The mysterious world of Pakistan's Dr Strangelove

Jan McGirk
Saturday 07 February 2004 01:00

"The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost ... if you keep it a secret," ranted Dr Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick's dark, satirical film four decades ago. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the newly disgraced father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, seems to have taken this advice to heart, blithely distributing nuclear secrets and components over a period of many years to Iran, Libya and North Korea. But the full extent of his largesse and the full explanation for it remain matters of urgent doubt.

This week's televised humbling of Dr Khan transfixed Pakistani viewers in much the same way as the unveiling of the Hutton report gripped Britain. Like Hutton, it has left many people wondering precisely how much of the truth remains untold. Following weeks of rumours and speculation, Dr Khan admitted on Wednesday's evening news to decades of systematic leaking, right under the noses of MI6 and the CIA, not to mention Pakistan's own all-seeing military spies, the ISI (InterServices Intelligence Agency).

Like Lord Ryder of Wensum's "unreserved" apology to the Government on behalf of the BBC, Dr Khan's mea culpa was abject to the point of being absurd. He said: "I have chosen to appear before you to offer my deepest regrets and unqualified apologies ... There was never ever any kind of authorisation for these activities by the government. I take full responsibility for my actions and seek your pardon."

This last request was granted within 24 hours. "I have decided to pardon Dr A Q Khan, who is our national hero but has made mistakes, which is unfortunate," announced President Pervez Musharraf. "Whatever I have done, I have tried to shield him." But it is hard to believe that this will draw a line under the affair.

Dr Khan is one of the most revered figures in Pakistani public life, as well as one of the most mysterious, and his fall has sent shockwaves through the nation. Born in Bhopal in India in 1935, he moved to Pakistan in 1952, five years after the end of the British Raj. By then, the atrocities of Partition had seared an indelible mark into his imagination, and memories of train compartments stuffed with Muslim corpses undoubtedly still play a significant part in his world-view. A vast painting, depicting red flames and the last train to Pakistan, still dominates his study wall.

After graduating from Karachi University, he moved to Europe for further studies. In the early 1970s, he found a job at a uranium enrichment plant in the Netherlands run by the British-Dutch-German consortium Urenco. In 1976, he left in a hurry for Pakistan.

He was subsequently convicted in absentia by a Dutch court of attempted espionage relating to Urenco's centrifuge blueprints and sentenced to four years in prison, only for the judgment to be overturned on appeal. Yet Dr Khan had returned to Pakistan with enough knowledge to set in motion what had hitherto been considered beyond the nation's reach: a nuclear weapons programme.

India had first tested a nuclear bomb in 1974. Dr Khan promised the then President, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he could bring Pakistan back to parity with its enemy, if the government could promise him unqualified support. Both promises were kept. Pakistan tested its first nuclear bomb in May 1998 (a fortnight after India's Hindu fundamentalist government re-tested theirs), and the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction was installed on the subcontinent. The fact that the two neighbours had already fought three conventional wars made this nuclear muscle-flexing look like warm-up exercises. But Dr Khan wasn't bothered. He was by then famous and, despite an official civil servant's salary of £1,500 a month, spectacularly wealthy.

To many, even now, he remains a hero. The Gulf News newspaper hailed him this week as a man who achieved "mission impossible". He "outsmarted the western establishment, beat the system, and built the bomb". For three decades, at the top secret Kahuta Research Laboratories on the outskirts of Islamabad, Dr Khan boosted uranium to weapons-grade and obtained enough of it to fuel his government's nuclear ambitions. Once the bomb was unveiled, he made no secret of the fact that he had acquired nuclear hardware by hook or by crook, irrespective of the threat of sanctions. He said: "If you stop me from buying from Pakistan, then I will buy elsewhere. But I will buy it, because I need it. And I can buy it."

His nation rewarded him with countless official decorations - including 13 solid gold medals - and many more public honours. His image - wreathed in roses or electron rings - is a common sight on billboards and the sides of lorries that rumble down the Grand Trunk Road. And the main roundabout of every city in Pakistan pays permanent homage to him: not with anything so humdrum as a statue, but with a lumpy fake mountain rendered in concrete, usually labelled with a neon atomic power sign and flanked by a scale model missile of the Ghauri (which turns out to be a knock-off of a North Korean design). Every passer-by knows that this mound represents the Chagai Hills, the desolate site in Baluchistan where the 1998 test blasts took place.

But Dr Khan's obvious delight in his exalted position made him enemies, not least within the atomic establishment, where some consider him to be an intellectual lightweight with a megaton ego, prone to exaggerating his expertise. "Most of the scientists who work on weapons are serious," says Munir Ahmad Khan (no relation), the former head of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. "They [other weapons scientists] are sobered by the weight of what they don't know. But Khan is a showman."

A H Nayyar, a physicist in Islamabad, is not an admirer of the national hero. He said of Dr Khan, who is considered a metallurgist rather than an atomic genius: "He is hard-core nationalist and a very ambitious person. He is in it for fame and money."

Resentful colleagues are thought to have been responsible for divulging a steady stream of details of his grand lifestyle to the opposition press in recent months, forcing the government to launch an investigation into his business affairs.

Everyone now knows about his collection of vintage cars, his four luxury homes in Islamabad, his real- estate in London, the new house he presented to a fortune teller who regularly reads his palm. (We don't know, however, if the fortune teller predicted the current debacle.) We also know about the million-dollar wedding receptions he hosted for his two daughters, and the luxury hotel he built in Timbuktu, Mali, named after his wife - the Hendrina Khan Hotel.

And we know, if we didn't know already, about his overweening ego. He narrowly failed to persuade the former dictator General Zia ul-Haq to rename a big city Qadeerabad in his honour. But he did succeed in getting the Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL) renamed as the Khan Research Laboratories (also KRL). More recently, Dr Khan has invested huge sums into patching up the dilapidated tomb, near the Jhelum river, of Shahabuddin Ghauri - the founder of the Slave Dynasty that ruled 13th-century Delhi and namesake of Pakistan's ballistic missile. Dr Khan has become convinced that he is one of Ghauri's descendants.

"People go out of their way to show their love and respect for me," said Dr Khan last year. "It is very gratifying." Perhaps such pride was bound to be followed by a fall.

Sure enough, in 2001, al-Qa'ida documents were seized in Afghanistan, which suggested that Dr Khan's protégés had been briefing Osama bin Laden's associates in nuclear matters. These scientists were conservative Muslims, verging on extreme fanaticism. One had once written a thesis that included an estimate of the minimum temperature of the flames of Hell.

Under pressure from the United States, President Musharraf sacked Dr Khan from KRL and launched an investigation into his affairs. Then, last year, the Iranian government admitted to the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it had received help from Dr Khan in its secret nuclear weapons programme - and had given him a villa on the Caspian Sea, together with lucrative fishing rights, in return. Pakistan's nuclear investigation began. Evidence has since emerged of the scientist's links with Libya and North Korea as well.

Finally, after months of intense pressure during which his frequent foreign trips were stopped and FBI agents reportedly sat in with senior Pakistani military intelligence on some eight hours of interrogations, the suave atomic hero caved in and owned up to decades of deception.

It is now clear that, from the late 1980s through to the mid-1990s, Dr Khan was not only developing nuclear technology but selling it as well. Sources close to Pakistan's investigation say he set up front companies to enable nuclear transfer, and a money trail has led to offshore accounts linked to Dr Khan or his brother in Dubai. Analysts in Washington have dubbed him the "Johnny Appleseed of centrifuges" after the Dutch design turned up in Iran and Libya.

The real motive, Dr Khan claims, was to deflect world attention from the nuclear progress of Pakistan and as a gesture of support to other Muslim countries, rather than to amass personal wealth. In his 12-page confession Dr Khan added the defence that he offloaded lots of duds, mostly surplus or outmoded centrifuge parts or rough sketches of machinery. Such details will be of less interest to many people than whether he acted - or is deemed to have acted - alone.

In Dr Khan's confession he insisted that he masterminded the covert trade in nuclear spares and technology single-handedly. Many observers find it hard to believe that a scheme to profit from nuclear proliferation could have escaped the attention of an autocrat such as General Musharraf. As one adage goes, "Not a single leaf moves in Pakistan without the knowledge of the army."

Malaysian authorities are questioning a Sri Lankan businessman about the trade; three other suspects are linked to Germany. Companies in South Africa, Japan and the Netherlands may be involved. There has even been loose talk of Saudi Arabia seeking nuclear warheads.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, 11 of Dr Khan's underlings are still being detained and interrogated. It is possible that Dr Khan's public contrition may clear them. But whether the world at large will be convinced by the glib sequence of confession and pardon is a different matter. "I can think of no one who deserves less to be pardoned," said David Kay, the former US chief weapons inspector, in Washington.

No details of Dr Khan's amnesty have been disclosed, nor is there any sign that he will expected to relinquish the money he earned from his trade. Analysts suggest he will be allowed to retire quietly in Islamabad if he stops the trade and never speaks about the nuclear black market again. The important thing, from the military establishment's point of view, is that the official pardon precludes a public trial, which might have opened a whole can of radioactive worms.

There was something painfully uncomfortable about the camouflage-jacketed President Musharraf as he sat with Dr Khan, grim-faced and silent, during the televised confession. A close aide to the President claimed that the normally cool-headed warrior wept when he learnt of the full extent of Dr Khan's lucrative sideline. He is probably not alone in his pain. Ordinary Pakistanis revere Dr Khan as a great patriot and innovator who put himself at risk to obtain the nuclear grail, and Islamist political parties have threatened a national strike to protest against his humiliation. But there is no way around it: if it is established that Pakistan's most celebrated scientist really has been single-handedly flooding the world with nuclear arms for the sake of personal enrichment, then his reputation will go into freefall.

The Indian press is gloating about the demise of the "Pak Bomb Daddy"; Western intelligence agents are desperately trying to establish how much damage he did before his fall. But he still has his supporters. Dr Khan's elder daughter, Dina, abruptly left the country with a satchel of documents, determined to prove that her silver-maned father is "a scapegoat" for more politically astute cronies in Islamabad. She insists he kept nothing hidden from top military commanders and the intelligence agency.

Meanwhile, Pakistan insists on withholding documents from the IAEA and will not countenance any outside nuclear inspections. And, in a final show of defiance, President Musharraf has said that Pakistan will test fire a new ballistic missile next month: the Shaheen II, which has three times the strike range of anything in the present arsenal. "This country will never roll back its nuclear assets," President Musharraf said. "It can never be done."

As for Dr Khan himself, he has been taking brisk walks in Islamabad's woody Margalla Hills, which one of his houses adjoins. He generally walks with his pockets stuffed with peanuts or sugar lumps. "I am the kindest man in Pakistan," he boasted after the Baluchistan bomb tests, when he was trying to dispel the image of a mad scientist bent on annihilation. "I feed the ants in the morning. I feed the monkeys." He still does. But it is the thought of what else he may have distributed that is feeding the most fevered nightmares of Western security analysts who, in a reversal of Dr Strangelove's cinematic premise, have belatedly learnt to start worrying and loathe the bomb.

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