It could be a scene from a film. On a winter’s evening, around 8pm, in a quiet suburban street in Amsterdam, a group of cars draw up. Agents of the Dutch intelligence service, the AIVD, accompanied by uniformed police, ring the bell and knock on the door of one of the houses. The occupants, an elderly couple and their unmarried daughter, are slow to come to the door. The bell-ringing becomes more insistent, the knocks sharper. When the door opens, the agents request entry but are clearly not going to take no for an answer.
The year was 2004. The raid went unreported but was part of the worldwide sweep against associates of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist and “father of the Islamic bomb”, who had just been accused of selling nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea. The house belonged to one of his brothers, a retired Pakistani International Airlines manager, who lived there with his wife and daughter. The two secret agents asked the daughter for a letter she had recently received from abroad. Upstairs in her bedroom, she pulled it from a drawer. It was unopened. The agents grabbed it and told her to put on a coat and come with them.
The daughter, Kausar Khan, was taken to the local police station, although, contrary to usual practice, she was neither signed in nor signed out. The Dutch agents wanted to know why she had not opened the letter and whether she knew what was in it. She didn’t; she had merely been asked to look after it. Inside the envelope was a copy of a letter that Pakistan did not want to reach the West. The feared Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had found the letter when they searched Dr AQ Khan’s home in Islamabad. He had also passed a copy on to his daughter Dina to take to her home in London, as rumours of Khan’s “proliferation” — jargon for the dissemination of nuclear secrets — swept the world. The Pakistani ISI were furious. “Now you have got your daughter involved,” they reportedly said. “So far we have left your family alone, but don’t expect any leniency now.”
Dr Khan collapsed in sobs. Under pressure, he agreed to telephone Dina in London and ordered her to destroy the documents. He used three languages: Urdu, English and Dutch. It was code for her to obey his instructions. Dina dutifully destroyed the letter. That left the copy that was confiscated by the Dutch intelligence service in Amsterdam. I know there is at least one other copy: mine.
Just four pages long, it is an extraordinary letter, the contents of which have never been revealed before. Dated December 10, 2003, and addressed to Henny, Khan’s Dutch wife, it is handwritten, in apparent haste. It starts simply: “Darling, if the government plays any mischief with me take a tough stand.” In numbered paragraphs, it outlines Pakistan’s nuclear co-operation with China, Iran and North Korea, and also mentions Libya. It ends: “They might try to get rid of me to cover up all the things they got done by me.”
When I acquired my copy of the secret letter in 2007, I was shocked. On the third page, Khan had written: “Get in touch with Simon Henderson… and give him all the details.” He had also listed my then London address, my telephone number, fax number, mobile-phone number and the e-mail address I used at the time. It has been my luck, or fate, call it what you will, to develop a relationship with AQ Khan.
Khan became an idolised figure in Pakistan from the 1980s onwards because of his success in building a uranium-enrichment plant at Kahuta, near Islamabad. In February 2004, three years after his retirement, he was accused of proliferating nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, and made a televised confession.
General Pervez Musharraf, at the time the ruler of Pakistan, pardoned Khan for his “crimes” but kept him under house arrest and largely incommunicado in Islamabad until February this year, when a court ordered his release. He was declared a “free man”, but in practice nothing changed.
His freedom lasted a day or so before international protests, mainly from the United States, locked him back up again. A few months ago, he was refused permission to attend his granddaughter’s high-school graduation. “I continue to be a prisoner,” Khan complained.In Washington, a State Department spokesman said that Khan remained a “proliferation risk” but, after being shut away for five years, that seemed hard to imagine. So why was he silenced? Was it because of what he did, or because of what he knows about Pakistan’s active role in spreading nuclear technology to some of the world’s worst regimes?
Any relationship with a source is fraught with potential difficulties. One doesn’t want to be blind to the chance of being used. Government officials and politicians in any country are seldom interested in the simple truth. They all have their particular story to tell. In this context, I am frankly amazed that Khan has chosen me to be his interlocutor with the world.
I have been writing about Pakistan ever since I arrived there in June 1977, sent by the BBC to be a stringer because the local man was considered to be under the thumb of the then prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (the father of the assassinated Benazir), who had held disputed elections and was facing widespread street protests.
At the time I had never heard of AQ Khan, although, it turns out, he and his family had also lived months earlier at the same small hotel in Rawalpindi where I had lodged for a while. Pakistan was already vying to be a nuclear power and America was pressuring France to stop the sale of a reprocessing plant which would have enabled Pakistan to acquire plutonium, a nuclear explosive.
I returned to London in 1978 to join the Financial Times, and was replaced by a journalist who latched on to a bigger story: that Pakistan was building a centrifuge enrichment plant to make highly enriched uranium, the alternative route to an atomic bomb. A Dutch-trained previously unknown Pakistani scientist, Dr AQ Khan, was leading the project.My intrepid replacement went to visit Khan’s nuclear construction site at Kahuta. He also found out where Khan was living and went to his home. Khan’s security guards beat him up before he reached the front door.
The FT sent me back to Pakistan to help broker a deal whereby my replacement could leave without being prosecuted. At that point, I began my own investigations of Khan, which led to a frontpage story about his purchasing network in Britain. I doubt that either Khan or the Pakistan government was happy to see the exposé.
Even so, the first time I contacted Khan, he was civil to me. It was 1986 and he had just won, on a technicality, an appeal against a Netherlands court judgment that he had attempted to steal centrifuge secrets. Although my story was not a whitewash, it did quote him accurately, and Khan wrote to me with some more information about his case. I replied, and he reciprocated. It started a “penfriendship” that has continued for 23 years and has included two visits.
At the time, I thought Khan might make a good subject for a book. I amassed material, but never thought I had enough, and was not even sure if he was interesting enough for a biography. For his part, Khan was cautious. “When I write my autobiography, Mr Henderson, I shall ask you for your help.” It wasn’t the answer I wanted.
Frankly, in news terms, there wasn’t a great deal of interest in him, even in 1998, when Pakistan first tested its 1,500-kilometre-range Ghauri missile, a Khan-directed copy of the North Korean Nodong rocket, and went on to test two nuclear weapons. In 2001, when he turned 65, he retired. We kept in touch, but it was mostly Christmas cards.
Then, in late 2003, he became the story again. I was in London, on a bicycle ride by the River Thames, when my mobile phone rang. A voice said: “I am a friend of your friend in Pakistan.” I knew my “friend” must be Khan. The voice on the line said he had been asked to call.
My “friend’s” associates were being arrested — former colleagues at KRL, the Dr AQ Khan Research Laboratories, as the Kahuta centrifuge plant was known. I asked why. The voice said “Iran” — which was attempting to go nuclear. I asked what my friend wanted me to do with the information. The voice said I should try to publish it. It might help.I explained that I was happy to listen to what I was being told, but I needed some corroboration. I told him that my friend should call or e-mail me; he didn’t have to go through the details again. As far as I was concerned, he could just say “Merry Christmas”. I cycled home quickly and took a shower. Thirty minutes later, Khan rang from Pakistan and wished me merry Christmas.
The next few weeks were turbulent. A week or so after Khan’s call to me, Libya announced that it would abandon weapons of mass destruction. Shortly afterwards, in December 2003, The Wall Street Journal revealed that a German cargo ship called BBC China had been intercepted on its way to Libya with thousands of centrifuge components, and diverted to Italy. There was a Khan link there as well, but Khan declined my request for an interview. His “friend” called to say the time was not right and Khan was exhausted after long bouts of interrogation.
Khan was placed under house arrest on February 1, 2004, and since then he has rarely been able to leave his house. What do you do when under house arrest in Islamabad? You watch the BBC on satellite television. I knew he would. So, in 2006, when Panorama came to me saying they were making a film about Khan’s role in nuclear proliferation and would I be interviewed, the answer was simple: “Yes”. I told them that, from my knowledge of Pakistan and Khan, he could not have acted without the permission and collaboration of the government.
Khan watched the programme. After that, one thing quickly led to another. I came to know of the existence of the letter, and also learnt that its contents were known to Dutch intelligence, and also to anyone they might have passed details on to — including, in all likelihood, the British and Americans.Why were Dutch intelligence agents so keen to seize it? On the face of it, the letter’s contents are a damning indictment of a generation of Pakistan’s political and military leadership, who used Khan’s nuclear and missile skills to enhance Pakistan’s diplomacy.
It was not rocket science to work out a plausible explanation for the Dutch seizure. Bloggers will probably err on the side of more imaginative conspiracy theories, but the truth is probably simpler. After the September 11 attacks, the West in general, and the United States in particular, had to work with Pakistan to counter Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in neighbouring Afghanistan. That meant that they had to work with President Musharraf, even though he was no democrat. As part of the bargain, Pakistan’s nuclear sins also needed to be placed to one side.
As sins go, they were big: Pakistan had been spreading nuclear technology for years. The first customer for one of its enrichment plants was China — which itself had supplied Pakistan with enough highly enriched uranium for two nuclear bombs in the summer of 1982.
There it was in the letter: “We put up a centrifuge plant at Hanzhong (250km southwest of Xian).” It went on: “The Chinese gave us drawings of the nuclear weapon, gave us 50kg of enriched uranium, gave us 10 tons of UF6 (natural) and 5 tons of UF6 (3%).” (UF6 is uranium hexafluoride, the gaseous feedstock for an enrichment plant.)
On Iran, the letter says: “Probably with the blessings of BB [Benazir Bhutto, who became prime minister in 1988] and [a now-retired general]… General Imtiaz [Benazir’s defence adviser, now dead] asked… me to give a set of drawings and some components to the Iranians…The names and addresses of suppliers were also given to the Iranians.”
On North Korea: “[A now-retired general] took $3million through me from the N. Koreans and asked me to give some drawings and machines.”
In late 2003, with Al-Qaeda far from vanquished in Afghanistan and Pakistan-linked centrifuge components heading towards Libya, President Musharraf was under tremendous pressure from Washington. In all likelihood, he was offered a way out: “Work with us and we will support you. Blame all the nuclear nonsense on AQ Khan.” Although Musharraf had lavished praise on Khan at a banquet in 2001, he didn’t like him personally. So the choice was simple. Khan was made a scapegoat.
Years earlier, Khan had been warned about the Pakistan army by Li Chew, the senior minister who ran China’s nuclear-weapons programme. Visiting Kahuta, Chew had said: “As long as they need the bomb, they will lick your balls. As soon as you have delivered the bomb, they will kick your balls.” In the letter to his wife, Khan rephrased things: “The bastards first used us and are now playing dirty games with us.”
George Tenet, the director of the CIA at the time of 9/11, has described Khan as “the merchant of death” and “as bad as Osama Bin Laden”. Khan has been accused of unauthorised nuclear proliferation, motivated by personal greed. On top of this, he has been depicted as overstating his contribution to Pakistan’s success in making nuclear weapons and missiles with which to threaten the whole of India.
These themes, which were repeated endlessly across the world, are now accepted as universal truths. But Khan was a government official and an adviser with ministerial status even after he retired in 2001. If his dissemination of nuclear secrets was authorised by the government, it could not be illegal and he would enjoy sovereign immunity for his actions. Pakistan is also not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), so its nuclear trades, however reprehensible, were not against international law.
Khan is adamant that he never sold nuclear secrets for personal gain. So what about the millions of dollars he reportedly made? Nothing was confiscated from him and no reported investigation turned up hidden accounts. Having planted rumours about Khan’s greed, Pakistani officials were curiously indifferent to following them through. General Musharraf told a British newspaper at the time of Khan’s arrest in 2004 that “He can keep his money”. In another interview a few months later, he said: “We don’t know where his funds are.”
But was there any money? Much was made of a “hotel”, named after Khan’s wife, Henny, built by a local tour guide with the help of money from Khan and a group of friends in Timbuktu, west Africa. It is a modest structure at best, more of a guesthouse. A weekend home at Bani Gala, outside Islamabad, where Khan went to relax, is hardly the palace that some reports have made it.
In fact, there seemed to be no money. By summer 2007, Khan was finding it difficult to make ends meet on his pension of 12,200 rupees per month (at the time about $200). After pleading with General Khalid Kidwai, the officer supervising both Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and Dr Khan, the pension was increased to $2,500 per month and there was a one-off lump-sum payment of the equivalent of $50,000. I have copies of the agreement and cheques.
As for his role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile forces, I have little doubt that Khan won the race between his KRL organisation and the official Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission to develop both a nuclear bomb and a missile system, a rivalry deliberately constructed by the dictator General Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s and sustained by later governments.
But there is a simple way to clarify matters. Pakistan’s system of national civilian honours is topped by the Nishan-i-Imtiaz (Order of Excellence), abbreviated as NI. A second tier of honour is the Hilal-i-Imtiaz (Crescent of Excellence), or HI. Khan was awarded the NI twice, a distinction never achieved before or since. He was also earlier awarded the HI. It is stretching one’s imagination to think that Khan could hijack the country’s honour system and the judgment of successive presidents.
Although the West continues to condemn Khan, Pakistan’s own energy to do so is fading, particularly since the departure of Musharraf in 2008. Frustrated by his house arrest and legal limbo, Khan has repeatedly this year pressed for remedy by the courts.
Khan was supposedly freed from house arrest in February, but the terms of that freedom were detailed in a secret “annexure A” of the court judgment, the final version of which Khan only saw later. One of the lines in the original draft that he was asked to sign was: “That in case Mr Simon Henderson or anyone else proceeds with the publication of any information or material anywhere in the world, I affirm that it would not be based on any input from me and I disown it.”
That line was eventually deleted and replaced with a more general prohibition about unnamed “specific media personnel”. Despite the court judgment specifying that the contents of the annexure “shall not be issued to the press or made public in any manner”, a copy reached me in the West.
Khan went back to court last month to challenge the terms of the annexure that he never accepted. Justice Ejaz Ahmed, the presiding judge at the Lahore high court, lifted all the curbs on his movement. “Dr Khan can come and go anywhere he pleases and no one should prevent him from doing this,” he ruled. “There should be no limitations.” Two days later another Pakistani court reimposed the ban.
America is pressing hard for Khan’s continued confinement. Deprived by Pakistan of the opportunity to interrogate Khan, the US is concerned that he may revive his old networks. Echoing the official view, The New York Times called this month for restrictions to remain on Khan for his “heinous role as maestro of the world’s largest nuclear black market”.
If Khan is free to travel and speak openly, there is a danger that he will give his own account of events, opening up a can of worms and complicating relations with Washington. Now his letter has been revealed, he hopes his story will be told differently.