On Monday I had the good fortune to attend The A.Q. Khan Network and its Fourth Customer at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace featuring my friend (and ArmsControlWonk regular) Josh Pollack.
The event (which can be viewed online here) is based on an article initially published here. My own initial thoughts about it can be read here.
The core question is who was the AQ Khan network’s fourth customer. It was well-known that Khan dealt with Iran, North Korea, and Libya. But there was regular talk of an un-named fourth customer, there were also unaccounted for shipments of sensitive equipment. A related question is who was really running the network. At various points Khan attempted to blame the military or the Dubai middlemen for the nuclear smuggling – although at other times he insisted it was entirely his work (as befits the man who claims to be the father of the Pakistani bomb.) Pollack also notes some upcoming research by others which indicates that most of the stuff AQ Khan sold was actually junk.
Pollack argues, persuasively, that the fourth customer is none other than India. India was known to have dabbled in the nuclear black market so its tendrils would have encountered the AQ Khan network. There were certain very specific similarities in centrifuge design that seem beyond coincidence.
The full story will probably never be known. Although technically under house arrest, AQ Khan manages to run a website and write columns. Pakistani authorities are loath to permit international access to Khan or press their national hero to hard. At the same time, many of the key figures in the smuggling network that could shed light on the matter are deceased.
However, the possibility that India was the fourth customer gives Khan far greater incentives to deny that he was the king-pin of the smuggling network as it would destroy his reputation as a Pakistani patriot.
I had to ask how Khan could have gotten away with this for so long. After all, his primary achievement was stealing centrifuge designs while working in Europe. Shouldn’t that have set off some alarms in Rawalpindi. Several people who know Pakistan assured me that Khan’s reputation made it difficult to monitor him and that he was given enormous freedom to operate. The existence of such large blind spots does little to reinforce confidence in the Pakistani state.
The policy implications of India being Khan’s 4th customer are unclear. At events about India and Pakistan there are usually representatives from each side that use the Q&A period to deliver diatribes escoriating the other side. This did not happen here. Neither side has much incentive to draw attention to this story. Even in refuting it, the Indians would only draw attention to the story – which has the potential of undermining their nuclear deal with the US. Pakistan probably does not want to remind the world of its lack of control of its nuclear program.
Unearthing the full story of the AQ Khan network needs to continue. As frightening as al-Qaeda is – the AQ Khan network could be the harbinger of far worse destruction.