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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    Friends noticed another transformation in Khan. He became more religious after the successful nuclear tests in 1998. A Libyan source familiar with Khan's transactions with the Libyan government says Khan claimed he was selling nuclear technology to bolster the standing of Muslims. "We Muslims have to be strong and equal to any other country, and therefore I want to help some countries be strong," the source recalls Khan saying. Ex-colleagues told TIME that following the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, he railed against the West and its operations against the Muslim community. After the U.S. imposed sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear test, Khan became convinced that the U.S. was bent on destroying Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, its main weapon against India's far mightier army.

    Whether motivated by greed or ideology or both, Khan decided to go into business for himself, even as he oversaw Pakistan's nuclear development. Khan offered a one-stop shop for regimes interested in producing nuclear weapons. He offered centrifuges--known as P-1, for Pakistan, and later P-2, a more sophisticated version--as well as machines that make centrifuges (critical to Khan's customers because hundreds or thousands of them are needed to make highly enriched uranium in quantities sufficient for a weapon). Utilizing a variety of contacts in Europe, Asia and Africa, Khan built a network of factories and salesmen that covered the globe. There was even a slick advertising brochure promoting the group's wares.

    In the early 1990s, Khan began meeting with representatives from an assortment of outlaw regimes. A former Energy Minister in Islamabad says Iranian officials approached Pakistan's army chief in 1991, offering "around $8 billion" for access to Khan's technology. The offer was rebuffed but, IAEA officials say, three years later Khan did establish contact with the Iranians. A key member of the network has told investigators that Iran bought centrifuges from Khan. The IAEA reports that the Khan network also provided Iran with blueprints to manufacture more P-1 and P-2 centrifuges. The Iranians say they wanted the centrifuges for civilian purposes, a claim the U.S. doubts. Either way, says a U.S. official, "Khan was vital" to the progress of Iran's nuclear program.

    By 1995, with Khan's Iran connection established, another global pariah, Libya, sought him out. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had tried in the late 1980s to build his own nuclear program by importing German technology and engineers, but the effort failed. To make its bombs, Libya wanted to enrich uranium rather than produce plutonium in a reactor because, says the official, "with a reactor, you cannot hide anything." Khan's system was a perfect fit, and as the commercial relationship was launched, Khan's underlings whetted Gaddafi's appetite with an unexpected gift. Khan gave the Libyans a stack of technical instructions for how to build a nuclear warhead. The material was wrapped in the kind of plastic sheeting used by dry cleaners. Khan never told the Libyans that it was a plan for a bomb, saying only "Here is some information that will be useful for you in the future."

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