W HEN INDIA set off a nuclear bomb in the desert of Rajasthan in 1974, describing it implausibly as a "peaceful nuclear explosion", a young Pakistani metallurgist in the Netherlands was ready to volunteer his services to his country. A few months later Abdul Qadeer (A.Q.) Khan was explaining to the prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, how uranium could be spun in centrifuges so it could be used in bombs. Within a decade, Pakistan had the ability to build and test a nuclear device; in 1998, it did so following a series of Indian tests.
In later years, he and his acolytes would cast this moment as if it were Albert Einstein writing to Franklin D. Roosevelt, revealing the secrets of the atom. A country which could not make sewing needles, good bicycles or even durable metalled roads was embarking on one of the latest and most difficult technologies, he recalled. After all, as the prime minister would confide in his prison diary while awaiting execution, if Christians, Jews and Hindus had the bomb, why should the Islamic civilisation not possess full nuclear capability too?
It hadn't started with bombs, or even with science. He was born in 1936 in Bhopal in what was then British India. Nearly half a century later the city would become known for an industrial gas leak at a Union Carbide plant that was said to have killed more than 16,000 people. But then it was a peaceful backwater where Muslim and Hindu had lived side by side for centuries. His father had been a teacher, a polite peace-loving man with seven children who even stopped his sons from shooting songbirds such was his respect, he said, for all things living. A year before his son was born, Khan's father retired to devote himself to the All-Indian Muslim League, an organisation that would play a crucial part in the movement for the creation of Pakistan as a separate Muslim country.
Although his parents lied about his birth date to get him into school early, he proved a diligent rather than brilliant student. At partition the family remained in Bhopal, but as the city's Muslims became increasingly harassed, they began to leave. Within a short time, several of his siblings had gone to Pakistan. At 16, when he finished high school, he followed them, taking with him little more than his beloved Mughal histories and a gold pen, a graduation gift from an older brother. Years later, speaking to his biographer, he would recall the intimidation and theft to which he and his fellow Muslims were subjected by the Indian police during the journey. Shortly before reaching the border, they stole his pen.
He had been under surveillance for years when he left the Netherlands in 1975 with stolen blueprints for centrifuges and details of the companies that supplied their components. In the years that followed, having provided Pakistan with nuclear know-how, he set up a dense corporate network to sell this information first to Iran and later to North Korea—which provided missile technology in return—and Libya. He sold a Chinese bomb design to Libya for tens of millions of dollars and offered it to Iraq, too. Where this money went remains unclear, though an investigation by Pakistan's National Accountability Bureau found that he owned several houses and had $8m in bank accounts in Pakistan, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates. He bought a hotel in west Africa and named it after his wife.
This black market was the biggest and most advanced network of nuclear proliferation ever built. Its full extent remains unclear to this day. The former metallurgist had travelled to at least 18 countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The CIA , which reportedly had him on a kill list, believed that Osama bin Laden himself had sent envoys to try and arrange a meeting, although these approaches were thought to have been rebuffed.
In the end it was his dealings with Libya's dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, that were his undoing. The CIA , increasingly worried about the prospect of jihadists getting a nuke, had penetrated a Malaysian factory in his network. When it sent centrifuge parts to Libya in late 2003, spies tracked the shipment as it sailed through the Suez canal and had it diverted to Italy, where the incriminating equipment was impounded. When American investigators got hold of the plans for a nuclear bomb that he had sold to the Libyans, they were in a plastic bag advertising "Good Looks Fabrics and Tailors", Mr Khan's tailor in Islamabad. Libya came clean and its nascent nuclear programme was dismantled. In February 2004 he appeared on Pakistani television and admitted to "unauthorised proliferation activities". It was, he said, an "error of judgment".
Pakistani officials professed themselves shocked that their prize scientist—the only double recipient of the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, the country's highest civilian award—had been up to such mischief. Mr Khan, who spent years under de facto house arrest, said he took "full responsibility". Yet the idea that he had run an international nuclear cartel for over a decade and meanwhile acquired a lavish lifestyle, all without the country's powerful armed forces noticing, strained credulity. When he died, Imran Khan, the prime minister, declared him a "national icon". He was buried with full state honours.
Some considered him a hero
In an interview in 2008, Mr Khan, disgraced internationally but whose name graced schools and hospitals at home, came close to recanting his admission of sole responsibility and hinted that he had covered for others. "I saved the country for the first time when I made Pakistan a nuclear nation," he boasted, "and saved it again when I confessed and took the whole blame on myself."
As the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz , pointed out, A.Q. Khan will be remembered as the scientist who took Pakistan nuclear, as a shady businessman who spread nuclear technology across the world—and survived. He is among the few scientists who helped Israel's enemies, countries such as Iran and Libya, acquire vital nuclear technology and was not assassinated by Mossad. He died in his bed of covid-19. ■
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “Bombmaker”
- World applauds nuclear agreement between P5+1 and Iran
- Viet Nam calls for end to world's nuclear threat
- N. Korea steps up tunnelling at nuclear test site: monitor
- Israeli PM: Iran the world's biggest threat
- Russia, US hailed for nuclear treaty
- Making active contributions to ensuring nuclear safety and security
- US, Iran clash at UN nuclear meet
- US, Russia agree on nuclear detection plan
- Mideast's nuclear quest goes far beyond bombs
- World's security depends on nuclear summit: Obama
- The world does not need nuclear bombs, just nuclear power
- New US policy limits role of nuclear arsenal
- Iran president views nuclear deal as start of new relationship with world
- Nuclear ambitions, terrorism focus at G8 meet
- Obama seeks nuclear-free world on Europe charm tour
- India says closing in on Westinghouse deal to build 6 nuclear reactors
- Japan mourns Nagasaki victims amid nuclear "crisis"
- UN nuclear inspectors in "acute dilemma" if Iran faces attack
- U.S. nuclear arms modernization plan misguided: scientists' group
- Exhibition on dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation taking place in Phuket
Obituary: A.Q. Khan was the world’s biggest nuclear proliferator have 1226 words, post on www.economist.com at October 16, 2021. This is cached page on Europe Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.