AQ Khan and Nuclear Bomb : Part V : The Malaysian Connection

Reads as if right out of Frederick Forsyth novel.

In London, the intelligence community’s concerns about A. Q. Khan were so intense by 2002 that he became the topic of discussion at a Wednesday afternoon meeting of the joint intelligence committee (JIC) at the Cabinet Office in Whitehall, the forum in which the combined British intelligence services met to discuss the most pressing threats to the UK. In March 2002, the British intelligence community was asked to provide a detailed assessment of everything it knew about Khan and Pakistan’s proliferation activities. It was two years since the JIC had last discussed the subject. Having decided to do nothing in 2000, what was then an “incomplete picture of the supply of uranium enrichment equipment to at least one customer in the Middle East, thought to be Libya,” had evolved by 2002, on Musharraf’s watch, into a “widespread network” based in Dubai and assisted by “certain African governments”—the ones Khan had visited in 1998, 1999 and 2000 under the guise of fixing up the Hendrina Khan Hotel. Khan had also “established his own production facilities in Malaysia,” which were being run by “a network of associates and suppliers,” led by B. S. A A. Tahir, Khan’s Sri Lankan protégé.

Calling in intelligence from abroad, the JIC found that Khan had made forty-four visits to Dubai since Tahir’s wedding in June 1998, an event at which, the British officials were informed, Khan had fixed his plan to move out of Pakistan, to Dubai, Southeast Asia and Africa. In fact, as Peter Griffin recalled, Khan had been in Dubai since the 1970s, and what the British had spotted was simply an intensification of his activities there. Although the British were still unclear as to the range of customers being supported through this newly revived network, several of Khan’s original suppliers were being followed by the security services, including Peter Griffin, a Dubai resident since 1997, where he had established Gulf Technical Industries (GTI) to import and export engineering parts and machine tools.

By 2002, Griffin knew he was being trailed, but claimed his business with Khan had all but ceased. “They were following the wrong man,” recalled Griffin. “It was Tahir who was up to his neck in it.” Tahir had come a long way from sleeping on the floor of his uncle Farouq’s apartment, helping run the family fruit and vegetable business in a corrugated hut behind Dubai’s Nasser Square. By 2002 his firm, SMB Computers, was booming, with more than 200 employees, and the day-to-day business was being run by his brother Saeed Buhary, while Tahir used SMB as a cover to supply Khan’s proliferation operations in Libya, Iran and North Korea.He also had a new manufacturing base.

Tahir’s relationship with and subsequent marriage to Nazimah Syed Majid, a Malaysian diplomat’s daughter, had brought him influence, respectability and permanent residency in Malaysia. The year before they married she had introduced him to Kamal Abdullah, the son of Malaysia’s future prime minister, Abdullah Badawi. Kamal owned SCOMI, an up-and-coming petroleum and gas company which had yet to find its feet, and in 1997 Tahir helped SCOMI rise, buying a 25 percent stake as a silent partner. In December 2000, Kamal asked Tahir to join his venture capital business, Kaspadu. All the while the patient Tahir was edging closer to his real goal, establishing a manufacturing front in Malaysia. Tahir and Kamal had much in common. After thirteen years in Dubai, Tahir had learned a lot about the oil and gas industry, and by 2000 SCOMI was riding high on the Malaysian stock exchange, and looking for new investment opportunities. Tahir had a few ideas—that would work for him and also for his mentor in Pakistan.

Khan needed to supply Libya, Iran and North Korea with nuclear-related components which were increasingly difficult to source in the West, where customs authorities immediately investigated any shipments connected to KRL and Pakistan. He could make most of these things at the KRL workshops, but getting them out of Pakistan was also problematic. Malaysia was virgin territory. With no nuclear program, it was ignored by the IAEA and had virtually no laws against the manufacture and export of dual-use components that could be deployed in a nuclear program. Malaysian engineers were adaptable and had a reputation for being able to copy anything cheaply and reliably. Shoes, Sony Walkmans, or centrifuges, it was all the same to them. It was the perfect location for the kind of low-key operation that Khan needed.

In December 2001, Tahir approached SCOMI with a formal business plan, a precision-engineering plant to manufacture aluminum components for oil and gas producers in Dubai. Tahir had identified a disused plant in Shah Alam, an industrial town fifteen miles north of Kuala Lumpur, where skilled labor was cheap and space was plentiful. Engineers from Europe were ready to fit it out and Tahir had negotiated for a German company, Bikar Metal, to supply top-grade aluminum. The plant would produce fourteen components to European standard but for a much cheaper price. Tahir had negotiated with two companies to handle the export side of the business. The Aryash Trading Company would dispatch goods from Malaysia and Gulf Technical Industries (GTI), Peter Griffin’s company, would receive them in Dubai, something Griffin said he knew nothing about.

In December 2001, Tahir established SCOMI Precision Engineering (SCOPE), in which Kamal Abdullah, the deputy prime minister’s son, was a partner. Tahir brought in Urs Tinner, a Swiss technical consultant and son of Friedrich “Fred” Tinner, the former export manager of a Swiss firm that had supplied vacuum pumps for Khan’s uranium enrichment plant as far back as 1977. Urs Tinner went to work fitting out the new Shah Alam factory, importing precision-engineering equipment from the UK, USA and Taiwan through Traco, Switzerland, a company owned by his brother, Marco Tinner.

Urs Tinner also brought with him European blueprints for the aluminum components the factory was to produce. Workers at the plant noted that he was always careful to take back the technical drawings once they had copied them down. But no one was suspicious, as they were told the factory was manufacturing components for the petroleum industry in Dubai and Tinner was only advocating caution to protect European patents. But unbeknown to the manufacturing line in Shah Alam, to Kamal Abdullah and the upper echelons of Kuala Lumpur society, Tahir was producing dual-use components for the illicit nuclear weapons industry. With Malaysia as the point of production, Swiss engineers running the factory, German and Swiss companies supplying the raw materials, and not a Pakistani name in sight, it was invisible to the intelligence community.

Tahir was prescient. He had shifted to Malaysia just in time. In October 2001 the British courts moved against his UK business partner Abu Bakr Siddiqui, prosecuting him for evading export restrictions and shipping nuclear-related equipment to Pakistan. Bakr was sentenced to a twelve-month suspended sentence with a £6000 fine; SMB Europe was dissolved and Tahir turned his back on the UK.

Excerpted from “Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network

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