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Bleak future for Pakistan's 'bomb hero'

Bleak future for Pakistan's 'bomb hero'

Author: David Blair
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: February 7, 2004
URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/02/07/wpak07.xml&sSheet=/portal/2004/02/07/ixportal.html

David Blair traces the career of the scientist who became a national icon but is now virtually under house arrest in Islamabad

The call to prayer echoed over Islamabad from a mighty mosque yesterday but the sound of Islamic devotion brought no apparent response from the home of Pakistan's most decorated citizen - and one of the world's most dangerous men.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, the self-styled "father" of Pakistan's nuclear bomb and the man now revealed to have sat at the centre of a conspiracy to arm the world's most radical anti-western states with nuclear weapons, lives behind elaborate wrought iron gates. It is clearly the home of a wealthy man but he is not free to leave.

Two sentries toting AK-47 assault rifles, six plainclothes security men and 12 policemen armed with batons milled near the scientist's immaculate lawn, preventing the nuclear scientist's attendance at Friday prayers, or the approach of the curious.

President Pervaiz Musharraf might have pardoned Mr Khan for selling nuclear technology but the scientist remains under de facto house arrest.

Pakistani officials hinted that Mr Khan, 67, might stay in confinement for the rest of his life.

"They'll say to him, 'You are carrying a nuclear virus and you must be quarantined'," said Gen Talat Masood, who ran Pakistan's weapons production throughout the 1980s and knew the scientist well.

In a young country short of heroes, Mr Khan is a genuine national icon and Pakistanis are bewildered and horrified by his sudden disgrace.

No one else has won Pakistan's highest civilian honour twice. The last time Mr Khan was invested with the Hillal-e-Imtiaz medal, the citation praised his "epoch-making contributions" and vowed that his name "will be inscribed in golden letters in the annals of Pakistan".

Today, the regime that praised Mr Khan to the skies will not let him out of his front door.

Modesty was always foreign to him and he behaved as if Pakistan's nuclear capability was his personal property. "Who made the atom bomb? I made it," he said last month. "Who made the missiles? I made them for you."

As for Pakistan's enemies, Mr Khan claimed to have beaten them single-handedly. "I made all their policies go to waste. A single person destroyed all of their intended planning for the next 25 years," he said.

Mr Khan was born in Bhopal, British India, 11 years before the creation of Pakistan. He stayed in Bhopal throughout the communal massacres that accompanied Partition and, according to his official biographer, witnessed trains pulling into the local station carrying nothing but the bodies of Muslims killed by Hindu gangs.

When he emigrated to Pakistan in 1952, he brought a deep hatred of India. "Hindus are crooks," Mr Khan told his biographer. "They are dreaming of destroying Pakistan."

He might have been an ardent Pakistani nationalist but Mr Khan did not stay long in his new homeland.

After a few years at Karachi University, he moved to Holland where he took a master's degree in electrical engineering at Delft University in 1963. Next came a doctorate in metallurgy from Leuven, in Belgium.

When he achieved fame in Pakistan, Mr Khan would often pose as a "nuclear scientist". In fact, he has no academic background in nuclear physics.

He revels in his hatred of the West. "I want to question the bloody holier-than-thou attitudes of the Americans and the British," he has written. "Are these bastards God-appointed guardians of the world?"

In one interview, he said: "All western countries, including Israel, are not only the enemies of Pakistan but, in fact, of Islam."

Yet the West had its uses for Mr Khan. In 1975, he spent three months on secondment with Urenco, an Anglo-Dutch consortium based in Holland that dealt in uranium reprocessing.

By chance, Urenco had acquired a new centrifuge which could enrich uranium to weapons-grade level. It was classic "dual use" technology.

Mr Khan promptly acquired detailed drawings and blueprints. He asked for the help of a Dutch friend, Fritz Veerman, who innocently photographed the centrifuge design.

In December 1975, Mr Khan returned to Pakistan laden with his haul of nuclear know-how. These blueprints would form the basis not only of Pakistan's nuclear programme but also those of Iran, Libya and North Korea.

A Dutch court later convicted Mr Khan of espionage and theft and sentenced him to four years in jail in absentia. The sentence was quashed on a technicality.

Straight after Mr Khan's return, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then prime minister, placed him in charge of Pakistan's nuclear programme. Bhutto had famously said that "if India builds the bomb", Pakistanis would "eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own".

India had tested a bomb in 1974, so Pakistan's nuclear programme became a national obsession. Mr Khan was given a secret nuclear facility - Kahuta research laboratory, 20 miles south-east of Islamabad - and told to build a bomb.

"He was a go-getter," recalled Gen Masood. "He was a results-orientated opportunist. He was a reasonably good engineer, not a great scientist, but he understood how to get things done."

From 1988 until the mid 1990s, Mr Khan was also getting results for Iran and Libya. He passed on improved versions of the centrifuge blueprints to both countries, together with thousands of component parts. They were either shipped through middlemen in Dubai or flown in Pakistani chartered aircraft.

Mr Khan was paid handsomely for his contributions. On an official salary of £14,000, he acquired two spacious homes in Islamabad and a variety of exotic business interests around the world, including a hotel in Timbuktu, Mali, named after his Dutch wife, Henny.

Mr Khan believed that helping two Muslim powers to acquire the bomb would create a counterweight to American dominance. From 1998 until about 2000, Mr Khan oversaw the transfer of centrifuge technology to North Korea. This was a straightforward deal under which North Korea gave Pakistan long-range missiles in return for nuclear know-how and materials.

During this period, Gen Musharraf was chief of staff and then president. When Mr Khan was helping Iran and Libya, he was working under the civilian prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. It is likely that the two premiers were kept in the dark about his activities.

The army treated the nuclear programme as its domain and Miss Bhutto was barred from visiting the Kahuta plant, re-named the Khan Research Laboratory. Gen Musharraf has insisted that no one in the military hierarchy knew what was happening but a senior military source said the army chiefs of the day must have known about the help given first to Iran and Libya and later to North Korea.

Many Pakistanis resent western criticism of their nuclear capability and suspect a conspiracy. "America, Israel and India want to destroy our bomb," said Hussam ul-Haq, whose brother, Islam ul-Haq, worked as Mr Khan's principal secretary and is now in detention. "That is what this is all about. They are the axis of evil in our minds."

As Mr Khan paces his garden, filled with exotic birds, he probably won't reflect that the ultimate weapon, intended to earn Pakistan respect, has instead brought the label of rogue state.

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