PAKISTAN: The Islamic Bomb

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How another country is joining the nuclear club

He was a brilliant and charming man, a linguist who was liked by his colleagues and suburban Amsterdam neighbors. To be sure, Abdul Qadar Khan did seem a bit inquisitive to his fellow scientists at The Netherlands' top-secret gas centrifuge factory at Almelo, where enriched uranium is produced for nuclear plants around the world. On the other hand, asking questions was normal behavior for a bright young metallurgist who wanted to get ahead. After 17 days at the plant, however, Khan was politely but firmly told to leave Almelo, and went back to work in his Amsterdam laboratory. Shortly afterward, he told friends that he had been asked to return to his native Pakistan and serve in the Economic Affairs Ministry. Sadly, he bade them goodbye, his sojourn in Holland completed.

And, as it now seems, his mission accomplished. When Khan returned to his homeland, only two commercial gas centrifuge plants existed—one in Capenhurst, Britain, and the other in Almelo. The blueprints for both factories are highly classified, since the uranium produced by a gas centrifuge can be used to make nuclear weapons. Today, Khan is apparently director of Pakistan's one and only gas centrifuge plant, which is now under construction near the country's capital, Islamabad. The onetime Almelo adviser managed to carry home critical information about the gas centrifuge process needed to build such a factory, thereby enabling Pakistan to produce its own enriched uranium and, eventually, its own nuclear bomb. Pakistan will be a full-fledged member of the world's nuclear club within two to five years.

Western intelligence experts believe that Pakistan has been trying for at least 15 years to develop a nuclear bomb, primarily to strengthen its defenses against neighboring India. When New Delhi tested its first atomic bomb in 1974, Islamabad stepped up its own efforts. The late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was then Pakistan's Prime Minister, warned that "we will eat leaves and grass, even go hungry" to build the country's own weapon. "There's a Hindu bomb, a Jewish bomb and a Christian bomb," Bhutto once wrote. "There must be an Islamic bomb."

It was in 1974 that Khan got his chance to get into the gas centrifuge plant at Almelo. Owned and operated by a consortium called Urenco, it was administered jointly by Britain, West Germany and The Netherlands. Khan had first come to Holland in 1963 at the age of 27 to enroll in the prestigious Technical University of Delft. He performed well, both there and, later, in the doctoral program at Belgium's Catholic University in Louvain.

In 1972 Khan applied for and won a position in a physics-dynamics laboratory run by the Dutch industrial giant Verenigde Metaalfabrieken-Werkspoor, which was doing research for Almelo. He underwent a very light security check conducted by the Dutch authorities: he simply filled out a questionnaire, claiming that he planned to become a Dutch citizen soon and listing the nationality of his South African bride as Dutch. Certified as clean, Khan two years later was invited to work briefly at Almelo.

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