Through a process that began with the theft of designs and documents from a Dutch centrifuge manufacturing facility, Pakistani metallurgist A. Q. Khan (born 1936) became the father of his country's nuclear weapons program—and then a rogue scientist of historic significance who is thought to have marketed atomic bomb designs to states around the world, without oversight from his government or anyone else.
Khan aided North Korea's nuclear program, which apparently culminated in the test of a small weapon in October of 2006. He has shared information with Iran, but the nature and extent of the help he gave to that country's nuclear program has been unclear, and remains
Abdul Qadeer Khan was born in 1936 in Bhopal, India. Although he was not strongly religious during young adulthood, he grew up in a devoutly Muslim household in an urban atmosphere marked by Hindu-Muslim tensions. His father, a schoolteacher, was a member of the local Muslim League. But Khan as a child devoted himself mostly to his studies. His mother took him to a fortune teller who predicted, according to a Pakistani biography of Khan quoted by William Langewiesche in the Atlantic , that "he is going to do very important and useful work for his nation and will earn immense respect."
Great Britain's 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent into the new nations of majority-Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan brought upheaval to Khan's life, as it did for millions of others. Several of his siblings left India for Pakistan, and Khan, at age 16, followed them there in 1952. The trip was a difficult one, during which some of Khan's traveling companions suffered robberies and beatings at the hands of Indian railroad police. At the end, Khan is said to have walked barefoot across a five-mile stretch of desert, carrying only schoolbooks and a few possessions, to reach Pakistan.
These experiences left Khan with a lifelong distrust of India, but he still took some interest in politics. He enrolled at the D. J. Science College of Karachi, Pakistan, and continued to excel as a student. After graduating in 1960 he got a job as a Pakistani government inspector, but he wanted to pursue further education, and in 1961 he managed to put together funding to enroll in a metallurgical engineering program in Germany. He moved to The Hague in the Netherlands the following year because he had met a Dutch woman named Henny, who soon became his wife. Khan attended Delft Technological University for four years, learning to speak both Dutch and German so well that at one point he was asked to translate a sensitive document from one language to the other. He was also fluent in English, Urdu, and Hindi, and spoke some French and Persian.
Khan and his wife moved on to Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, where they had two daughters and where Khan pursued a doctorate in metallurgical engineering. He wrote and published papers in his field, made friends easily, and seemed to enjoy life in Europe and the prospect of a well-paid engineering career to come. He received his doctorate in 1972 and began looking for a job, finding one with a Dutch consulting firm called FDO that specialized in the design of centrifuges—giant spinning drums used for a variety of industrial processes including, as it happened, the enrichment of uranium for nuclear weapons. It was at this point that Khan's career began to intersect with the unfolding of world events.
In 1971 eastern Pakistan, separated from the rest of the country by the northern part of India, launched a war of independence. At first the rebellion was crushed, but after India entered the war on East Pakistan's side, the newly independent nation of Bangladesh was formed. Pakistanis, who had already fought several wars against India over the disputed Kashmir region, suffered national humiliation at the loss of substantial parts of its territory and population. When Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto learned that India had launched a nuclear research program he formed one of his own, vowing at one point that Pakistanis would "eat grass"—make any conceivable sacrifice—in order to obtain the nuclear weapons that would, from their point of view, protect them from Indian domination. After India detonated an underground nuclear explosion in 1974, Khan wrote to Bhutto, outlining his credentials and offering his help in building a bomb based on enriched uranium. This was a better plan, Khan argued, than the plutonium-based bomb Pakistan had been pursuing. After some time, his offer was accepted.
Khan's company, FDO, provided consulting services to a Dutch-German uranium enrichment facility called URENCO that supplied fuel for peaceful nuclear energy uses (although the double edge of nuclear energy technology is its frequent applicability to weaponry). He realized that the company's centrifuge designs could potentially be used to enrich uranium to bomb-level concentrations, and, having been given a security clearance by the Dutch government (which at the time had no reason to suspect him of anything), he simply walked through the URENCO facility taking notes, in Urdu. When questioned, which he rarely was, he said that he was writing letters home to Pakistan. Later he became acquainted with a Dutch co-worker, the machinist and photographer Frits Veerman, from whom he obtained additional information about, and photos of, the URENCO centrifuge designs.
Veerman eventually realized that Khan was a Pakistani spy. He tried to alert his superiors, but was told to keep quiet lest he make trouble for his company lab. Finally the suspicions of the Dutch government were raised by Khan's persistent questioning of a variety of individuals on technological subjects. In late 1975 Dutch intelligence agents instructed FDO to move Khan to a less sensitive position, but by now it was too late. At the end of that year Khan returned to Pakistan with a good grasp of the most sophisticated uranium-enrichment technology known to the Western world. He assumed leadership of one branch of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, the one concerned with the effort to make a bomb from highly enriched uranium.
Various legal proceedings launched against Khan in the Netherlands came to nothing, and he twice eluded arrest by Dutch intelligence agents when the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) told them to hold off so that additional information could be gathered about Khan's contacts. The CIA, however, was unaware of the full extent of Khan's knowledge and network of contacts. "We knew a lot," an American nuclear intelligence official told William J. Broad and David E. Sanger of the New York Times , but we didn't realize the size of his universe."
In 1976 Khan created the Engineering Research Laboratories in Kahuta, Pakistan, a small town southeast of Islamabad. Uranium from Pakistani mines was sent to the facility, and Khan made steady progress with its enrichment to the high concentrations necessary for a nuclear bomb. He and his staff claimed that the lab was doing only work relevant to the peaceful uses of nuclear technology, but engineers under Khan's charge also worked on rocketry and weapons delivery systems. Precision parts were imported from a Khan-developed network of suppliers, many of them in Europe, who may have believed that the materials they were sending would be used for nuclear power rather than nuclear weaponry. In 1981 Bhutto's successor, Zia ul Haq, renamed Khan's lab the Khan Research Laboratories.
Pakistan conducted a nuclear test for the first time only in 1998, after a comparable test by India, but Khan had probably produced several nuclear warheads by the late 1980s, and Pakistan may have threatened to use them during a period of tension with India. At around this time, Khan apparently began offering his expertise to other countries. Iraq, whose initial efforts were disrupted by the Gulf War of 1991, and Iran, which may have received an inferior version of his designs, may have been among his first clients. Khan's motivations were complex. Partly they were financial; already a renowned figure in Pakistan, he became extremely wealthy and powerful, able to operate partly beyond the reach of Pakistani government control. "Every schoolchild knows his name and recognizes his face," a Western diplomat in Pakistan told Edward Luce of the Financial Times in 2004. "A.Q. Khan enjoys almost legendary status across Pakistan." Khan also resented the Western monopoly on nuclear weaponry, and specifically Israel's often-rumored possession of an arsenal of atomic bombs. "All Western countries," he was quoted as saying by Sanger and Broad in the New York Times , "are not only the enemies of Pakistan but in fact of Islam."
Khan's activities were closely followed by Western intelligence agencies, with an American nonproliferation official telling Langewiesche that "our interest in this man is so intense that you can assume if he takes a toilet break and goes to the john, we know about it." However, the obstacles to combating Khan's operations were often political rather than logistical. Pakistan was an ally of the United States and became a much closer one after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; pressing the Pakistani government and military, layers of which were closely involved with Khan's activities, for a crackdown on the rogue scientist was a delicate operation. Khan traveled freely among Asian, Middle Eastern, and African capitals, and his assistants openly advertised his expertise at conferences and trade shows.
The list of Khan clients grew during the 1990s, but its ultimate membership remains unknown. Khan, by his own testimony in a 2004 confession, shared information with Iran, Libya, and North Korea. He had contacts in many other countries, but whether they were customers or suppliers remained the focus of intense investigation. It was Libya that proved Khan's undoing; after the 2003 interception of a ship loaded with centrifuge parts, linked to a Khan associate and headed for Libya, Libyan leader Muammar Quaddafi decided to suspend his nuclear weapons program and cooperate with Western investigators. The documents Libya released showed a reliance on the URENCO centrifuge designs mastered by Khan, and some of them contained details pointing toward an origin in Khan's lab, perhaps with Khan himself.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was finally forced to act. He launched an investigation that resulted in Khan's nationally televised confession of February 4, 2004, a carefully worded speech in which Khan admitted to "alleged proliferation activities" (as quoted by Langewiesche) without going into many specifics. Khan was placed under house arrest at his mansion near Rawalpindi. Since then, investigators from the United States and from the International Atomic Energy Commission have tried to locate parts of the far-flung network that Khan put in place, but U.S. officials have not been allowed to question him. Reportedly suffering from prostate cancer, he could only watch from the sidelines as the potentially terrifying processes he had set in motion began to unfold.
Atlantic Monthly , November 2005, January-February 2006.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists , September 1993.
Financial Times , February 3, 2004.
New York Times , January 4, 2004; December 26, 2004; March 21, 2005.
Time , February 14, 2005.
"Pakistan's nuclear hero, world's No. 1 nuclear suspect," Christian Science Monitor , http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0202/p25s01-wose.htm (December 23, 2006).