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Could terrorists wage nuclear jihad?

A program on the Discovery Times cable channel ponders events that could put nuclear weapons in hands that might use them.

April 17, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

If America is making a list of villains of the modern world, A.Q. Khan has to be near the top.

Khan is the Pakistani nuclear scientist who smuggled secrets from Europe to help his native country build a bomb to compete with archenemy India.

Not finished reshaping the world, he then went into business for himself and, with or without his government's connivance, peddled nuclear secrets and technology to Iran, North Korea, Libya and who knows who else.

It is the thesis of "Nuclear Jihad: Can Terrorists Get the Bomb?," set for broadcast tonight on Discovery Times Channel, that Khan has hastened the day when terrorists not linked to nation-states will have access to nuclear bombs.

It's a nightmare scenario -- backed by reporting that is detailed and solid, much of it done by two reporters for the New York Times.

Today, a freelancer can fashion a roadside bomb out of an artillery shell and take out a Humvee full of Marines. Tomorrow, according to "Nuclear," the same person might be able to smuggle a nuke into a U.S. or European city or any city in any nation considered friendly to the West.

How this happened -- largely under the nose of the CIA, which had long known that Khan was slippery -- is a story that is equally chilling and morbidly fascinating.

The Dutch were about to arrest Khan in 1975, according to "Nuclear," but the CIA asked them to back off so that they could catch bigger fish.

Much of the story revolves around America's complex relationship with Pakistan and its military strongman, Pervez Musharraf. The U.S. needs him, and Musharraf has been helpful in fighting the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

But the Islamic movement is strong in his country, and Khan is a hero to the movement for having produced an "Islamic bomb" to rival the Christian, Jewish (Israel) and Hindu (India) bombs.

Even though Musharraf made Khan apologize publicly once his black-market enterprise was unmasked, Khan faces no more criminal charges. He lives in quiet retirement in a suburb of Islamabad and cannot be questioned by the CIA or other outsiders.

Musharraf dare not punish Khan. This is a country where Osama bin Laden gets a 65% approval rating, "Nuclear" tells us. Musharraf has survived several assassination attempts, and the degree of Islamic influence on his army is unknown.

Using the port at Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Khan set up a supply chain of parts that was Wal-Mart-esque, the narrator intones.

Khan hardly kept a low profile. After Pakistan exploded its first test nuke in 1998, he was a national celebrity. He owned schools, restaurants, even a disco. He lived large.

"A.Q. Khan was in love with himself," says a Pakistani scholar.

Was he getting help from his government when he was selling things like an updated centrifuge that is considered a shortcut to making enriched uranium? If not, how did he get permission to travel to North Korea so frequently and why was he riding in that Pakistani air force cargo plane?

"How many religious pilgrimages could he make to a country like North Korea?" asks former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Like a lot of good journalism, "Nuclear" asks some questions it cannot answer. What was Khan doing meeting with Saudi leaders? Do they want the bomb despite their public pronouncements?

If there is good news, and there is not much in "Nuclear," it's this: Saddam Hussein was so suspicious of Khan that he turned him away when he made a house call to Baghdad.

As "Nuclear" points out, the technology to make a bomb is getting faster and the size of bombs is getting smaller. With terror-bent fanatics in countries everywhere, how long before one whose name is not on a watch list slips through?

"We have to be right 100% of the time, they only have to be right once," said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.


`Nuclear Jihad'

Where: Discovery Times

When: 8 to 9 tonight

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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