The Point of No Return

First Pakistan's A.Q. Khan showed that any country could have made a nuclear bomb. Then he showed—not once but three times—why the nuclear trade will never be shut down

His source did not answer right away. Apparently he had not anticipated this question, and he needed time to decide how far to go. The choice was between "no comment" and telling the truth, because only a fool would lie to Mark Hibbs. The man paused for a long while. Finally he said, "Yeah."

Hibbs said, "Where did Iran get it from?"

Again the man paused. "Well, it's the same …" He stopped himself. Earlier that year the United States had leaked word that North Korea had received centrifuge designs and possibly prototypes from Pakistan in return for missile technology, in a state-to-state swap. The leak was directed not against Pakistan but against North Korea, which soon restarted its plutonium-reprocessing facilities and expelled IAEA inspectors. In any case, Hibbs's contact decided to go ahead. He said, "There's only one country that's exporting centrifuge technology."

"Do you mean Pakistan?"


Hibbs said, "You realize, if I trust you on this and flesh this out and write it, there's going to be a shit storm, and basically it's going to be denied everywhere."


Hibbs wrote it up, and in January of 2003 his editor put it on page one of Nuclear Fuel, under the drab Platts-style headline "Pakistan Believed Design Data Source For Centrifuges To Be Built By Iran." It was the most important work of Hibbs's career to date—a 2,164-word masterpiece that went to the center of Pakistan's activities and with unerring precision mapped the recent history of nuclear proliferation. The reaction, as Hibbs had predicted, amounted to a chorus of official denials—with various professors chiming in to explain why, for cultural or geopolitical reasons, Pakistan would never have helped the Iranians to arm. But Hibbs stood his ground.

Later he said to me, "There was no comment from the IAEA. I continued to interact with the sources of that story. Throughout 2003 they kept telling me, 'You're not only warm and hot but the IAEA is very angry that you are not letting them control the flow of information. They're onto Pakistan. They know that individuals in Pakistan were deeply implicated in this program. But they can't use the "P" word. No one will say "Pakistan." It's all being discreetly negotiated between the IAEA, the United States, and other countries …'" The problem for the United States was that Pakistan was again now a trusted ally, this time in the effort to destroy al-Qaeda.

I said, "So they wanted you to pipe down."

Hibbs said, "Anyway, we kept working on Pakistan, and more and more bits of the story got confirmed. I kept fingering Pakistan, fingering Pakistan, and pissing off the IAEA and the U.S. government, because at that time they were saying, 'We want to make a deal with these people. We want to make sure it doesn't get out of control.'"

I said, "The story or the activity?"

"The story. They wanted to control it."

Controlling a story once Hibbs starts into it is not an easy trick, particularly because of the dedicated non-proliferationists within the ranks of government, who refuse to submit to higher political agendas and are therefore sometimes willing to talk. The Bush administration did manage to engineer a partial shelter for Pervez Musharraf, allowing him on behalf of the United States to pursue his "war on terrorism," largely against his own people, along the border with Afghanistan. Nonetheless, across the months of 2003, as revelation led to revelation, it became obvious that A. Q. Khan's nuclear empire, which had long been penetrated yet neglected by the West, was at last starting to fall apart.

The trouble over North Korea served as an early warning to Khan—or it could have, had he been wiser and less enamored of himself. Cooperation with the Koreans seems to have dated back to 1992, when Pakistan, having acquired nuclear weapons, cast around for a missile capable of carrying them. Groups of Pakistani engineers and officials made several trips to North Korea to witness test flights of a promising medium-range missile called the NoDong. They later struck a deal. Over the course of the decade North Korea provided Pakistan with prototypes of missiles that were modified and produced at the Khan Research Laboratories, resulting in a successful Pakistani flight just before the tit-for-tat nuclear tests of India and Pakistan in 1998. In return for the missiles Pakistan provided the North Koreans with centrifuge prototypes—the same old URENCO design—and gave them uranium-enrichment and procurement advice. Western intelligence services found out. Behind closed doors in 2000 U.S. officials confronted the Musharraf regime with what they thought was irrefutable evidence (much of it photographic) of the centrifuge trade. The Pakistanis categorically denied that any such activity had taken place. They looked the Americans in the eye and lied, and they did not care that the Americans knew it. The transfers continued. The Americans persisted, some believing that bombs in the hands of Pyongyang would be more dangerous even than bombs in the hands of Baghdad or Tehran. Eventually Musharraf came up with a convenient answer: while admitting to no wrongdoing by Pakistan or himself, or to any consummated transfers of nuclear technology, he quietly pointed at Khan, essentially for being out of control.

His pointing took the form of a mock investigation. Khan was making frequent trips to the Gulf city-state of Dubai, where, like many other rich Pakistanis, he owned a home, and where increasingly he sought medical care for himself and his wife. Dubai had long served as an offshore trans-shipment hub for the Pakistani nuclear-procurement network, and it served just as well now as a center for the business of nuclear distribution. Khan's main collaborator there was a young Sri Lankan named Buhary Syed Abu Tahir—a wholesaler of consumer goods who had warehouses full of televisions and personal computers, and who had supplied air-conditioners to the Khan Research Laboratories before gradually getting involved in the smuggling of nuclear materials. Tahir seems to have been a morally neutral character, friendly to Khan and sympathetic to the aspirations of developing nuclear powers, but motivated primarily by the money to be made as a middleman. Khan did not begrudge him his profits: indeed, he had grown so fond of Tahir that he teased him about his love life and sometimes treated him like a son. But Khan himself remained the great moralist: not averse to personal gain, and delighted to wheel and deal in luxury in Dubai, but convinced that whatever he did he did for Pakistan.

Khan was therefore dumbfounded, upon returning from a short trip to Dubai in 2000, when Musharraf, having called him in for a conversation, told him that he had been under surveillance by Pakistani agents and that there were concerns about financial improprieties. Financial improprieties? In the world of Khan the word had lost all meaning. There was no question of going to prison, but in 2001, just days short of his sixty-fifth birthday, A. Q. Khan was gently relieved of his command, forced to retire with honors from his cherished laboratory, and "promoted" to the position of scientific adviser to Musharraf. This last was a particularly nice touch. There is evidence that the exchanges with North Korea continued for at least another year. When the Bush administration finally decided to go public with its concerns about the North Koreans' nuclear-weapons program, it delayed leaking the intelligence information until late October of 2002, after Congress had given its approval for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The blundering that fall defies belief: while dragging the United States into a disastrous war in the pursuit of phantom weapons programs in Iraq, the U.S. government condoned the tangible actions of Pakistan—which, as any reader of Hibbs would have known, was delivering nuclear-weapons capabilities into the hands of America's most significant enemies, including regimes with overt connections to Islamist terrorists. Before the attacks on New York and Washington, Musharraf himself had accommodated Osama bin Laden, had supported the Taliban, and had used international jihadis against the Indians in Kashmir and beyond. But times had changed, and by October of 2002 Musharraf was Washington's friend, engaged in trying to suppress the Islamist idea by gunning it down. It was useful that with his move against Khan he had partially protected himself from revelations of Pakistan's trade in nuclear technology. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke with Musharraf, and afterward, when asked on ABC television about Pakistan's assistance to North Korea, said, "President Musharraf gave me his assurance in that conversation, as he has previously, that Pakistan is not doing anything of that nature … The past is the past. I am more concerned about what is going on now. We have a new relationship with Pakistan."

The past was the past, but it bore a striking resemblance to the present. Khan had been removed from the laboratories, but as the U.S. government must have known full well, he continued to run Pakistan's nuclear networks and to pursue that business all over the world. Khan was vulnerable now, a man positioned to take a fall; but he had become so stupid about himself that apparently he did not believe it, and in any case he was busy. Along with filling the import orders for Pakistan's ongoing nuclear-weapons programs and arranging for exports to Iran and North Korea, he was now occupied with Libya as well. The Libyans had long desired nuclear arms, and like the Saudis, they may have helped to underwrite Pakistan's original uranium-enrichment efforts, in the vague hope that Pakistan would produce a "Muslim" bomb to be shared. That didn't work out. But by the late 1990s, with Pakistan expressing its willingness to make deals, the terms were clear: solidarity aside, it was cash that counted, and foreign governments could simply buy the components necessary to become self-sustaining nuclear powers. Libya decided to proceed. Emissaries from Tripoli met with Khan and Tahir in Istanbul, and later in Casablanca and Dubai, to hash out the details. Libya is a primitive Saharan society, only a half step beyond the traditions of nomadic life, and less capable technologically than any other nuclear aspirant to date. Khan must have said to the Libyans that this did not matter—and given the Europeans' earlier doubts about Pakistan's own competence, he may have believed it. In any case, he offered to equip Libya with a turnkey operation, including all the facilities necessary to enrich uranium and ultimately to build bombs. The asking price was $100 million, which was a bargain for Libya, considering the international muscle that a nuclear arsenal would provide.

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William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. This is the second of two reports about A. Q. Khan and nuclear proliferation. More

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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