The Man Who Sold the Bomb

How Pakistan's A.Q. Khan outwitted Western intelligence to build a global nuclear-smuggling ring that made the world a more dangerous place. The inside story

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    Who else did business with this merchant of menace? The list of suspected nuclear clients is dizzying. Investigators believe that as head of Pakistan's main nuclear-research laboratory, Khan traveled the world for more than a decade, visiting countries in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. According to a source in Pakistan's Defense Ministry, U.S. officials are investigating whether Khan's network might have sold nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. The U.S. has submitted questions to Khan asking whether North Korea and Iran sold such equipment to third parties. The ultimate fear: that one of Khan's clients may pass along nuclear technology and expertise to terrorist groups. Although the U.S. does not have concrete evidence that Khan did business with al-Qaeda, there is reason to suspect such a link exists. A few members of Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment, which worked closely with Khan in his role as the government's top nuclear scientist, are known to sympathize with Osama bin Laden. The more investigators have learned about the reach of Khan's network, the more alarmed they have become. Says a U.S. official involved with analyzing Iran's nuclear program: "You're dealing with a supplier who didn't appear to have any qualms."

    Despite the U.S.'s obvious interest in uncovering the scope of the nuclear bazaar, neither the Administration nor the IAEA has been allowed to interrogate Khan directly. Knowledgeable sources tell TIME that at a meeting at the White House in December, Bush told Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that he believed Khan had not fessed up to all his nefarious transactions. Musharraf agreed but refused to allow non-Pakistanis to quiz Khan.

    So who is Abdul Qadeer Khan, and what kind of threat does his illicit enterprise still pose? When you piece together the details of Khan's career, his business dealings and the covert operation that brought him down, what emerges is a portrait of a brainy engineer who devoted his life to the pursuit and proliferation of the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Born to humble beginnings, he became a globe-trotting magnate who relished the luxury that fame and savvy brought him. But colleagues say he was also driven by a devout faith and a burning belief that Muslim possession of nuclear weapons would help return Islam to greatness. Just how far Khan was able to spread that vision is a question, says a former U.S. intelligence official, "that still keeps a lot of us up nights."

    Khan was born in 1936, in Bhopal, India, 11 years before the founding of Pakistan. His youth was shaped by the communal violence that plagued India after the end of colonization. He has told his biographer of witnessing the massacre of Muslims by Hindus that followed the partition of the old British colony in 1947. By the time he immigrated to Pakistan in 1952, Khan had developed an interest in science and a loathing for India.

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