Dapper Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was always a man with a mission — even if it was long shrouded in obscurity. Some 30 years ago, he allegedly stole blueprints for enriching uranium from the top-secret Dutch lab where he worked.
For decades, his team in Pakistan labored behind heavily guarded walls to produce enough of the fuel to make A-bombs. In 1998 he watched proudly as Pakistan detonated its first nuclear devices beneath the scorched desert hills of Baluchistan, shocking an unsuspecting world. A public hero at last to exultant countrymen, he was hailed throughout the Muslim world as the “father of the Islamic Bomb.”
Now Khan is earning new renown as the godfather of nuclear proliferation, a dangerous salesman who helped bring the Bomb within closer reach of other eager powers. Since Iran and Libya were exposed in recent months as nuclear-weapon owners in the making, Khan and more than six other scientists who worked with him, plus an undisclosed number of Pakistani diplomats and intelligence agents posted abroad, have been under investigation in Islamabad for sharing the playbook of atomic weapons with those states, well-placed foreign intelligence sources tell TIME. Khan has long been suspected of orchestrating Pakistan’s nukes-for-missiles swap with North Korea, and his name even appeared in a 1990 letter from a Dubai middleman to Saddam Hussein offering to sell Iraq the scientist’s nuclear know-how.
U.S. intelligence officers have joined the Pakistani probe, hoping it will provide clues to unmask and stamp out clandestine nuclear-procurement networks. The one Khan pioneered for Pakistan is considered a model for would-be Bomb builders. “I’ve always thought that A.Q. Khan’s Rolodex is the most important thing of all in giving people advice on how to put all the pieces together,” says Robert Oakley, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. Washington is worried that someone might barter away Pakistan’s nuclear secrets to terrorists.
One question no one involved wants to address is whether Khan and his colleagues operated on their own or at the behest of the Pakistani government. President Pervez Musharraf, who under pressure from Washington sacked Khan as head of nuclear-weapons development in early 2001, insists that his four-year-old government has never dabbled in nuclear trade — whatever past regimes might have done. It’s possible that Khan & Co. or the military and intelligence officers who long supported such deals acted independently. “I think that during his administration there was a lot going on,” said Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, declining to give details. Investigators in Islamabad tell TIME that a handful of scientists now being interrogated were selling the nation’s nuclear secrets for their own profit or for ideological reasons. Those investigators absolve the government and steer clear of fingering Khan as the ringleader. Eager to keep Musharraf in power and a partner in the war on terrorism, the Bush Administration also tiptoes around the issue of Pakistan’s official role. Yet some proliferation experts in the U.S. doubt that rogue scientists and their cronies in the security services could have arranged such supersecret, high-level deals without government approval.
The possession of nuclear weapons haunts the subcontinent. The West has long feared that religious extremism and the violent struggle for dominance in the disputed territory of Kashmir could ignite a nuclear conflict between Pakistan and India. In a welcome rollback of tensions, the two countries pledged last week to work out half a century of differences peacefully in negotiations beginning in February.
Fear of far larger India started Pakistan on the pursuit of A-bombs in the 1960s. The U.S. concluded then that Pakistan’s old patron China, also hostile to India, gave Islamabad crude technology for brewing Bombs. But it was the young metallurgist Khan who initiated Pakistan’s crucial breakthrough when he went to work for Urenco, the Netherlands consortium that perfected technology for enriching uranium to Bomb-grade strength in gas centrifuges. After Khan went home to Pakistan in 1976, Dutch authorities charged him with stealing the centrifuge plans and tried him in absentia. Khan’s conviction was later overturned on a technicality.
Gas centrifuges indisputably formed the basis of Pakistan’s nuclear success. At the Kahuta enrichment facility, later renamed the A.Q. Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), the scientist and his team mastered the art of making Bomb fuel. Khan was especially clever at setting up the secret supply network that Pakistan used through the 1980s and ’90s to circumvent global controls on sensitive parts and materials, even as the government denied it was doing so. Using shell companies based in the Middle East and willing or unwitting middlemen, Khan managed to scavenge the necessary components from all over the U.S., Canada and Europe.
U.S. officials are convinced that Khan was the key player in the barters that Pakistan made with North Korea. A 1994 agreement with the U.S. froze work at Pyongyang’s nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant. Three years later, in exchange for the design of the centrifuges plus components to enrich uranium, Pakistan obtained from North Korea 600mile-range, nuclear-capable Nodong missiles that Khan’s lab retooled and renamed the Ghauri. U.S. intelligence alleges he made a dozen or so visits to Pyongyang over several years.
Iran may have been another client. Investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who examined suspected nuclear facilities in Iran late last year found signs of a Pakistan connection. They uncovered evidence showing that when Iran’s own efforts to master enrichment failed in the late 1980s, Tehran acquired Pakistani-style centrifuge technology, including parts and detailed designs for machines remarkably similar to ones in KRL’s workshops. Western intelligence says Khan paid several clandestine visits to Iran’s Bushehr nuclear-power plant, though he denies it.
When mercurial Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi abruptly renounced his nuclear ambitions at the end of December, he exposed another case of Pakistani proliferation. Investigators now exploring Libya’s projects have found “interconnections” with Pakistan’s technology and a backdoor trading network, according to a New York Times report. The U.S. thinks oil-rich Libya first began funding Pakistan’s nuclear development in the 1970s and periodically supplied raw uranium. Washington officials say Gaddafi was eventually rewarded with Pakistan’s centrifuge designs and secret supplies of essential materiel that helped Libya close in on nuclear-fuel production.
Khan is hardly the only Pakistani scientist to raise international suspicion. Shortly after 9/11, two retired nuclear experts with ties to Muslim extremists were questioned by the FBI about allegations that they had discussed developing weapons with al-Qaeda. Islamabad’s current inquiry is focused on a group of Khan subordinates. The investigators tell TIME that Khan acknowledges “authorizing” some of their trips to Libya, Iran and North Korea but says he had “no idea” whether they were conducting clandestine business on their own. But Khan is widely regarded as the man with the knowledge and the authority to make the big deals. He was in complete, unchallenged control of KRL until 2001. A former colleague of his claims that Khan could fly anywhere without permission, make any deal he wanted. The tall, silver-haired scientist amassed a personal fortune that pays for a lavish lifestyle. His position and revered status would earn plenty of perks. But many, including U.S. intelligence officials, believe he acquired those riches peddling his nuclear expertise.
In rare public statements, Khan has insisted he is a peaceful man opposed to nuclear proliferation. (He denied TIME’s requests for an interview.) A former Musharraf aide says Khan’s megaton ego — almost as much as U.S. charges that he ran a nuclear bazaar — persuaded Musharraf to force him into retirement. But Pakistani investigators remain leery of squeezing the national hero too tightly. Khan is a public icon, his hawkish face known to every schoolchild. Arresting him could trigger dangerous protest among Islamist extremists and senior military officers who feel Musharraf has already gone too far in appeasing the White House. Khan’s travel has been restricted, and even inside Pakistan, he is always accompanied by two military officers. He rarely leaves his Islamabad mansion except to venture out to feed wild monkeys that swing down in the nearby forest. Officials in Washington meanwhile cross their fingers that Musharraf can and will make sure that with Khan sealed away, Pakistan’s nuclear giveaway is over.