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
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
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
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
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.
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