Playing with fire

By Matt Stone
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, October 10, 2005

U.S. administrators underestimate consequences of Pakistan's nuclear proliferation


Lesson No. 1 in preventing nuclear terrorism: plutonium or uranium? When it comes to building the bomb, the easiest material to work with is uranium. Lesson No. 2: The expertise to do so is on the market. Lesson No. 3: It takes a country to provide the material. Time to go shopping.

In late 2003, a victory was won in the war on terror, but what it eventually revealed was far more disheartening than gratifying. In the Mediterranean, the German vessel BBC China was interdicted by multinational authorities who had reason to suspect foul play. Indeed, their suspicions were confirmed: On board were parts for 1,000 centrifuges, critical for the enrichment of uranium hexafluoride gas to a weapons-grade level, destined for Libya.

Within a month, Libya had fessed up to its illicit enrichment program aimed at building the bomb, Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, AQ Khan, was implicated in the affair for providing the parts, and a black market for nuclear materials, its nexus in Pakistan, was unraveling. But the "AQ Khan network," as it has since been dubbed, was more than some sadistic way to get Western leaders' blood to boil. It was an absolute intelligence-gathering disaster 20 years in the making.

When Pakistan set about developing a nuclear weapon in the 1980s, AQ Khan was charged with acquiring the know-how and materials to do so. He developed a network of informants, suppliers and scientists around the world to help Pakistan in its venture. It was ultimately successful: In 1998, to the surprise of a dumbfounded CIA, Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapon.

In the meantime, throughout the 1990s, the network that was established to import know-how and materials was reversed. With front companies in Dubai, Malaysia, South Africa, Germany, South Korea, Turkey and elsewhere, the AQ Khan network was open for business and, according to what little has been declassified, business was good: It had Libya and recently acknowledged North Korea as primary customers.

Might Osama bin Laden have come knocking? That's not for the private citizen to know. It's doubtful that the United States intelligence community knows. What is known, however, is that in the late 1990s, bin Laden sought and received a fatwa that permitted the use of a nuclear device in an American city.

Fear-mongering? Maybe, but it would be shortsighted to treat bin Laden like the boy who cried wolf.

What the AQ Khan network demonstrated is that the "nuclear club" doesn't have to be only about states anymore. The scientific know-how to fashion a nuclear device is out there; only the material for it to work is needed, and that remains in plentiful supply in Russia, South Africa and throughout eastern Europe (really, any country with a former nuclear weapons program).

This is the spirit behind many internationally and American-led programs to secure fissile materials around the world: United Nations Security Council resolution 1540 aims to stop the export of weapons-usable materials; the U.S. Global Threat Reduction Initiative seeks to "blend down" weapons-grade material at civilian research reactors to a non-threatening level; the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative hopes to stem the trade and smuggling of fissile materials and parts for nuclear programs by interdicting ships in the way the BBC China was stopped.

But the AQ Khan debacle exposed the holes in this regime of protections and voluntary regulations. Indeed, the international organization most ridiculed following the uncovering of the network was the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a collection of states that voluntarily regulates its export of bomb-making materials. This includes Germany and Turkey, where some of Khan's front companies were based. But before we start pointing fingers, bear in mind that a few months after AQ Khan was implicated, another nuclear black market was uncovered: the Asher Karni network, a South African buying supplies from American companies and selling on to Pakistan.

Perhaps the most accusatory fingers should be pointed at Pakistan. It was Pakistan that secretly pursued the bomb much in the same way as Libya and Iraq once did and as North Korea and Iran are now. But President Bush won't do that. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is far too convenient an ally in the war on terror and facing illusory political stability at home. If he is overthrown by homegrown Islamists, what of Pakistan's bombs?

The world is playing with a disturbingly lethal version of fire. And it's time to get serious.

Matt Stone is a junior majoring in international studies and economics, and he is covering the Nuclear Threat Initiative Board of Directors meeting in Moscow. He can be reached at