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Pakistan’s nuclear father, master spy

Abdul Qadeer KhanAbdul is a Pakistan nationalists who helped his nation develop its nuclear arsenal. NBC’s Robert Windrem reports.
/ Source: NBC News

Abdul Qadeer Khan and Avul Pakir Jainulabuddin Abdul Kallam have a lot in common.  It's too bad they hate each other.

The fathers of the Pakistani and Indian atomic bomb respectively, Khan and Abdul Kalam are both now old men, both Muslims, both born in what is now India and both claim to be the products of their nation's scientific cultures... although each spent productive time overseas.  And each had a major say not only in the development of nuclear programs but long-range missile development as well.

There are differences between these national heroes of the nuclear age.  Khan is a man of bombast--figuratively as well as literally, while Abdul Kalam is an ascete, known for his poetry.

Of the two, Khan is the better known, the more colorful, the more Strangelovian.  Seen in the west as a scientific rogue, a spy even, he is outspoken, critical of western values and a man on a mission, and that mission is simply infusing Pakistan with superpower pride.

While always pushing that agenda, Khan claims he is not as he seems, telling a press conference in 2002 that he's "one of the most gentle people in Pakistan... I feed birds and ants."   And while rumors circulate that he owns the "Hotshots" nightclub in Islamabad, Khan demurs, saying he makes only $400 a month.

His words have been recorded and reported on for 20 years and he has never wavered.  His 2002 comments were typical: on one hand he brandished the sword: "The armed forces are not under pressure any more; they believe they are at equal footing with the enemy."  Then, in almost the same breath, he equated the success of Pakistan's billion-dollar bomb with its more pressing concerns: "Now we can concentrate on our education, and economic and social problems."

Unapologetic patriot
Khan is a metallurgist by training, but it had taken a great deal more than a doctorate in metallurgy to provide Pakistan with the atomic bomb.  It had taken a sound knowledge of atomic physics, engineering, and management.  It had taken a long stint in the Netherlands where he had filched the secret formula for processing uranium until it was bomb-grade from right under the noses of his trusting Dutch hosts.  It had taken a degree of patriotism that only one adjective could adequately describe: fanatical.  It had taken monumental self-absorption and egotism.  And it had taken money--real money.

If he resembled anyone in the US atomic bomb program, it was Edward Teller, the unapologetic patriot instead of Robert Oppenheimer, the quixotic scientist.

Born in Bhopal, India, Khan eventually found his way to Pakistan like millions of other Muslims.  Precocious, he was able to breeze through science courses first in Pakistan, then in Europe, ultimately earning a doctorate from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium in 1972.

That year, he went to work for the Physical Dynamics Research Laboratory, or FDO, in Amsterdam.   FDO was a subsidiary of a Dutch firm, Verenigde Mchine-Fabrieken, which in turn worked closely with one of Western Europe's most important nuclear facilities: URENCO.  Because they were unwilling to rely on the United States nuclear fuel for their power reactors, Great Britain, German and the Netherlands had created URENCO in 1970 to guarantee their own supply of enriched uranium, the same fuel used in the Hiroshima bomb.

An enrichment plant was located in Almelo, Holland, and used highly classified ultracentrifuge technology to separate scarce highly fissionable U-235 from abundant U-238 by spinning the two isotopes at up to 100,000 revolutions a minute.  FDO was URENCO subcontractor and consultant.  Its personnel, including Khan, were technically subject to tight security controls.

Khan, a thoroughly likeable fellow who made friends wherever he went, was enthusiastically recommended to URENCO for a clearance by FDO, which noted that he had lived in the West for eleven years and was married to a Dutch national.  The Dutch Security Service, BVD, then ran a background check on Khan.  The investigation neglected to find out that Mrs. Khan was not Dutch at all, but rather a Dutch-speaking South African who carried a British passport.  Khan quickly fit in, plying secretaries with candy and cookies, gamely went out for volleyball with his neighbors and took his wife and two daughters to the seaside or into the Ardennes on weekends.

Within a week or so of being hired, Khan was sent over to Almelo.  It was the first of many trips he would make to the uranium factory.   Khan was also responsible for translating technical documents, which he often took home with FDO's blessing.  As the months passed, A. Q. Khan became thoroughly familiar not only with all the design plans at Almelo but with those belonging to the companies that supplied parts for the ultracentrifuges.

Secrets and spies
Khan's most important foray to Almelo was made in the autumn of 1974, when he spent 16 days in the plant's most secret area.  His assignment was to translate a highly classified report on a breakthrough in centrifuge technology from German to Dutch.  During the 16 days, the delightful young Pakistani popped up everywhere.  Asked by one colleague why he was writing in a foreign script, Khan replied that it was only a letter back to his family back home.  Another noticed that he continually roamed around the factory, notebook in hand, but thought nothing of it.

No one seems to know when A Q. Khan began committing espionage for Pakistan.  He certainly would have been an ideal choice as a spy.  He came from a family of patriots.  His father was a teacher; grandfather and great-grandfather were military officers.  Most important, his joviality masked a bitter past.  He had been born in Bhopal in 1935, during the British raj.  But his family had been forced to flee India to Pakistan during the partition of British India.  He therefore often remarked, "Everybody kicks those who do not have a country of their own." And he added, "we have to safeguard this country of the pure more than out own lives."

A subsequent investigation by the Dutch turned up no evidence that he was sent to the Netherlands as a spy.  Nor is it clear whether he approached his government or the other way around.  Whatever the case, it seems that he began pulling secrets out of URENCO and transmitting them to Islamabad only after India exploded its peaceful bomb in May 1974, but the stint inside Almelo was not the finale to his career in espionage.

In January 1976, Khan and family suddenly left Holland and turned up in Pakistan.  His wife wrote to her former neighbors that they were on vacation and that her husband had fallen ill.  Soon afterward, Khan himself sent a letter of resignation to FDO, effective that March.  It was all nice, neat, and pleasant. Smiling A. Q. Khan apparently managed to steal secrets that were the most closely guarded industrial gems in western Europe.  Of equal importance to the technical materials was a list of suppliers to URENCO, the companies across Europe that made the components he needed to obtain for Pakistan.

Khan soon rose to head the nascent Pakistani program, and from its new headquarters at Kahuta, south of Islamabad, directed a new effort, obtaining critical technology and equipment to complement what he had learned in the Netherlands.

In more than 20 letters written to the network of Pakistani agents who smuggled centrifuge parts out of Canad during the late 1970's, Khan laid out the successes of his teams.   He described the travels of key operatives, the role of such companies as Siemens, Union Carbide and others in the building of Kahuta, and even the technical papers he was ordering from the US Department of Commerce with no more trouble than he would have had requesting data on wheat production techniques.

The following months and years saw more of the same.  Responding to a leaked CIA charge that Pakistan would be able to explode an atomic bomb within a few years, Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq assured the world that his country had absolutely no intention of acquiring an atomic arsenal.  Khan, however, was not so discreet.  In November 1990, he said simply that Pakistan could by then enrich uranium and produce an atomic bomb "if necessary".

From scientist to national hero
Khan by then had become a national hero: a scientist-manager on a par with Iraqi's Jafar Jafar and Israel's Yuval Neeman, both western-educated but still the ultimate patriots.

He was rewarded for that patriotism by being made the head of a research institute that was named after him: the A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories at Kahuta.  Although he was portrayed by the western press as a superspy after his feat was made public, he himself not only avoided reference to it but denied that Pakistan had received any help, clandestine or otherwise, from other nations.  "All the research work [at Kahuta] was the result of our innovation and struggle," he told a group of Pakistani librarians in 1990.  "We did not receive any technical know-how from abroad, but we can't reject the use of books, magazines and research papers in this connection."

On one occasion--his receiving a gold medal from the Pakistani Institute of National Affairs--Khan boasted that Kahuta had put Pakistan on "the world nuclear map".  And he added that that his long stay in Europe and "intimate knowledge of various countries and their manufacturing firms was an asset."  That was putting it mildly.

Beneath Khan's apparently serene, almost self=effacing demeanor, there beat the heart of a dedicated Muslim scientist.  Indeed, he often seemed conflicted by the requirements of strict secrecy about his country's nuclear weapons program, on one hand, and an irresistible urge to brag about it -- to flout it in the face of the West--on the other.

"Western countries had never imagined that a poor and backward country like Pakistan would finish their monopoly [on uranium monopoly] in such a short time," he told a Rawalpindi journalist in February 1984.  "As soon as they realized that Pakistan had dashed their dreams, they pounced on Pakistan like hungry jackals and began attacking us with all kinds of accusations and falsehoods.  You see yourself... how could they tolerate a Muslim country becoming their equal in this field."

Then, in an outburst of anger that today must worry Israel even more than when it was said 20 years ago, Khan directed his bitterness not just as the west: "All western countries, including Israel, are not only the enemies of Pakistan but in fact of Islam.  Had any other Muslim country instead of Pakistan made this progress, they would have conducted the same poisonous propaganda about it.  The examples of Iraq and Libya are before you.

Today, Khan is showered with rose petals, his place in history secured.  A soccer team, the "Dr Abdel Qadeer Khan Eleven" is named for him, Pakistan is about to issue stamps commemorating the nuclear tests, each featuring his official portrait.

Not only is he in charge of the atomic bomb program, but also, the Ghauri missile that will carry the bombs.  There are nagging questions about his bomb: the CIA believes that instead of six successful tests in 1998, the Pakistanis had two maybe three.  The rest, they believe, were duds.   But in the articles of faith that make up any nation's nuclear theology, it doesn't matter much.  It is not a bad thing, Khan knows, if India can never be sure any missile aimed at its troops or city will detonate... and he will never tell them.

Robert Windrem is an investigative reporter at NBC