AQ Khan and Nuclear Bomb : Part X : India & Israel plan an attack on Kahuta and Pakistan becomes nuclear capable

In June 1980 the BBC broadcast a documentary, “Project 706—The Islamic Bomb,” the fullest investigation to date into Khan’s illicit uranium enrichment program.18 Days later it was shown in Holland, where Henny happened to be staying with her parents on an annual pilgrimage to renew her Dutch visa. Her recollection of a meeting she had with Dutch immigration officials the following day revealed how the authorities there were oblivious to the growing Khan scandal. “The clerk, after finding out that I came from Pakistan, started discussing the [television] program. He inquired if I knew this Dr. Khan. And before I could answer, he added that Dr. Khan must have earned millions through this game. With difficulty I managed to keep quiet and never gave the impression that I was ‘that’ Mrs. Khan. At that moment I wished I could tell him that, like any other Pakistani senior government official, my husband was earning only 3750 rupees [$400] a month.” Khan was a wanted man in Holland and his wife should have been a prime asset, if not a lure to force him to return to The Hague. Instead, her passport was stamped and she got back on the plane to Islamabad.

Alexander Haig had singled out Pakistan as the means by which the US could contain the Soviet threat, with Afghanistan as the theater in which to do it. But the idea was not his own. It came from the US ambassador in Islamabad, Arthur Hummel, who suggested the US offer a dramatic increase in aid. Potentially, it was a golden opportunity. Pakistan was desperate to act against Soviet aggression and the US had a chance to bleed the Soviets without putting troops on the ground. Here was a war the US could win. The only sticking point was Pakistan’s nuclear program. The White House came up with an argument. The US would lavish aid on Pakistan and in return a secure Islamic Republic would be less inclined to build a doomsday device. The theory was let loose on Capitol Hill.

In Pakistan, Zia did what he could to help. A frank briefing on the state of the secretive Pakistan nuclear project from Dr. Ishrat Usmani, the former head of PAEC, found its way into an influential European nuclear publication. He revealed that, contrary to public fears, his country “faced severe challenges” in completing the Kahuta program. Usmani had gone on to work at the United Nations in New York and had become a trusted face in the West. But although Usmani knew that in February 1979 Khan had succeeded in building several operational centrifuge cascades at Sihala, he told the reporter from Nucleonics Week that Pakistan faced severe technical challenges and was unlikely ever to be capable of producing even the crudest of nuclear devices.

A senior official at the Department of State called Senator Charles Percy (Republican, Illinois), chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, which would have to vet aid to Pakistan. Anticipating strong opposition, Percy was advised to say that Pakistan “faced an immediate and growing threat from the Soviets in Afghanistan” and its survival hinged on the Afghan freedom fighters. A talking-points pack recommended that if the nuclear issue were to be raised he should acknowledge the Islamic Republic was “making a determined effort to acquire nuclear explosives” and that the punitive measures taken in the past had achieved nothing. Sanctions were a failure. The way to gain assurance that A. Q. Khan would roll back the nuclear program was to give Islamabad jets and money. The twisted logic of granting Pakistan security to buy off its nuclear program was getting some usage.In eighteen months, the Pakistan nuclear program had gone from within a wing tip of being atomized by US or even Israeli bombers, to a low-level risk with little chance of succeeding, pushed to the back of US priorities.

Early in the morning of 1 May 1981, A. Q. Khan was woken by an urgent and unexpected phone call. Several weeks earlier he had sent word to General Zia that he had successfully enriched a small sample of uranium to weapons-grade strength, a colossal breakthrough on the path to manufacturing a nuclear bomb. Using European blueprints, he had modified URENCO’s energy-supplying technology for use in a weapons program. Now Zia had decided to view the progress at Kahuta for himself, with an unscheduled visit that morning. Khan was thrown into a panic. He immediately called Brigadier Sajawal, told him to get into his dress uniform and join him in the staff car in half an hour.1 Dr. Shafiq, then a thirteen-year-old schoolboy, tagged along. “When he arrived at Kahuta, Zia was shocked,” he recalled. “He was expecting a school chemistry lab and here was a plant filled with fully functioning Western-style laboratories, cascades of gleaming centrifuges humming away in glass chambers all being monitored by scientists in pristine white coats. Nothing like this had ever been done in Pakistan before. I remember the look on his face. He was like, ‘This is an empire.’ He was overwhelmed.” Khan recalled the visit as a great morale booster for him and his colleagues. “During his flying visit to our laboratories Zia renamed our organization from ‘Engineering Research Laboratories’ to ‘Dr. A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories,’

Back in 1979, the Israelis, according to a senior intelligence source in Israel, had been shown a classified US memo by their counterparts in RAW, the Indian foreign intelligence agency. Intercepted on its way from the US embassy in New Delhi to the secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, it confirmed that the US privately believed Pakistan would be able to explode a bomb within “two or three years”—most likely by 1981.So shocked had the Israelis been by the massive advances made by Khan that they had begun planning a pre-emptive strike on Kahuta, a plan that had only been put on ice due to US pressure. Now both Israel and India picked up more worrying indicators, including signs that test tunnels were being dug in Pakistan’s Ras Koh mountains.

So certain were the Indians of Pakistan’s intent that Lieutenant General Krishnaswami Sundarji, a future Indian vice chief of army staff, took the unprecedented step of publishing a war-gaming manual on the basis that Pakistan would imminently have a deployable bomb. Israel was less cerebral in its response. On 7 June 1981, deploying US-supplied bombers, armed with US-manufactured munitions, targeting with satellite overheads supplied by the US intelligence community, Israel destroyed the Iraqi nuclear program, striking out its reactor in Osirak, sending a clear message that even if the US was willing to turn a blind eye to the activities of unauthorized nuclear powers, the Israelis were not. Jerusalem would not stand by and allow realpolitik to arm Pakistan either, and a highly secretive bombing campaign orchestrated by the Mossad, Israel’s external security agency, which had begun earlier in the year and targeted A. Q. Khan’s European suppliers, was escalated.

The first victim had been Heinz Mebus, Khan’s old friend from West Berlin Technische Universität, who, along with Albrecht Migule, had helped build Pakistan’s fluoride and uranium conversion plants in 1979. A letter bomb exploded inside Mebus’s home in Erlangen, West Germany. Mebus was out at work, but his dog died in the attack. European criminal investigators soon linked the bombing to another that had occurred in Berne, Switzerland, on 20 February, outside the home of Eduard German, managing director of CORA Engineering, the company that had exported the gasification and solidification unit to Pakistan in 1979. The company had been preparing to send another rig to Pakistan when the bomb went off. The incident was followed by an anonymous caller demanding that CORA stop trading with Pakistan. Rudolf Walti, a CORA official, recalled that after his company was threatened again two months later it ended its association with Pakistan, having discovered that the US knew everything. However, this information had been kept highly classified, lest it undermine the aid train that had started to leave for Pakistan.

Police in Berne could find no trace of any of the attackers, only references to a gang that called itself the Group for Non-Proliferation in South Asia. However, they soon discovered that similar attacks against Khan’s European suppliers had been carried out by other equally untraceable groups, including one called the Committee to Safe guard the Islamic Revolution and another known as the League for Protecting the Sub-Continent, which had exposed secret contracts between Khan and a French nuclear supplier.

Pooling resources through Interpol, the international police organization, the Swiss detectives learned of an Italian company trading with Khan that had also been warned off. Emanuele Poncini, deputy director of Alcom Engineering, which was supplying metal components to Pakistan, confirmed that his company had received a threatening letter and had backed away from its deal. Then, on 18 May 1981, another bomb exploded, this one planted in the southern German town of Markdorf outside a company that had been supplying Pakistan since 1976. That November, Albrecht Migule was also targeted when a letter bomb was delivered to his house in Freiberg, West Germany. The Swiss police investigations floundered, although in private the detectives believed a sophisticated, state-backed group was behind the attacks, with Mossad the most likely candidate.Peter Griffin recalled having the frighteners put on him, too, when he went to Bonn to pick up a payment from Ikram ul-Haq, A. Q. Khan’s agent there. “I was in a bar when a stranger sat down next to me. ‘You’re Peter Griffin,’ he said. ‘We don’t like what you’re doing, so stop it.’ ” Griffin started recording all his business dealings and movements in a diary, put all his company records into a bank vault, and advised his wife that if anything untoward should happen to him she should give everything to their son Paul.

The CIA had picked up on Zia’s instructions to Khan in May 1981 to get ready for a cold test. Pakistan had moved on to the next stage. Officially, Pakistan’s warhead design was the responsibility of Dr. Samar Mubarakmand, a founding member of PAEC, who had attended the 1972 Multan conference and ran PAEC’s Directorate of Technical Development (DTD), one of the most secretive organizations in the labyrinth of Pakistan’s nuclear industry. At a secret laboratory, the location of which was never disclosed, Mubarakmand worked with a team of scientists and engineers who had formerly been employed by the Pakistan army’s ordnance complex at Wah, north of Islamabad. They had been shifted from conventional to nuclear weapons in March 1974 but had yet to perfect their warhead design. In 1981, Zia decided to increase the pace by authorizing Khan to establish a competing weapons team at Kahuta

Everything was building up for a cold test, and in March 1983, shortly after Reagan had hailed US efforts at “dissuading [Pakistan] from continuing its nuclear explosives program,” work began in tunnels bored into the Kirana Hills near Sargodha, the Pakistan air force’s largest base and its central ammunition depot. The tests were to be conducted by PAEC, after Dr. Samar Mubarakmand’s team at the Directorate of Technical Development finally produced a viable bomb design with input from Khan’s teams at Kahuta. Mubarakmand, who oversaw the preparations, recalled how they first had to clear the site of wild boars, one of which had previously written off a jet as it landed by charging into its undercarriage. He then booted up the US- and German-manufactured supercomputers with which his scientists would monitor the triggering of a nuclear bomb that had had its fissile core removed.

An armed escort arrived with the weapon. “The bomb was assembled in the tunnel. The telemetry was set up, checked and rechecked. Vans outside the test site would monitor the event from every angle.” The first test was designed to monitor the trigger mechanism and to see if it would generate sufficient neutrons to start a chain reaction. “The button was pushed and nothing happened,” the report stated. Fearing the device had failed, a team entered the tunnel and, running every wire through their fingers, they found that two connections had come adrift. After conducting some running repairs the test went off successfully. Now Pakistan’s dignitaries were invited to the site. A few days later, General K. M. Arif arrived, alongside Munir Ahmed Khan, chairman of PAEC, and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the finance minister. “Only a few people in Pakistan knew. It was a red-letter day,” recalled Arif. “I can tell you we were all very excited. The tests went perfectly. Pakistan to all intents and purposes now had its bomb. The work of our scientists was nothing short of heroic. From now on there were twenty-four more cold tests to straighten out the triggering mechanism until we got the hang of it exactly.”

In Pakistan, Khan was unconcerned about White House sensitivities. His Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) was filled with droves of conspicuous foreign visitors. “The Chinese were working on triggering mechanisms, the centrifuges, vacuum systems. They brought rocket propellant and super-hard metals like maraging steel,” recalled Dr. Shafiq, who was then training to be a medical doctor and frequently visited the plant to see his father, Brigadier Sajawal. “They brought in fissile material and Khan gave them the data on enrichment and metallurgy. They helped Pakistan import and experiment with high explosives and Khan gave them his work on the centrifuge rotors.” To make them feel welcome the main guest house was hung with lanterns and done up as a Chinese hall.

The collaboration grew so immense that the Chinese requested Pakistan to change the old-fashioned way in which some deals were financed. Dr. Shafiq recalled his father and Khan discussing China’s demands. “There would be no more suitcases full of cash delivered by high-ranking Pakistan army officers or ISI agents. China wanted a trustworthy and transparent line of credit. Dr. Khan had to get things regularized and get the government to deposit money into an account in one of its chosen banks, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International [BCCI], the Islamic Development Bank or the National Bank of Pakistan.” These bank-to-bank transfers would attract the attention of Western intelligence, which began investigating Khan’s finances in 1982, but they would not report back until much later and those involved in the investigations complained at the time of being largely ignored

A committee of soldiers and intelligence people had first come together to discuss what became known as “the Osirak contingency” in 1981, after Lieutenant General Krishnaswami Sundarji had published his Pakistan war-gaming manual. Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi had consented and placed Air Marshal Dilbagh Singh, chief of air staff, in charge of the operation. He had ordered Indian Air Force Jaguar squadrons to practice low-level flying, simulating runs with 2,000-lb bombs.

In February 1983, with the strike plan at an advanced stage, Indian military officials had travelled secretly to Israel, which had a common interest in eliminating Khan, to buy electronic warfare equipment to neutralize Kahuta’s air defenses.24 On 25 February 1983, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi had accused Pakistan of “covertly attempting to make nuclear weapons,” and three days later, Raja Ramanna, director of India’s Bhabha Atomic Research Center, had revealed that India, too, was developing a uranium enrichment facility. Suspecting something was brewing, the ISI sent a message to their Indian intelligence counterparts in RAW that autumn, and as a result Munir Ahmed Khan of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission met Dr. Ramanna at the Imperial Hotel in Vienna. He warned Ramanna that if India were to strike at Kahuta, Pakistan would hit India’s nuclear facilities at Trombay. It lay downwind from the teeming Indian city of Mumbai and an attack would result in the release of “massive amounts of radiation to a large populated area, causing a disaster.”

New Delhi paused. Israel stepped in, suggesting that it carry out the raid, using India’s airbase at Jamnagar to launch Israeli air force jets and a second base in northern India to refuel. A senior Israeli analyst close to the operation recalled that the plan was to enter Pakistan beneath the radar, with jets tracking the line of the Himalayas through Kashmir. As Reagan’s staff finalized arrangements for the president’s visit to China in March 1984, prime minister Indira Gandhi signed off the Israeli-led operation, bringing India, Pakistan and Israel to within a hair’s breadth of a nuclear conflagration. It was at this point that the CIA tipped off President Zia, hoping the chain reaction would defuse the situation. And after Khan’s outbursts in the Pakistani newspapers, India and Israel had backed off.

President Zia soon had a more pressing letter on his desk. Dated 10 December 1984, it was written by A. Q. Khan and required careful consideration. Everything was in place at Kahuta, Khan wrote, to detonate a real nuclear bomb—a hot test.61That in the closing months of 1984 Pakistan was on the brink of unveiling in public its nuclear program was verified by a second source, the Pakistani finance minister, Ghulam Ishaq Khan. “The nation owes a debt of gratitude to its scientists … using weapons-grade enriched uranium, a product of KRL, they had developed by 1984 a nuclear explosive device which could be detonated at short notice,” he wrote in a private letter sent to staff at Kahuta.

General Arif recalled that Zia was thrilled, but in two minds. He was eager to witness Pakistan’s nuclear ascendancy, but equally wary of losing the billions of dollars coming from the US. “Khan was told to wait. He was not used to being refused. He was devastated.” According to Zia’s chief of staff, something other than US hard cash had led to Zia calling off the hot test: the imminent arrival of a US delegation that was visiting Islamabad to talk about the nuclear program and witness how the covert war over the border was being prosecuted.63 “Pakistan could not detonate a bomb while the Americans were here. With the Soviets still in Afghanistan we needed them to go back home with a vision that we were winning that war with US support. We could afford to wait,” Arif said.

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

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