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NONPROLIFERATION: The Pakistan Network

Author: Esther Pan
February 12, 2004

How will the capture of A.Q. Khan affect the international nuclear black market?

Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan's nuclear program, confessed on February 4 that he had shared nuclear designs and information with other countries, confirming experts' long-held suspicions. "Pakistan is absolutely the biggest and most important illicit exporter of nuclear technology in the history of the nuclear age," says Jim Walsh, executive director of the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. His capture will likely slow down the international black market, experts say, driving participants even further underground--but, they warn, probably not for long.

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Who benefited from the black market?

Pakistan, North Korea, Libya, and Iran. Pakistan traded nuclear technology to North Korea in exchange for ballistic missile technology, says Robert W. Nelson, the MacArthur fellow in science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. Libya acquired highly restricted centrifuge and warhead designs and components that nearly constituted "turn-key"--or functional--fuel-enrichment systems, Walsh says. Iran built illicit plants to enrich uranium. And experts suspect that other countries also benefited from the market, but they can't prove which ones. "At this point, we don't know who else" has nuclear materials, says Walsh. "Khan went out there and offered it--what happened after continues to be unclear."

Are nuclear materials still available?

Possibly. Experts worry that nuclear material--including 600 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium still left in the former Soviet Union, according to Walsh--is vulnerable to theft or could be sold or traded by disaffected scientists or opportunists. And the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) has warned that several other nuclear stockpiles around the world have inadequate security, Walsh says.

How did Khan's network operate?

The Pakistan-based network traded everything from blueprints for centrifuges that enrich uranium--creating fuel for nuclear weapons--to weapons' designs and parts. It also included a sophisticated transportation system to move the goods from the supplier to the buyer.

How was it different from previous proliferation networks?

Experts say that before Khan, proliferators bought bits and pieces of nuclear components from private middlemen, then had to assemble them to set up functional nuclear systems. Khan changed all that, experts say, by creating a centralized "one-stop shop" that offered technical advice, parts, and customer support. The network's efficiency led Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, to call it the "Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation." Khan's eponymous Khan Research Laboratories, a government-supported nuclear facility outside Islamabad, reportedly offered 24-hour technical assistance to customers and even had color brochures printed up--advertising centrifuges and other components for sale--to give to prospective clients at arms fairs, says Walsh.

How was Khan's network discovered?

Experts had suspected Khan for a long time, but couldn't confirm their suspicions until October 2003, when Italian authorities seized a German ship carrying 1,000 centrifuges headed for Libya. The parts were made in Malaysia and shipped through the Middle East, according to news reports. Libya was able to get nearly complete centrifuges through the network, as well as blueprints for a Pakistani-designed nuclear warhead.

What has the Libya probe found?

Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi's December 2003 decision to give up his country's nuclear program and cooperate with international inspectors gave authorities access to a mother lode of information. Documents turned over by the Libyans included centrifuge designs and plans for a nuclear bomb, wrapped in plastic bags from an Islamabad dry cleaner, The New York Times reported February 9. The documents also revealed the source of the nuclear components that Libya bought: Scomi Precision Engineering, or SCOPE, in Selangor, Malaysia.

What is known about the Malaysian company?

SCOPE is part of a publicly traded oil and gas conglomerate whose largest shareholder, Kamaluddin Abdullah, is the son of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. "The evidence suggests that the Malaysian factory was able to manufacture parts to Pakistani designs for centrifuges that could then be shipped on to Libya and Iran," Shannon Kyle, a nuclear weapons analyst at the Stockholm International Peace Institute, told The South China Morning Post. Kamaluddin Abdullah has not commented on the case, but the prime minister said at a news conference February 5 that "there is no capability within the country or within the company concerned to produce nuclear bombs or any complete components to make nuclear weapons."

How were the illicit goods transported?

The Libyan investigation has revealed a sophisticated transportation network spanning the globe from East Asia to Africa. The centrifuge shipment that authorities seized last October was arranged by a middleman named B.S.A. Tahir, a Sri Lankan businessman based in Dubai, according to The New York Times. Tahir is the controlling shareholder in Gulf Technical Industries, a Dubai-based concern that received the centrifuge shipments from Malaysia, then loaded them onto a German ship to send to Libya by way of Italy. In Khan's confession, he said middlemen in Sri Lanka, Germany, and the Netherlands helped transport plans, parts, and materials to his international clients.

What has the Khan probe found?

That Khan sent hardware, designs, and technology to countries around the world from the late 1980s until he was forced to retire in March 2001, according to experts and Khan's confession. "There's no question that the nexis of this exchange has been Pakistan," says Lee Feinstein, deputy director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Experts say the traded items included:

  • Blueprints for Pakistani centrifuges, which were swapped for North Korean ballistic missile technology. Paul Leventhal, founding president of the Nuclear Control Institute, says the centrifuge design Khan shared with others is based on a model that he stole from the European consortium URENCO, which produces enriched uranium for nuclear power, when Khan worked there as a scientist in the 1970s.
  • Blueprints for a crude nuclear bomb that Khan designed.
  • Designs and parts for centrifuges that can enrich uranium. Experts say Libya was buying parts of--and sometimes whole--sophisticated centrifuges able to spin at twice the speed of sound and separate isotopes of U-235, or enriched uranium, from naturally occurring U-238. (As the centrifuge spins, the lighter U-235 concentrates in the center, while the heavier U-238 moves toward the outside.) The steel used in the tubing for the centrifuges, which rotate at hundreds of thousands of revolutions per minute, must be perfectly balanced and milled to exact specifications, according to Nelson. The level of sophistication required precludes the material from other, legitimate uses, such as medical or pharmaceutical research, he says. And because each centrifuge enriches the uranium only slightly, thousands of them used in sequence are needed to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb.
What happened to Khan?

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf pardoned him on February 5. Experts say Khan's revelations have damaged the international nuclear black market. In a speech at the National Defense University on February 11, Bush said, "Khan and his top associates are out of business... other members of the network [who] remain at large ... will be found and their careers as proliferators will be ended." Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet said in a speech on February 5, "Khan['s] ... network is now answering to the world for years of nuclear profiteering."

How much did the government of Pakistan know about Khan's activities?

Musharraf has denied that his government had any involvement in Khan's dealings. The scientists involved in the nuclear program "moved around with full autonomy in a secretive manner," Musharraf said on January 25, adding that the program "could succeed only if there was total autonomy and nobody knew." But many experts doubt that, in a country run by the military, these transactions were kept truly secret. "It's becoming increasingly implausible that these kinds of things could have gone on without Musharraf knowing," Leventhal says. Musharraf was the head of the army when he seized power in 1999; he is scheduled to give up control of the armed forces at the end of this year. "It borders on the incredible that the military leadership did not know."

What did the Malaysian government know?

Malaysian authorities have denied knowledge of nuclear trafficking. Officials of the Scomi Group, SCOPE's parent company, confirmed that they made "14 semi-finished components" and sent them to Dubai in four shipments between December 2002 and August 2003 in a transaction worth $3.4 million, according to the Associated Press. But they say they didn't know the parts were headed to Libya and point out that centrifuges are used in many other procedures, from water treatment to protein separation for molecular biology. Najib Raza, Malaysia's defense minister, said on February 5 that Malaysia has no nuclear weapons program and has "absolutely" no intention of becoming a nuclear power. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi told investigators to look into charges involving his son Kamaluddin, 35, "without fear or favor." But some experts are wary of the Malaysian government's intentions. "Any state that has the capability to manufacture centrifuges to enrich uranium has the capability to enrich uranium to weapons grade," Leventhal says.

Who else could be buying nuclear technology on the black market?

Walsh says a joke is making the rounds of the nuclear anti-proliferation community: "If you want to know who's a proliferator, follow A.Q. Khan's travel schedule." Khan has long argued that Muslim countries are entitled to the bomb. He traveled freely for years, meeting with officials in other countries. Experts warn that many of these nations are now potential proliferation suspects, including:

  • Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, one of the Gulf emirates, which experts say both helped finance the Pakistani nuclear program;
  • Algeria and Syria, which have expressed nuclear ambitions;
  • Malaysia and Indonesia;
  • Myanmar (Burma), where Khan reportedly met with officials;
  • Egypt.

"Basically, any major member of the Muslim world is unfortunately now suspect," Walsh says. Most worrisome to experts are terrorist groups like al Qaeda, which could also be involved in buying or trading nuclear components. "We've known for many years that there's a market for nuclear technology with weapons applications," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

What other countries could be a source of illicit nuclear technology?

Experts say the following countries could be trading nuclear information on the black market:

  • Pakistan, where some of Khan's associates and military elements are thought to be sympathetic to Islamic extremism;
  • Countries in the former Soviet Union, including Russia and the Ukraine, from which nuclear materials could be stolen;
  • India, which has a much better security record on proliferation than Pakistan but what experts call insufficient security for its nuclear program;
  • China; and
  • North Korea. "It's still true that North Korea is the one to be worried about," Nelson says. "If they don't use it, they could sell it."
Why is this information coming to light now?

After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration devoted intensive efforts to combating the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and particularly to keeping them out of the hands of terrorists, experts say. The U.S.-led war in Iraq in March 2003 was fought in large part over the issue of Saddam Hussein's WMD, which experts say made other countries take note that U.S. policymakers were willing to go to war over illicit weapons. In addition to recent revelations from Libya and Pakistan, Iran has also revealed significant information about its nuclear supply routes, experts say, under pressure from the United States and the IAEA.

What's being done by authorities to combat the nuclear black market?

A Proliferation Security Initiative, announced by President Bush on May 31, 2003, is an agreement between 11 developed countries to stop and search vessels in their territories suspected of carrying banned weapons or technology in order to "stop the flow of such items at sea, in the air or on land." The initiative gives countries broad powers to board vessels and seize illicit cargo. It was under this initiative that authorities seized the centrifuges headed for Libya last fall. On February 11, President Bush proposed expanding the initiative and announced a new proposal to limit the number of nations allowed to produce nuclear fuel. He appealed to the Nuclear Suppliers Group--a 40-nation group that cooperates on proliferation issues--to refrain from selling nuclear equipment to any country not already allowed to produce nuclear fuel.

Walsh says U.S. and Pakistani authorities are doing "old-fashioned police work" on the Khan case, including reviewing his travel records and tracking his phone calls and money transfers to find out who his other clients were. In his February 11 speech President Bush praised U.S. and British intelligence agencies, saying their officers had uncovered the network, identified the key individuals, followed transactions, and monitored the movement of material.

Experts say the current IAEA safeguards against nuclear proliferation need to be strengthened, and the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which bans the sale or transfer of prohibited items, extended even to countries that have not signed--including India and Pakistan. Some experts say the threat of the nuclear black market highlights the need to disarm countries like Pakistan of nuclear weapons entirely. "There has to be some hard thinking about how long [Pakistan's nuclear] program can be tolerated," Leventhal says.

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