How Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan, Father of the ‘Muslim Bomb,’ Escaped Mossad Assassination

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Yossi Melman

Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, ‘father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb,’ at a public meeting along with members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in IslamabadCredit: FAROOQ NAEEM – AFP
Yossi Melman head
Abdul Qadeer (A.Q.) Khan who has just died at the age of 85 from COVID-19, is considered a national hero in Pakistan, his homeland. There, and worldwide, he has been dubbed the “Father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.” But he could equally be called as the Godfather of Iran’s nuclear program.

Born in India in 1936, Khan moved with his family in the wake of partition to Pakistan in 1952. In 1972, at the age of 36, he was sent to specialize in a Dutch laboratory and workshop, which was part of the European URENCO consortium, building centrifuges to enrich uranium.

Khan stole their documents and plans but then, in 1975, he was exposed by Dutch intelligence and fled to Pakistan. There, he persuaded the reluctant prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, to start a nuclear program to match India’s nuclear weapons.

By pure coincidence, the same year, Arnon Milchen, future Hollywood tycoon and then an Israeli spy, was also involved in a similar theft. Milchen and Israel’s ‘Scientific Liaison Bureau’ intelligence unit bought URENCO’s drawings of centrifuges from a German engineer and built similar centrifuges in Dimona for Israel’s nuclear weapons.

Pakistan conducted its first public nuclear test in 1988, when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, but it is believed to have achieved nuclear capabilities at least several years previously.

Abdul Qadeer Khan (fifth from left) standing with other military and scientific officials outside the iron-steel tunnel inside the Räs Koh Hills in 1998 just before Pakistan carried out its first public nuclear weapons test there
Abdul Qadeer Khan (fifth from left) with other officials outside the iron-steel tunnel inside the Räs Koh Hills in 1998 just before Pakistan carried out its first public nuclear weapons test thereCredit: Wikipedia

After helping his home country build a significant nuclear arsenal, Khan retired and opened an unusual private business. He set up shop in Dubai and from there ran a convoluted and secretive global network of helpers, engineers, contractors, and financiers, offering other states his nuclear knowhow, tradecraft, technology, and equipment. The network rented workshops, factories, offices, and computer centers in several countries including Malaysia, North Korea, and Switzerland, to name a few.

Clothed with the aura of the nuclear genius who facilitated the first “Muslim bomb,” A.Q. Khan traveled extensively during the late 80’s and early 90’s throughout the Middle East, offering his services. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and even Syria rejected his mercenary approach of bombs for bucks. Iran and Libya did accept, but altered the terms and scope of the offer.

Lacking serious scientific infrastructure and expertise, Libya’s then-leader Muammar Qaddafi asked Khan and his team to provide Tripoli with a turn-key project whereby Khan would be responsible for handing over a completed nuclear capacity.

Post-revolutionary Iran, on the other hand, being a proud nation with an already relatively advanced nuclear program developed during the Shah’s reign, and good universities and scientists who had studied in the West, chose its own path.
Iran bought from Khan the drawings and plans of Pakistan’s centrifuges known as P1 and P2. Iranian scientists, led by Dr. Mohsin Fakhrizadeh, who was recently gunned down by a Mossad hit team, built their own centrifuges, renaming them Ir-1 and Ir-2.

These original centrifuges, which Iran has upgraded and improved since then to be faster and more efficient, continuing the series by calling them Ir-3-4-5-6-7, are now spinning in the uranium enrichment facilities of Natanz and Fordow and are the major concern for Israel, the U.S., and the western world in terms of Iran’s nuclear program and intentions.

Israel’s intelligence service, led at the time by Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, took note of Khan’s traveling in the region. But, as Shavit told me a decade and a half ago, Mossad and Aman (military intelligence) did not understand what Khan was up to.

Shavit added that had he and his colleagues correctly interpreted Khan’s intentions, he would have considered sending a Mossad team to kill Khan and thus “change the course of history,” at least in the context of Israel-Iran relations.

What eventually exposed Khan’s network was Qaddafi.

Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, an early client of AQ Khan's freelance nuclear proliferation business, was later the cause of Khan's downfall
Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, an early client of A.Q. Khan’s freelance nuclear proliferation business, was later the cause of Khan’s downfallCredit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the Libyan leader feared that he was next. He rushed to resolve his issues with the U.S. and the UK, including his support for terror groups around the globe and his involvement in the 1988 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie in Scotland.

Qaddafi began to negotiate with the CIA and the UK’s MI6 and revealed to them, complete with full documentation, how Khan’s network was building nuclear sites for him, some disguised as chicken farms. The CIA and MI6, together with the good services of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), eventually dismantled both Libya’s nuclear and chemical programs.

But the CIA and MI6 hid and departmentalized the negotiations with Qaddafi, to the extent that the Mossad and Aman were shocked when they heard the news on the BBC in December 2004.

Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology center in Islamabad
Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology center in IslamabadCredit: AP

As a consequence, after being left in the dark, Israel began to dig deeper into its past files and information tips and eventually discovered that Syria was building a nuclear reactor in the desert, though Khan and Iran had nothing to do with it. The Syrian reactor aiming to produce plutonium was built with the help of North Korea and was destroyed in September 2007 by the Israeli air force.

The revelations of the Libyan-American-British-channel via the IAEA, which served effectively as a laundromat washing the source of the information, enhanced international pressure on Iran’s nuclear aspirations, based on the concurrent exposure of the nuclear documentation Khan had sold to Tehran. In 2006 the UN Security Council, including Russia and China imposed severe sanctions against Iran.

Those sanctions eventually forced Iran to cave in, and Iran crawled to the negotiating table and in 2015 signed the JCPOA nuclear deal with the six major powers. The deal formulated an Iranian consent to slow and even dismantle elements of its nuclear program in exchange for a gradual lifting of sanctions.

Unfortunately, in 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump, encouraged by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, withdrew from the deal. Iran is now closer to be a nuclear threshold nation than it was in 2018, closing in on the target whose foundations were laid by Khan.

Tribute to AQ Khan on Pakistani social media
Tribute to AQ Khan on Pakistani social media; the backdrop is the scene of Pakistan’s first public nuclear test in 1998Credit: Twitter

Khan didn’t only slip through the Mossad’s fingers: the CIA also had a chance to stop Khan’s nuclear role in Pakistan and his subsequent freelance nuclear proliferation business. Years after Khan fled the Netherlands in 1975, Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers revealed that the CIA knew already then about Khan and his involvement in plundering nuclear technology, but the U.S. did very little to stop Pakistan getting nuclear weapons.

But the CIA continued to follow Khan and managed to penetrate his Dubai private venture. It turned out that one of Khan’s Swiss interlocutors was working for the CIA. The network was busted; some of its members were arrested.

Three Swiss engineering specialists, who sold Khan centrifuge parts from production sites in Switzerland, Dubai and Malaysia, were put under investigation. When they were finally sentenced in Switzerland in 2012, they avoided jail time; it was widely reported that the CIA had urged plea bargains in view of the engineers’ collaboration with the intelligence service.

When Khan’s role in Libya was blown open in 2004, the Pakistani authorities, under intense international pressure, ‘debriefed him,’ avoiding a formal indictment, on charges of illegally selling nuclear secrets. The Pakistani authorities refused to allow the IAEA to question Khan; instead, they pledged to interrogate him in its place. This led to a notably incomplete accounting of Khan’s dealings.

Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf Abdul Qadeer Khan, in Islamabad, February 4, 2004. Shortly after, Khan appeared on state TV to confess and apologize for leaking nuclear secrets to other countries, while absolving the government of any responsibility
Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf Abdul Qadeer Khan, in Islamabad, February 4, 2004Credit: REUTERS

After Khan confessed to his nukes-and secrets-for-sale network on national television, and strenuously, and conveniently, denied any Pakistani state involvement or knowledge of his activities, he was pardoned by then-president Pervez Musharraf who put him under house arrest.

But Khan remained a national hero in the public eye as well as in the estimation of the Pakistani establishment, dominated then as now by the military. No wonder Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (no relation) tweeted his condolences: “For the people of Pakistan, he was a national icon.”

A.Q. Khan will go down in history as the scientist who took Pakistan nuclear, the shady businessman who became the biggest ever private nuclear proliferator, and as that rare bird – a survivor in the lethal world of nuclear geopolitics and counter-intelligence.

He is among the few nuclear scientists who helped Israel’s enemies acquire game-changing strategic military capacities who was not assassinated by the Mossad, and died in his bed of natural causes.

Soldiers carry the flag-drapped coffin of the late Pakistan's nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan during his funeral outside the Faisal Mosque following his death in Islamabad this week
Soldiers carry the flag-drapped coffin of the late Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan during his funeral outside the Faisal Mosque following his death in Islamabad this weekCredit: AAMIR QURESHI – AFP


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