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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    In 1953, Khan enrolled in Karachi's D.J. Science College. But he soon uprooted again, moving to Europe and earning degrees in electrical engineering and metallurgy. After finishing his studies, he threw himself into the burgeoning field of nuclear science in the Netherlands. With oil prices soaring, interest in harnessing nuclear power for civilian energy was high. In 1975, Khan took a job at the Dutch branch of a European nuclear-research consortium, Urenco, which specialized in uranium enrichment. Khan soon recognized that the centrifuges Urenco had developed to enrich uranium for civilian use were powerful enough to produce the fissile material needed for a nuclear weapon.

    When he returned home in 1976, he displayed his talent for enterprise. He brought with him the Dutch woman who would become his wife--and extremely sensitive centrifuge designs, which the Dutch say he had stolen from his nuclear employer. In the context of Pakistan's rivalry with India, Khan's perfidy was considered an extreme form of patriotism. Since India had a nuclear program, Pakistan needed one too. Soon Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto appointed Khan to run Pakistan's nuclear-research program, with the goal of developing a weapon as soon as possible. "Pakistan's choice was either to reinvent the wheel or buy it," says Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group in Islamabad. Khan decided to buy it.

    There are two basic paths to producing bomb-grade material. One involves reprocessing the plutonium contained in spent nuclear fuel, a path taken by North Korea in the 1980s. But that method requires first building a nuclear reactor, a costly and cumbersome endeavor. Khan's experience in Europe steered him toward the cheaper option. Working the contacts he had made in Europe, he set out to acquire the rotational machines, known as centrifuges, that enrich uranium into bomb-grade material.

    Pakistan's bomb program took years to mature, but in 1998, on the back of Khan's labors, the country detonated five underground nuclear bombs. At a time of high tensions with India over the disputed region of Kashmir, the event turned Khan into a national hero. His glowering, wavy-haired portrait was hand-painted on the backs of trucks and buses all over the country. He was twice awarded Pakistan's highest civilian honor, the Hilal-e-Imtiaz medal. Celebrated in textbooks, he was probably Pakistan's most famous man.

    But Khan had a secret life. In hindsight, there were some obvious tip-offs. Although still a civil servant in a poor country, he owned dozens of properties in Pakistan and Dubai and invested in a Timbuktu hotel, which he named after his wife. He donated $30 million to various Pakistani charities and had enough money left over to buy his staff members cars and pay for the university education of their children. He had an ego to match his newfound fortune: after paying to restore the tomb of Sultan Shahabuddin Ghauri, an Afghan who conquered Delhi, Khan put up a portrait of himself next to the sultan's.

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