The Wrath of Khan

Abdul Qadeer Khan, the “father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program,” ran Pakistan’s uranium centrifuge enrichment program in the 1980s and ‘90s. He was also ringleader of the largest nuclear black market that has been discovered to date.  The scope of his operation is still not entirely known.

New reports indicate that included in the terabytes of files seized from members of the smuggling ring was a “detailed design for an advanced but small nuclear warhead” that, according to former United Nations arms inspector David Albright, “goes far beyond the schematics and information about nuclear weapons available on the Internet.”

“It’s a very different category of information, and it’s very dangerous,” said Albright in a Monday interview. “There are no other designs out there. There is very little information of this quality out there outside of the nuclear weapons states.”

Khan has denied selling an advanced weapons design; however, the AP has quoted a senior International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official saying that the watchdog organization “had knowledge of the existence of a sophisticated nuclear weapons design being peddled electronically by the black-market ring as far back as 2005.”

A Black Market more Widespread than Imagined

That rogue states could obtain the technology, material, and know-how necessary to assemble and employ weapons of mass destruction has been known for years, though more on the public’s mind since 9/11. However how widespread such a network could become before being discovered and penetrated proved, with the 2004 cracking of Khan’s proliferation network, to be frightening.

In 2003, while investigating Iran and Libya’s nuclear intentions, the IAEA stumbled onto Khan’s illegal network (three years after the U.S. had learned of it and begun to penetrate its operations). As the authorities dug deeper into the ring’s operations, more and more shocking revelations came to light regarding the scope of the Pakistani scientist’s operation.

Perhaps the biggest coup for authorities trying to track Khan’s proliferation activities resulted from the implementation of the Proliferation Security Initiative, or PSI. Developed by John Bolton (then the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security) and adopted by the Bush administration as policy in May 2003, the PSI is an initiative that “seeks to coordinate governmental nonproliferation activities around the world in the face of advanced communications technologies and expanding global trade that have facilitated the smuggling of WMD.”

The highest-profile tool used by PSI-supporting nations to prevent proliferation is shipment interdiction, often conducted by boarding (or forcing into friendly port) ships suspected of carrying WMD materials.

In October 2003, a German-owned ship bound for Libya (named “The China”), believed by U.S. and British intelligence to be carrying illegal cargo, was forced into Italian port and inspected – a legal activity, as all four of the involved nations, including the one under whose flag the suspect ship was sailing, were PSI supporters.

In the hold, authorities found uranium-enrichment gas-centrifuge components that Khan was sending to Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan regime. This seizure “helped unravel the Khan network and was a major factor in negotiating the forfeiture of Libya’s WMD programs.”

“The Wal-Mart of Private Proliferation”

Further investigation revealed the breathtaking scope of an illegal nuclear trafficking network which IAEA director general Mohammed El-Baradei called “the Wal-Mart of private proliferation.”

“When you see things being designed in one country, manufactured in two or three others, shipped to a fourth, redirected to a fifth, that means there’s lots of offices all over the world,” El-Baradei said. “The sophistication of the process, frankly, has exceeded my expectations.”

The Khan network was eventually revealed to have provided “blueprints, technical design data, specifications, components, machinery, enrichment equipment, models, and notes on…centrifuges,” as well as uranium hexafluoride (the compound separated by centrifuges into waste and weapons-grade uranium) and, occasionally, completed centrifuges through transit points and middlemen in nearly thirty countries, including Dubai, Germany, Malaysia, South Africa, Turkey, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Among the states and organizations revealed to have received nuclear technology and equipment from Khan are Libya, North Korea, and Iran, which has consistently denied any intent to manufacture nuclear weapons while declaring on an almost weekly basis their objective of wiping the tiny nearby state of Israel “off the map.” Many experts also suspect that al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan obtained similar assistance before the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

How much or how little the Pakistani government actually knew of Khan’s actions is still a subject of debate. In 2004, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf “forced Khan to issue a vague confession” of his proliferation activities – which he asserted were carried out with no governmental sanction or knowledge – before placing him under “loose house arrest,” but refused to allow UN or U.S. officials to question him (protection that exists to this day). Khan “has since renounced that confession in Pakistani and Western media, saying he made it only to save Pakistan greater embarrassment.” A recently-released book claiming that former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto smuggled in critical data on uranium enrichment to North Korea (and smuggled missile information back) while on a 1993 state visit has helped reignite speculation that Khan was at least partly acting under the auspices of the Pakistani government in his activities.

Rings like A.Q. Khan’s thrive due to the combination of loopholes in export control regimes and a wealth of clients who are willing to defy the nuclear nonproliferation treaty that supposedly governs the spread and use of nuclear technology.

In order to curb proliferation, at the very least, these loopholes must be closed. Above all, those nations which actively pursue nuclear weapons technology – or who harbor groups that do so – should not be appeased or ignored; rather, they should be assured that the consequences of continuing down their current path will far outweigh the potential benefit they would gain from ignoring the international nonproliferation regime and continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.