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'A Q Khan thought he could defy the world'

September 22, 2006 15:22 IST
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Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is battling cancer in Islamabad, was till recently the world's leading black market dealer in nuclear technology.

Described by a former CIA director as 'at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden,' A Q Khan to BBC journalist Gordon Corera is at once 'a fascinating and disturbing person.'

'Here was an individual ready to proliferate to any country that was ready to pay -- including North Korea, Libya and Iran,' Corera writes in his riveting and revealing book, Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the AQ Khan Network. 'And for the first time a dangerous array of products was available entirely in the private sector.'

Still a hero to many Pakistanis who revere him as the Father of the Nuclear Bomb, 69-year-old Khan, who was born in Bhopal and migrated to Pakistan when he was 13, is under apparent house arrest in his country for building a global clandestine network that sold nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea, and Libya.

In his book published by Oxford University Press, Corera reveals how Khan 'operated within a world of shadowy deals among rogue States and how his privileged position in Pakistan provided him with the protection to build his unique and deadly business empire.'

The book also explains why and how he was able to operate so freely for so many years, thanks to American and Pakistani cooperation to fight the Russians first, and after 9/11, Al Qaeda. It also offers many insights into A Q Khan, the pioneer of nuclear black marketeering.

Corera says his book provides the first detailed account of the American and British high-wire dealings with Libyan ruler Muammar Gadaffi, which led to Libya's renunciation of nuclear weapons in 2003 and which played a key role in Khan's downfall.

In an exclusive interview with Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais, Corera speaks about the making of the book, and notes that 'the final answers lie with a man who is very sick, who is under house arrest in Islamabad, and out of touch with the outside world.'

There are some people who believe that A Q Khan's main reason for building the nuclear bomb was his animosity towards India. Would this be correct?

It is true that India was the factor that started him off. When he saw the picture of the Pakistani army surrendering to the Indian army (in Dhaka on December 16, 1971), he told himself that he would not let such a thing happen again. He was in Europe at that time trained as a metallurgist and he offered his services to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

It was in 1974, following India's testing of a 'peaceful nuclear explosive, that Khan's career as a nuclear scientist began. It was also in that year he started as a spy and a thief of nuclear secrets. But Khan was perhaps more motivated by his anger against the West, especially when the opposition to Pakistan's secret nuclear programme was building up. By 1979 he was more obsessed with the West than India.

You mention in the book a letter he wrote to the German magazine Der Spiegel in 1979. Would you tell us more about it?

It is a very important letter and shows his strongest motive perhaps to build the bomb. He questioned in that letter 'the bloody holier-than-thou attitudes of the Americans and the British. 'These bastards are God-appointed guardians of the world,' the letter complained, 'to stockpile hundreds of thousands of nuclear warheads and have the God-given authority of carrying out explosions every month. But if we start a modest programme, we are the Satans, the devils.'

How far did he see the bomb as an Islamic bomb?

Khan was a religious man but he was not a fundamentalist. He married a person of Dutch-South African origin. He consulted fortune-tellers. He served liquor to his foreign guests though he himself did not drink. Like Bhutto, he too saw the bomb in terms of nationalist pride and security.

If he looked at it purely as an Islamic bomb as he grew older and became more successful, he would not have sold the nuclear secrets and instruments to North Korea.

Look at the Islamic countries that received secrets from him. Both Iran and Libya were well known for their opposition to the West. So once again, Khan was fighting the West, through North Korea, Iran and Libya. So it was not simply about Islam and a pan-Islamic movement.

It is also true that over time, he began to see Pakistan as the centre of the Islamic world, thanks to his bomb to a great extent. His close associate Zahid Malik wrote in Khan's biography that the latter wanted to see the Islamic world rise above other nations, and in that Islamic world Pakistan would be pre-eminent.

In all this, I believe he was a Pakistani patriot and nationalist first and a Muslim internationalist second.

What led the idealist to become a rogue scientist?

Many people say it was greed. But there was certainly much more to it. Khan was so powerful in Pakistan that he could have made much more money from the government. Call it misplaced idealism, the secret sale of nuclear knowledge was part of his war against the West. He was convinced that the West wanted to destroy Pakistan. The sale was also part of his ego.

In the 1980s he had become amazingly powerful and privileged in Pakistan. His ego was well fed. And so was his power. He saw himself as someone who could defy the world and have his own way. Many people hated the nuclear non-proliferation system but only Khan could bring it down.

You believe that after Jinnah, he is the only national hero Pakistan has had. Why is it so?

He cultivated that image and others cultivated it for him, too. The insecurity of the country fed that image, too. It is also true that while politicians do not have unanimous backing of the people, Khan was seen as a nonpartisan scientist who was

not only building the bomb but also enhancing the image and security of Pakistan.

You also write that many established scientists in Pakistan resented that Khan was called the Father of the Nuclear Bomb. How do you see him?

He certainly developed and nurtured Pakistan's nuclear programme, and his uranium enrichment programme, and the secrets he stole from the nuclear facilities in The Netherlands, all helped towards the building of the bomb. The bomb was far from being a single handed job. So the country's nuclear establishment found it insulting that one man was bestowed the honor. The mythmaking had gone too far, many top scientists felt.

Could it have occurred to Khan that if the bomb was unleashed on India, millions of Muslims could have been affected too?

I have talked to many people who are close to Khan. Their view of the nuclear bomb -- and that could be partly Khan's too -- was that it was a means of stability and not danger. Having the bomb made a war less likely with India. Of course, many people would dispute this.

India and Pakistan nearly came to a war in 2002 following the attack on the Indian Parliament by Pakistan-backed militants. What did Khan feel about the conflict?

Many people in South Asia, and many politicians and analysts in the West believed that the threat of nuclear destruction stopped the war. Khan's fame within Pakistan began to grow even more.

Ironically the West was going after him, gathering evidence of his sale of nuclear information to North Korea, Libya and Iran. But in Pakistan Khan was seen as a hero for having brought 'security' to the country through its nuclear arsenal. And he himself believed so.

Your book says many people who knew Khan in the 1970s are surprised, even shocked, to see him grow as a scientist and a powerful man.

He was a modest person and it looked like he had modest goals for himself. But the humiliation Pakistan went through after its defeat in 1971 began changing things dramatically for Khan --- and for Pakistan itself.

He certainly had the ability to win over people, isn't it?

Khan was a people person. His skills as a businessman were more important than the skills as a scientist. His ability to build a network of loyal friends including German and Dutchmen who broke the law even when they knew they were helping to build the bomb is remarkable.

The West had put pressure on President Musharraf to hold Khan responsible for the nuclear blackmarket and yet it took Musharraf a long time to get the infamous confession from Khan.

In 2003 when the pressure began mounting on Musharraf to get rid of Khan, the latter went around hinting that he had a lot of incriminating information against the army and the civilian rulers. Nobody knows what exactly he had. In any event, even after he confessed to Musharraf and then to the nation about his secret nuclear deals, there was no doubt he did so only because he was sure of a deal.

He knew the incriminating information against him could not be denied. But given his prestige and power, he had made sure that he would get a pardon, that he would be under house arrest and that he would not be handed over to the Americans.

Given his cocky attitude and pride why did he break down before Musharraf in January 2004 and confessed to the nation?

Because of the fact that it was not just any army officer who was dealing with him. Here was the most powerful politician in the country and Musharraf was showing him the definite proof of his (Khan's) transactions. Till then he had refused to believe that he could be ever stopped. His ego was so big that he just could not imagine anyone had the courage to stop him.

When Musharraf told him it was all over, all of a sudden the edifice he had constructed over the years collapsed.

What made Musharraf act decisively against Khan?

For quite some time (before January 2004), Musharraf has been clipping Khan's wings. I don't think the two men really liked each other. Pressure had been building on Musharraf to act against Khan especially as Libya was abandoning its nuclear programme and definite proof of Khan's role in that programme was coming to light.

By the middle of 2003, America had definite evidence of Khan's involvement in the nuclear programmes in Iran and North Korea. But Musharraf too was afraid to act against Khan because of the latter's popularity and prestige within the country. It was only when Colin Powell, the then US secretary of state, spoke to Musharraf things began to move fast and dramatically.

How did Powell get Musharraf to change his mind?

Powell and Musharraf had a very good working relationship for a long time. Powell called Musharraf at the end of January 2004, saying: We are now going to talk general to general. If Musharraf did not act decisively, Powell warned, President Bush would make a speech soon about Khan's hand in nuclear proliferation in Libya. Powell also said: You may want to -- and I strongly recommend that you do -- act. Within a few days Khan was under house arrest.

What was the biggest challenge in researching this book?

It covers more than 30 years of nuclear proliferation history and it spans many countries including North Korea. To get to the bottom of this highly secretive world is not easy. Of course, I could not meet with Khan but I did go to Pakistan and I did try to meet with him. Many people in Pakistan did not want to speak about him and the nuclear programme, though some people spoke off the record.

Some of Khan's friends spoke to me, and it was very important to listen to them because their views shed light on his thinking, his behaviour and his motivation. And yet there are many unanswered questions in this book.

The final answers lie with a man who is very sick, who is under house arrest in Islamabad, and out of touch with the outside world.

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