Ausgabe 11/2006

A.Q. Khan's Nuclear Mafia Network of Death on Trial

The world's first-ever court case against a presumed member of Khan's global nuclear weapons bazaar is beginning on Friday. The German defendant may have helped Libya acquire nuclear weapons technology. Iran is implicated too.

By , Georg Mascolo and

Parts for a centrifuge were discovered on a container ship bound for Libya in 2003. It was the beginning of the end for A.Q. Khan's nuclear mafia.

Parts for a centrifuge were discovered on a container ship bound for Libya in 2003. It was the beginning of the end for A.Q. Khan's nuclear mafia.

The building itself is modest. Dating from the 1960s, it's covered with rust-brown steel siding on the outside and nicotine-yellow ceiling tiles on the inside. But the building, a courthouse in the German city of Mannheim, has been charged with a vitally important mission -- case number 25 Kls 613 Js 17967/05. The mission is that of saving humanity, and it starts at 10:00 a.m. this Friday.

There are two ways to describe the case against German engineer and businessman Gotthard Lerch coming before the Mannheim District Court. One involves the complex language of Germany's War Weapons Control Act and Foreign Trade Act -- the language of the indictment against Lerch. The other description is much easier to understand. Lerch stands accused of aiding and abetting the end of the world through nuclear Armageddon.

Lerch, it is alleged, lent his support to the efforts of a number of dictators around the world to construct a nuclear weapon. He is charged with supplying plans, manuals and even entire systems. The case going before the Mannheim court on Friday deals with Lerch's alleged involvement with Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. According to a confidential expert report, Gadhafi would have been able to produce up to 30 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium a month with the equipment he ordered from his German contact. It is the first trial worldwide against a suspected member of the nuclear mafia and it is shining an unwelcome spotlight on Germany -- the country is once again at the center of a case focusing on the international arms trade.

Clues to Iran's nuclear program?

Prosecutors can thank two key figures for strengthening the case against Lerch: Sri Lankan businessman Buhary Seyed Abu Tahir and Swiss engineer Daniel Geiges. Tahir gave important testimony to German investigators and Geiges spoke candidly with SPIEGEL last week. The details the two men provided have now made it possible to reconstruct -- from the standpoint of those involved -- one of the most unscrupulous crimes of the modern age, a story that has become all the more politically relevant in light of the current dispute with Iran.

After all, it's also likely the network provided its services to Tehran. But it remains unclear as to exactly how full the Iranian mullahs filled their shopping baskets at Khan's European arms-dealer bazaar. Indeed, some of the Iranian on-again-off-again negotiating strategy with the international community could very well be an attempt to cover up just how much of the country's nuclear technology came from abroad. Mohammad ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is hoping the Mannheim trial will shine some light on similarities between the Libyan deal and what might have happened in Iran.

Dr. Khan's network.

Dr. Khan's network.

IAEA reports already strongly suggest that the Iranians were regular customers in a global supermarket for nuclear equipment and materials -- and not just because they wanted to enrich uranium for nuclear power plants. Despite their many denials, the Iranians, it would seem, are clearly interested in nuclear weapons.

Such is the geo-political backdrop for the first-ever trial of a presumed member of the international nuclear Mafia. Mannheim has the dubious honor because Lerch, who lives in Switzerland, was extradited to Germany in June 2005. The trial will be held in the Mannheim court's largest courtroom -- a 250-square-meter (about 2,700 square feet) gymnasium of criminal jurisdiction.

"Polite and decent"

Lerch, 63, is by all accounts a quiet, good-natured and refined man. While in Swiss detention awaiting extradition, Lerch made himself popular among fellow detainees because, as an engineer, he was able to reconfigure the remote controls for the facility's TV sets. According to the director of the Altstätten regional prison where Lerch was held, he was consistently "polite and decent," a man with a "friendly nature."

An unimpeachable character, in other words. Except for the fact that, according to the prosecution, Lerch used his same positive character traits to serve the network of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. It was the same Dr. Khan who not only became the celebrated "father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb" in the 1990s, but also used his talents to remake himself into the most notorious figure in the global black market for nuclear weapons. And it was the same Dr. Khan who was consistently at the service of regimes in Iran, Libya and North Korea, and possibly other nations, that were secretly attempting to join the nuclear club.

Lerch, in pre-trial detention in Mannheim, allegedly worked for Khan as something of a division manager for the Libyan business -- with responsibility for South Africa as a production site. According to the investigation conducted by the Mannheim district attorney's office, Lerch received 55 million German marks for his services for a total profit of some 25 million marks.

Two circumstances could prove to be Lerch's undoing: first, the fact that the German ship "BBC China" was intercepted in October 2003 carrying a cargo of containers filled with nuclear technology headed for Libya and, second, that the incident prompted a panicked Gadhafi to disclose the names of all those who had supplied the Libyans with material and expertise for their nuclear program.

It was the biggest strike ever against the Khan connection and against the international nuclear black market. And for a moment, it almost seemed as if the whole thing were about to collapse. Khan, the popular hero, was forced to apologize to the Pakistani people in a humiliating television address, and has been under house arrest ever since. His protégé, Sri Lankan Buhary Seyed Abu Tahir, nicknamed "Junior," submitted a general confession to Malaysian criminal investigators and later to German officials. According to Tahir's testimony to the German investigators, large chunks of which remain classified, Libya spent $85 million with the Khan network -- Tahir himself received payment.

Terrifying chapter for global security

The authorities caught up with Gotthard Lerch, who Tahir calls his "main contractor," in Switzerland. They also arrested members of the Tinner family -- Friedrich Tinner and his two sons, Urs and Marco -- all on the suspicion of having built parts for Gadhafi's nuclear weapons program in return for 15 to 20 million Swiss francs. South African authorities captured German engineer Gerhard Wisser, who confessed to having collected €850,000, although after questioning Tahir, German authorities believe that Wisser may have earned as much as €10 million on the deal. Finally, Swiss authorities arrested Wisser's right-hand man, Swiss citizen Daniel Geiges, who broke his long silence for the first time last week.

Everything seemed to be falling into place -- a terrifying chapter in the story of global security was reaching a happy end after all. But then things became complicated again. Foreign investigators, including IAEA officials, have not been given access to Khan -- apparently a reflection of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's concerns over the touchy question of just how much his government knew about the dealings of its very own Dr. No. Khan's protégé, Tahir, has only been willing to talk in Malaysia. Indeed, he ended his testimony to German prosecutors -- so damaging to Lerch -- with the remark that he would not repeat anything he had just said before a German court.

And now the intelligence agencies are stonewalling. It is becoming increasingly clear that the CIA and Britain's MI6 infiltrated the Khan network and that they probably even recruited some of the main suspects. How else, for example, could one explain the fact that vacuum pumps manufactured by Germany's Pfeiffer Vacuum, ended up in both Libya and Iran? The company, after all, never sent any vacuum pumps to Libya or Iran -- but did send some to the US nuclear weapons research facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The investigation has also been dragging in South Africa, where it will apparently take a few more months before a case is finally brought against Wisser and his former employee, Geiges. In Switzerland, the case against the Tinners is likely to be postponed even further -- at least until next year.


© DER SPIEGEL 11/2006
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