next to the sultan's.

    Friends noticed another transformation in Khan. He became more religious after the successful nuclear tests in 1998. A Libyan source familiar with Khan's transactions with the Libyan government says Khan claimed he was selling nuclear technology to bolster the standing of Muslims. "We Muslims have to be strong and equal to any other country, and therefore I want to help some countries be strong," the source recalls Khan saying. Ex-colleagues told TIME that following the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, he railed against the West and its operations against the Muslim community. After the U.S. imposed sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear test, Khan became convinced that the U.S. was bent on destroying Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, its main weapon against India's far mightier army.

    Whether motivated by greed or ideology or both, Khan decided to go into business for himself, even as he oversaw Pakistan's nuclear development. Khan offered a one-stop shop for regimes interested in producing nuclear weapons. He offered centrifuges—known as P-1, for Pakistan, and later P-2, a more sophisticated version—as well as machines that make centrifuges (critical to Khan's customers because hundreds or thousands of them are needed to make highly enriched uranium in quantities sufficient for a weapon). Utilizing a variety of contacts in Europe, Asia and Africa, Khan built a network of factories and salesmen that covered the globe. There was even a slick advertising brochure promoting the group's wares.

    In the early 1990s, Khan began meeting with representatives from an assortment of outlaw regimes. A former Energy Minister in Islamabad says Iranian officials approached Pakistan's army chief in 1991, offering "around $8 billion" for access to Khan's technology. The offer was rebuffed but, IAEA officials say, three years later Khan did establish contact with the Iranians. A key member of the network has told investigators that Iran bought centrifuges from Khan. The IAEA reports that the Khan network also provided Iran with blueprints to manufacture more P-1 and P-2 centrifuges. The Iranians say they wanted the centrifuges for civilian purposes, a claim the U.S. doubts. Either way, says a U.S. official, "Khan was vital" to the progress of Iran's nuclear program.

    By 1995, with Khan's Iran connection established, another global pariah, Libya, sought him out. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had tried in the late 1980s to build his own nuclear program by importing German technology and engineers, but the effort failed. To make its bombs, Libya wanted to enrich uranium rather than produce plutonium in a reactor because, says the official, "with a reactor, you cannot hide anything." Khan's system was a perfect fit, and as the commercial relationship was launched, Khan's underlings whetted Gaddafi's appetite with an unexpected gift. Khan gave the Libyans a stack of technical instructions for how to build a nuclear warhead. The material was wrapped in the kind of plastic sheeting used by dry cleaners. Khan never told the Libyans that it was a plan for a bomb, saying only "Here is some information that will be useful for you in the future."

    Gaddafi soon upped the ante. In 1997, Khan's Libyan contacts told him they wanted P-1 and P-2 centrifuges and the equipment to build hundreds more. The deal was worth $100 million. To fill the order, Khan turned to old contacts in Western Europe and South Africa, in some instances using the same people he had done business with in the 1980s. Among the shadowy middlemen involved over the years were South African Johan Meyer and German- South African Gerhard Wisser, who allegedly helped set up a processing facility that could be shipped whole to Libya. Khan's crew tapped furnacemakers in Italy, lathemakers in Spain, and Swiss middlemen who helped design parts for construction in Southeast Asia.

    The network began sending Libya crateloads of equipment, routing the ships through Europe and the Persian Gulf city of Dubai before they reached their destination in Tripoli. It was an audacious enterprise, given that Western spies were on the hunt for illicit trading in weapons of mass destruction. But as far as Khan knew, his pursuers were still in the dark.

    Khan's base of operations became Dubai, with its easy transit connections by air and its balmy beachfront climate. Dealmaking was suitably informal. A key member of Khan's network told investigators that Iranian contacts once dropped off in Khan's apartment two suitcases containing $3 million in cash as a payment. From 1999 on, Khan traveled to Dubai 41 times, the Pakistani government says. Khan also kept a penthouse on posh al-Maktoum Road. When arranging a shipment, he would set up in Dubai dozens of shell companies consisting of nothing more than "a fax machine and an empty office," says a former colleague. As soon as the deal was done, he shut the companies down.

    For meetings with his underlings and potential customers, Khan favored other exotic locales: Istanbul and Casablanca. Pakistani sources say Khan used Dubai gold dealers to launder smuggling profits. At the height of his power, Khan was worth as much as $400 million.

    Khan's right-hand man, what an intelligence official calls the managing director of his operation, was Buhary Sayed Abu Tahir, 44, a Sri Lankan whom Khan first met in Dubai in the mid-'90s. Tahir idolized Khan, mimicking him in sometimes expensive ways. In homage to the boss's vintage fleet, Tahir tooled around Dubai in a luxury car. To Khan, Tahir became indispensable. He divided his time between Kuala Lumpur (his wife is Malaysian) and Dubai. Through his connections in Malaysia, Tahir arranged for centrifuge components to be manufactured at a publicly traded company called Scomi Precision Engineering. Back in Dubai, he set up a cutout company called SMB Computers, which was a front for Khan's proliferation business.

    Ultimately, components manufactured at Scomi were sold via SMB to Libya as "used machinery"—part of the $100 million contract with Gaddafi's government.

    Meanwhile, Khan expanded. He made contact with the North Korean government as early as 1993, according to Pakistani investigators. In the late 1990s he began shipping centrifuges and the means to make them—"the whole package," as a U.S. intelligence official put it—in bulk to Pyongyang, sometimes aboard Pakistani military cargo planes.

    Pakistani officials say Khan has testified that the North Koreans were so appreciative that in 1999 they took him on a private tour of their nuclear facilities during his visit to Pyongyang. U.S. and IAEA investigators believe that Khan also traveled to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and to such African countries as Sudan, Ivory Coast and Niger.

    The purpose of those trips remains unclear, but intelligence officials have hunches: Saudi Arabia and Egypt are believed to be in the market for nuclear technology, and many African countries are rich in raw uranium ore.

    As he hopscotched across the globe, Khan had little reason to believe that Western intelligence agencies were catching on to his activities. But unbeknownst to him, they apparently had found a mole in the operation who could lead straight to the boss.

    When several Italian Coast-Guard cutters set out from the industrial port city of Taranto on that country's southeastern coast on Oct. 4, 2003, they had specific orders: to detain and board a German-flagged cargo ship called the BBC China, then heading for Libya. The seizure had, in fact, been arranged jointly by the CIA and MI6, the overseas arm of British intelligence. When the agents boarded the BBC China, what they found was anything but routine: five large containers, each carefully packed with precision machine tools, tubes and other bombmaking equipment. The containers amounted to part of a uranium-enrichment facility manufactured in Malaysia by Tahir's Scomi operation.

    The CIA had been tracking Khan since the late 1990s. "We were inside his residence, inside his facilities, inside his rooms," former CIA Director George Tenet told an audience last year. A Libyan source told TIME that the Libyan government believes that the mole may have been Tahir, Khan's trusted aide. "[The U.S.] made a compromise with him," the source says. "He will be safe. They won't touch him, but he had to cooperate." The source has told TIME that when the CIA finally confronted Tripoli in late 2003 about its nuclear ambitions, the officers played a tape of a 1997 Casablanca meeting that was attended by only Khan, Tahir and two representatives of the Libyan government.

    The source believes that Tahir was wearing a concealed microphone during that meeting.

    Tahir was arrested in Kuala Lumpur in May 2004 and held under a Malaysian law allowing for the indefinite detention of individuals posing a security threat. He has provided a wealth of information to local investigators about the specifics of Khan's dealings, particularly with Iran and Libya. The IAEA said last week that the Malaysian government agreed for the first time to make Tahir available to IAEA investigators—the next best thing to being able to talk to Khan himself.

    Two days after the boarding of the BBC China off the waters of Taranto, then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage arrived in Islamabad and confronted Musharraf, demanding that the Pakistanis shut down Khan's network. "If I ever perspired," Musharraf said later, "it was then." But Pakistani sources close to Khan say Musharraf backed away from arresting the scientist out of fear that Khan would finger senior members of the Pakistani military and security services as having been complicit in nuclear trafficking.

    "Everyone got a cut," says a Khan acquaintance, referring to high-ranking military officers connected with the nuclear program.

    Khan's last public appearance came on Feb. 4, 2004, when he appeared on national television and confessed to running the smuggling ring.

    The next day, to the outrage of many in Washington, Musharraf pardoned him.

    The quest to get more information out of Khan has been slow. At the White House meeting in December, Musharraf told Bush that it was impossible to know whether Khan has divulged all he knows, since he tends to talk only when confronted with evidence. If the U.S. has specific questions for Khan, Musharraf said, his men would follow it up. "I will investigate," Musharraf assured Bush. The Administration gave Pakistan a new dossier of queries for Khan, and a knowledgeable official says Pakistan has since questioned Khan and reported back to Washington.

    But many questions remain unresolved, including whether Khan sold blueprints for building a nuclear warhead to Iran, as he did with Libya. If true, such a finding would allow the U.S. to ratchet up its charges that Tehran's nuclear research has a military purpose. What's more, sources close to Khan Research Laboratories in Islamabad tell TIME that even though its head has been removed, Khan's illicit network of suppliers and middlemen is still out there. "Nothing has changed," one of Khan's former aides says. "The hardware is still available, and the network hasn't stopped." A recent probe of Khan's lab found that 16 cylinders of uranium hexafluoride gas, a critical ingredient for uranium enrichment, are missing, sources close to the lab say. And a Pakistani official says some in Islamabad are vexed that the Swiss and German governments, among others, have failed to arrest individuals implicated by Khan's testimony.

    The man with the answers passes his days in Islamabad, his once peripatetic lifestyle now confined to the interior of his villa. A close friend says Khan's health is poor, and he is given to bouts of depression. Although the man may fade into obscurity, the world is only beginning to reckon with his legacy. It's still a seller's market in the nuclear bazaar. And now there's room at the top.
    El Barade of IAEA wanted to quiz AQ Khan but was not allowed.

    Obviously, it could not have been a single man opeation. Officials and the govt were also involved.

    Everyone's palm was greased.

    But it made the world a more dangerous place and added to the nuke proliferation, the fact that the terrorist factories are in Paksitan and were sponsored by the ISI is anotehr headache.

    Kahn is said to have sold this because he was a devout Mosle.

    "Some have learnt many Tricks of sly Evasion, Instead of Truth they use Equivocation, And eke it out with mental Reservation, Which is to good Men an Abomination."

    I don't have to attend every argument I'm invited to.


  • #2
    Originally posted by Ray
    Everyone's palm was greased.
    It's sad people would hurt so many just for something as superficial as money.
    No man is free until all men are free - John Hossack
    I agree completely with this Administration’s goal of a regime change in Iraq-John Kerry
    even if that enforcement is mostly at the hands of the United States, a right we retain even if the Security Council fails to act-John Kerry
    He may even miscalculate and slide these weapons off to terrorist groups to invite them to be a surrogate to use them against the United States. It’s the miscalculation that poses the greatest threat-John Kerry


    • #3
      Yeah, the palms were greased and that resulted in mankind to be placed in a situation with one foot in the grave and one on the bannana peel! ;) :)

      "Some have learnt many Tricks of sly Evasion, Instead of Truth they use Equivocation, And eke it out with mental Reservation, Which is to good Men an Abomination."

      I don't have to attend every argument I'm invited to.



      • #4
        "Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more"
        No man is free until all men are free - John Hossack
        I agree completely with this Administration’s goal of a regime change in Iraq-John Kerry
        even if that enforcement is mostly at the hands of the United States, a right we retain even if the Security Council fails to act-John Kerry
        He may even miscalculate and slide these weapons off to terrorist groups to invite them to be a surrogate to use them against the United States. It’s the miscalculation that poses the greatest threat-John Kerry