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Abdul Qadeer (Qadir) Khan: The Bomb Man of Pakistan

Abdul Qadir Khan: The Pakistani Bomb

There are many mistaken perceptions of Pakistan in the West and the most serious has to do with Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons. Pakistan fought several wars with India and had several near-war mobilizations. Although national pride requires that Pakistan characterize the Pakistan-India confrontations as near matches, the actuality is that Pakistan is heavily outmatched by the resources available to India and militarily lost several of the confrontations. The Pakistani military recognizes that in a full fledged war India could probably conquer Pakistan, although at a heavy cost.

Nuclear weapons as defense were obviously strategically justified for Pakistan in that it faced an enemy of vastly greater resources, yet Pakistan did seek those weapons until after India exploded an atomic bomb in 1974. For India bringing nuclear weapons into the military picture with respect to Pakistan did not make much sense. Without nuclear weapons India had a major advantage over Pakistan in conventional weapons. India demonstrated that in 1971 with its quick defeat of the West Pakistani army in East Pakistan (Bangladesh). With both countries armed with nuclear weapons India's advantage would be considerably reduced. Of course, during a period in which India had the bomb and Pakistan did not India's advantage would be enhanced. However it was unrealistic for India to expect that Pakistan would not acquire the bomb. In effect India pushed Pakistan into a quest for nuclear weapons.

India's acquisition of nuclear weapons made military sense only in its relationship to China. In conventional weapons and manpower China had an advantage. With both China and India armed with nuclear weapons China's advantage was reduced, especially compared to the situation in which China had those weapons and India did not.

After India's detonation of a nuclear device in 1974 there was strong motivation for Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons but it was not so easy to do so. Here a little background on atomic bomb technology is necessary.

The original method for producing a nuclear explosion is to create uranium with an increased concentration of the radioactive isotope U235. Once this is achieved, if a mass of the enhanced uranium is greater than a certain critical level, a chain reaction occurs which results in an explosion. The components for a critical mass must be kept apart until an explosion is desired. The forming of the uranium metal components and the triggering device that brings them together are essential elements of the technology. But the first step is the concentration of the U235 isotope.

The concentration of U235 is achieved by converting the uranium into a gaseous form and running that gas through a centrifuge. The U235 is slightly less massive than the predominant U238 isotope of uranium. Thus within the centrifuge there will be a gradient of the concentration of the isotopes. Uranium forms a compound with fluorine, UF6, which is a gas so UF6 is a convenient medium for carrying out the concentration in a centrifuge.

The difference in the mass of UF6 formed with U235 as compared with that formed from U238 is very small. This means that the centrifuges have spin at extremely high speeds to achieve any separation in a reasonable time. Because of the high stresses created by the high speeds the centrifuges must be very strong. The high speeds and high strengths are hard to achieve. Thus the technology of high speed centrifuges is a technical bottleneck for the production of a nuclear weapon. Concentration of U235 is carried out for producing fuel for nuclear power plants as well as for nuclear weapons.

In 1975 a Pakistani metallurgist named Abdul Qadeer Khan made an offer to Pakistan to build a uranium enrichment facility in Pakistan. Khan at the time was working in a uranium enrichment facility in the Netherlands which produced fuel for nuclear power plants. Khan could steal the blue prints and other technical information for the high speed centrifuges from his employer and bring them to Pakistan. His offer was accepted. What the government of Pakistan did not realize is that not only was it acquiring in A.Q. Khan the technical expertise it needed but also it was acquiring an unscrupulous self-promoter, virtually a meglomaniac.

With his adept self-promotion A.Q. Khan managed to have Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto put him in charge of the Pakistan nuclear weapons development program. Khan was given a carte blanche for the program with no financial audits. Khan was allowed to handle the security of the program himself. He had only to report to Ali Bhutto. The material and technology other than the centrifuges were, according to Pervez Musharraf, acquired from underground suppliers, mainly in Europe.

When General Zia ul-Haq took control away from Ali Bhutto he continued the arrangement Bhutto had with A.Q. Khan; i.e., virtually complete freedom from oversight by governmental authorities. The research facility was Khan's personal kingdom; it was even named Khan Research Laboratories (KRL). Pervez Musharraf says of the arrangement,

"Our political leaders were intentionally ambiguous in public about our capabilities, for strategic reasons. I did not know the facts [about] at what stage of development were; and, as we would all discover, they didn't either, thanks to the complete trust and freedom of action given to A.Q. Nobody ever imagined how irresponsible and reckless he would be."

In the Line of Fire, pp. 287-288.

On May 11th and 13th of 1998 India exploded five nuclear devices. The consternation and anxiety of the Pakistanis must have been extreme at that time. This anxiety was reduced when two weeks later Pakistan detonated six nuclear devices. A.Q. Khan's role then became generally known and he had promoted the notion that he alone was responsible for Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Musharraf became chief of the army staff in October of 1998. He recognized that the situation with respect to A.Q. Khan was dangerous. Musharraf proposed to the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif the creation of a new secretariat of the government, to be called the Strategic Plans Division, and a National Command Authority to provide effective oversight of Khan and his KRL. The National Command Authority was to consist of the president, prime minister, the key national ministers, the chiefs of the military branches and senior scientists. The Strategic Plans Division was to be under the direction of an army general and would assist the National Command Authority in the implementation of its policy choices.

Nawaz Sharif did not choose to implement Musharraf recommendations. In 1999 while still only chief of the army staff decided to create some rudimentary form of his Strategic Plans Division. He says that it was then that he began seeing evidence of suspicious activities on the part of A.Q. Khan. Musharraf goes on to explain how murky the situation had become.

"Pakistan had contracted a government-to-government deal with North Korea for the purchase of conventional ballistic missiles, including the transfer of technology for hard cash. It did not--repeat, not--involve any deal whatsoever for reverse transfer of nuclear technology, as some uninformed writers have speculated. I received a report suggesting that some North Korean nuclear experts, under the guise of missile engineers, had arrived at KRL and were being given secret briefings on centrifuges, including some visits to the plant. I took this very seriously. The chief of general staff, the director of our Intelligence Service, and I called A.Q. in for questioning. He immediately denied the charge. No further reports were received, but we remained apprehensive. "

In the Line of Fire, pp. 288-289.

After Musharraf took control of the government in October of 1998 he did implement his proposals for the Strategic Plans Division and the National Command Authority. He states,

"Two things happened as a result. First, we soon began to get more information, though sketchy, about A.Q.'s hidden activities over the preceding months and years. Second, we were in a better position to learn about his ongoing activities, some of which were problematic and potentially dangerous.

So far, he had been used to going abroad without permission. I now insisted that we should be informed of his vists and their purpose. Even then, I would learn that he had visited countries other than he had requested. "

In the Line of Fire, p. 289.

Musharraf heard a report that a Pakistan aircraft traveling to North Korea to pick up conventional missiles was to carry a special cargo for A.Q. Khan. A raid was made but no such cargo was found, perhaps because Khan had been tipped off and the cargo had not been loaded. Later there was a request from Khan that a chartered flight be allowed to stop in Zahedan, Iran on its way to and from Pakistan. Musharraf authorized only one stop by the aircraft and then found that the plane's visit to Pakistan was suspiciously cancelled. There were other suspicious activities and Musharraf said he began to realize that Khan was not just part of the problem but the problem itself. He then decided to excise the problem by, in effect, firing Khan. Khan's contract was not renewed when it expired in March 2001. By this time Khan had become a national hero so his firing had to be disguised as part of a retirement of elderly scientists. So another older Pakistani scientist found that his contract was also not renewed. To further placate the hero worship of Khan, Musharraf made Khan a top level adviser to the Pakistan government. Musharraf goes on to say

"When A.Q. departed, our scientific organizations started functioning smoothly, with mutual and integrated cooperation that had never been possible while he was around. He was such a self-centered and abrasive man that he could not be a team-player. He did not want anyone to excel beyond him or steal the limelight on any occasion or on any subject related to our strategic program. He had a huge ego, and knew the art of playing to the gallery and manipulating the media. All this made him a difficult person to deal with.


Still at official-level meetings, some time after A.Q.'s retirement, the United States continued to raise questions about proliferation that had originated in Pakistan at some point in the past--but, like us, they had no concrete evidence. We kept denying the allegations, because we did not have any conclusive evidence; we only had suspicions.

I was concerned that A.Q. might have been involved in illicit activities before March 2001, but I strongly believed we had now ensured that he could not get away with anything more, and that once he was removed, the problem would stop. I was wrong. Apparently, he started working more vigorously through the Dubai branch of his network. "


In the Line of Fire, p. 291.

The evidence of A.Q. Khan's sale of nuclear weapons technology continued to surface and was interpreted internationally as Pakistan government involvement. In negotiation between the United States and North Korea the North Korean alluded to the acquisition of sophisticated uranium enhancement technology that could only have come from Pakistan. This was interpreted as official Pakistan involvement and almost led to the imposition of sanctions against Pakistan by the U.S. government.

Later the U.S. obtained hard evidence of nuclear technology transfer from Pakistan in the form of blue prints of a centrifuge that had been developed at KRL. When the incident appeared in the press it disgraced Pakistan. Later inspectors found radioactive contamination in centrifuges operated by the Iranian government. The Iranians placed the blame for the contaminations on the source of the centrifuges; i.e., Pakistan. In 2003 a ship in the Mediterranean was found to be carrying centrifuge components from Malaysia to Libya. Libya named Pakistan as the source for the centrifuge components whereas in actuality it was a facility in Malaysia which was part of A.Q. Khan's network.

The Pakistan government investigation of Khan's activities in selling nuclear technology had started in 1987 with deals with Iran. In 1994-1995 Khan had 200 centrifuges manufactured of an older design and had them sent to Dubai for marketing. He did it solely for the money and had led a life of luxury based upon the proceeds from his networks promotion of nuclear proliferation.

Any punishment of A.Q. Khan involved some delicate issues. First, from his actual role and his self-promotion he was considered a national hero. Any prosecution of him would result in public protests. To his credit, A.Q. Khan did not sell the most advanced equipment designs available at KRL. To Libya he gave a deal which involved Libyan sources having to supply an essential component the Libyan engineers could not possibly supply thus extracting about $100 million from them without actually enabling them to create nuclear devices. On the other hand, from the Pakistani point of view he may have committed the unpardonable; i.e., provided secret information to the Indians. A public trial of A.Q. Khan would have embarrassed Pakistan even more than the public disclosure had already done.

Musharraf settled for a compromise.

"I wanted to meet A.Q. myself and talk to him. When we met and I confronted him with evidence, he broke down and admitted that he felt extremely guilty. He asked for an official pardon. I told him that his apology should be t the people of Pakistan and he should seek his pardon from them directly. it was decided that the best course of action would be for him to appear on television and apologize personally to the nation for embarrassing and traumatizing it in front of the entire world. I then accepted his request for a pardon from trial but put him under protective custody for further investigation and also for his own sake.

Since then, we have isolated A.Q. and confined him to his house, primarily for his own security, and interrogated him at great length. "

In the Line of Fire, pp. 294-295.

In summary Musharraf says,

"For years, A.Q.'s lavish lifestyle and tales of his wealth, properties, corrupt practices, and financial magnanimity at state expense were generally all too well known in Islamabad's social and government circles. However, these were largely ignored by the governments of the day, in the interest of the sensitive and important work he was engaged in. In hindsight, that neglect was apparently a serious mistake."

In the Line of Fire, p. 296.

Somehow it was never noted that in 1975 A.Q. Khan betrayed the trust of his employer in the Netherlands in stealing its plans and secrets and, if effect, selling them to the Pakistan government. Apparently the leopard does not change its spots.

The civilian government which took power in March of 2008 is considering the status of A.Q. Khan. Khan's attorneys are petitioning for his release from the house arrest that was imposed upon him four years ago.

Nine Unknown Men

Nine Unknown Men are a two millennia-old secret society founded by the Indian Emperor Asoka.