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EFSAS Commentary

The death of nuclear proliferator A.Q. Khan is a reminder of the threat that Pakistan’s nuclear programme poses


Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan who died on 10 October at the age of 85 of post COVID-19 complications was a notoriously controversial figure. Credited by most Pakistanis with being the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, he is widely considered a national hero. Despite this, the nation, and especially the government, has not been able to fully celebrate A.Q. Khan’s achievements. So much so that neither Prime Minister Imran Khan nor President Arif Alvi could even muster the courage to attend A.Q. Khan’s funeral. Their fears and trepidations, even if their absence at the funeral drew considerable flack from several quarters within Pakistan, were not misplaced. A.Q. Khan, after all, was no ordinary scientist. He was the biggest nuclear proliferator that the world had ever seen, and his network of clients included countries that are today viewed as serious threats to international peace and order. The term ‘rogue States’ has at various times in recent history been used to describe North Korea, Iran and Libya, all of which have benefitted as a result of nuclear technology and material clandestinely sold to them by A.Q. Khan.

Even if the belief that the scientist was only fulfilling what he was mandated to do by the leadership of the country, more specifically the military leadership, is held by several serious researchers and analysts, the fact does remain that it was A.Q. Khan who was at the center of each illicit nuclear transaction. At a stage when Pakistan’s image internationally has already taken a severe beating due to its misadventures in Afghanistan, its role in promoting international terrorism, and its subservience to China, the President and the Prime Minister cannot really be faulted for seeking to prevent Pakistan’s proliferation track record from coming back into the limelight again. They would also have realized that glorifying A.Q. Khan beyond the tweets that they had sent out would likely have been akin to waving a red rag at the United States (US), more so at a time when fears of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands are increasingly being expressed. This was also the subject of the EFSAS Commentary of 24-09-2021.

A.Q. Khan’s journey towards becoming a mass proliferator began when he moved to Europe in 1961 to pursue higher studies, first in Germany and then at the prestigious Technical University in Delft, The Netherlands, where he earned a degree in metallurgical engineering in 1967. He went on to complete a PhD at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. In 1972, he began working at Physical Dynamic Research Laboratory (FDO), a sub-contractor of Ultra Centrifuge Nederland (UCN). As per the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, A.Q. Khan thereafter began making unauthorized visits to the advanced UCN enrichment facility in Almelo, The Netherlands. By the mid-1970s, Khan had joined Pakistan’s clandestine efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and in 1975 he stole blueprints for centrifuges and other components from the Almelo facility and carried them to Pakistan along with the contact information of nearly a hundred companies active in related fields. A.Q. Khan was later convicted, in absentia, in a Dutch court for conducting nuclear espionage and was sentenced to four years in prison.

Khan’s efforts at building nuclear weapons for Pakistan received a boost in the 1980s when he acquired blueprints for the Chinese bomb that was tested in China’s nuclear explosion of 1966. As Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities developed in subsequent years, A.Q. Khan began nuclear transfers to Iran in the late 1980s. A decade later, in 1992, Pakistan began missile cooperation with North Korea. In 1997, A.Q. Khan began supplying centrifuges and centrifuge components to Libya.

It was only at the turn of the century that the scale of the nuclear proliferation that was being carried out by A.Q. Khan and his network began to come to light. Succumbing under the weight of the escalating international pressure that followed, Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf claimed that A.Q. Khan had been running a rogue proliferation network for nuclear material without the knowledge of the Pakistani government. Khan, in a televised confession in 2004, said that he had helped supply materials necessary for making nuclear weapons to North Korea and Libya, and that he had acted alone. This last claim was not believed by many, who were convinced that the Pakistani military establishment would have had to have been complicit. Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, for example, believes that Khan “took one for the team”, taking the blame for the sharing of nuclear technology abroad. Krepon judged that some of the proliferation was officially sanctioned, but other sales were Khan’s own entrepreneurship. However, perhaps due to his agreeing to take all the blame on himself, thereby absolving the military, Khan was pardoned and put under house arrest in 2004. He had a strange, curious existence for his remaining years, wherein he lived in a comfortable bungalow and was neither free nor really confined. The softness of Khan’s punishment, meanwhile, angered many in the West.

Author Mike Chinoy, a non-resident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s US –China Institute and a former senior Asia correspondent at CNN, in an article on 11 October made some revealing observations about the functioning of the A.Q. Khan network. He wrote that his status “as the ‘father of Pakistan’s atomic weapons program’ turned Khan into a national hero. It also emboldened him to embark on a new path: secretly selling nuclear technology, know-how, and equipment to other countries. Khan began his enterprise in the late 1980s by selling centrifuges, blueprints, and other components to Iran. He would also eventually approach Iraq and Syria, and by the new millennium his client list had expanded to include Libya and North Korea… In the final year of the Clinton administration, however, enough alarm bells had begun to sound about Khan’s proliferation activities that it triggered an ambitious joint US-British intelligence operation to target the Pakistani nuclear scientist. The effort involved not just access to an incriminating paper trail but actually placing agents inside the Khan proliferation network. After George W. Bush took office as U.S. president, the intelligence operation intensified. The initial target was Libya, which had become the focus for Khan’s most elaborate effort thus far, involving an order from Muammar al-Qaddafi for large numbers of centrifuges and 1.87 tons of uranium hexafluoride. Penetration of the network would lead Qaddafi to abandon his nuclear ambitions in return for better ties with the United States and Britain in 2003. Qaddafi’s turnabout also yielded an intelligence bonanza, giving the United States enough incriminating details to force Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf to place Khan under house arrest in early 2004 and assist in the dismantling of what was known of Khan’s network”.

Chinoy added, “In 2002, however, the investigation was still at an earlier stage. But it was already giving the CIA a better understanding not just of Khan’s dealings with Libya but of the alarming fact that his network had other clients—including North Korea and Syria. ‘Once we got inside that network it gave us windows into all of these countries, including North Korea’, former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin confirmed in an interview. In his book At the Center of the Storm, former CIA Director George Tenet wrote, ‘Patiently, we put ourselves in a position to come in contact with individuals and organizations that we believed were part of the overall proliferation problem.... We discovered the extent of Khan’s hidden network, which stretched from Pakistan, to Europe, to the Middle East, to Asia. We pieced together a picture of the organization, revealing its subsidiaries, scientists, front companies, agents, finances, and manufacturing plants. Our spies gained access through a series of daring operations over several years’.… In 2006, Musharraf confirmed that Khan had given the North Koreans ‘nearly two dozen’ centrifuges, both the P-1 and the more advanced P-2. The designations P-1 and P-2 refer to two Pakistani types of centrifuges, one more sophisticated than the other. The designs for both had been stolen by Khan when he was working at the Dutch company Urenco in the 1970s. While such a small number of centrifuges was far short of the thousands required for the cascades necessary for nuclear weapons, with Khan’s detailed list of the remaining components, North Korea was now in a position to procure the necessary equipment to produce a uranium bomb”.

An important observation by Chinoy, especially in the present day context, was that in “the mid-1990s, however, Pakistan was facing a financial crisis as its foreign exchange reserves plunged. It was at this point that the first real evidence emerged that Khan was offering nuclear know-how to the North Koreans”. Pakistan is currently going through a financial crisis that is among the worst in the country’s history, one that has forced it to become unhealthily reliant on China for finances. Given that the Chinese debt trap seems to slowly but surely be working its way into Pakistan, the danger of extreme decisions being taken in desperation by the Pakistani leadership is real. Selling off nuclear technology to anyone who bids high enough to help address Pakistan’s economic woes may well once again come into the equation, just as it had during the mid-1990s financial crisis.

If the reactions to A.Q. Khan’s death within Pakistan were along expected lines, so were the thoughts about him among international observers. In The Netherlands the headlines in major publications highlighted the fact that Khan had stolen nuclear technology from the country. The NL Times headlined its report with ‘Pakistani scientist who stole Dutch nuclear secrets dead at age 85’. Nrc.nl described Khan as “The nuclear physicist, known outside Pakistan as ‘the largest disseminator of nuclear weapons technology in the world’”. It added, “A.Q. Khan was resented and hated. Many considered him a dangerous thief, but for many Pakistanis he was a hero. His life story could be captured in a thick spy novel that shows the complicated position of Pakistan in the world community”.

Gordon Corera, in his article for BBC titled ‘A.Q. Khan: The most dangerous man in the world?’, pointed out that George Tenet had described Khan as “at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden”. Corera added that Western spies considered Khan as “one of the most dangerous men in the world”, and that “What made Khan so significant is what else he did. He turned his network outwards from import to export, becoming a globe-trotting figure and doing deals with a range of countries, many of which the West considered ‘rogue states’”. J Brooks Spector titled his article of 14 October ‘Nuclear serial proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan — dead from Covid, but his weapons of mass destruction live on’. The Economist, while announcing Khan’s death, described him as a “Pakistani hero and rogue nuke-peddler”. Sophia Saifi, in her article for CNN, underscored that the US State Department had in 2009 said that “Khan had run an ‘extensive international network for the proliferation of nuclear equipment and know-how that provided one stop shopping for countries seeking to develop nuclear weapons’. According to the State Department, this network’s actions had ‘irrevocably changed the proliferation landscape and have had lasting implications for international security’”.

In 2003, when the US had confronted Musharraf with evidence that A.Q. Khan had sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya, two of these countries, according to the then US President George W. Bush, were part of the ‘axis of evil’. Pakistan, despite helping these ‘evil’ countries develop their nuclear programmes, was treated very differently. Instead of being taken to task, Pakistan received billions of dollars to help the US with its ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan, and it was accorded the status of ‘Major non-NATO ally’. A major consideration behind including countries in the ‘axis of evil’ was their support to terrorism. Pakistan’s extensive support to a wide range of terrorists, including those attacking US interests, was myopically glossed over in the interest of short term gains.

As the fears of proliferation are reignited at the time of A.Q. Khan’s death, it is imperative to understand that the highly flawed decision to consciously keep the country that should have been at the apex of the ‘axis of evil’ out of that list, and, inexplicably, on a list of close allies, could only have encouraged greater and more blatant proliferation as well as deeper and more sustained support to terrorism.