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The Secret Treachery of A.Q. Khan
  • December 14, 2011 : 20:12
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The nations of India and Pakistan were born in 1947 in a terrible spasm of blood and fear. After Britain’s withdrawal from its South Asian empire, many who found themselves on the wrong side of the new borders fled their homes and headed for the other—Hindus and Sikhs to India, Muslims to Pakistan. Untold numbers were killed. The animosity between India and Pakistan parallels that of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with an equally long record of territorial disputes, war, terrorism and faltering diplomacy. The difference is one of scale. As a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, hundreds of thousands of Arabs left Israel for Arab countries, and hundreds of thousands of Jews  left Arab countries for Israel. By contrast, in the four years after British India split into two countries, 14.5  million refugees crossed sides. In all likelihood it is the largest episode of ethnic cleansing since the end of World War II.

At the time of partition, A.Q. Khan was growing up in the central Indian city of Bhopal. After graduating from high school in 1952, he chose to follow three of his older brothers to Karachi, Pakistan. He would later recall the journey as a series of petty humiliations. In the account he gave to his biographer in the late 1980s, Khan and other Muslims leaving India on the same train were subject to intimidation and thievery. Policemen seized women’s jewelry, he claimed, and conductors confiscated tickets until bribes were given. Anyone who protested was beaten. “The experience I had with the Indian police and railway authorities fully explained why Quaid-e-Azam fought so relentlessly for Pakistan,” Khan said, referring to Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was called the Great Leader.

Not long after finishing college in Karachi, Khan moved to Europe to complete his education. He married a local girl, started a family and completed a doctorate in engineering, specializing in metallurgy. Fate took a turn when he landed a position at FDO, a Dutch company that developed gas-centrifuge technology for URENCO, a European consortium that supplies fuel for nuclear power reactors. Later, Khan would cite two events that motivated his return to Pakistan. The first was the 1971 war. It ended with India’s rapid conquest of East Pakistan, which afterward became Bangladesh.  “I was in Belgium in 1971 when the Pakistan army surrendered in then East Pakistan and faced utmost humiliation,” Khan recounted during a 2009 television interview. “Hindus and Sikhs were beating them with shoes, and their heads were being shaved in concentration camps. I saw those scenes with horror.”

The second event was India’s nuclear test in 1974. By this time Khan was at FDO, working with centrifuges. Determined to even the score, he wrote to Pakistan’s prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, explaining uranium-enrichment technology and offering his services to his country. Impressed with Khan’s enthusiasm, Bhutto sent word that they should meet. Late that year Khan brought his wife and two young daughters on a visit to Pakistan, where he met with Bhutto and learned about the nascent Pakistani nuclear program. A year later, without informing anyone at FDO in advance, he permanently relocated his family to Pakistan. One account claims he arrived with three suitcases full of papers. A co-worker at FDO also alleged that Khan had already been slipping centrifuge design information to Pakistani diplomats in the Netherlands.

In 1976 Khan persuaded Bhutto to grant him exclusive control over Pakistan’s fledgling uranium-enrichment program. Relying mostly on his European connections, he set out to build a complete enrichment facility through a global network of suppliers and front companies. By early 1983 KRL was producing enough highly enriched uranium to make nuclear weapons, according to Khan. His major achievement in life was now behind him. Almost immediately afterward, Khan started marketing his nuclear expertise abroad.

Khan’s first known overture to another country took place in a meeting with Libyan officials in January 1984. The Libyans later described how Khan had explained the technologies involved in developing nuclear weapons and offered to sell them. The Libyans declined, concluding the technology was too challenging. But in 1989 they went back to Khan, striking a deal in 1991. Stringent UN sanctions imposed in 1992, however, made it too hard for Libya to receive the delivery. Not until the big 1997 contract—the event that drove Khan to set up component production under Junior Tahir’s leadership in Malaysia—did the Libyan business get moving again.

Khan’s next known prospect was Iran. The initial contact appears to have been made in 1985 through employees of L eybold-Heraeus, a German company whose offerings included specialized “feed- and-withdrawal” systems that carry uranium hexafluoride gas into and out of interconnected centrifuges. Khan was already one of the firm’s best customers. After protracted negotiations, the Iranians decided to buy design documents and a few sample centrifuges from Khan, enough to kick-start their own program. The payout was a few million dollars, which Khan split with his partners, including Gotthard Lerch, a German engineer who had worked at Leybold. A second, more extensive deal with the Iranians was concluded in 1993 or 1994. This time, Khan and his people were expected to provide consultations on technical issues. Meetings continued until at least 1999.

Less is known about Khan’s dealings with North Korea, whose first attempts to study centrifuges began around 1987. Khan is said to have told a senior Pakistani general that he had  supplied the North Koreans in the 1980s, but they  couldn’t use what they had bought. A more extensive transaction took shape in the mid-1990s, when KRL received ballistic missiles from the North Koreans. As partial payment, Khan later admitted, he sent centrifuges and other equipment to the North Koreans. In late 2010, North Korea showed American visitors what appeared to be an operational centrifuge facility. The machines resembled Pakistan’s P-2 model.

Khan’s dealings did have some false starts. In the late 1980s Lerch’s associates made approaches to the South African nuclear program.  But South Africa had already launched its own centrifuge efforts. More- over, the program was canceled entirely in 1991. Khan himself reportedly made several visits in the 1990s to Syria, where he seems to have pitched the Syrians on a weapons program. Denying that any meetings occurred, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad claims to have rejected a written offer from Khan in early 2001.

Khan’s best-documented failure involved Iraq. Shortly after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, a Pakistani man passed a document to a senior Iraqi security official promising that Khan could supply an “A.B.,” implying “atomic bomb,” in about three years, for a cost of $150 million. The Iraqis’ deliberations were interrupted by the start of the first Persian Gulf war. The IAEA uncovered records of the discussions in Iraq in 1995.  When the story leaked to the press in 1998, the Pakistani government flatly denied it.


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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.