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Nuclear club loses its proliferator…

Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan — the man regarded as the “father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb” has died peacefully in bed at age 85, after being hospitalized with Covid-19 in Pakistan. AQ Khan died after being transferred with lung problems to the city hospital. He had been admitted to the same hospital in August with Covid-19.

The atomic scientist, who spent the last years of his life under heavy guard, died in the capital, Islamabad, where he had recently been hospitalized with Covid-19.

Khan died after being transferred with lung problems to the city’s KRL hospital where he had been admitted in August with Covid-19. After returning home several weeks ago, he was rushed back after his condition deteriorated.

Khan was hailed as a national hero for transforming Pakistan into the world’s first Islamic nuclear weapons power and strengthening its clout against rival and fellow nuclear-armed nation India.

Dr Khan was hailed as a national hero for transforming his country into the world’s first Islamic nuclear power.

But he was also notorious for having smuggled nuclear secrets to states including North Korea and Iran.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said Pakistan had lost a “national icon”.

“He was loved by our nation because of his critical contribution in making us a nuclear weapon state,” the prime minister tweeted.

Known as A.Q. Khan, the scientist was instrumental in setting up Pakistan’s first nuclear enrichment plant at Kahuta near Islamabad. By 1998, the country had conducted its first nuclear tests.

Coming shortly after similar tests by India, Dr Khan’s work helped seal Pakistan’s place as the world’s seventh nuclear power and sparked national jubilation.

But he was arrested in 2004 for illegally sharing nuclear technology with Iran, Libya and North Korea.

 When he was accused of illegally sharing nuclear technology with Iran, Libya and North Korea — he confessed in 2004, after the International Atomic Energy Agency placed Pakistani scientists at the centre of a global atomic black market. Pardoned by Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf, AQ Khan, was instead placed under house arrest for five years.

This is what Dr Khan had to say: “I saved the country for the first time when I made Pakistan a nuclear nation and saved it again when I confessed and took the whole blame on myself.”

The revelations that he had passed on nuclear secrets to other countries shocked Pakistan.

In a televised address, Dr Khan offered his “deepest regrets and unqualified apologies”.

Dr Khan was pardoned by Pakistan’s then-president, Pervez Musharraf, but he was held under house arrest until 2009.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, lived in the shadows, confined to his Islamabad home since a tearful televised confession in which he admitted selling nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. But yesterday the 76-year-old scientist returned to the spotlight with a bold new twist: that he had not meant a word of his earlier admission.

In his first western media interview since his 2004 confession, AQ Khan said the confession had been forced upon him by President Pervez Musharraf. “It was not of my own free will. It was handed into my hand,” he told the Guardian. Moreover, he swore never to cooperate with investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency, despite persistent fears that nuclear technology traded by his accomplices could fall into terrorist hands.

“Why should I talk to them?” he said. “I am under no obligation. We are not a signatory to the NPT — the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I have not violated international laws.” He said details of his clandestine nuclear supply network were “my internal affair and my country’s affair”.

Despite numerous requests from the IAEA and the US government, Pakistan has refused access to Khan, who is still considered a national hero. A spokesman at the UN watchdog’s headquarters in Vienna declined to respond to his comments. 

Until 2008 Khan had been unseen and largely unheard since his February 2004 appearance on state television, in which he said he had hawked the country’s nuclear know-how abroad. He had offered his “deepest regrets and unqualified apologies”. Since then Khan has been confined to his villa below the Margalla Hills in Islamabad, where he lives with his wife, Henny. He was initially subjected to tight restrictions. Telephone calls were monitored, internet access was forbidden and visitors were turned away by soldiers camped at his gate. He was allowed to leave the house in August 2006 only for a cancer operation in Karachi, which was successful. 

But as Musharraf’s powers have ebbed over the past year, so have the ties on Khan been loosened. First he was allowed to have lunch with close friends, then last month he gave his first interview from his house arrest to a local Urdu language newspaper. Now he hopes that the newly elected prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, will set him free.

“As long as you are living there is always hope,” he said, adding that he would wait for pressing economic and political crises to pass. In reality, he may be waiting for Musharraf to be forced out. 

Yesterday the military dismissed speculation, prompted by changes in the army command, that Musharraf was about to quit as president. “A section of press is trying to sensationalise routine functional matters,” said a spokesman. 

Khan emerged from house confinement as Pakistan celebrated the 10th anniversary of the 1998 test that catapulted the volatile nation into the nuclear club. Speaking by telephone, he displayed the mix of defiant nationalism and religious ardour that has endeared him to many Pakistanis. 

Reports that nuclear technology was smuggled abroad were “western rubbish”, he said, and unfavourable accounts of his life were “shit piles”. He brusquely dismissed nicknames such as “the Merchant of Menace” from a Time magazine cover. 

“It doesn’t bother me at all. They don’t like our God, they don’t like our prophet, they don’t like our holy book, the Qur’an. So how could they like me?” he said. 

He dismissed reports that he owned 43 houses in Islamabad, had many bank accounts and owned a $10m hotel in Timbuktu, Mali. “The journalists should have gone and seen – it was an eight-room mud-brick house where the poor people reside,” he said, referring to the latter. Asked if he was rich he answered: “Never was, never will be.” 

International nuclear investigators and the Pakistani government paint a very different picture. In 2005, Musharraf confirmed that Khan had supplied North Korea with centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The IAEA board received further confirmation linking Pakistan with Iran’s controversial nuclear program in 2008.

Khan also said that nuclear technology was freely available in the west to Iran or North Korea. “They were supplying to us, they were supplying to them … to anyone who could pay,” he said. 

But for all his defiant talk, one subject remains out of bounds for Khan. Supporters claim he was made a scapegoat for Pakistani generals involved in nuclear trading. Khan refused to discuss the issue. “I don’t want to talk about it. Those things are to forget about,” he said. 

He denied speculation he had hidden evidence of military collusion with his daughter, Dina, who lives in London. “MI6 has spoken to my daughter, they have been to her house. I did not keep any official papers in my house or anywhere,” he said. 

The fact remains that AQ Khan directed Pakistan’s nuclear enrichment program for 25 years. Born in pre-partition India, he and his family moved to Pakistan after 1947, and apparently his passion for developing a nuclear bomb was driven by hatred of his country of birth. 

Khan is worshipped as a hero at home in Pakistan, but the former CIA director George Tenet described him as “at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden”, and fears of the damage wreaked by his smuggling network were realized when North Korea exploded a nuclear device in October 2006. 

President Musharraf’s in his 2006 memoir, said that he sacked Khan after learning that he was “up to mischief”. 

Khan blames this on the “self-seekers and sycophants” around Musharraf, who had allowed Pakistan to become a “banana republic”.

Yet the leniency of his treatment (4 years of house arrest) angered many in the West, where he had been dubbed “the greatest nuclear proliferator of all time”.

But in Pakistan he remained a symbol of pride for his role in boosting its national security.

“He helped us develop nation-saving nuclear deterrence and a grateful nation will never forget his services,” President Arif Alvi said.

The fact AQ Khan could be described as one of the most dangerous men in the world by Western spies but also be lauded as a hero in his homeland tells you much about the complexity of the man himself, but also about how the world views nuclear weapons’ proliferation.

AQ Khan was responsible, perhaps, more than any other individual for aiding the spread of nuclear weapons technology. He helped his own country’s nuclear programme but then spread some of the know-how to others, including Iran, North Korea and Libya. The extent to which this was motivated by money, ideology or orders from Pakistan’s leadership has always been murky.

Born in Bhopal, India on 1st of April 1936, Khan was just a young boy when his family migrated to Pakistan during the bloody 1947 partition at the end of British colonial rule. He took a science degree at Karachi University in 1960, then went on to study metallurgical engineering in Berlin before completing advanced studies in the Netherlands and Belgium.

His crucial contribution to Pakistan’s nuclear programme was the procurement of a blueprint for uranium centrifuges, which transform uranium into weapons-grade fuel for nuclear fissile material.

He was charged with stealing it from the Netherlands while working for the Anglo-Dutch-German nuclear engineering consortium Urenco, and bringing it back to Pakistan in 1976. On his return to Pakistan, the then prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, put Khan in charge of the government’s nascent uranium enrichment project.

By 1978, his team had enriched uranium and by 1984 they were ready to detonate a nuclear device, Khan later said in a newspaper interview.

Khan maintained that nuclear defense was the best deterrent against war with India. After Islamabad carried out atomic tests in 1998 in response to tests by India — Khan insisted Pakistan “never wanted to make nuclear weapons. It was forced to do so.”

None of the controversies that dogged Khan’s career appeared to dent his popularity at home. Many schools, universities, institutes and charity hospitals across Pakistan are named after him, his portrait decorating their signs, stationery and websites.


Dr Churchill


For Western countries stopping the spread of nuclear weapons has been a top priority, and the CIA and MI6 were instrumental in helping take down Khan’s nuclear proliferation network. 

But within Pakistan he was always a revered figure, seen as having build his country’s defenses against India. Indeed AQ Khan, escaped several assassination attempts by Mossad and others because he was so well protected by Pakistan’s secret service forces.

Ideologically, politically and perhaps philosophically also — AQ Khan seriously questioned, why should Western countries be allowed to have nuclear weapons for their security, while denying the same ability to others.

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Supporters of Pakistan’s Muslim League Nuclear party, hold a picture of nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan as they gather near a replica of Chaghi mountain, where Pakistan’s first nuclear tests were conducted in 1998. Photograph: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood

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