Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    South Asia
     Dec 2, 2006
Salesman of doom
Shopping for Bombs by Gordon Corera

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Until an Anglo-American joint intelligence team busted the racket in 2003, Pakistani scientist, spy and national hero Abdul Qadeer Khan had been peddling the most dangerous nuclear technology across the world for three decades.

Described by former US director of central intelligence George
Tenet as "at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden", Khan wreaked havoc on the attempts to restrain the spread of weapons of mass destruction by riding piggyback on Pakistani state protection and unscrupulous entrepreneurship. By offering a one-stop shopping experience to any country willing to pay, Khan nearly brought the non-proliferation regime to its knees.

British Broadcasting Corp journalist Gordon Corera's investigative book on the Khan network and its long-term damage to world security assembles fragments from news reports and personal interviews into a worrisome tale of greed and failure of international political will to rein in Pakistan and its evil genius.

Khan was a PhD student in metallurgy in Belgium when Pakistan was dismembered in the Bangladesh war of 1971. Out of depression and humiliation, he swore that he would prevent such a catastrophe from recurring. Pakistani patriotism, Muslim internationalism and resentment of Western hegemony motivated Khan behind his quiet and suave facade. "His desire was to see the Islamic world rise above other nations and for Pakistan to occupy the top position in the Islamic world" (p 123).

Khan landed his first job in the Netherlands for Urenco, the European consortium for enriching uranium, where he effortlessly accessed sensitive information marked "top secret". In 1974, armed with enough stolen data, he volunteered to spy for Pakistan and boldly filched invaluable bomb designs and channeled them through Pakistani embassies in Europe. By December 1975, he returned to Pakistan and elbowed aside other domestic nuclear scientists to become the head of the country's atomic project with the blessings of the then prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

At the Kahuta research center, Khan developed a power base and autonomy that gave him a free hand. Instead of procuring entire enrichment plants that would invite Western suspicion, he devised a strategy of buying nuclear components in the open European market through middlemen. His uncanny skill of oiling key contacts and luring them to serve Pakistan's bid to go nuclear advantaged him to the very end. With satisfaction, he recalled years later that his intermediaries "would sell their mother for money" (p 27).

By the mid-1980s, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had detailed leads on Khan's activities, but the US government's emphasis on communism over counter-proliferation left him unharmed. For instance, in 1989, the Pentagon falsely testified before Congress that Pakistan could not adapt aircraft to carry nuclear weapons. Safely embedded within the US policy myopia of cushioning Pakistan, Khan's tentacles spread far and wide, and Kahuta attained the reputation of "a state within a state". Khan tightly integrated himself into Pakistan's military-industrial complex by also reverse engineering and sale of conventional armaments.

In the early 1980s, US intelligence rifled through Khan's luggage and found a document showing that China handed over a full, proven weapons design to Pakistan. Khan made several visits to China, and Chinese scientists were also present at Kahuta. Despite assessments from 1986 that Pakistan was "only two screwdriver turns away from assembling an unconventional weapon", US policymakers retained a massive public charade that kept Khan off the radar.

In 1990, shortly after Benazir Bhutto was deposed as prime minister, Khan bragged that he had asked Pakistan's then army chief, General Aslam Beg, to remove her "because she was causing trouble for the nuclear program" (p 54). As Pakistani politics entered a messy period of frequent turnover of governments, Khan flourished and embarked on a daring career of exporting the expertise he built.

Khan was the source of Iran's great leap forward in assembling a cascade of centrifuges at Natanz. The deal was struck in Dubai in 1987 wherein drawings and designs, including technical instructions on building the core of an atomic bomb, worth US$3 million were passed over to Iran. Western diplomats perceived Russia and China as the main facilitators of Iran's nuclear program and overlooked Pakistan, which was far more important. Thanks to Khan, Iran could leapfrog painstaking and time-consuming processes that would have taken decades to mature. In 1994, Iran signed up for a bigger package, including designs for the advanced P-2 centrifuge. Khan went to Iran a number of times and had a guesthouse on the Caspian Sea.

Three further shipments to Iran were made in 1997, all with the full knowledge of senior Pakistani government officials. General Beg and the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Asad Durrani, wanted to sell Iran nuclear know-how worth $12 billion to finance their terrorist operations in Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir. Moreover, many key Pakistani authorities "felt that the bomb should be shared with Islamic nations" (p 78). After Pakistan tested nuclear devices in 1998, the Iranian foreign minister congratulated it, saying "now Muslims can feel confident" (p 84). Khan was quite happy to supply Iraq as well, offering Saddam Hussein enrichment and bomb designs unsolicited in 1990.

Benazir Bhutto's "nukes for missiles" deal with North Korea in 1993 paved the way for Khan, who was desperate for the Nodong delivery system that could aim at more targets in India. In return for the Nodong (renamed "Ghauri"), Khan shipped enrichment technology to Pyongyang in the late 1990s. He visited North Korea 13 times from 1997 to 2002 on Pakistani military planes, transferring blueprints, uranium hexafluoride and centrifuges. "Covert activity had become an integral part of the Pakistani state and meant Khan could go about this business with minimal oversight" (p 95).

It was not coincidental that top Pakistani diplomats in Pyongyang "are almost always former senior members of the ISI or army" (p 93). In 1998, the wife of a North Korean diplomat in Islamabad was shot dead for being a suspected spy who could be passing on information about nuclear contacts between her country and Pakistan. The killing was swiftly covered up by Islamabad. Corera finds that the North Korean deals of Khan were "least likely without wider complicity of the Pakistani military, since they involved key strategic concerns like missile purchases" (p 96).

From 1995, Khan clandestinely met with Libyan officials and negotiated a range of centrifuges that would bag the network its most lucrative contract (estimated to have earned between $85 million and $140 million). Khan utilized up to 30 companies in 12 countries with six workshops scattered over three continents to fulfill this order.

South Africa, Malaysia and Turkey were the main production sites and a two-storied hotel in Timbuktu, Mali, served as a front to transport the final output to Libya. "The plan was for different parts to come from all over, only to be finally assembled in Libya itself, thereby reducing the chance of being spotted" (p 113). Some in the regime of President General Pervez Musharraf knew about Khan's Libya deeds and "may have felt that Colonel [Muammar] Gaddafi was somehow owed something of the Pakistani program thanks to his extensive funding in the early 1970s" (p 120).

Whenever Western leaders raised the issue of Khan, "they always got the same deadpan and weary answer: Pakistan would never, ever do anything to foster proliferation. The argument was used whenever Pakistanis knew what the problem was but wanted deniability to continue pursuing something considered to be in the national interest" (p 142). Given Khan's superhuman image in the country, "it would prove hard to explain why the hero was in fact a villain and who knew about it or helped him" (p 148).

In 2001, under Western pressure, the Musharraf government forced Khan to "retire" from Kahuta, but his network continued to proliferate unabated. In 2003, it was learned that Saudi Arabia was seeking nuclear weapons as a deterrent to Iran and that Khan had contacted Riyadh to deliver the goods in exchange for cheap oil. Just before Khan's final downfall, it was overheard that he had lined up "another customer, another catch" (possibly Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt or Sudan).

Musharraf eventually forced Khan into "house arrest" after more proof of his shenanigans was made public and then-US secretary of state Colin Powell threatened to "put Pakistan in a very harsh light with no room for deniability" (p 207). Khan's threat that he would "expose everyone and everything if he was made a scapegoat" weighed on the Pakistani military heavily. He could not be made to face trial "without fear of everything being revealed" (p 208). A televised confession was orchestrated as the safest outlet since "it was much easier to blame the whole affair on one man alone, not the system as a whole" (p 210).

Quixotically, the US was again minimally satisfied that the affair was Pakistan's "internal matter", and Washington did not urge that Khan be turned over for questioning. International inability to interrogate Khan leaves tremendous ambiguity over how much ravage his network did and what segment of it is still intact. For Corera, the US policy of rewarding Pakistan for its deviant behavior, a throwback to the 1980s, imperils the future of non-proliferation.

In 2005, European intelligence warned that Pakistan was ordering nuclear materials far in excess of the amount required for its own program. The riddle is whether the Pakistani state is "itself still selling" in the nuclear marketplace (p 244). Khan, who now luxuriates behind a government cordon sanitaire in Islamabad, would know. The larger irony is that the truth is far more complex than one individual's escapades, since Khan was merely a salesman whose former employer is a recalcitrant state that has cozied up to Washington.

Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity and the Rise and Fall of the A Q Khan Network by Gordon Corera. New York, Oxford University Press, September 2006. ISBN: 0195304950. Price: US$28, 288 pages.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Pakistan weaves an elaborate web (Jan 19, '05)

Khan's nuclear ghost continues to haunt (Dec 22, '04)



All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110