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Abdul Qadeer Khan: Metallurgist turned ‘Father’ of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, an expert in espionage, nuclear proliferation and illicit profiteering

On Sunday, Abdul Qadeer Khan, often referred to as 'Father of Pakistan's Nuclear bomb' died at 85. Read how he rose to prominence and his fall from grace.

On Sunday (October 10), Abdul Qadeer Khan aka the ‘Father of Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb’ breathed his last at the ripe age of 85. He was admitted to a hospital in Islamabad earlier that morning after he complained of lung problem. However, his health condition deteriorated and he passed away within a few hours’ time.

His death was mourned by several politicians in Pakistan, including Prime Minister Imran Khan. In a tweet, Khan thanked Abdul Qadeer for making Pakistan a ‘nuclear State’ in the face of an ‘aggressive and large nuclear neighbour’ India.

Unlike India’s missile man APJ Abdul Kalam, who is admired by all sections of the society, Abdul Qadeer Khan of Pakistan remained a polarising figure. While the general public adore him for his supposed contribution to the country’s nuclear programme, senior scientists remember him as an ‘egomaniacal lightweight given to exaggerating his expertise’. Although he was born in present-day Bhopal in 1936, his family left for Muslim-majority Pakistan in the year 1952.

Abdul Qadeer Khan and the motivation to become a ‘nuclear power’

Abdul Qadeer Khan was motivated to join Pakistan’s nuclear programme after India successfully carried out its first-ever nuclear test on May 18, 1974 (also called Operation Smiling Buddha). Pakistan’s humiliating loss to India in the 1971 war and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh also instilled a nationalistic fervour within him. In September 1974, he wrote a letter to the then Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto about the need for producing highly enriched uranium (HEU) instead of weapon-grade plutonium.

When he met Bhutto in December 1974, he explained why he thought the idea of ‘plutonium’ was not feasible (plutonium enrichment required nuclear reactors and reprocessing while uranium could be enriched using gaseous centrifuges). The Pakistani Prime Minister was impressed and Abdul Qadeer Khan was inducted into the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) in 1975. Khan was employed with the Physical Dynamics Research Laboratory in the Netherlands in 1972. The lab was a subcontractor of URENCO, which worked in the field of uranium enrichment using ultracentrifuges.

Owing to security lapses, Abdul Qadeer Khan was able to gain complete access to information about ultracentrifuge technology at URENCO. Between 1974 and 1975, the metallurgist stole drawings of centrifuges, collected classified information, and created a list of European suppliers. Given that URENCO began suspecting his actions, he left the Netherlands for Pakistan in December 1975. Upon his return, he began working on the enrichment of uranium using the classified information that he stole from URENCO.

Charges of espionage, proliferation and profiterring against Abdul Qadeer Khan

In 1979, the Dutch government tried to prosecute him for ‘nuclear espionage’ but failed to do so due to lack of evidence. Abdul Qadeer Khan was of the opinion that the PAEC alone couldn’t provide the materials required to sustain Pakistan’s nuclear programme. He insisted on purchasing electronic materials from Dutch companies, a proposal rejected by the Pakistani government. As such, he even tried to import Uranium from China during his visit to the Communist country for a conference. It was later returned by the Pakistani government.

By the mid-1980s, Abdul Qadeer Khan had ensured that Pakistan was on its track to build the nuclear bomb. This despite the fact that he was personally not involved in the design of nuclear devices, weapon testing or calculations. After discovering a window to benefit himself monetarily, he began creating companies in Malaysia and Dubai to sell designs, parts and centrifuges in the black market. His customers included the dictatorial regimes of Libya, Iran and North Korea. He almost gave in to a request to sell centrifuge technology to an unnamed Arab country until one of his confidantes confessed the matter to Pakistan PM Zia ul Haq.

Organizational Cultures and the Management of Nuclear Technology: Political and Military Sociology. (2017). (n.p.): Taylor & Francis.

A high-level investigation by the United States authorities found that Abdul Qadeer Khan was involved in nuclear proliferation. Without even bothering to inform the Pakistani government, he passed on information about gaseous centrifuge technology to Iran between 1987-1989. While the export of such designs was restricted by the Pakistani government, Khan was able to bypass all restrictions to achieve his ulterior motives. The US also recovered centrifuges from Libya, which were developed by Khan during his tenure at the URENCO in the 1970s. They also found that Khan had exported sensitive information regarding uranium enrichment to North Korea in exchange for rocket engines between 1991 and 1997.

The ‘Confession’ and Aftermath : The Downfall of the Father of Pakistan’s Bomb

In 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz city in Iran. The facility was using centrifuges that were again based on the design of URENCO. Reportedly, it was received by Iran from a foreign intermediary in 1989. Abdul Qadeer Khan was featured as one of the suppliers of the centrifuges to Iran, which brought economic sanctions on the country from the United States. Under US President George Bush, evidence was provided to Pakistan that showed the direct involvement of Khan in sharing sensitive nuclear information and materials with its arch-rivals. On January 31, 2004, he was removed from the post of adviser on science and technology by the then Musharraf government.

(Video Courtesy: Youtube/DocsOnline)

He appeared on the Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV) channel on February 4, 2004, and confessed to his role as a nuclear proliferator. He admitted, “The investigation established that many of the reported activities did occur. These were inevitably initiated at my behest. In my interviews with the concerned government officials, I was confronted with the evidence and the findings. I involuntarily admitted that much of it is true and accurate.” Many believe that it was a staged event done to clean the dirty linen of the Pakistani army establishment. Surprisingly, the Musharraf administration pardoned him the following day but put him under house arrest until 2009.

In the last decade, he made negligible public appearances and remained away from fanfare.

Once while speaking to Geo News, he had recounted, “There are many ways (to develop Pakistan) but I have taken an oath that I will not divulge anything to this country. After the treatment meted out to me (despite ‘making’ Pakistan a nuclear power), I will not tell anything to people.”

On being asked whether he is angry with his countrymen, Abdul Qadeer Khan clarified, “I am not angry with the public but mad at betrayers and ungrateful people. The people of Pakistan still love me.”

Legacy of Abdul Qadeer Khan

The legacy of Abdul Qadeer Khan remains untarnished despite his act of nuclear espionage, nuclear proliferation and sale of classified information and military-grade equipment in the black market. Perhaps, one of the biggest ironies can be noted in the obituaries written on the event of his death. While he is being referred to as a ‘nuclear physicist’, the truth remains that he was a metallurgist who had a limited role in Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Despite this, Pakistanis hail him as the ‘Father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb.’

The misconception regarding his educational and professional credentials have been highlighted by noted physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy in an article in 1999. He wrote, “With fewer than 40 active research physicists in the country, about 100 active chemists, and far fewer mathematicians, Pakistan is starved of scientists. Even in nuclear physics, contrary to what may be suggested by Pakistan’s successful nuclear weapons program, there are just a handful of nuclear physicists. Ill-informed journalism is responsible for certain popular misconceptions.”

Abdul Qadeer Khan was awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz in 1999 (Photo Credits:  STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

He further added, “For example, Dr. A. Q. Khan, the pre-eminent architect of Pakistan’s nuclear program, is often called a nuclear physicist when, in fact, his degrees and professional accomplishments belong to the field of metallurgy, which is an engineering discipline rather than physics. When Dr. Khan visited the physics department of Quaid-e-Azam University about two months ago, he endeared himself even more to his admirers by wistfully saying he wished he could come someday to this university to study physics.”

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Dibakar Dutta
Dibakar Dutta
Fascinated by Indian politics

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