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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.