orn on April 1, 1936, in Bhopal, India, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is also known as A.Q. Khan, was a Pakistani engineer and a prominent personality in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. He was also involved in a black market of nuclear technology for several decades and had gained extensive knowledge of uranium-enrichment centrifuges, weaponry, and nuclear warhead designs, which he sold or traded to Iran, North Korea, Libya, and potentially other nations.
Abdul Qadeer Khan was a child during India’s independence from Britain in 1947, which resulted in the partitioning of Indian territories to form Pakistan in the east and west. He migrated to West Pakistan in 1952 and graduated from the University of Karachi in 1960 with a degree in metallurgy. In the following years, he pursued graduate studies overseas, first in West Berlin and then in Delft, Netherlands, where he earned a master’s degree in metallurgy in 1967. He received a doctorate in metallurgical engineering from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium in 1972. During this time, he married Hendrina Reterink, a British national born to Dutch expatriate parents in South Africa and raised in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) before moving to the Netherlands.
DR ADBUL QADEER KHAN
Born on 1st April 1936
Died on 10th October 2021
Father of Pakistan’s Atomic Weapons Program
In 1972, Abdul Qadeer Khan joined the Physical Dynamics Research Laboratory, a subcontractor of the Dutch partner of URENCO. URENCO was a consortium of British, German, and Dutch companies established in 1971 to research and develop uranium enrichment using ultracentrifuges, which operate at high speeds. Although Abdul Qadeer Khan had been arranged a low-level security clearance, he expanded his access to a full range of information on ultracentrifuge technology and visited the Dutch plant at Almelo on numerous occasions. He was responsible for translating German documents on advanced centrifuges into Dutch.
In 1947, Abdul Qadeer Khan and his family moved to Pakistan following the country’s independence from Britain. He attended St. Anthony’s High School and later studied physics and mathematics at D.J. Science College in Karachi under the guidance of renowned solar physicist Dr Bashir Syed. Khan received a B.Sc. degree in physical metallurgy from the University of Karachi in 1960.
After graduation, Khan worked briefly as an inspector of weight and measures in Karachi before leaving for the Netherlands in the 1970s. It was there that he gained recognition for his scientific talent and was given access to restricted areas of the URENCO facility, where he could read classified documents on gas centrifuge technology.
In 1974, Khan returned to Pakistan and tried to persuade Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to adopt the Uranium route instead of the Plutonium route in building nuclear weapons. Reports suggest that Khan had close relationships with President General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq and the Pakistani military, as well as the Pakistan Air Force.
Khan went on to reorganize Pakistan’s national space agency, SUPARCO and played a significant role in Pakistan’s space program in the late 1990s. However, his publicizing of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities brought embarrassment to the government, with the United States suspecting that Pakistan was exchanging nuclear weapons technology for ballistic missile technology with North Korea. Khan also faced scrutiny after the September 11, 2001 attacks, as he was accused of selling nuclear technology to Iran. Though he was pardoned in 2004, he was placed under house arrest.
In 2006, Khan was diagnosed with prostate cancer and was undergoing treatment. He was released from house arrest in February 2009.
Abdul Qadeer Khan was deeply affected by events in Pakistan, including the country’s defeat in a war with India in 1971, which resulted in the loss of East Pakistan and the creation of the newly independent country of Bangladesh. He was also influenced by India’s test of a nuclear explosive device in May 1974.
On September 17, 1974, Khan wrote a letter to Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, offering his help in formulating an atomic bomb. He suggested that the uranium route to the bomb, using centrifuges for enrichment, was better than the plutonium route that was already underway in Pakistan.
Bhutto met with Khan in December 1974 and encouraged him to do everything he could to help Pakistan attain the atomic bomb. Over the next year, Khan obtained drawings of centrifuges and compiled a list of mainly European suppliers where parts could be procured. On December 15, 1975, he left the Netherlands for Pakistan, accompanied by his wife and two daughters, and carrying copies of the blueprints and the supplier’s list.
Khan initially worked with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), but he had differences with its head, Munir Ahmad Khan. At Bhutto’s direction, Khan founded the Engineering Research Laboratory (ERL) in mid-1976 to develop a uranium-enrichment capability. He based his operations in Kahuta, southeast of Islamabad, where he developed prototype centrifuges based on German designs and imported essential components from Swiss, Dutch, British, and German companies, among others.
In the first half of the 1980s, Pakistan acquired the blueprints of a nuclear weapon from China that used a uranium implosion design that the Chinese had successfully tested in 1966. It is believed that the Chinese helped Pakistan test its own derivative method on May 26, 1990. After satisfying Pakistan’s need for its own uranium weapon, Khan began making front companies in Dubai, Malaysia, and other locations in the mid-1980s. Through these entities, he covertly sold or traded centrifuges, components, designs, and expertise in an extensive black-market network. His customers included Iran, which built a uranium-enrichment complex based on the Pakistani model. Khan visited North Korea at least 13 times and is suspected of having transferred enrichment technology to that country. His laboratory also helped develop Pakistan’s Ghauri ballistic missile with assistance from North Korea. Libya, supplied by Khan, embarked on a nuclear weapons program until it was disrupted by the United States in 2003.
On January 31, 2004, Khan was arrested for transferring nuclear technology to other nations. On February 4, he made a statement on Pakistani television taking full responsibility for his operations and absolving the military and government of any involvement. Many nuclear experts found this claim hard to believe. The next day, he was pardoned by Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, but he was held under house arrest until 2009. Khan’s critics, particularly in the West, were dismayed by the such lenient treatment of a man whom one observer called “the greatest nuclear proliferator of all time.” Nevertheless, many Pakistanis view Khan as a symbol of pride, a hero whose contribution strengthened Pakistan’s national security against India.
Despite his controversial career, Abdul Qadeer Khan is widely regarded by many Pakistanis as a national hero due to his significant contributions to science, technology, and security in the country. He has received numerous awards for his work, including 45 gold medals, 3 gold crowns, and the Nishan-i-Imtiaz award twice, which is the highest civilian honour in Pakistan.
During his involvement in the atomic bomb project, Khan conducted research in Thermal Quantum Field Theory and Condensed Matter Physics, and co-authored articles on chemical reactions of volatile isotope particles in a controlled physical system. He maintained his stance on using controversial technological solutions to military and civilian problems, as well as the use of military technologies for civilian welfare. Additionally, Khan was a strong advocate for Pakistan’s nuclear analysis program and defence strength through atomic weapons. He justified Pakistan’s nuclear prevention program by stating that it spared his country from the fate of Iraq or Libya.
Despite his achievements, Khan faced criticism from colleagues such as Pervez Hoodbhoy, who opposed his scientific understanding of quantum physics. Furthermore, Khan’s false claims of being the “father” of the atomic bomb project and personal attacks on Munir Ahmad Khan drew ire from his colleagues, particularly within the Pakistan Physics Society.
Despite the controversies surrounding him, Khan remains a popular public figure in Pakistan and is considered a symbol of national pride by many. He has been likened to the fictional character Dr Strangelove in the media and has received many awards and honours for his contributions to Pakistan. Khan is the only Pakistani citizen to have been awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz award twice.
- Nishan-e-Imtiaz (1996)
- Hilal-e-Imtiaz (1989)
- Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology
- Awarded 60 Gold medals from different universities nationwide.
- University of Karachi
- Baqai Medical University
- Hamdard University
- Gomal University
- University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore
Abdul Qadeer Khan played a significant role in establishing several higher education engineering institutions in Pakistan. He introduced the field of metallurgy and material science to the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology, where he served as both executive and director of the ‘Dr. A. Q. Khan Department of Metallurgical Engineering and Material Sciences,’ named in his honour. Another institution, the ‘Dr. A. Q. Khan Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering’ at Karachi University, has also been named after him. Abdul Qadeer Khan has been instrumental in bringing metallurgical engineering courses to various universities in Pakistan.
Despite the controversies surrounding him in the international community, Abdul Qadeer Khan remains highly respected and widely popular among Pakistanis. He holds a special place in the hearts of many Pakistanis and is considered one of the most influential and valued scientists in the country.