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Abdul Qadeer Khan obituary


The father of Pakistan’s atomic weapons industry and the greatest proliferator of nuclear weapons in history, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has died aged 85 after testing positive for Covid-19, was heralded as a hero in his native country, but he left a troubling legacy for the west. Along with Pakistan, the states of Libya, North Korea and Iran all benefited from the nuclear physicist’s dealings. His story is also deeply connected with the travails of neighbouring Afghanistan.

There are two basic paths to make the material that provides the explosive power of a nuclear weapons. The first is to process plutonium. The second is to use high-speed centrifuges to enrich uranium to weapons-grade material, called highly enriched uranium (HEU).

When India conducted its first nuclear test in May 1974, Khan was working for the FDO laboratory in Amsterdam, an institute involved in research into centrifuges, connected to the Urenco plant that provided uranium enrichment technology for the British, Dutch and German governments.

Determined to help his country match its rival he volunteered his services. Within months, the prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, asked the Pakistani embassy in the Netherlands to contact him and by the end of the year Khan had started copying designs for centrifuges and putting together a list of companies that could provide the technology Pakistan would need to produce highly enriched uranium.

Numerous opportunities to prevent Khan’s activities were missed. In 1975 Dutch police officers monitored a meeting between Khan and a Pakistani diplomat. While they felt they had evidence to arrest him, they decided to keep him under surveillance.

By October suspicions about Khan were growing and he was transferred away from work enriching uranium. But Pakistan had already begun buying components for its own uranium-enrichment programme from various European companies that supplied Urenco.

He left the Netherlands for Pakistan in December, taking with him copied blueprints for centrifuges and other parts. A Dutch court later sentenced him in absentia to four years’ imprisonment for nuclear espionage, though the conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

He reappeared the following year working at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), run by Munir Ahmad Khan, who was focusing on the plutonium route. Following disagreements within PAEC, Bhutto gave Khan control over Pakistan’s uranium enrichment programme and he established the Engineering Research Laboratory (ERL). Pakistan successfully enriched uranium at Khan’s laboratory in 1978.

Pakistan’s efforts were a source of widespread concern. In April 1979 the US president Jimmy Carter imposed economic sanctions on Pakistan to try to halt its progress. Whether this pressure could have made a difference is unknown.

On Christmas Day that year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The US saw the opportunity to weaken its adversary by increasing support for its opponents, the mujahideen. But to do so required Pakistan’s support, which gave the country a new-found strategic significance. Its quid pro quo was for the US to turn a blind eye to its nuclear programme. The US agreed, the sanctions were lifted and instead Pakistan received a generous package of assistance. Khan was later to claim that the leeway Pakistan received served to expedite the nuclear programme.

By the mid-1980s, with ERL now renamed the AQ Khan Research Laboratory (KRL), Pakistan had produced enough HEU to make a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile Khan had a surplus of centrifuges, which he started selling to Iran. He continued over-ordering the components and passing them on. He is also believed to have offered technology to Iraq, an offer which was not taken up.

Khan visited North Korea on a number of occasions, and it is suspected that he traded North Korean missile know-how for his own nuclear capability. In the early 90s KRL helped develop the Ghauri missile with North Korean support. Meanwhile, Pakistan tested its first nuclear device in 1998, weeks after India had done the same, though Munir Ahmad Khan deserves at least as much of the credit.

More is known about Khan’s Libyan connection, which Libya gave up in 2003. From 1997, Khan’s network transferred centrifuges and their components to Libya, allowing it to create a pilot enrichment facility. Libya also acquired almost 2 tons of uranium hexafluoride, the gas used in the centrifuges. The source is unknown. Some suspect it came from North Korea, others Pakistan. What is known is that the nuclear technology used in all three countries is based on Urenco’s technology.

Born in Bhopal, to Abdul Ghafoor, a schoolteacher, and his wife, Zulekha, Khanwent to secondary school in independent India before following the rest of his family to Pakistan when he was 16 years old. After graduating in engineering from the University of Karachi, and serving as a city inspector of weights and measures for three years, he completed his education in Europe, studying metallurgical engineering at the Technical University in Berlin followed by a master’s from Delft Technical University (1967) and, in 1972, a PhD from the University of Leuven in Belgium. Soon after he started working for FDO.

In 2003 the US government is believed to have provided Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, with evidence of Khan’s network. Khan was dismissed in early 2004 and a few days later appeared on live television confessing to having passed nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea for decades.

The following day he received a pardon from Musharraf but he remained under house arrest until 2009. In his confession he claimed to have been acting alone but he subsequently blamed both Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto for allowing the proliferation to occur. Many are sceptical that he could have acted alone. The hard currency provided for nuclear technology – $100m from Libya, it is believed – would have wider economic benefits for a country frequently facing financial woes.

After his death, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, tweeted that he was “loved by our nation”. That is certainly true – Khan was lauded as a national hero for making Pakistan the world’s first “Islamic nuclear power”, and remains the only Pakistani to have won its highest award for civilians, the Nishan-i-Imtiaz, twice – but few outside Pakistan and the beneficiaries of his expertise would share the sentiment.

In 1964 he married Hendrina Reterink, a British citizen born to Dutch parents in South Africa. She and their two daughters, Dina and Ayesha survive him.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, nuclear physicist, born 1 April 1936; died 10 October 2021



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