Pakistan's Nuclear Jihadists

The leaders of the Pakistani nuclear weapon program, originally developed against the Indian enemy, hated each other's guts, but many of them hated the West, Israel, and the Jews even more, and aspired to obtain "The Islamic Bomb." Behind the scenes of Pakistan's nuclear program

Pakistan's Nuclear Jihadists

Anti-nuclear protesters in Pakistan (Photo: AP)

The hostility between India and Pakistan, at the outset of their independence in 1947, following the end of the British rule over the Indian subcontinent, led to persecution, bloodbaths and the expulsion of millions of people from one country to the other. But that was not the end of it. In 1948 and 1965, border wars broke out between the two countries, mainly over the Kashmir issue. The nuclear arms race that had started between the two countries caused the conflict between them to deteriorate severely. One particular cause for this deterioration was India's first nuclear test, "Smiling Buddha," of May 1974, which presented a severe warning sign to Pakistan. The chief architect of Pakistan's military nuclear program was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. As far back as 1965, still as Minister of Foreign Affairs, he declared: "We will eat grass… even go hungry, but we will get one (nuclear weapon) of our own... We have no other choice!"

Bhutto's vision started to materialize in January 1972, when he was elected as President of Pakistan, following the defeat to the Indian Army. As soon as he entered office, Bhutto decided to convert his country's civilian nuclear program into a nuclear weapon program, so as to establish a balance of arms vis-à-vis India. In January 1972, Bhutto held a secret meeting with about 50 of his country's scientists, engineers and top government executives in the city of Multan, in which he demanded that his men come up with a program for the development of nuclear weapons. The Chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) at that time, Dr. Ishrat Hussain Usmani, argued that Bhutto's demand was impractical. According to him, the Pakistani industry was incapable of manufacturing even needles. On the other hand, nuclear engineer Munir Ahmad Khan (MA), who attended the meeting, instinctively declared that he was willing to undertake the task, and was therefore promptly appointed as Chairman of PAEC and head of the Pakistani "Emergency Program" for the development of nuclear weapons, designated "Project 706".

MA had specialized in nuclear physics at the University of North Carolina and subsequently at the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in the USA. For 14 years, until 1972, he had worked for IAEA as a power reactor specialist. His last position with IAEA was Head of the Power Plant Division. As Chairman of PAEC he favored plutonium as the fissile material of choice for nuclear weapons. Canada provided Pakistan with the Candu-type Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP), inaugurated in 1972. This plant had been originally designed to generate electrical power, but as it was a natural uranium/heavy water reactor and because of the specialized structure of its core, the spent nuclear fuel could be used to produce military-grade plutonium.

Another element Pakistan needed so as to complete the plutonium course was a facility for separating the plutonium from the spent fuel – a complex chemical process necessitated owing to the high radioactivity of the fuel that had been radiated in the reactor. Consequently, in 1976 Pakistan signed a contract with France for the supply of an industrial-grade nuclear fuel recycling plant, to enable plutonium to be separated from the spent fuel at KANUPP. In 1978, under US pressure, France revoked the nuclear agreement. In any case, by that time, about 95% of the detailed technical know-how of this project had already been delivered to Pakistan, so the Pakistani engineers managed to establish the plant independently, near Chashma in central Pakistan.

The Father of the Pakistani Bomb

The most fanatic Pakistani Jihadist was Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood (hereinafter "Mahmood"). He was born around 1940 in Punjab province, India and in 1947, following the outbreak of the religious war in the Indian subcontinent, his family fled to the city of Lahore in Pakistan. In 1960, he completed his studies for a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, with distinction, at the Lahore University of Engineering & Technology, and in view of his excellence, was accepted as a researcher at PAEC. In 1962, he was sent on behalf of PAEC to study for a master's degree in control systems and nuclear engineering at Manchester University in the UK. While in Manchester, he became interested in uranium enrichment methods. In 1968, Mahmood returned to working for PAEC at the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH) in Nilore, near the capital Islamabad, where he was involved in the establishment of KANUPP. Mahmood won the appreciation of the international scientific community for his invention of a device for detecting vapor leaks from nuclear reactor water piping systems – a widespread phenomenon in nuclear reactors around the world.

The Indian nuclear test of 1974 shocked Pakistan. Against this background, MA appointed Mahmood to the position of Head of the Uranium Enrichment Division at PAEC, and Mahmood recommended gas centrifuges as the best method for Pakistan. However, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan (AQ) soon appeared in the picture, and Mahmood's world shattered.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, a well-known nuclear Jihadist, is regarded as "The Father of the Pakistani Nuclear Bomb," owing to the uranium enrichment centrifuge project (Khan Research Laboratories – KRL) he established and headed for many years. AQ, a Shi'ite Muslim by faith, was born in 1936 in the city of Bhopal, which was annexed to India in 1947, and in 1952 his family moved to Karachi, Pakistan. AQ completed his studies for a bachelor's degree in physics at the University of Karachi in 1960 and continued to study for a master's degree in metallurgy at the Technical University of Berlin and at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. In 1972, AQ completed his doctoral studies in engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and at the recommendation of his doctoral mentor, Professor Martin Brabers, he was promptly accepted as a researcher at the Physical Dynamics Research Laboratory (FDO) in Amsterdam. The laboratory served as a sub-contractor of the Ultra Centrifuge Nederland (UCN) Company, which was a partner, on behalf of the Netherlands, with Germany and Britain in the development of uranium enrichment gas centrifuges for power plants of the European corporation URENCO. AQ's security clearance at FOD was "Confidential." The ease at which he had obtained this clearance may have been enabled by his wife Hendrina (Henny), who was born in South Africa to parents of Dutch origin who subsequently moved to Rhodesia, and that was why she was provided with a British passport.

URENCO, however, were not sufficiently aware of or strict about the security of their sensitive information. During the first week of AQ's employment, he was sent on a visit to the enrichment facility of UCN/URENCO in Almelo, the Netherlands, and soon found himself at the heart of the most classified issues in the field of centrifuge development. He even made frequent visits to the most sensitive area of the facility. AQ soon established himself as an expert in this field, and his research work improved the efficiency of the centrifuges. AQ Khan was also prominent owing to his social connections, and was particularly friendly with his laboratory photographer, Fritz Veerman, despite Veerman's low standing at FDO. AQ's intention was to use Veerman to photograph FDO's databases and the various components of the centrifuges.

In October 1974, URENCO decided to adopt the G2 centrifuge model developed by URENCO's German plant in Gronau. The G2 type centrifuge had a maraging steel alloy rotor and was therefore more efficient than the Dutch-made CNOR/SNOR models that had aluminum alloy rotors. AQ was fluent in German and was therefore asked to translate into Dutch the most sensitive documents of the German-made G1 and G2 centrifuges, which were kept at Almelo in the Brainbox – a special vault. AQ was engaged in translation for 16 days without any particular supervision, and even kept a copy of the translated texts for himself.

The Indian nuclear test of 1974 invoked AQ's patriotic sentiments, so he wrote a letter to Bhutto, and offered to contribute his professional know-how to the benefit of his country's nuclear effort. In response, Bhutto sent a team of PAEC professionals, headed by Mahmood, to the Netherlands, to interview AQ. Consequently, AQ began to transfer the sensitive information he had gathered thus far to Pakistan, through diplomatic mail. That information included a list of European manufacturers of components and materials for centrifuges.

Meanwhile, in 1975 the Dutch Security Service began to suspect AQ, and in November, they even intended to detain him, but the CIA convinced the Dutch authorities to avoid that so that they may continue to observe him without raising his suspicions. In October, however, AQ was "promoted" to a new position but kept away from the uranium enrichment activity. It is safe to assume that AQ already sensed, at this point, that the ground was burning under his feet and consequently, in December of that year he returned to Pakistan with his family.

In 1976, shortly after AQ had joined the PAEC centrifuge team headed by Mahmood, a controversy occurred between those two gentlemen. Initially, that controversy had apparently pertained to professional aspects, but it soon deteriorated into a bitter personal clash over authority and power in the context of the centrifuge project, to the point that Mahmood started calling AQ "egomaniac." AQ, for his part, alleged that Mahmood belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect – a non-conformal Islamic movement not recognized by Institutionalized Islam. As for MA, the Chairman of PAEC, AQ disagreed with him, claiming that uranium enrichment should be preferred over the production of plutonium as the chosen course for the development of nuclear weapons.

The above notwithstanding, Bhutto recognized the special skills of AQ and granted him full autonomy to promote the centrifuge project as an independent organization not subordinated to PAEC, designated the Engineering Research Laboratories (ERL). Years later, that organ changed its name to KRL (Khan Research Laboratories), after its founder, Abdul Qadeer Khan. As for the bitterly frustrated Mahmood, MA distanced him from the sensitive nuclear activities by reinstating him to his previous position at the KANUPP project.

A Procurement Drive Overseas

Owing to the limited industrial capabilities of Pakistan at that time, all of the materials, production facilities and sensitive components for the ERL centrifuge project had to be acquired overseas. For this purpose, AQ set up a covert network based on the personal connections he had established in Europe during his studies and while working for FDO. In particular, the network relied on Pakistani diplomats posted in Europe, and became known as "The Pakistani Pipeline." Henk Slebos, who had studied with AQ at Delft University, became a particularly prominent member of the covert network. Among other things, he acted as a mediator between AQ and the Dutch firm Van Doorne Transmissie (VDT) in connection with the acquisition of 6,500 maraging steel pipes intended for the manufacture of centrifuge rotors. Even Martin Brabers, AQ's doctoral mentor, joined the acquisition network as a consultant. Additionally, AQ established contact with the German Ernst Piffl, owner of the Team GmBH Company, who acquired for AQ some 40 high-frequency inverters from the British firm Emerson Electric for the purpose of ensuring a uniform electrical power supply to the centrifuges. Inverters of this type were also used in the textiles industry, which was fairly developed in Pakistan, but the inverters supplied were defective, so AQ ordered additional inverters from the British firm Weargate, owned by British engineer Peter Griffin and Mohammad Abdus Salam.

In the summer of 1976, Abdus Salam, a buyer for AQ in Britain, approached Griffin, who was working for the Scimitar Company in Wales at the time, with an order for a diversified range of instrumentation worth about one million US dollars. Following this initial approach, they established the Weargate Company. Among the members of the network were Friederich Tinner, owner of the Vakuum Apparat Technik (VAT) Company of Switzerland, and his two sons Marco and Urs, who supplied ERL with specialized valves for the centrifuge facility and assisted AQ with other acquisition transactions. Another noteworthy Swiss company is CORA Engineering, which sold to ERL a sizable installation for supplying uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas to the centrifuge facility, for the enrichment process. Additionally, the network included German engineer Gotthard Lerch of the Leybold-Heraeus Company, a specialist in vacuum systems, and Heinz Mebus, owner of the CES Kalthoff Company, which established in Pakistan an installation for the production of fluorine, which is essential for the manufacture of UF6 gas. Finally, even C.M. Kuys, sales manager of FDO, had no hesitations about travelling to Pakistan in 1977 and visiting AQ's home in order to conclude a transaction involving the sale of specialized measurement instruments manufactured at URENCO's order, but URENCO had the transaction cancelled, despite the fact that AQ had been suspected of espionage and therefore hastened to return to Pakistan. AQ's network ceased to operate in 2003, as a result of the uncovering of its dealings with Iran and Libya.

AQ demonstrated his capabilities as a technologist possessing extensive multidisciplinary knowledge and as a talented administrator. The ERL uranium enrichment facility was established near Kahuta and in 1986 began enriching uranium to a military enrichment grade. This followed the upgrading of the Pakistani centrifuges and a transition from the first generation, designated P-1, which had been based on the Dutch CNOR/SNOR models, to the P-2 model, which was based on the German G-2 centrifuge model, and to more advanced models. After a few years, AQ even established a nuclear weapon development organ within his organization, parallel to PAEC's activity in this field. Additionally, in exchange for providing the centrifuge technology to North Korea in the 1990s, AQ received the technology of the North Korean Nodong ballistic missile which was subsequently developed in Pakistan as the Ghauri missile.

At the bottom line, on May 28, 1998, about two weeks after India's second and third nuclear tests, Pakistan held its first nuclear test, Chagai-1. The nuclear device detonated contained an enriched uranium core, and Pakistan thus joined the nuclear arms club.

Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood was promoted once again in the 1980s to the position of head of the establishment of the Khushab-1 heavy water project, which was fueled with natural uranium and moderated and cooled with heavy water and therefore designed to produce military-grade plutonium. When this reactor was activated, in April 1998, Mahmood claimed that it was capable of producing plutonium for 2-3 bombs per year. Mahmood was even appointed as head of the nuclear reactor department at PAEC, but in 1999 he resigned from PAEC as a protest against Pakistan's decision to join the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In any case, it should be noted that contrary to Chagai-1, the two nuclear tests Pakistan conducted two days later, on May 30, 1998, designated Chagai-2, involved plutonium cores which had probably been produced at KANUPP.

Hostility to Israel

When Bhutto initiated Pakistan's nuclear weapon program in 1972, he referred to it as the development of an "Islamic Bomb," a slogan aimed primarily at the rich Arab countries, with the intention of obtaining their financial support for the program. Indeed, Libya, followed by Saudi Arabia, both radical Islamist countries who were extremely hostile to Israel in those days, assisted to the financing of the Pakistani nuclear program, owing to their aspirations to benefit from the fruits of the Pakistani effort in the future. Israel, too, referred to the Pakistani effort as an "Islamic Bomb." However, the "Islamic Bomb" started to materialize only in the 1990s, when AQ began using his covert network to sell sensitive nuclear technologies to other countries. He was mainly motivated by greed, but the fact that most of his clients were Arab-Muslim countries indicates that he was also motivated by religious-Islamic ambitions.

Evidently, AQ sold the centrifuge technology to Iran and Libya and even attempted to sell sensitive nuclear technologies to Iraq and Syria. His hatred for the West and his Antisemitism had been reflected in the past when he accused MA, the Chairman of PAEC, of being an agent of the West, Israel and the Jews. He also expressed his sentiments through tweets on Twitter over the last decade. For example, on September 9, 2012, he tweeted: "Einstein has been regarded as father of Science and physics for supporting America destroying the world." On September 19, 2012, pursuant to the release of an anti-Muslim clip on YouTube, he dubbed that clip "A Jewish film released to attack Islam."

As for Mahmood, as far back as 1975, he had published a venomously anti-Semitic article against Israel and the Jews in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. His view became evident after his resignation from PAEC when he founded the fundamentalist-Islamist organization UTN (the reestablishment of the Muslim nation – Ummah Tameer-e-Nau) in the guise of a charitable society. In 2001, Mahmood departed, along with his friend Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, to Afghanistan, to assist al-Qaeda in the field of nuclear weapons, and they even met Osama bin-Laden. Abdul Majeed, a specialist nuclear chemist, had headed, back in 1973, the Pakistani team for the negotiations with the Belgonuclaire Company of Belgium regarding the acquisition of "The New Laboratories" and was subsequently appointed as the first director of those laboratories. The laboratories were installed at the PINSTECH center and served as a hot lab for the separation of plutonium from radiated fuel, as a preliminary phase before the recycling plant in Chashma was activated. However, the professional backgrounds of Mahmood and Abdul Majeed and their past senior positions notwithstanding, it is doubtful whether they actually possessed the technical knowledge required in order to develop a nuclear device and whether they were able to actually contribute anything to al-Qaeda. Moreover, according to the 2007 book "At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA" by George Tenet, the former director of the CIA, in 2003 the CIA had reliable information according to which UTN had established contact with the Libyan authorities with the intention of providing Libya with weapons of mass destruction. It is also a well-established fact that Islamist elements had a considerable foothold within the ranks of the Pakistani military and defense establishment. Among the most prominent personalities associated with radical Islam was Gen. Hamid Gul, the former Head of ISI (Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency) in the years 1987 through 1989, who also joined UTN.

As for the present status picture, it is estimated that Pakistan has an arsenal of close to 100 nuclear warheads, but it appears to be under US supervision. In any case, the naivety of the West and the sheer greed of western nuclear companies and industries not only helped Pakistan reach the status of a nuclear power, but also allowed the Pakistani nuclear technologies to be leaked to such countries as Iran and North Korea. One outcome is the current nuclear crisis situations emerging around the world, whose resolution is not yet in sight. 


Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Rafael Ofek is an expert in the physics and technology of nuclear power. He had served in the Israeli intelligence community as a senior researcher and analyst.

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