Download Hear Declan Walsh speaking to Abdul Qadeer Khan
For four years Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, has lived in the shadows, confined to his Islamabad home since a tearful televised confession in which he admitted selling nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. But yesterday the 76-year-old scientist returned to the spotlight with a bold new twist: that he had not meant a word of his earlier admission.
In his first western media interview since 2004, Khan said the confession had been forced upon him by President Pervez Musharraf. “It was not of my own free will. It was handed into my hand,” he told the Guardian. More worryingly, he swore never to cooperate with investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency, despite persistent fears that nuclear technology traded by his accomplices could fall into terrorist hands.
“Why should I talk to them?” he said. “I am under no obligation. We are not a signatory to the NPT [nuclear non-proliferation treaty]. I have not violated international laws.” He said details of his clandestine nuclear supply network were “my internal affair and my country’s affair”.
Despite numerous requests from the IAEA and the US government, Pakistan has refused access to Khan, who is still considered a national hero. A spokesman at the UN watchdog’s headquarters in Vienna declined to respond to his comments.
Until this week Khan had been unseen and largely unheard since his February 2004 appearance on state television, in which he said he had hawked the country’s nuclear know-how abroad. He offered his “deepest regrets and unqualified apologies”. Since then Khan has been confined to his villa below the Margalla Hills in Islamabad, where he lives with his wife, Henny. He was initially subjected to tight restrictions. Telephone calls were monitored, internet access was forbidden and visitors were turned away by soldiers camped at his gate. He was allowed to leave the house in August 2006 only for a cancer operation in Karachi, which was successful.
But as Musharraf’s powers have ebbed over the past year, so have the ties on Khan been loosened. First he was allowed to have lunch with close friends, then last month he gave his first interview from his house arrest to a local Urdu language newspaper. Now he hopes that the newly elected prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, will set him free.
“As long as you are living there is always hope,” he said, adding that he would wait for pressing economic and political crises to pass. In reality, he may be waiting for Musharraf to be forced out.
Yesterday the military dismissed speculation, prompted by changes in the army command, that Musharraf was about to quit as president. “A section of press is trying to sensationalise routine functional matters,” said a spokesman.
Khan has emerged as Pakistan celebrates the 10th anniversary of the 1998 test that catapulted the volatile nation into the nuclear club. Speaking by telephone, he displayed the mix of defiant nationalism and religious ardour that has endeared him to many Pakistanis.
Reports that nuclear technology was smuggled abroad were “western rubbish”, he said, and unfavourable accounts of his life were “shit piles”. He brusquely dismissed nicknames such as “the Merchant of Menace” from a Time magazine cover.
“It doesn’t bother me at all. They don’t like our God, they don’t like our prophet, they don’t like our holy book, the Qur’an. So how could they like me?” he said.
He dismissed reports that he owned 43 houses in Islamabad, had many bank accounts and owned a $10m hotel in Timbuktu, Mali. “The journalists should have gone and seen – it was an eight-room mud-brick house where the poor people reside,” he said, referring to the latter. Asked if he was rich he answered: “Never was, never will be.”
International nuclear investigators and the Pakistani government paint a very different picture. In 2005, Musharraf confirmed that Khan had supplied North Korea with centrifuges used to enrich uranium. This week the IAEA board received further confirmation linking Pakistan with Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.
Khan said yesterday that nuclear technology was freely available in the west to Iran or North Korea. “They were supplying to us, they were supplying to them … [to] anyone who could pay,” he said.
But for all his defiant talk, one subject remains out of bounds for Khan. Supporters claim he was made a scapegoat for Pakistani generals involved in nuclear trading. Khan refuses to discuss the issue. “I don’t want to talk about it. Those things are to forget about,” he said.
He denied speculation he had hidden evidence of military collusion with his daughter, Dina, who lives in London. “MI6 has spoken to my daughter, they have been to her house. I did not keep any official papers in my house or anywhere,” he said.
Khan directed Pakistan’s nuclear enrichment programme for 25 years. Born in pre-partition India – his family moved to Pakistan after 1947 – his passion for developing a nuclear bomb was driven by hatred of his country of birth.
Khan is worshipped as a hero at home, but the former CIA director George Tenet described him as “at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden”, and fears of the damage wreaked by his smuggling network were realised when North Korea exploded a nuclear device in October 2006.
In Musharraf’s 2006 memoir, he said he sacked Khan after learning that he was “up to mischief”.
Khan blames this on the “self-seekers and sycophants” around Musharraf, who had allowed Pakistan to become a “banana republic”.
The quest for a Pakistani nuclear bomb was launched by Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1972. “You men here will make it for me and for Pakistan,” he told a secret meeting of scientists and generals. Bhutto’s motive was to counter India’s more developed programme. His secret asset was metallurgist AQ Khan who, while working in a Dutch nuclear laboratory, smuggled secrets home. Khan returned to head the programme in 1976. Pakistan exploded its first nuclear device in 1998. The army has an estimated 50 nuclear warheads.
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