Author: Shyam Bhatia in London
Publication: Rediff on Net
Date: January 29, 2004

 

 

Thursday, 12 February, 2004, 12:10 GMT

Ex-colleague spills beans on A Q Khan

A former friend and colleague has made sensational disclosures about how Dr Abdul Qader Khan -- 'father' of Pakistan's nuclear programme -- stole blueprints and classified components from the offices of his Dutch employers in Amsterdam.

Frits Veerman, a professional technical photographer who shared office space with Khan, also revealed details of the Pakistani metallurgist's systematic deception. Veerman was for many years a full time employee at the Physics Dynamics Research Laboratory (known as FDO) that conducted research on behalf of Urenco, a nuclear engineering consortium funded by Holland, Germany and the UK. Bhopal-born Khan was one of his colleagues. When Khan fled Holland in 1976, he attempted to use Veerman to procure equipment he needed to duplicate Dutch-made centrifuges to produce highly enriched uranium required for Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme. Before leaving, he introduced Veerman to a number of fellow Pakistanis, including a brother he said was employed by Pakistan International Airlines in Amsterdam. Dismissed by FDO after he threatened to go public with his concerns about how Khan had insinuated his way into the FDO 'brain box,' Veerman was subsequently tailed for a year by BVD, the Dutch internal security service, and even spent a day in prison on charges of aiding and abetting Khan in his nuclear espionage.

Dutch interrogators told him, 'If Khan is a spy so are you because if he has actually done what you persistently say he did, he could never have done it on his own. He would have received help. From you.' Now aged 60, Veerman says he has nothing to lose by revealing some hitherto closely held secrets about Khan's operations. Describing the 68-year-old Pakistani as more of a thieving James Bond than a scientist, Veerman has for the first time revealed some of the letters Khan wrote to him to obtain components he desperately needed for his work in Pakistan.

In one letter dated January 1976 and shown to rediff.com, Khan wrote, 'Dear Frits, It is almost a month that we have left the Netherlands and I am gradually beginning to miss the delicious chicken. I need a few things from my desk. Will you please take Henny (Khan's wife) to FDO on a Saturday morning so she can take the required things? A carton would be sufficient to take these things.'

In another letter, he tells his Dutch friend of the beautiful weather in Islamabad and how the latter is always welcome to come and stay. At one point, Khan dropped hints of money and the offer of an all expenses paid trip to Pakistan where he promised Veerman would be treated like royalty.

In a third letter, he writes, 'Dear Frits, very confidentially I request you to help us. I urgently need the following information for our research programme:

1. Etches of pivots:
(a) Tension - how many volts?
(b) Electricity - how many amperes?
(c) How long is etching to be done?
(d) Solution (electrolytic) HCL or something other is added as an inhibitor

If it is possible, grateful for 3-4 etched pivots. I should be very grateful if you could send a few negatives for the pattern. You should be having negatives of these. Frits, these are very urgently required, without which the research would come to a standstill.'

Veerman has told rediff.com that the letters are only the tip of the iceberg. He claims to have seen top secret blue-bound FDO files stacked in Khan's home where Veerman was routinely invited for a cup of tea or a meal of fried chicken. Khan justified their presence by explaining that being fluent in German, Dutch and English, he was helping out his employers in translating the contents into different languages.

Khan's wife Henny, a South African-born Dutch woman with a British passport, was given a part time job by FDO to translate highly classified files and documents. Veerman believes Khan still returns regularly to The Netherlands under a false identity to renew ties with his contacts and maintain access to certain suppliers.

This is the first time an independent authority has testified to Khan's role in stealing classified data. In Pakistan, where such charges have previously been ascribed to Indian propaganda, Khan is routinely praised for his intelligence and regularly compared to Albert Einstein. The disclosures come at a time when Khan and at least a dozen other Pakistani nuclear scientists face charges of selling nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya, North Korea and Al Qaeda terrorists.

Rediff.com has been told of how Khan set up some companies with the specific aim of marketing his stolen expertise to whoever was prepared to purchase it. Unlike the vast majority of Pakistanis who view Khan as half way between a saviour and a saint, Veerman sees him as a flawed and insecure human being. If they ever meet again, he wants to ask Khan how he justifies all the years of deception.

The story of Abdoel Kahn (Eng-NL)...

Super Gun...

Iraq also sought other means of extending its military reach. The "Supergun" program was an effort to produce 350 mm and 1000 mm long-range artillery weapons as an alternative to missiles. UN inspectors found and destroyed one partially-assembled gun at Jabal Hamryn (Hamrain), north of Baghdad. This gun was a prototype for a larger, longer-range gun capable of firing 1,000 mm/40-inch shells 600 miles or more. Parts of the 1,000 mm gun were found at Iskandariah. When completed, the Supergun would have been capable of delivering chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons. This project, known as Operation Babylon, was carried out with the utmost secrecy. It was originally planned for the gun to be housed in a crater with a retractable roof.

The Supergun was designed and constructed by Gerald Bull, a French Canadian whose Space Research Corporation was located in Brussels, Belgium. Bull was acknowledged internationally to be an expert in ballistic technology, and had worked with several countries before selling his design to Iraq. At one point, Bull employed 20 persons who were working solely on the Supergun. Bull's company handled the contracting for the gun components with UK companies. Bull's involvement in the Supergun project ultimately led to his assassination outside his flat in Brussels on 22 March 1990, allegedly at the hands of Israel's Mossad. Shortly after his death, eight British-made steel pipes, probably part of the gun barrel, were seized by British Customs on their way to Iraq. Other Supergun components were soon discovered throughout Europe, including the breach-block in Italy and recoil mechanisms in West Germany and Switzerland.

On the trail of the black market bombs
US President George W Bush has announced a series of proposals to try to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

His speech followed the admission by the father of the Pakistani bomb, Dr AQ Khan, that he had given nuclear secrets to other countries, believed to be Iran, North Korea and Libya.

BBC News Online world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds has been following the trail of the black market bombs. The story begins in the early 1970s. An ambitious young Pakistani metallurgist Abdul Qadeer Khan (known in the style of the sub-continent by his initials AQ) was working in the Netherlands for a Dutch company called Physics Dynamic Research Laboratory.

Origins at Urenco

FDO, as it was called, did research for a consortium called Urenco, set up by the British, Dutch and German governments to provide equipment to enrich uranium. Whether Dr Khan had gone there in order to get information needed to build a nuclear bomb is not known. What is known is that when, in 1974, India exploded its first nuclear device, he was well placed to help his own country. Specifically, he was able to get blueprints for a centrifuge made by Urenco. Centrifuges are metal tubes which spin uranium hexafluoride gas in order to separate out the uranium 235 which is needed to make a nuclear reaction. In this way uranium can be enriched to the level required for a nuclear power station but also to the higher levels needed for a nuclear bomb. Dr Khan had the higher ambition.

According to Frits Veerman, a technical photographer who worked in the same office at FDO, Dr Khan kept blueprints in his house, where Mr Veerman sometimes went for tea and fried chicken. Later he wrote to Mr Veerman after he left the Netherlands in 1976 with the Dutch intelligence hard on his heels. Dr Khan asked Mr Veerman to get more details, opening one letter with the words: "Dear Frits, very confidentially I request you to help us."

Khan back in Pakistan

Armed with his blueprints, Dr Khan then set up the AQ Khan Research Laboratories near the Pakistani capital Islamabad and began to build the bomb, often getting supplies and equipment from European companies. In those days, controls were lax and in any event much of the equipment was dual use so its ultimate purpose could be hidden. Dr Khan was remarkably successful. At some stage, however, he ceased to be satisfied with confining his work to Pakistan. Whether this was because he realised that he could sell his expertise elsewhere, or whether he saw himself as a kind of nuclear mastermind countering American hegemony, is not really known. Nor is it known to what extent, if any, the Pakistani government knew about his extra curricula activities. He is believed to have helped North Korea, which supplied Pakistan with missiles. Such an exchange could hardly have taken place without government to government contacts.

Trail to Libya

What is known, in broad terms, is the trail which led from Dr Khan to Libya and it can probably be reckoned that a similar path led to Iran, though the Libyan connection was more sophisticated.

President Bush himself laid out some of the evidence.
" What is known, in broad terms, is the trail which led from Dr Khan to Libya and it can probably be reckoned that a similar path led to Iran "

A key figure was BSA Tahir, a Sri Lankan businessman living in Dubai whom Mr Bush called Dr Khan's "deputy and chief financial officer and money launderer". Mr Tahir, said Mr Bush, had set up a front company SMB Computers, to help the operation. Mr Tahir is said to have placed an order for centrifuge parts with a Malaysian company named by the CIA as Scomi Precision Engineering. The cover story was that the parts were for the oil and gas industry. Scomi said the actual order was placed by a British company in Dubai called Gulf Technical Industries (GTI) in which Mr Tahir had a partner named Paul Griffin.

Mr Griffin has denied, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, that he knew anything about the centrifuge order.In any event, the order went through and the parts were delivered to Dubai.

Shipment stopped

It was after they were loaded on a German ship the BBC China, bound for Libya in the late summer of 2003, that western governments struck. The ship was intercepted by the Germans and Italians and taken into an Italian port. There the "used machinery parts" listed as the cargo were found to be the centrifuges manufactured in Malaysia, probably to the designs of Dr Khan.

Libya had already opened talks with the US and UK about abandoning its work on weapons of mass destruction, so it is curious that Libya should also have continued with this shipment. There have been suggestions that Libya tipped the British and Americans off as a sign of good faith. If not, they were acting in bad faith. Whatever the cause, the shipment was revealed. What was even more worrying was that Libya showed the Americans and British a design for a nuclear warhead, which is believed to have originated with Dr Khan as well. Mr Bush said the Khan network even sold raw uranium at one stage, though to whom is not clear.

Iran's admission

At the same time, Iran was having to admit that it, too, had acquired expertise from abroad. The Iran operation pre-dated the one with Libya and was less sophisticated because it seems that Dr Khan simply gave the Iranians surplus equipment. He had over-ordered some parts for his own needs, so he had something to sell. He had also developed new centrifuges which meant that the old ones could go on the market. One of them, which ended up in Iran, was apparently contaminated with enriched uranium. This was found by the United Nations nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran was forced to admit either that it had processed the fuel itself or got it by accident. It chose the latter explanation, but that opened up the whole question of where it came from.


" Looking back, it was amazing that Dr Khan managed to carry on for so long "


Iran simply said it got the parts through a third party. But technical analysis has detected the hand of Dr Khan in the designs. Looking back, it was amazing that Dr Khan managed to carry on for so long. A former British envoy in Pakistan has said that he did challenge the Pakistani authorities about Dr Khan but was assured that all was in order. The unravelling of his network will partly make up for the previous intelligence failure but the lapse is highly worrying for western governments. That is why President Bush has proposed the new measures.

Closing the loophole

In particular they would close a loophole which allowed Dr Khan to operate internationally. Under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which came into effect in 1970, countries without nuclear weapons are allowed to develop nuclear power and, crucially, are allowed to make their own fuel. But enriching uranium beyond power station grade to weapons grade is no great technological feat and as long as you keep your activities a secret, you can get away with it. The United States now wants to confine fuel enrichment to those countries which already have the capacity to do it. In that way, everyone else would buy their fuel from recognised sources and there would be no other fuel enrichment going on. It would not necessarily stop another Dr Khan but it would make such an undertaking much more difficult.

Stolen Nuclear Secrets

Like the original Soviet atomic bomb, Pakistan's atomic bomb was developed with the help of stolen nuclear secrets. At the plant, Dr. Khan gained access to centrifuge designs that were extremely sensitive, records from a later investigation show. Suddenly, around 1976, Dr. Khan quit and returned to Pakistan. Not long after, Western investigators say, Pakistan started an atom bomb program that eventually began to enrich uranium with centrifuges based on a stolen Dutch design. Investigators in the Netherlands found a letter he wrote in the summer of 1976, after having returned to Pakistan, to Frits Veerman, a technician friend at the plant. "I ask you in great confidence to help us," Dr. Khan wrote, according to an article by David Albright, a nuclear expert, in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "This is absolutely urgent."

Dr. Khan asked for help on how to etch special grooves on a Dutch centrifuge's bottom bearing, a critical part. The grooves were to aid the flow of lubricants. He also asked if Mr. Veerman might like to vacation in Pakistan "and earn some money at the same time?"

Suspicious, Mr. Veerman gave the letter to officials at Urenco. It was eventually used against Dr. Khan when he was put on trial in absentia in the Netherlands. In 1983, he was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing nuclear secrets. The conviction was later overturned, however, on a legal technicality. It now appears that Dr. Khan has been sharing his knowledge with Iran and North Korea. Indeed, he appears to be the Johnny Appleseed of nuclear proliferation

The story of Kahuta and the Bomb is the story of Abdoel Kahn.
The story began at the beginning of the seventies, when the scientific elite of pakistan was gathered by president Bhoetto in order to find a solution to the military threat of India. The umpteenth armed conflict with the hated neighbour had just been lost. Thousands of Pakistan's sons had lost their lives or had been captured and morale in the country was desperately low. Something had to be done if self-esteem was to be preserved.
Under the inspiring leadership of the fanatical nationalist Bhoettothe decicion was quickly made. He had known all along what he wanted but he tried to give everybody in the meeting the idea that they had taken the decision democratically. The fifty scientists almost unanimously approved the development of the same monster, wich, at the end of the Second World war, had both literally and figuratively brought Japan to its knees.
At the end of the meeting Bhoetto spoke the historic words:
"There is a Capitalistic Bomb, there is a Communist Bomb, there is a Jewish Bomb, and soon there will be an Islamic Bomb .. even we have to eat grass for it."
In this strain began one of the most brazen plots in modern times, for Pakistan did not possess a single item necessary for the execution of this plans. There was no uranium, no plutonium, there was no plant nor material, there was no technical know-how nor any money. Beside, there was an international ban on the use of nuclear power for any other than peacful purposes.
Resourcefully, doggedly and most of all secretly, the items on Pakistan's shoppinglist were ticked off. There were set-backs, but these caused no more than some delay. Part of the outside world pretended to be blind and deaf, because fortunes were to made.
Another part of the world, such as governments and their secret services, knew in fact nothing. The conspiration around Bhoetto had planned everything so well and manouvred so shrewdly that nobody became suspicious. That didn't happen until it was too late and a complete nuclear arms industry had sprung up in Kahuta.
Naturally, there were rumours at that early stage, but these were generally waved aside casually. Noboddy believed a poor and primitive country like Pakistan capable of such a feat.
The most amazing stunt was pulled off in The Netherlands by the ilustrous Khan. Within a period of 3 years - between may 1972 and december 1975 - he copied the deepest nuclear secrets on bits of paper in an office of the FDO (Physis Dynamics research laboratory) in Amsterdam and within the walls of UCN (Ultra Centrifuge Netherlands) in Almelo. He would often leave the office of his Dutch employer ( the FDO) carrying fat files, wich - in view of their contents - should have been locked up in a safe.
During these espionage activeties Khan was not hampered in any way. On the one hand because of a series of blunders by goevrnment departments which has not taken enough care in checking his backgrounds, on the other hand because of the character of the man himself.
He was charming, well-bred and amiable. He had a kind word fot everyone, worked harder than he was obliged to under this contract and often invited his assistants and colleagues to his home in Zwanenburg. One of these colleagues was the technical photographer Frits Veerman, with whom Khan shared an office at the FDO. Gradually a relationship had developed between him and the pakistani metallurgist which went further than just being on the same pay-roll.
Veerman and Khan were friends. At least that's what Veerman Thought. Until he discovered that, under the guise of friendship, he had inwittingly been seduced to render services of a dubious nature. He never uttered his suspicion to Khan and therefor he laterreceived letters (postmark Kahuta) and telephone calls from Pakistan and other far-off countries in which khan had the cheek to ask for more information. To his superiors, however, he did not keep quiet. Every few months he informed them of what he had eseen and heard and of the strange requests which Khan sometimes made or had made.
However, consciously or subconsciously, the photographer's observations and warnings were ignored until Abdoel Quadeer Khan had returned to his native country permanently where he laid the foundations for the much-wanted Islamic Bomb wich Dutch secrets.
In the end it was Frits Veerman of all people who had to pay for the mistakes and carelessness of others. It is true that, in his absence, Khan was sentenced to 4 years" imprisonment for espionage by a court of Justice in Amsterdam, but shortly afterwards he was discharged from prosecution of an error in the suphoena.
To Veerman the way of justice were even more mysterious. He was questioned by the police, many times turned inside out by the Dutch Secret Service, and to cap it all, he was told not to return to the Physic Dynamics Research laboratory. The reason given was that the company had no more work suited to his speciality. In realety he wasfired because they needed a scapegoat and small fry is dispensable. The real culprit. Dr. Abdoel Quadeer Khan, not only went scot-free but also started a briljant career after his Dutch adventure

 

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