A Bomb with many Fathers Is A.Q. Khan a 'Patriot' or the 'Godfather of Proliferation'?

Pakistani President Musharraf put him under house arrest for his nuclear weapons deals. Ex-CIA chief Tenet described him as being "at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden." Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan is under a gag order, but in SPIEGEL, his wife accuses the government of calling the shots.

By Erich Follath and

The villa, built on a hill covered with lush vegetation and well removed from the hectic life in the capital, could be an idyllic place. Monkeys play in the garden, and the air-conditioned rooms are filled with comfortable rattan furniture. But the people living there perceive it as a prison. The authorities have installed cameras in each of the rooms and at the entrance. Armed men guard the residents around the clock. Men on motorcycles patrol the grounds and 50 police officers and intelligence agents are assigned to the villa.

It's called "preventive protection." Whether the master of the house and his family are being protected from the public or the public from them remains unclear. They have been under de facto house arrest for four-and-a-half years. But now something sensational has happened.

The villa is the home of Abdul Qadir Khan, 72, who lives there with his wife and a granddaughter. Khan is the man former CIA Director George Tenet once called "at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden." He is the man his enemies call "Dr. Strangelove," an allusion to the Stanley Kubrick film "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," in which insane US officers trigger a nuclear war. He is also the man considered the father of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program -- a man considered proven of having committed the crime of having dealt in nuclear components and blueprints on the international black market, with such dubious countries as North Korea, Iran and Libya.

Khan also had contacts in Saudi Arabia. In fact, that country's defense minister even visited his research laboratory in Kahuta once. And, according to Western intelligence agencies, the al-Qaida terrorist organization is believed to have approached Khan through middlemen. In a televised speech in February 2004 the scientist, once decorated with his country's highest honors, delivered a tearful public confession of wrongdoing. In a detailed report, the American foreign intelligence agency, the CIA, concluded that there was irrefutable evidence that Khan had brokered the delivery of gas ultra-centrifuges for enriching uranium, and even detailed instructions for a "nuclear starter kit," to the Libyan capital Tripoli. Some of the merchandise, shipped on board the German freighter "BBC China," was still packaged in plastic bags labeled "Good Looks Tailor, Islamabad." Washington issued an ultimatum to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who depended on billions in US military aid, to which Musharraf complied by forcing Khan to deliver his public confession.

The contrite Dr. Strangelove said that he had acted of his own accord and for profit reasons. Musharraf accepted the apology in person, on live television, shaking his head as if to underscore his disapproval. It was soon clear that a deal must have been struck: a mild sentence in return for Khan's agreement not to speak to the press or to United Nations nuclear experts.

Khan kept up his end of the bargain for four years, to the chagrin of the nuclear detectives at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, which received nothing more than the occasional written, and apparently censored, responses to its detailed questions. Even the Americans were unable to gain access to this dealer of death on the global black market. But a few weeks ago Khan, weakened by cancer surgery and apparently ready to clear the air, began giving telephone interviews to the domestic and international media. SPIEGEL also spoke with Khan in July. In some of these interviews, the godfather of proliferation said unequivocally that he had been pressured to deliver his 2004 confession, and in doing so had protected other players.

By that point, Musharraf had apparently realized that the situation was about to spin out of control. It is unclear whether he was simply lucky or, despite the new, democratic government, which has been trying to put him out to pasture, still wields sufficient power. In any event, he found a judge on the Islamabad High Court who issued a ruling in his favor on July 21. Khan's attorney had petitioned to have his client's house arrest lifted, but now the pendulum appeared to be swinging back in the other direction instead. Judge Sardar Aslam reinforced the restrictions and stressed that Khan is barred from "saying anything about the nuclear issue to any journalist," or even from discussing the topic with his friends.

Khan will not challenge the verdict. If he did, he would risk a prison term and would probably lose contact, once and for all, with the few friends who are still permitted to see him, albeit by appointment only and under supervision.

But if President Musharraf, 65, believed that he could now close this embarrassing chapter, he was mistaken. Pakistan's "father of the nuclear bomb" found a new way to inform the world about his extremely disconcerting business deals. He permitted his wife, who was apparently familiar with the details of his nuclear secrets, to publicize Khan's version of the story through SPIEGEL, in the form of a dossier she handed over to the magazine.

Hendrina Khan, known as Henny, 66, was born in South Africa, raised by Dutch parents in Rhodesia and married the Pakistani scientist in The Hague in 1964. She moved around Europe with him, from West Berlin, where he attended the city's Technical University under a scholarship for highly gifted students, to the Dutch city of Delft and then to the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he obtained a Ph.D. degree in metallurgical engineering in 1972.

It soon became clear that the interests of the young Pakistani were focused on nuclear technology, and he went to work in the Dutch city of Almelo, where the firm URENCO was building a state-of-the-art uranium enrichment facility. He managed to enter the sanctum of nuclear energy literally overnight, gaining access to the source of nuclear engineering of which every aspiring bomb-builder dreams. Security restrictions were extremely lax, and Khan spent many an evening making countless photocopies -- until, one day, he sensed that he had been found out. According to witness testimony, after hastily leaving for Pakistan in late 1975, Khan had his wife Henny, who had already given birth to two daughters by then, collected blueprints he had secretly made of the novel Dutch centrifuge technology. In 1983, a Dutch court convicted him to four years in prison in absentia for industrial espionage.

Khan, who had apparently already joined the Pakistani intelligence agency in Europe and had already attracted the CIA's attention, stood to benefit greatly from the copied know-how. He was convinced that Pakistan needed a counterweight to its archenemy, India. Khan, a self-professed "deeply devout Muslim and Pakistani patriot," saw himself as something of an atomic Robin Hood. He wanted to provide his backward country with nuclear weapons and, later on, to pass the technology on to other underprivileged nations, especially in the Islamic world.

Khan found an enthusiastic champion in then-President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The Pakistani people would "eat grass if necessary" to acquire the bomb, Bhutto said, and he set up a research laboratory for the gifted scientist in Kahuta, 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the capital. In May 1998, only a few weeks after India's successful nuclear tests, Pakistan successfully detonated its own bomb, a triumph that earned "Dr. Strangelove" the country's highest decorations and made him a national hero.

In her dossier, Hendrina Khan denies that her husband made millions with his black market deals and used the money to buy expensive real estate in Islamabad, Dubai, London and Timbuktu, as the Pakistani government has claimed. She also denies that there was an Iranian connection, which Western experts believe is certain, and admits to only two North Korea trips, whereas insiders have counted no fewer than 12. As clearly and understandably partisan as the scientist's wife is, and as rosy the picture she seeks to paint of him and his endeavors is, this does not detract from the credibility of her central accusation that her husband only ever "executed the instructions he was given" by the government.

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