AQ Khan Redux? The Ongoing Risk of Nuclear Proliferation Networks

Sensitive cargo: gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment recovered from the BBC China in 2003. Image: US Department of Energy / Wikimedia Commons

The 20th anniversary of the interdiction of nuclear technology that helped to bring down the AQ Khan nuclear proliferation network provides an opportunity to consider the enduring threat posed by nuclear proliferation networks.

On 4 October 2003, the German-flagged vessel the BBC China made an unscheduled stop at the port of Taranto in the south of Italy. The vessel had picked up its cargo in Dubai, had passed through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, and was en route to the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

This unscheduled stop and the subsequent removal of five shipping containers was conducted under conditions of great secrecy. After the vessel sailed into Taranto, according to one account, US and Italian authorities provided the captain with the container numbers to offload, which were then transported by US military trucks to a nearby guarded and anonymous warehouse.

This quiet act occurring 20 years ago this week was one of the most important and consequential counterproliferation interdictions of all time. The shipping containers carried thousands of centrifuge components, manufactured in a Malaysian factory, that were destined for the Libyan nuclear weapons programme.

The network responsible for the shipment was overseen by Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan, who had essentially turned the procurement network he built to feed Pakistan’s centrifuge enrichment programme around and used it to sell nuclear technology for profit. Muammar Qadhafi’s Libya was the latest customer to benefit from Khan’s activities, after earlier deliveries to Iran and North Korea.

The Khan network’s activities – and indeed the cargo of the BBC China – showcased a novel and evolving WMD proliferation threat in the early 2000s. Khan’s network was hybrid in nature, combining state and non-state proliferators. Khan was able to draw on the technological fruits of the Pakistani nuclear programme he had helped to build, as well as the expertise in the private sector that the country’s efforts had relied on since the 1970s.

While Khan’s previous trade with Iran and North Korea had largely involved second-hand Pakistani centrifuges and the more focused transfer of technologies, the Libya deal took Khan’s activities to the next level. Khan and his associates supplied a huge amount of enrichment technology alongside uranium hexafluoride gas and even a nuclear weapons design.

The transfer of the technology for a full 10,000-centrifuge enrichment plant saw Khan harness greater capabilities from the private sector. To supply this facility, Khan would have to procure or machine in the region of 1 million parts. Khan’s operation took over a factory in Malaysia which machined many of the centrifuge parts. It was a shipment from this Malaysian factory – the fourth from the facility – which, having been transshipped through the network’s hub in Dubai, was removed from the BBC China in Taranto in October 2003.

The novelty surrounding Khan’s network was at least threefold: it provided the full-scope offering from fissile material production technology to weapons designs; it combined state and private-sector expertise and access to technology; and it was willing to sell this large range of technologies for profit.

In some sense, the Khan network seemed to represent a dark, extreme facet of the then much-discussed ‘globalisation’ concept, encompassing declining technological barriers to the acquisition of WMD; a global network of private-sector suppliers; technologies moved anonymously through commercial container shipping; and goods held and repackaged in non-descript and unregulated free trade zones.

The past two decades have seen neither a proliferation network quite like Khan’s nor an interdiction quite as significant as that of the BBC China

Khan’s operation appeared to be a transnational enterprise – albeit one that could offer a turnkey nuclear weapons production capability to its customers. As former International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei put it: ‘All of what we saw was a result of the Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation’. The revelations surrounding the Khan network paired with heightened concerns around international terrorism after the 9/11 attacks to create a true climate of concern.

The BBC China interdiction remained secret for some time. As former US Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet noted, ‘While we were delighted that we had interdicted the shipment, we were reluctant to make too big a deal of it at the time’. However, behind closed doors, the interdiction reinforced diplomacy to counter both Khan’s network and Qadhafi’s nuclear aspirations.

While Western intelligence had been following Khan’s activities – and by this time had moles inside the network itself – seizing the shipment provided tangible proof of Khan’s activities. It allowed the US and UK to demonstrate understanding of the network’s activities without compromising some of the sources and methods they had used to penetrate the network.

The interdiction also enabled enhanced efforts to negotiate with Tripoli, demonstrating how much the West knew about the country’s programmes and restricting Qadhafi’s room for manoeuvre during the negotiations, until he publicly renounced Libya’s WMD programmes two months later in December 2003.

The past two decades have seen neither a proliferation network quite like Khan’s nor an interdiction quite as significant as that of the BBC China. They have, however, seen the centrifuge programmes of Khan’s two earlier customers progress significantly. Having received centrifuge drawings and samples from the network in the late 1980s, Iran has since developed at least four generations and 10 models of centrifuge, and has enriched thousands of kilograms of nuclear material to various levels.

Khan’s network is believed to have provided around two dozen centrifuges and measurement equipment to North Korea around 2000. Less is known about the current status of North Korea’s centrifuge programme, but even the modern-feeling facility visited by former Los Alamos Director Siegfried Hecker 13 years ago appeared to have around 2,000 operating machines.

However, the contribution of Khan’s technology and assistance to these successes – as well as the potential value of the network’s contribution to Libya had Qadhafi not renounced the programme – remains hotly debated. Was the nuclear Wal-Mart as potentially harmful to nonproliferation as it appeared?

Discussion of Libya’s programme has highlighted the challenges that proliferation networks such as Khan’s have faced in transferring intangibles – the expertise to go alongside the tangible technologies. Other accounts have highlighted the lack of state capacity as a factor in Libya’s inability to absorb Khan’s technology, much of which barely made it out of the packing crates.

Illicit networks can also clearly have quality issues. Much of the equipment Khan supplied, besides the centrifuge parts machined in the Malaysian factory and provided to Libya, comprised second-hand centrifuges from Pakistan’s programme. Some of the merchandise was of such poor quality that Khan had to send replacements.

While the proliferation threat posed by Khan and his network has subsided, there does still remain a risk of similar proliferation networks appearing in the future

Beyond quality, Khan’s wares also came at a premium price. Serving illicit markets can allow suppliers to charge what they want, and there is often little honour among thieves. As Tenet recounts in his autobiography, the CIA believed Khan had charged the Libyans $100 million, but when confronted the Libyans responded ‘A hundred million? We thought the price was $200 million!’

Other research has questioned how challenging it is for states to develop centrifuge enrichment capabilities – if they are determined, do they really need a supplier like Khan? Indeed, the technological goalposts are also moving, with more information available on these technologies in the public domain and a greater pool of dual-use manufacturers that can produce many of the high-end products required.

Both Iran and North Korea have also extensively relied on their own illicit procurement of technology from the international marketplace in achieving these successes. They have essentially used a procurement modus operandi honed by Khan in the 1970s and 1980s as supplier states have started to plug gaps in international nuclear export controls, rather than outsourcing to a network willing to provide a wider range of technologies.

While the proliferation threat posed by Khan and his network subsided after his arrest and televised confession in Pakistan in early 2004 and his death in 2021, there does still remain a risk of similar proliferation networks appearing in the future.

Indeed, North Korea could pose a Khan-like threat. The country has mastered many aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle and has even weaponised and tested nuclear devices. Pyongyang has exported nuclear technology before – including a nuclear reactor to Syria that was bombed by Israel while still under construction in 2007 – as well as providing nuclear material to Libya through the Khan network. North Korea already procures many of the goods required for collaborative missile projects from the international marketplace, relying on elements of the private sector like Khan did.

Any onward proliferation from North Korea is likely to be signed off at the highest levels. North Korea’s system of government likely provides fewer opportunities for a rogue operator – as Khan was, according to Pakistani accounts – to market nuclear wares.

If the leadership in Pyongyang decides to go further down the road of retooling its procurement networks towards exports in order to alleviate the country’s financial problems, this could potentially present an enormous challenge to the nonproliferation regime.

Such a network may not come to a head with a large interdiction like that of the BBC China. However, while the risks may have evolved somewhat, they clearly still exist, and we need to make efforts to better understand them.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Daniel Salisbury

RUSI Associate Fellow - Expert in nuclear security and open source intelligence

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