On 9 October 2006, with 20 minutes warning, North Korea notified China that it was about to detonate its first nuclear device.
China’s leadership sent an emergency alert to the White House, where President George W Bush got word that a North Korean test was imminent. It was a glaring defeat of efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons technology.
bullying this country, such a small country, for the last 60 years, threatening them, boycotting, putting embargoes, economic sanctions, all those things. So this is a verbal tit-for-tat from their side. They know they would become charcoal within five minutes if they do anything wrong, if they took any wrong step. There won’t be any North Korea on the map of the world within 5-10 minutes. They know it. And they are not so stupid to do such an irrational thing.”]
But the spread of technology had not been stopped, and it was not just North Korea – Iran, and Libya had also mastered the ability to enrich uranium, a critical step for any country that might want to manufacture nuclear weapons.
So, how did that happen? In 2004, the US announced that intelligence services had established the existence of a vast underground network of suppliers of nuclear technology and skills. It was, they alleged, led by Abdul Qadeer Khan, also known as the ‘father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb’.
Overnight, AQ Khan became one of the most wanted men in the world.
Pakistan’s military regime, then led by General Pervez Musharraf, responded by isolating Khan, putting him under house arrest, and shielding him from the outside world. No one was allowed to talk to him, not even the CIA or the IAEA, whose chairman at the time, Mohamed ElBaradei, described the Khan network:
“It’s mind-boggling …. All I know is there’s at least more than 30 companies in 30 countries all over the globe involved in this fantastic, sophisticated illicit trafficking network with Mr AQ Khan acting as CEO.”
After working as a nuclear scientist in Europe for several years, Khan had returned to Pakistan to build the nation’s capabilities. While doing so, he allegedly brought in extra equipment and parts from suppliers around the world.
These suppliers were located in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, Malaysia and Turkey. He then sold the extra parts, and his know-how to clients in Libya, Iran and North Korea, and he used banking and shipment services in Dubai for the transactions.
AQ Khan was forced to go on national TV to confess:
“The recent international events and their fallout on Pakistan have traumatised the nation. I have much to answer for it. The recent investigation was ordered by the government of Pakistan consequent to the disturbing disclosures and evidence by some countries to international agencies, relating to alleged proliferation activities by certain Pakistanis and foreigners over the last two decades. The investigation has established that many of the reported activities did occur and that these were inevitably initiated at my behest.”
Khan later retracted this confession.
He was also careful not to confess to all the allegations and, until this day, many questions remain. When the Swiss government tried to uncover who in that country had been supplying AQ Khan, a parliamentary commission found that evidence had been destroyed, apparently after pressure from the US – raising suspicions that the US had something to hide.
So, why exactly did the Musharraf regime stop AQ Khan from talking to international investigators? Did he have evidence implicating his own government in his activities?
This week, Talk to Al Jazeera sits down with AQ Khan, the former head of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. to discuss allegations that he gave nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya. We also talk about his political ambitions, and his visions for the future of Pakistan.
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