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The Secret Treachery of A.Q. Khan
  • December 14, 2011 : 20:12
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The unraveling of Khan’s deceptions started in Iran. In February 2003 the Department of Safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency launched an investigation of Tehran’s nuclear activities. (Safeguards inspectors are charged with verifying that countries don’t secretly acquire nuclear materials or divert them from peaceful uses.) The Iranians tried to reveal as little as possible. But in August the Safeguards team confronted Iranian officials with a significant discovery: Some of Iran’s centrifuges and associated equipment were coated in microscopic traces of uranium. Radiochemical analysis showed that all the traces were enriched, some to a high level.

The Iranians were cornered. Either they could assume responsibility for unacknowledged enrichment activities or they could try to pin it on the source of their imported machines. In October the Iranians finally explained that the contaminated equipment had come from Pakistan. As evidence, they revealed original centrifuge drawings supplied years earlier by Khan.

The admission from Iran shouldn’t have come as a surprise in Islamabad. Shortly after Musharraf gained control of the country, Pakistani investigators had concluded that  Khan  was corrupt. A dossier prepared by the National Accountability Bureau found that Khan owned several expensive houses and had stashed $8 million in bank accounts in Pakistan, Dubai and Switzerland. He was suspected of demanding kickbacks from suppliers, in addition to making unnecessarily large purchases and then skimming off a share of the payments. There were inklings that Khan was doing business with other countries as well. The problem could become embarrassing for Pakistan, even dangerous, but Khan was a popular figure. Musharraf chose not to confront him. Instead, he declined to renew Khan’s contract as head of KRL when it expired in March 2001. On paper he was elevated to a more senior role as a presidential advisor. As far as Musharraf was concerned, the problem was solved.

The Iranian revelations alone didn’t expose all Khan’s activities. On December19 another customer emerged. That evening, President George W. Bush announced that Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya had decided to “disclose and dismantle all weapons of mass destruction programs in his country.” IAEA inspectors were soon on the ground in Tripoli, where they learned that Libya, too, had received centrifuge equipment from Khan and his suppliers. Two customers had been revealed within just two months, and there could easily be more. The IAEA leadership decided to investigate Khan’s entire operation.

Before long, inspectors discovered that Khan’s operations had undergone a major expansion in the late 1990s, continuing even after he lost control of KRL. Previously, Khan had shipped small numbers of centrifuges to his customers via front companies in freewheeling Dubai. (The contaminated gear found in Iran had traveled this path.) He sourced additional equipment from Europe, Japan, Turkey and perhaps South Africa.  But in 1997 Khan agreed to provide Libya with a complete enrichment facility, from the ground up. It would feature 10,000 brand-new centrifuges based on Pakistan’s second-generation P-2 model. To make this possible, Khan needed greater room to maneuver. “He had to go overseas,” says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and the author of Peddling Peril, an in-depth examination of the Khan network. “He just couldn’t make enough machines in Pakistan. Making 10,000 P-2s at KRL’s workshops for the Libyans would have been noticed.”

Khan entrusted a longtime associate in Dubai with setting up a workshop to make the necessary centrifuge components. Buhary Seyed Abu Tahir, better known as Junior, was a Sri Lankan national who had been involved with Khan since the 1980s. At first he worked for his uncle S. Mohammad Farooq, ordering, receiving and reshipping centrifuge-related equipment for KRL and for Khan’s foreign customers. But Farooq decided to accept a buyout from Junior and retire. By the late 1990s Junior had become one of Khan’s key overseas operatives.

Khan turned to him to manage the fulfillment of the Libyan order. An effort to produce components in Dubai stalled for lack of skilled labor. After considering Turkey as a possibility, Junior selected a facility in Shah Alam, Malaysia. Conveniently, it belonged to a company partly owned by his Malaysian wife. Better yet, the majority investor was the son of Malaysia’s prime minister, which would help to avoid scrutiny. After making the centrifuge parts in Malaysia, Junior’s people would ship them to Dubai. From there, the shipments would proceed to Libya.

Ultimately, the IAEA was able to track down almost all of the centrifuge components and materials that originated with Junior’s operation. But some records turned up that did not correspond to anything recovered in Libya, Dubai, Malaysia or locations in between—indicating other shipments. “The shipments were never found,” says Olli Heinonen, who led the IAEA’s investigation of the Khan network. “Were they destroyed? Dumped? Are they being kept somewhere? We don’t know.”

News reports about the missing shipments started appearing while the investigation was still under way. Reporters seized on the idea of a fourth customer. Other evidence seemed to confirm those suspicions. “Members of the Khan network would refer to ‘the fourth customer,’ ” says Heinonen. “It was their code language. We still don’t know who they meant.” The obvious candidates were in the Middle East, long considered a breeding ground for secret nuclear pro- grams. Based on Khan’s travels, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were all possibilities. Turkey sometimes made the list as well.  But no solid evidence of any trans- actions came to light. One of the IAEA’s strongest leads was in Hasakah, a town in northeastern Syria. Satellite photos showed a large building there that resembled the blueprints for Libya’s planned centrifuge- enrichment facility; however, it turned out to be a cotton-spinning factory. The IAEA investigation left the mystery of the fourth customer unsolved.

Yet there is an overlooked possibility, previously ignored because it seemed too absurd to consider, but it might be the most compelling answer to the fourth-customer mystery. Only three countries are known to operate centrifuge technology similar to Pakistan’s. Two of them, Iran and North Korea, are already accounted for among Khan’s customers. The third and last country on the list: India, Pakistan’s foe.


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read more: News, magazine, issue january 2012


  • Anonymous
    If anything, it should be clear to people documenting the AQ Khan saga that you can never believe anything that the prinicipal actors claim. In this light, most of the "facts" in this story may just turn out to be duds.