The Nuclear Jihadist

Front book cover of Nuclear JihadistI was surprised at how much I struggled at finishing this book by Douglas Franz and Catherine Collins. The long subtitle for the book is “The True Story of the Man Who Sold the World’s Most Dangerous Secrets…And How We Could Have Stopped Him.” The dust cover description could substitute for reading the full book. Pakistani’s Abdul Qadeer Khan is described as the “…father of the Islamic bomb, a research scientist who stole European nuclear plans, masterminded Pakistan’s successful atomic program, and then established a network of smuggling technology and blueprints to other countries seeking nuclear capabilities. Intelligence authorities (including especially the U.S.) watched Khan for decades and could have stopped him before Pakistan became a nuclear power, but amazingly, our political leaders consciously chose to watch, wait, and concentrate on what they believed to be more immediate strategic priorities.” I’m struggling to explain why I did not find the book compelling reading. The subject matter was something that I should have found interesting and the book seems very well researched. Perhaps I was just put off by the ineffectiveness of the world’s anti-nuclear proliferation efforts to stop a corrupt man who developed a massive network of associates driven by the quest for lucrative profits.

“Khan started down the nuclear path as a patriot, stealing secret European nuclear designs out of determination to protect his country from its archrival, India. After playing a central role in developing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, he shifted course and employed his global network to sell those same nuclear secrets to some of the most repressive regimes in the world, transforming himself into a nuclear jihadist devoted to payback for real and imagined grievances suffered by Muslims around the world. In the process, Khan grew arrogant, corrupt, powerful, operating with impunity as he amassed a fortune from his black-market deals.” Khan’s network is described as providing technology for enriching uranium and design information for building a nuclear weapon from the enriched material to Libya, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. There were other possible customers including Saudi Arabia. I didn’t find explanation for how he acquired the weapon design information except that it was referred to at least twice as being from a warhead design used in a 1996 Chinese missile test. The CIA learned of Khan in 1975 when it learned he “…had stolen top-secret plans for the latest uranium enrichment technology and taken them home to Pakistan.” The CIA seemed to be more interested in the countries willing to buy from Khan rather than wanting to take action to stop the spread of nuclear technology he was willing to sell.

The book discusses that the efforts by Eisenhower to reverse policy of protecting nuclear secrets with the “Atoms for Peace” bridged “…the illusory divide between peaceful atomic energy and its darker applications.” The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was formed under the sponsorship of the United Nations in 1957. The IAEA seemed to always be at least two or three steps behind Khan even during his most blatant violations of export laws as he provided equipment to his customers.

Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands formed a joint program called Urenco in 1970 to produce enriched uranium for their civilian nuclear power plants. The governments built an enrichment plant in the Netherlands called FDO (I was unable to learn the full name). Khan was unable to find employment in Pakistan, but was hired by FDO based on his education and dissertation on exotic metals. He was not cleared to work on the centrifuges when first hired but was later given clearance because of bureaucratic blunders or perhaps lies he submitted on his application. He was radicalized by images of the humiliating defeat of Pakistan by India in 1971 and decided Pakistan needed nuclear weapons to confront its powerful enemy.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was installed as Pakistan’s leader in 1972 and exhorted the country to develop an Islamic nuclear bomb for deterrence against India. He sought and received financial support from Libya’s Gadhafi. Pakistan found the need for developing its own weapons even more compelling on May 18, 1974 when India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced the detonation of a “peaceful nuclear explosive” 350 feet deep in the Rajasthan desert. India had developed the weapon as a deterrent against China, but Pakistan took it as a direct threat against them.

Khan was using his position at FDO to accumulate detailed design information for high speed centrifuges. He wrote letters to Bhutto offering his services and Bhutto eventually responded with a positive note. Khan became an active spy as he began helping the Pakistani’s develop a procurement pipeline to obtain equipment for their enrichment facility. An investigation by the Dutch recommended that Khan be arrested, but it was decided the arrest would attract too much negative attention and Khan slipped free and traveled with his family to Pakistan.

The book jumps around in history providing information on how Khan’s procurement pipeline first was able to build a massive uranium enrichment facility at Kahuta in Pakistan and then providing Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea equipment to allow them to pursue producing nuclear weapons. Libya built its enrichment plant in Dubai.

Interesting asides of information includes the report Edward R. Murrow gave on August 12, 1945 after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Seldom if ever has a war ended leaving the victors with such a sense of uncertainty and fear, with such a realization that the future is obscure and that survival is not assured.” Bob hope used dark humor for the bombing. He joked on Valentine’s Day in 1946, “Have you noticed the modern trend in verses? No more roses are red, violets are blue. I picked up one that read, ‘Will you be my little geranium until we are both blown up by uranium.”

There is interesting information about the duplicity of Saddam Hussein in his quest for weapons of mass destruction. His son-in-law, General Hussein Kamel, was responsible for the weapons programs and had defected to Jordan four years after the end of the Gulf War. The IAEA was led to a chicken coop filled with boxes filled with microfiches, computer disks, videotapes, photographs, and hardware with accusations it had been placed there by Kamel. Some of the contents dealt with chemical and biological weapons, but much of it was about building an atomic bomb. The Iraqis were closer than ever thought. There was an offer to help Iraq build the bomb from a man who represented Abdul Qadeer Khan. Kamel was convinced he could safely return home and he and all of his family members were executed.

Pakistan detonated five nuclear devices in five separate rooms in a 3,000 foot sealed tunnel on May 26, 1996 and a sixth device two days later. There were several North Korean military officers observing the detonations.

Khan’s demise came after Musharraf had Pakistani intelligence assemble a massive report about Khan’s corruption and the huge wealth he had gained from it. Musharraf had learned Khan had made an unauthorized visit to Dubai and was he was ordered to not violate travel restrictions again. Khan made another unauthorized visit, and he was sacked. The sixty-five year old Khan was prohibited from entering the nuclear complex he had built, but was given a ceremonial title.

Khan admitted to passing secrets to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, and asked for and was granted a pardon. He was forced to make a televised apology. Khan went into virtual house arrest at the age of sixty-six. Khan’s potential customers included Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. He apparently never showed any remorse for his actions.

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