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The Evil Behind the Axis?

A scientist who built Pakistan's nuclear bomb may have helped North Korea, Iraq and Iran. The national hero denies he's 'a madman.'

January 05, 2003|Maggie Farley and Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writers

UNITED NATIONS — If one man sits at the nuclear fulcrum of the three countries President Bush calls the "axis of evil," it may well be Abdul Qadeer Khan.

The 66-year-old metallurgist is considered the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb. He is a national hero at home, where hospitals bear his name and children sing his praises. U.S. and other Western officials do not. They say Khan is the only scientist known to be linked to the alleged efforts of North Korea, Iraq and Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

"If the international community had a proliferation most-wanted list, A. Q. Khan would be most wanted on the list," said Robert J. Einhorn, who was assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation in the Clinton administration.

U.S. intelligence long has known of Khan's activities. But the extent of his ties to all three "axis" nations became public only recently as North Korea admitted resuming its nuclear weapons effort, satellite photos showed that Iran may be conducting clandestine nuclear work and Khan's name appeared in a letter offering to "manufacture a nuclear weapon" for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Pakistan denies giving nuclear assistance to other countries and insists that Khan has done no wrong. But under intense U.S. pressure, President Pervez Musharraf abruptly removed Khan as head of nuclear weapons development two years ago. Bush administration officials, wary of undermining a partner in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, publicly downplay concerns about Islamabad's possible role in spreading nuclear knowledge.

Privately, U.S. officials have confronted Pakistani leaders in recent years with the suggestion that Islamabad might not have complete control over its nuclear scientists. However, some analysts and experts doubt that a maverick scientist working alone -- even one as senior as Khan -- could have engineered such sensitive deals with so many governments.

"We know he's been [to North Korea] at least 13 times, perhaps more," Gaurav Kampani, a nuclear expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, said of Khan. "It's obviously been sanctioned by institutions within the Pakistani government."

Khan, with graying wavy hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache, has shrugged off charges that he is a nuclear Johnny Appleseed. Instead, he portrays himself as a scientist, a patriot -- and a pacifist.

"Some people have the impression that because I built a nuclear bomb, I'm some sort of cruel person," he told a Pakistani journalist in 2001. "That's not the case. I built a weapon of peace, which seems hard to understand until you realize Pakistan's nuclear capability is a deterrent to aggressors. There has not been a war in the last 30 years, and I don't expect one in the future. The stakes are too high."

Unlike two other senior Pakistani nuclear scientists who were questioned by U.S. and Pakistani authorities in 2001 after meetings with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, Khan is not an Islamic radical.

"He is not a fundamentalist, though he is nationalist -- and sometimes nationalism and religion get mixed up in Pakistan," said Pervez Hoodbhoy, an anti-nuclear activist and MIT-trained physicist who teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. "He has been in it for the power, the money and the glory."

Khan has received all three. When he ran Pakistan's bomb-building program, he reported directly to the nation's leader and had free-flowing funds at his disposal. U.S. officials say Khan owns several palatial residences. And he is revered not only at home, where he is hailed for putting Pakistan on an equal nuclear footing with rival India, but also in much of the Muslim world, where he is lionized as the man who built the "Islamic bomb."

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One-Upmanship Begins

It began when India tested a nuclear device in 1974 and Pakistan immediately sought to catch up. Khan kick-started the country's nuclear program the following year, allegedly providing copied plans for gas centrifuges from the Urenco uranium enrichment facility in the Netherlands, where he had worked. He also obtained a list of suppliers that would prove invaluable. Khan ultimately was tried for treason in absentia in the Netherlands, but the case was dropped when prosecutors failed to properly deliver a summons.

"He stole the blueprints," said David Kay, who headed nuclear weapons evaluation programs at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna from 1982 to 1992. "But he's not a cat burglar who snatched some plans. He's a very good scientist."

Khan took charge of Pakistan's uranium enrichment program in 1976. Using the Urenco designs, his team secretly built gas centrifuges at the A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories in Kahuta, a heavily guarded complex near Islamabad. A separate agency, Pakistan's Atomic Energy Organization, built the weapons using what U.S. officials believe were plans obtained from China.

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