Saturday, December 4

Obituary of Abdul Qadeer Khan | Pakistan

The father of Pakistan’s atomic weapons industry and the largest nuclear weapons proliferator in history, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who died aged 85 after testing positive for Covid-19, was heralded as a hero in his native country, But he left a disturbing legacy. to the west. Along with Pakistan, the states of Libya, North Korea and Iran benefited from the nuclear physicist’s dealings. Its story is also deeply related to the tribulations of neighboring Afghanistan.

There are two basic ways to manufacture the material that provides the explosive power of a nuclear weapon. The first is to process plutonium. The second is to use high-speed centrifuges to enrich uranium in weapons-grade material, called highly enriched uranium (HEU).

When India conducted its first nuclear test in May 1974, Khan was working for the FDO laboratory in Amsterdam, an institute involved in centrifuge research, connected to the Urenco plant that provided uranium enrichment technology for the British, Dutch and Dutch governments. German.

Determined to help his country catch up with its rival, he volunteered his services. Within months, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto asked the Pakistani embassy in the Netherlands to contact him, and by the end of the year, Khan had started copying designs for centrifuges and drawing up a list of companies that could provide the technology that Pakistan would need. to produce highly enriched uranium.

Numerous opportunities to prevent Khan’s activities were missed. In 1975, Dutch police officers oversaw a meeting between Khan and a Pakistani diplomat. While they felt they had evidence to arrest him, they decided to keep him under surveillance.

In October, suspicions about Khan mounted and he was transferred off of uranium enrichment work. But Pakistan had already started purchasing components for its own uranium enrichment program from various European companies supplying Urenco.

He left the Netherlands for Pakistan in December, taking copies of centrifuge blueprints and other parts. A Dutch court later sentenced him in absentia to four years in prison for nuclear espionage, although the conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

He reappeared the following year working at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), led by Munir Ahmad Khan, which focused on the plutonium route. Following disagreements within PAEC, Bhutto gave Khan control over Pakistan’s uranium enrichment program and established the Engineering Research Laboratory (ERL). Pakistan successfully enriched uranium in Khan’s laboratory in 1978.

Pakistan’s efforts were of widespread concern. In April 1979, US President Jimmy Carter imposed economic sanctions on Pakistan to try to stop its advance. It is unknown if this pressure could have made a difference.

On Christmas Day of that year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The United States saw an opportunity to weaken its adversary by increasing support for its opponents, the Mujahideen. But doing so required Pakistan’s support, giving the country a new strategic importance. His quid pro quo was for the United States to turn a blind eye to its nuclear program. The United States agreed, sanctions were lifted, and Pakistan received a generous package of assistance instead. Khan would later claim that the leeway Pakistan received served to accelerate the nuclear program.

By the mid-1980s, with ERL now renamed the AQ Khan Research Laboratory (KRL), Pakistan had produced enough HEU to make a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Khan had a surplus of centrifuges, which he began selling to Iran. He continued to over-order the components and pass them through. He is also believed to have offered technology to Iraq, an offer that was not accepted.

Khan visited North Korea on several occasions and is suspected of having traded knowledge of North Korean missiles for his own nuclear capabilities. In the early 1990s, KRL helped develop the Ghauri missile with the support of North Korea. Meanwhile, Pakistan tested its first nuclear device in 1998, weeks after India did the same, although Munir Ahmad Khan deserves at least the same credit.

More is known about Khan’s Libyan connection, which Libya abandoned in 2003. Since 1997, Khan’s network transferred centrifuges and their components to Libya, allowing him to create a pilot enrichment facility. Libya also purchased almost 2 tons of uranium hexafluoride, the gas used in centrifuges. The source is unknown. Some suspect it came from North Korea, others from Pakistan. What is known is that the nuclear technology used in the three countries is based on Urenco’s technology.

Born in Bhopal, the son of Abdul Ghafoor, a school teacher, and his wife, Zulekha, Khan went to independent secondary school in India before following the rest of his family to Pakistan when he was 16 years old. After graduating in engineering from the University of Karachi and serving as a municipal inspector of weights and measures for three years, he completed his education in Europe, studying metallurgical engineering at the Technical University of Berlin followed by a master’s degree from the Technical University of Delft ( 1967) and, in 1972, a doctorate from the University of Leuven in Belgium. Soon after, he started working for FDO.

In 2003, the US government is believed to have provided Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf with evidence of Khan’s network. Khan was fired in early 2004 and a few days later appeared on live television confessing to having passed nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea for decades.

The following day he received clemency from Musharraf, but remained under house arrest until 2009. In his confession he claimed to have acted alone, but subsequently blamed both Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto for allowing proliferation to occur. Many are skeptical that he could have acted alone. The hard currency provided for nuclear technology (Libyan $ 100 million is believed to be) would have broader economic benefits for a country that frequently faces financial problems.

After his death, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted that he was “loved by our nation.” That’s certainly true: Khan was praised as a national hero for making Pakistan the world’s first “Islamic nuclear power,” and he remains the only Pakistani to have won its highest award for civilians, the Nishan-i-Imtiaz, two times, but few outside Pakistan and the beneficiaries of their experience would share the sentiment.

In 1964 he married Hendrina Reterink, a British citizen born to Dutch parents in South Africa. She and her two daughters, Dina and Ayesha, survive him.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, nuclear physicist, born April 1, 1936; died on October 10, 2021

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