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The Secret Treachery of A.Q. Khan
  • December 14, 2011 : 20:12
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What motivated Khan to offer centrifuge technology to so many different countries? The public Khan, Pakistan’s hero, can hardly be squared with the man who privately enriched himself at his nation’s expense. But something deeper does connect them: Khan’s insatiable craving for respect and admiration. At the same time he began offer- ing KRL’s technology to new customers, Khan also embarked on a restless campaign of self-glorification. He memorialized himself in scores of institutions and edifices across Pakistan, funded from his mysteriously deep pockets. Khan’s website exhaustively recites 63 gold medals bestowed on him from 1984 to 2003. It enumerates the many public buildings and academic awards bearing his name throughout Pakistan, his service on the boards of educational and research institutions and his sponsorship of community health and welfare organizations. Also mentioned: his funding of the restoration of the tomb of Sultan Shahabuddin Muham- mad Ghauri, the Muslim conqueror of what is now Pakistan and northern India.

This obsession tends to explain Khan’s need for large sums of money. Khan appears to have admitted as much to his interrogators. A summary of the Pakistani investigation, provided by the ISI to foreign governments, describes what happened to the cash from Khan’s initial deal with the Iranians: “Some [of the money] was donated for various social, educational and welfare projects undertaken by Dr. A.Q. Khan in Pakistan.” The same applied to the arrangement with Libya.

Khan’s yearning for respect was instilled early in life. The youngest of seven children, he idolized his father, headmaster of a Bhopal high school who had once held a senior role in the national education sys- tem. “Whenever I went to the bazaar with my father, I would see people from all walks of life (shopkeepers, teachers, doctors, etc.), standing up as a mark of respect to my father,” Khan recounted to his biographer. “They used to request him to stay with them for a few minutes and have a cup of tea.  I was about seven years of age at that time and it left a permanent, deep impression on my mind.”

Measured against this high standard, Khan found it difficult to be slighted. He explained his decision to leave India as motivated by distaste for being a second-class citizen. “There was no future for Muslims in Bhopal. My brothers advised me to come to Karachi. My father, after assessing the conditions in Bhopal, very reluctantly allowed me to go.” But Pakistan didn’t instantly embrace its newfound son either. In 1967, after receiving a master’s degree at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Khan brought his wife home to Pakistan, where he applied for a position at a new steel mill. He received no job offer and returned to Europe. But he didn’t forget the episode. When he wrote to Bhutto in 1974, offering his help in creating a nuclear weapon, he couldn’t resist complaining about the rejection of seven years earlier.

He struggled, too, with keeping his accomplishments to himself. In particular, he chafed at the idea of not being able to tell the world about Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, which Islamabad stayed quiet about to better preserve relations with the United States. The most notorious episode occurred in 1987. Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar baited Khan into speaking far too candidly about the then secret Pakistani nuclear weapons program by pretending a prominent Indian scientist had told him not to bother making the trip:  “Don’t waste your time.  They don’t have anything. No bomb, no men, no rationale.” Khan became out- raged: “Tell them we have it. Tell them.  Tell them.… We have it and we have enriched uranium. Weaponized the thing. Put it all together.… Mr. Nayar, if you ever drive us to the wall, we will use the bomb.”

More trouble came in 1989 with the release of his biography, the provocatively titled  Dr. A.Q. Khan and the Islamic Bomb. The book went to lengths to enlighten readers about Khan’s historic role and personal greatness, as well as the perfidy of his opponents inside and outside Pakistan. But it was also prematurely frank about the military purposes of Pakistan’s nuclear program. All copies were removed from bookstores, and the author was briefly thrown in prison.

While his full stature as “father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb” couldn’t be revealed, Khan devised another way to glorify him- self.  Here, he drew on his original inspiration: the admiration bestowed on his father. Khan set out to make himself into the visionary sponsor of higher education in Pakistan.  One of his more ambitious endeavors was the founding of a private university, the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology—a costly endeavor that coincided with Khan’s nuclear sales abroad. In 1993 Khan told journalist Simon Henderson, “I have always been keen to go into education. My father was a teacher.” But such   thoughts couldn’t compete with his deeper passion. As Khan explained, “There is a tremendous amount of love [for me in Pakistan], and it is obvious everywhere.…  I believe the most important thing is what my country, my people, think of me. I don’t care what other people think of me. Once I’m gone, my name and my prestige and the love and affection that I have in this country will remain forever.”

Not all of Khan’s fellow countrymen, how- ever, viewed his compulsive philanthropy as entirely selfless. “I often thought that this was not generosity in the real sense,” Haroon Ahmed,  Khan’s estranged former psychia- trist, told  investigative journalists Adrian Levy and  Catherine Scott-Clark for  their book Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons. “He really did this  so that  if he was driving down the Peshawar Road, let us say, the chances are he would pass a building bearing his name— and it would remind him that he was indeed the great Abdul Qadeer Khan.”


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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.