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Abdul Qadeer Khan

Abdul Qadeer Khan.jpg
Khan in 2017
Born (1936-04-01)1 April 1936
Died 10 October 2021(2021-10-10) (aged 85)
Islamabad, Pakistan
Nationality Pakistani
Alma mater University of Karachi
Delft University of Technology
Catholic University of Louvain
D. J. Sindh Government Science College
Known for Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, gaseous diffusion, martensite and graphene morphology
Hendrina Reternik
(m. 1963)
Children 2
Awards Nishan-e-Imtiaz Ribbon.png Nishan-i-Imtiaz (1996; 1999)
Nishan-e-Imtiaz Ribbon.png Hilal-i-Imtiaz (1989)
Scientific career
Fields Metallurgical engineering
Institutions Khan Research Laboratories
GIK Institute of Technology
Hamdard University
Urenco Group
Thesis The effect of morphology on the strength of copper-based martensites (1972)
Doctoral advisor Martin J. Brabers
Science Advisor to the Presidential Secretariat
In office
1 January 2001 – 31 January 2004
President Pervez Musharraf
Preceded by Ishfaq Ahmad
Succeeded by Atta-ur-Rahman
Personal details
Political party Tehreek-e-Tahaffuz-e-Pakistan

Abdul Qadeer Khan, NI, HI, FPAS (Listeni/ˈɑːbdəl ˈkɑːdɪər ˈkɑːn/; Urdu: عبد القدیر خان; 1 April 1936 – 10 October 2021), known as A. Q. Khan, was a Pakistani nuclear physicist and metallurgical engineer who is colloquially known as the "father of Pakistan's atomic weapons program".

An émigré (Muhajir) from India who migrated to Pakistan in 1952, Khan was educated in the metallurgical engineering departments of Western European technical universities where he pioneered studies in phase transitions of metallic alloys, uranium metallurgy, and isotope separation based on gas centrifuges. After learning of India's "Smiling Buddha" nuclear test in 1974, Khan joined his nation's clandestine efforts to develop atomic weapons when he founded the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) in 1976 and was both its chief scientist and director for many years.

In January 2004, Khan was subjected to a debriefing by the Musharraf administration over evidence of nuclear proliferation handed to them by the Bush administration of the United States. Khan admitted his role in running a nuclear proliferation network – only to retract his statements in later years when he leveled accusations at the former administration of Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1990, and also directed allegations at President Musharraf over the controversy in 2008.

Khan was accused of selling nuclear secrets illegally and was put under house arrest in 2004. After years of house arrest, Khan successfully filed a lawsuit against the Federal Government of Pakistan at the Islamabad High Court whose verdict declared his debriefing unconstitutional and freed him on 6 February 2009. The United States reacted negatively to the verdict and the Obama administration issued an official statement warning that Khan still remained a "serious proliferation risk".

After his death on 10 October 2021, he was given a state funeral at Faisal Mosque before being buried at the H-8 graveyard in Islamabad.

Early life and education

Abdul Qadeer Khan was born on 1 April 1936, in Bhopal, a city then in the erstwhile British Indian princely state of Bhopal State, and now the capital city of Madhya Pradesh. He is a Muhajir of Urdu-speaking Pashtun origin. His father, Abdul Ghafoor, was a schoolteacher who once worked for the Ministry of Education, and his mother, Zulekha, was a housewife with a very religious mindset. His older siblings, along with other family members, had emigrated to Pakistan during the bloody partition of India (splitting off the independent state of Pakistan) in 1947, who would often write to Khan's parents about the new life they had found in Pakistan.

After his matriculation from a local school in Bhopal, in 1952 Khan emigrated from India to Pakistan on the Sind Mail train, partly due to the reservation politics at that time, and religious violence in India during his youth had left an indelible impression on his world view. Upon settling in Karachi with his family, Khan briefly attended the D. J. Science College before transferring to the University of Karachi, where he graduated in 1956 with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in physics with a concentration on solid-state physics.

From 1956 to 1959, Khan was employed by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (city government) as an Inspector of weights and measures, and applied for a scholarship that allowed him to study in West Germany. In 1961, Khan departed for West Germany to study material science at the Technical University in West Berlin, where he academically excelled in courses in metallurgy, but left West Berlin when he switched to the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands in 1965.

In 1962, while on vacation in The Hague, he met Hendrina "Henny" Reternik – a British passport holder who had been born in South Africa to Dutch expatriates. She spoke Dutch and had spent her childhood in Africa before returning with her parents to the Netherlands where she lived as a registered foreigner. In 1963, he married Henny in a modest Muslim ceremony at Pakistan's embassy in The Hague. Khan and Henny together had two daughters, Dina Khan - who is a doctor, and Ayesha Khan.

In 1967, Khan obtained an engineer's degree in materials technology – an equivalent to a Master of Science (MS) offered in English-speaking nations such as Pakistan – and joined the doctoral program in metallurgical engineering at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. He worked under Belgian professor Martin J. Brabers at Leuven University, who supervised his doctoral thesis which Khan successfully defended, and graduated with a DEng in metallurgical engineering in 1972. His thesis included fundamental work on martensite and its extended industrial applications in the field of graphene morphology.

Career in Europe

In 1972, Khan joined the Physics Dynamics Research Laboratory (or in Dutch: FDO), an engineering firm subsidiary of Verenigde Machinefabrieken (VMF) based in Amsterdam, from Brabers's recommendation. The FDO was a subcontractor for Ultra-Centrifuge Nederland of the, British-German-Dutch uranium enrichment consortium, URENCO which was operating a uranium enrichment plant in Almelo and employed gaseous centrifuge method to assure a supply of nuclear fuel for nuclear power plants in the Netherlands. Soon after, Khan left FDO when URENCO offered him a senior technical position, initially conducting studies on the uranium metallurgy.

Uranium enrichment is an extremely difficult process because uranium in its natural state is composed of just 0.71% of uranium-235 (U235), which is a fissile material, 99.3% of uranium-238 (U238), which is non-fissile, and 0.0055% of uranium-234 (U234), a daughter product which is also a non-fissile. The URENCO Group utilised the Zippe-type of centrifugal method to electromagnetically separate the isotopes U234, U235, and U238 from sublimed raw uranium by rotating the uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas at up to ~100,000 revolutions per minute (rpm). Khan, whose work was based on physical metallurgy of the uranium metal, eventually dedicated his investigations on improving the efficiency of the centrifuges by 1973–74.

Frits Veerman, Khan's colleague at FDO, uncovered nuclear espionage at Almelo where Khan had stolen designs of the centrifuges from URENCO for the nuclear weapons programme of Pakistan. Veerman became aware of the espionage when Khan had taken classified URENCO documents home to be copied and translated by his Dutch-speaking wife and had asked Veerman to photograph some of them. In 1975, Khan was transferred to a less sensitive section when URENCO became suspicious and he subsequently returned to Pakistan with his wife and two daughters. Khan was sentenced in absentia to four years in prison in 1983 by the Netherlands for espionage but the conviction was later overturned due to a legal technicality. Ruud Lubbers, Prime Minister of the Netherlands at the time, later said that the General Intelligence and Security Service (BVD) was aware of Khan's espionage activities but he was allowed to continue due to pressure from the CIA, with the US backing Pakistan during the Cold War. This was also highlighted when despite Archie Pervez (Khan's associate for nuclear procurement in the US) being convicted in 1988, no action was taken against Khan or his proliferation network by the US government which needed the support of Pakistan during the Soviet–Afghan War.

Henk Slebos [nl], a Dutch engineer and businessman who had studied metallurgy with Khan at the Delft University of Technology, continued providing goods needed for enriching uranium to Khan in Pakistan through his company Slebos Research. Slebos was sentenced in 1985 to one year in prison but the sentence was reduced on appeal in 1986 to six months of probation and a fine of 20,000 guilders. Though Slebos continued to export goods to Pakistan and was again sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of around 100,000 was imposed on his company.

Ernst Piffl, was convicted and sentenced to three and a half years in prison by Germany in 1998 for supplying nuclear centrifuge parts through his company Team GmbH to Khan's Khan Research Laboratories in Kahuta. Asher Karni, a Hungarian-South African businessman was sentenced to three years in prison in the US for the sale of restricted nuclear equipment to Pakistan through Humayun Khan (an associate of A. Q. Khan) and his Pakland PME Corporation.

Scientific career in Pakistan

Smiling Buddha and initiation

Upon learning of India's surprise nuclear test, 'Smiling Buddha', in May 1974, Khan wanted to contribute to efforts to build an atomic bomb and met with officials at the Pakistani Embassy in The Hague, who dissuaded him by saying it was "hard to find" a job in PAEC as a "metallurgist". In August 1974, Khan wrote a letter which went unnoticed, but he directed another letter through the Pakistani ambassador to the Prime Minister's Secretariat in September 1974.

Unbeknownst to Khan, his nation's scientists were already working towards feasibility of the atomic bomb under a secretive crash weapons program since 20 January 1972 that was being directed by Munir Ahmad Khan, a reactor physicist, which calls into question of his "father-of" claim. After reading his letter, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had his military secretary run a security check on Khan, who was unknown at that time, for verification and asked PAEC to dispatch a team under Bashiruddin Mahmood that met Khan at his family home in Almelo and directed Bhutto's letter to meet him in Islamabad. Upon arriving in December 1974, Khan took a taxi straight to the Prime Minister's Secretariat. He met with Prime Minister Bhutto in the presence of Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Agha Shahi, and Mubashir Hassan where he explained the significance of highly enriched uranium, with the meeting ending with Bhutto's remark: "He seems to make sense."

The next day, Khan met with Munir Ahmad and other senior scientists where he focused the discussion on production of highly enriched uranium (HEU), against weapon-grade plutonium, and explained to Bhutto why he thought the idea of "plutonium" would not work. Later, Khan was advised by several officials in the Bhutto administration to remain in the Netherlands to learn more about centrifuge technology but continue to provide consultation on the Project-706 enrichment program led by Mahmood. By December 1975, Khan was given a transfer to a less sensitive section when URENCO became suspicious of his indiscreet open sessions with Mahmood to instruct him on centrifuge technology. Khan began to fear for his safety in the Netherlands, ultimately insisting on returning home.

Khan Research Laboratories and atomic bomb program

Zippe-type gas centrifuge
Diagram of the principles of a Zippe-type gas centrifuge with U-238 represented in dark blue and U-235 represented in light blue

In April 1976, Khan joined the atomic bomb program and became part of the enrichment division, initially collaborating with Khalil Qureshi – a physical chemist. Calculations performed by him were valuable contributions to centrifuges and a vital link to nuclear weapon research, but continue to push for his ideas for feasibility of weapon-grade uranium even though it had a low priority, with most efforts still aimed to produce military-grade plutonium. Because of his interest in uranium metallurgy and his frustration at having been passed over for director of the uranium division (the job was instead given to Bashiruddin Mahmood), Khan refused to engage in further calculations and caused tensions with other researchers. Khan became highly unsatisfied and bored with the research led by Mahmood – finally, he submitted a critical report to Bhutto, in which he explained that the "enrichment program" was nowhere near success.

Upon reviewing the report, Bhutto sensed a great danger as the scientists were split between military-grade uranium and plutonium and informed Khan to take over the enrichment division from Mahmood, who separated the program from PAEC by founding the Engineering Research Laboratories (ERL). The ERL functioned directly under the Army's Corps of Engineers, with Khan being its chief scientist, and the army engineers located the national site at isolated lands in Kahuta for the enrichment program as ideal site for preventing accidents.

The PAEC did not forgo their electromagnetic isotope separation program, and a parallel program was led by G. D. Alam at the Air Research Laboratories (ARL) located at Chaklala Air Force Base, even though Alam had not seen a centrifuge, and only had a rudimentary knowledge of the Manhattan Project. During this time, Alam accomplished a great feat by perfectly balancing the rotation of the first generation of centrifuge to ~30,000 rpm and was immediately dispatched to ERL which was suffering from many setbacks in setting up its own program under Khan's direction based on centrifuge technology dependent on URENCO's methods. Khan eventually committed to work on problems involving the differential equations concerning the rotation around fixed axis to perfectly balance the machine under influence of gravity and the design of first generation of centrifuges became functional after Khan and Alam succeeded in separating the 235U and 238U isotopes from raw natural uranium.

In the military circles, Khan's scientific ability was well recognised and was often known with his moniker "Centrifuge Khan" and the national laboratory was renamed after him upon the visit of President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1983. In spite of his role, Khan was never in charge of the actual designs of the nuclear devices, their calculations, and eventual weapons testing which remained under the directorship of Munir Ahmad Khan and the PAEC.

The PAEC's senior scientists who worked with him and under him remember him as "an egomaniacal lightweight" given to exaggerating his scientific achievements in centrifuges. At one point, Munir Khan said that, "most of the scientists who work on the development of atomic bomb projects were extremely 'serious'. They were sobered by the weight of what they don't know; Abdul Qadeer Khan is a showman." During the timeline of the bomb program, Khan published papers on analytical mechanics of balancing of rotating masses and thermodynamics with mathematical rigour to compete, but still failed to impress his fellow theorists at PAEC, generally in the physics community. In later years, Khan became a staunch critic of Munir Khan's research in physics, and on many occasions tried unsuccessfully to belittle Munir Khan's role in the atomic bomb projects. Their scientific rivalry became public and widely popular in the physics community and seminars held in the country over the years.

Nuclear tests: Chagai-I

Visible effect of the nuclear weapons test, Chagai-I, conducted in the Ras Koh Hills of the Sulaiman Mountains, May 1998. All five nuclear devices were boosted fission devices that used highly enriched uranium.

Many of his theorists were unsure that military-grade uranium would be feasible on time without the centrifuges, since Alam had notified PAEC that the "blueprints were incomplete" and "lacked the scientific information needed even for the basic gas-centrifuges." Calculations by Tasneem Shah, and confirmed by Alam, showed that Khan's earlier estimation of the quantity of uranium needing enrichment for the production of weapon-grade uranium was possible, even with the small number of centrifuges deployed.

Khan produced the designs of the centrifuges from URENCO. However, they were riddled with serious technical errors, and while he bought some components for analysis, they were broken pieces, making them useless for quick assembly of a centrifuge. Its separative work unit (SWU) rate was extremely low, so that it would have to be rotated for thousands of RPMs at the cost of millions of taxpayers money, Alam maintained. Though Khan's knowledge of copper metallurgy greatly aided the it was the calculations and validation that came from his team of fellow theorists, including mathematician Tasneem Shah and Alam, who solved the differential equations concerning rotation around a fixed axis under the influence of gravity, which led Khan to come up with the innovative centrifuge designs.

Gun-type fission weapon en-labels thin lines
Diagram of the gun-type device developed by the United States

Scientists have said that Khan would have never got any closer to success without the assistance of Alam and others. The issue is controversial; Khan maintained to his biographer that when it came to defending the "centrifuge approach" and really putting work into it, both Shah and Alam refused.

Khan was also very critical of PAEC's concentrated efforts towards developing a plutonium 'implosion-type' nuclear devices and provided strong advocacy for the relatively simple 'gun-type' device that only had to work with high-enriched uranium – a design concept of gun-type device he eventually submitted to Ministry of Energy (MoE) and Ministry of Defense (MoD). Khan downplayed the importance of plutonium despite many of the theorists maintaining that "plutonium and the fuel cycle has its significance", and he insisted on the uranium route to the Bhutto administration when France's offer for an extraction plant was in the offing.

Though he had helped to come up with the centrifuge designs, and had been a long-time proponent of the concept, Khan was not chosen to head the development project to test his nation's first nuclear-weapons (his reputation of a thorny personality likely played a role in this) after India conducted its series of nuclear tests, 'Pokhran-II' in 1998. Intervention by the Chairman Joint Chiefs, General Jehangir Karamat, allowed Khan to be a participant and eye-witness his nation's first nuclear test, 'Chagai-I' in 1998. At a news conference, Khan confirmed the testing of the boosted fission devices while stating that it was KRL's highly enriched uranium (HEU) that was used in the detonation of Pakistan's first nuclear devices on 28 May 1998.

Many of Khan's colleagues were irritated that he seemed to enjoy taking full credit for something he had only a small part in, and in response, he authored an article, "Torch-Bearers", which appeared in The News International, emphasising that he was not alone in the weapon's development. He made an attempt to work on the Teller–Ulam design for the hydrogen bomb, but the military strategists had objected to the idea as it went against the government's policy of minimum credible deterrence. Khan often got engrossed in projects which were theoretically interesting but practically unfeasible.

Government work, academia, and political advocacy

Khan's strong advocacy for nuclear sharing of technology eventually led to his ostracisation by much of the scientific community, but Khan was still quite welcome in his country's political and military circles. After leaving the directorship of the Khan Research Laboratories in 2001, Khan briefly joined the Musharraf administration as a policy adviser on science and technology on a request from President Musharraf. In this capacity, Khan promoted increased defence spending on his nation's missile program to counter the perceived threats from the Indian missile program and advised the Musharraf administration on space policy. He presented the idea of using the Ghauri missile system as an expendable launch system to launch satellites into space.

At the height of the proliferation controversy in 2007, Khan was paid tribute by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz on state television while commenting in the last part of his speech, Aziz stressed: "The services of [nuclear] scientist ... Dr. [Abdul] Qadeer Khan are "unforgettable" for the country".

In the 1990s, Khan secured a fellowship with the Pakistan Academy of Sciences – he served as its president in 1996–97. Khan published two books on material science and started publishing his articles from KRL in the 1980s. Gopal S. Upadhyaya, an Indian metallurgist who attended Khan's conference and met him along with Kuldip Nayar, reportedly described him as being a proud Pakistani who wanted to show the world that scientists from Pakistan are inferior to no one in the world. Khan also served as project director of Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology and briefly tenured as professor of physics before joining the faculty of the Hamdard University; where he remained on the board of directors of the university up until his death in 2021. Later, Khan helped established the A. Q. Khan Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering at Karachi University.

In 2012, Khan announced the formation of a conservative political advocacy group, Tehreek-e-Tahaffuz-e-Pakistan ('Movement for the Protection of Pakistan'). It was subsequently dissolved in 2013.

Illness and death

In August 2021, Khan was admitted to Khan Research Laboratories Hospital after testing positive for COVID-19. Khan died on 10 October 2021, at the age of 85, after being transferred to a hospital in Islamabad with lung problems. He was given a state funeral at the Faisal Mosque before being buried at the H-8 graveyard in Islamabad.

The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, expressed grief over his death in a tweet adding that "for the people of Pakistan he was a national icon". President of Pakistan Arif Alvi also expressed sadness adding that "a grateful nation will never forget his services".


On Youth Assemblage to Ignite Khudi
Khan attending literary conference with members of a civic society in 2017. Despite controversy, Khan remained a popular public figure.

During his time in the atomic bomb project, Khan pioneered research in the thermal quantum field theory and condensed matter physics, while he co-authored articles on chemical reactions of the highly unstable isotope particles in the controlled physical system. He maintained his stance of the use of controversial technological solutions to both military and civilian problems, including the use of military technologies for civilian welfare. Khan also remained a vigorous advocate for a nuclear testing program and defence strength through nuclear weapons. He justified Pakistan's nuclear deterrence program as sparing his country the fate of Iraq or Libya.

During his work on the nuclear weapons program and onwards, Khan faced heated and intense criticism from his fellow theorists, most notably Pervez Hoodbhoy who contested his scientific understanding in quantum physics. In addition, Khan's false claims that he was the "father" of the atomic bomb project since its inception and his personal attacks on Munir Ahmad Khan caused even greater animosity from his fellow theorists, and most particularly, within the general physics community, such as the Pakistan Physics Society.

Various motivations have been cited for Khan's role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons. According to the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, Moisés Naím, although his actions were certainly ideological or political in nature, Khan's motives remain essentially financial. This is evidenced, according to him, by his commercial maneuvers, his presence in North Korean trade as well as his real estate ownerships. For instance, Khan owned the Hendrina Khan Hotel in Timbuktu, named after his wife. It was one of dozens of his commercial enterprises. To build his hotel in Timbuktu, he reportedly used a Pakistan Air Force C-130 transport aircraft in the early 2000s to transport carved wooden furniture. The plane landed at Tripoli Airport in Libya and the cargo was then taken to Timbuktu by road as it was unable to land in Mali. Khan himself accompanied the furniture from Islamabad. His wife, two daughters and brother Abdul Quyuim Khan were all named in the Panama Papers in 2016 as owners of Wahdat Ltd., an offshore company registered in the Bahamas.

Bruno Tertrais, a senior researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research states: "Khan's motivations were complex and evolving (...) The primary motivation seems to have been to ensure the legitimacy of his role in building Pakistan's nuclear force (...) The second motivation, which has become more important over time, is personal enrichment. Finally, the third important element of varying importance depending on the hypothesis: Khan's more or less diffuse desire to see other Muslim countries access nuclear power."

In spite of the proliferation controversy and his volatile personality, Khan remained a popular public figure and has been as a symbol of national pride with many in Pakistan who see him as a national hero. While Khan has been bestowed with many medals and honours by the federal government and universities in Pakistan, Khan also remains the only citizen of Pakistan to have been honoured twice with the Nishan-e-Imtiaz.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Abdul Qadir Khan para niños

  • Dr. A. Q. Khan Institute of Computer Sciences and Information Technology
  • Dr. A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories
  • Pakistani missile research and development program
  • Conservatism in Pakistan
  • Nuclear espionage
  • Nuclear arms race
  • Nuclear Secrets, 2007 documentary series about the nuclear race and proliferation including Khan's role therein
  • Anwar Ali (physicist), Pakistani physicist charged with nuclear proliferation
  • Peter Finke, German physicist in the nuclear weapons programme of Pakistan
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