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Excerpt: 'The Nuclear Jihadist'

Book Cover Nuclear Jihadist

Chapter 1: The Smiling Man

It was a warm morning in late spring, with sunlight glinting off Amsterdam's famed canals. The man standing in the doorway of the laboratory's office seemed confident. He was Pakistani, thirty-six years old, just over six feet tall, with a broad forehead, fleshy face, and thick, close-cropped black hair. He wore a Western-style suit but tucked his tie behind his belt in a way that made the ensemble seem like an uncomfortable costume. He spoke adequate Dutch and very good German, but both were accented by the lilt of his native tongue. Arriving at the Physics Dynamic Research Laboratory on May 1, 1972, to begin his new job as a metallurgist, he had been escorted immediately to this office in the mechanical-science department, where he was to spend the next three years.

The man was smiling at no one in particular because, after a decade in Europe, he had learned that a simple smile was disarming. When his new colleague looked up from a large desk that dominated the room, he smiled even more broadly.

Frits Veerman, the laboratory's young photographer, was surprised. He had been told his new officemate would be an impressive person, a foreigner with a doctorate and a long list of academic publications. But Veerman had not expected the broad grin and the gleaming white teeth, not to mention the dark skin. The photographer stood, walked over, and stuck out his hand.

"Frits Veerman," he said in Dutch. "Welcome to FDO."

"I am Abdul Qadeer Khan," the man replied. "It is a pleasure to meet you."

Many of the people with whom Veerman worked had advanced degrees, and in the hierarchical structure of the laboratory—and of Dutch society in general—they tended to discount people like Veerman, who had only a technical degree and whose work as a photographer was deemed far less important than their own. He had braced himself for the usual cold shoulder, but Khan seemed different. Veerman thought him friendly and humble from the start, interested in all the workers and what they were doing inside the complex known by the initials FDO.

From that first day on, the men sat comfortably opposite each other at the large desk. Whenever Veerman ventured out to photograph minute design changes in some piece of sensitive technology, Khan tagged along, asking questions. Khan began praising Veerman's photographs—the prints were like works of art, he told him, with each detail clearly visible—and asked if he might have copies. The Dutchman thought this a bit odd, but he was flattered and complied happily. Khan eventually wanted to take his own photographs, and Veerman helped him buy a used high-quality camera. It all seemed to fit in with Khan's insatiable curiosity.

Khan had come to the research laboratory at the suggestion of a former classmate. The year before, he had completed his doctorate at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and applied for a range of jobs in several countries, including Pakistan. He was interested in any company that required a specialist in the analysis and development of exotic metal alloys. He also seriously considered returning home to teach, as a way of honoring his late father, who had been a schoolteacher.

The place where he landed, however, was not just any company. FDO was the year-old in-house laboratory of Verenidge Machine Fabrieken, a major Dutch conglomerate, which worked closely with Urenco, a consortium formed by the governments of Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands, in the design and manufacture of centrifuges. At the time, powerful companies such as Westinghouse and General Electric controlled the facilities that provided enriched uranium to civilian reactors throughout the Western world. In order to protect the fledgling commercial nuclear industry in the United States, President Richard M. Nixon had ordered in 1971 that the closely guarded enrichment technology not be shared with any other country, including allies. The decision forced other nations to begin developing their own enrichment technology to ensure an adequate fuel supply, eventually breaking the U.S. monopoly on uranium enrichment and unleashing the proliferation threat.

The key to the uranium-enrichment process is the ultracentrifuge, a sophisticated machine that spins uranium gas into enriched uranium. The centrifuges under development by Urenco were intended to manufacture fuel for a nuclear program that was to generate electricity for the three sponsor countries. The work was highly classified because the same process could be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.

A friendship quickly developed between the lonely Dutch photographer and the newly arrived foreigner. During that first summer, they spent their lunch hours wandering along the canals, eyeing the scantily clad young women who thronged the city's sidewalks and perched on the bridges. Amsterdam was probably the most dramatic contrast one could find to the modest Islamic society in which Khan had grown up. He was not prepared for the culture of legalized marijuana and prostitution that marked Amsterdam in those years as the hottest, hippest corner of Europe. The contrast seemed to enthrall him, and though Khan was recently married, he was intrigued by the festive and confident young women. Sometimes during their lunchtime strolls, Veerman watched with concern as Khan followed a young woman for blocks on end. Even though Khan always kept a distance, Veerman worried that the Pakistani's fascination would one day land him in serious trouble.

Their weekend jaunts were less eventful: the two men rode bicycles through the lush Dutch countryside, threading their way through the lacework of canals, stopping for cheese and drinks at small cafés along the way. Veerman understood Khan's polite refusal to drink alcohol or smoke but was surprised that he never brought his Dutch wife, Henny, along. The truth was that while Khan had lived in Europe for a decade and been drawn to the life of Amsterdam's streets, he had not escaped the religious and cultural constraints of his homeland and his upbringing.

KHAN was born to a Muslim family on April 27, 1936, in Bhopal, British India. Half a century later, the city became known for the eighteen thousand deaths caused by an accident at a Union Carbide insecticide plant. When Khan was born, however, Bhopal was known only as a peaceful place shared by Hindus and Muslims, who had lived side by side for centuries. Khan was one of seven children. His father, Abdul Ghafoor Khan, had been a teacher in the central provinces of India. He retired the year before Khan's birth, devoting his energy to working with the All-India Muslim League, which began as a political party in British India to protect the rights of Muslims and later became the driving force in the creation of Pakistan as a separate Muslim state. Throughout his life, Khan modeled himself on his father's humility and politeness. Like his father, he rarely raised his voice and often referred to himself as a man of peace, recalling that his father had stopped him from shooting birds when he was a young boy and instilled in him a reverence for life. But the son also inherited the father's fervor for an Islamic state and his hatred of India.

Shortly after Khan's birth, his mother, Zulekha, visited a fortune-teller and received a prediction about her newborn's fate: "The birth of this child will bring good fortune to his family. The child is very lucky; he is going to do a lot of good deeds in his life ahead. He is going to do very important and useful work for his nation and will earn immense respect."

Prediction aside, Khan's early years were typical of a young boy in British India. When time came to enroll him in school, his striving parents backdated his birth to allow him to start attending early. He was considered a good, though not exceptional, student, and he often seemed more interested in fishing and playing field hockey with his friends than in studying. He was more disciplined when it came to religion, attending prayers regularly at the neighborhood mosque with his father and four brothers. His favorite books were histories of the Muslim heroes who had created the Mughal Empire, gaining control over South Asia by vanquishing infidels in the sixteenth century. Eventually the Mughals were defeated by the British in the nineteenth century, instantly transforming India's Muslim rulers into a powerless minority.

The indignity stained Muslim life in India, fostering a widespread belief that the British who governed the vast subcontinent of India favored the majority Hindus and fueling the Muslim desire for a separate state, which finally came to fruition a century later. On August 14, 1947, Pakistan was created as an Islamic nation and refuge for Muslims. As so often in the building or breaking up of nations, logic was not part of the plan, and so the newly created Pakistan did not comprise a single territory but two—East and West, with India between them. The next day, India gained its independence and control over the remainder of its territory. The division of British India deteriorated rapidly into massive communal warfare, with tens of thousands of Muslims slaughtered in riots as they tried to leave for their newly created state. Khan was eleven years old at the time, and the violence was seared into his memory. His family watched in horror as Muslims flooded their neighborhood in Bhopal, still considered a sanctuary in those bitter days, bringing spine-chilling tales of atrocities committed by Hindus. Khan later described having seen trains packed with the corpses of Muslims killed in the sectarian fighting.

Two of Khan's brothers fled immediately to Karachi, the bustling port on the Arabian Sea in the newly established West Pakistan. Another brother and his elder sister joined them in 1950. Khan's father was determined not to be driven from his home, which he viewed as surrender to the Hindus, and he refused to permit his youngest son to join his siblings. Finally, after Khan finished high school in 1952, Abdul Ghafoor decided that there was no future for his youngest son in India, which he believed discriminated against the Muslims who had remained behind rather than immigrate to Pakistan. At sixteen, Khan bid his parents goodbye and set off for West Pakistan by train.

But Khan never really left India behind. The scars of his last years there remained, creating an instinctive fear of India that came to define his personal and professional worlds. Often in later years he recounted the violence and discrimination he had endured as a Muslim, invariably beginning with his own journey out of harm's way by train.

"I was alone," Khan would recall. "Luckily there were a number of Muslim families traveling with us. The attitude of the Indian police and the railway authorities toward these shattered families was extremely hostile, degrading and insulting. The mischievous behavior will always remain fresh in my memory. They snatched every valuable thing from these poor people." As the teenager huddled in the jammed train car, he clutched his meager belongings to his thin chest. All around him, women tried to hush the cries of babies and children, as men suffered the indignities of departure in silent anger. Khan carried little of value—his beloved Mughal history books and a gold pen given to him by his brother upon graduation—but he was not safe from the predations of the Indian authorities. He had watched the police rifle through the luggage of his fellow passengers, taking whatever they wanted, and just before the train arrived at its last stop near the border, his turn came. A police officer spotted something shiny and reached a fat hand into the boy's shirt pocket, plucking out his treasured pen. Khan was helpless to resist, humiliated by his loss and his weakness. The incident, seemingly minor compared with the tens of thousands of deaths, was a transforming event. The theft framed his view of Indians for a lifetime, and he recounted it whenever he talked about his distrust of Pakistan's neighbor. "It was something I'll never forget," he said over and over.

The train was forbidden to cross the border into Pakistan, so the final leg of Khan's pilgrimage required navigating a sandy, five-mile stretch of no-man's-land on foot. Khan stepped off the train and peered at the expanse in front of him as other passengers disembarked and began to trudge slowly toward the promised land, fathers and sons first, mothers and daughters bringing up the rear. After a few tentative steps in the shifting sand, Khan removed his shoes and walked barefoot. The hike took nearly two hours, leaving him exhausted and parched when he reached the other side. There, he saw for the first time the flag of Pakistan, with its white Islamic crescent emblazoned on a field of green. He sat on the bare ground and ate a meal of bread and meat from a stranger's tandoori oven, thinking that no food had ever tasted so good.

Khan had just enough money to buy a train ticket to Karachi, where his older brothers were living. A few months later, his mother arrived, carrying tales of continued violence against Muslims and describing her husband's stubborn refusal to surrender to the Hindus and leave Bhopal. Khan's father died there in 1956, four years after his last son's departure. By then, Khan had enrolled at the D. J. Science College of Karachi.

Less than a decade after its birth, Pakistan remained mired in poverty, with few of the industries, schools, and financial institutions necessary for economic progress. Pakistanis invariably blamed the Indians for keeping the riches of the British Empire for themselves, a resentment fueled by India's faster economic growth. Pakistan had lost a war with the Indians over the disputed territory of Kashmir in 1948 and watched in fear as India's army grew larger and more powerful, creating a widespread belief that the Indians harbored ambitions of taking over their Muslim neighbor. "Hindus are crooks and mischievous," Khan told a friend in those days. "They are dreaming of destroying Pakistan to create a united India."

Khan graduated from college in 1957, landing his first job as a government inspector of weights and measures in Karachi. He soon discovered the job was a dead end, leaving the ambitious young man restless and unsure about where his future lay. Pakistan's literacy rate was a paltry 16 percent, and there were no great universities. To compensate, the government adopted the common practice in the developing world of encouraging its brightest young graduates to seek higher education abroad. In 1961, Khan received a government grant, resigned from his job, and booked a flight to Düsseldorf, West Germany, where he planned to learn German and enroll in a technical university.

A few days before leaving, a friend took Khan again to visit a fortune-teller. Though Khan considered himself a man of science, like many Pakistanis he was intrigued by the ancient ritual. The old man took Khan's right hand, traced the lines on his upturned palm, and murmured for a minute. Then he said: "I'm surprised you are still here. You should be abroad." The palmist predicted that Khan would leave Pakistan soon and that his initial studies would be difficult, but he reassured the young man that he would fall in love, achieve great success, and then return to Pakistan. "Here in Pakistan, you will do outstanding work in your field, which will bring you a big name," the fortune-teller said.

Khan found an eerie significance in the prediction. His departure had in fact been delayed by a snafu with his German visa. Whether his friend had tipped off the fortune-teller or not, Khan seized on the shaman's vision of his bright future. Even a man of science could find solace in the predictions of a fortune-teller, particularly if they matched his own determination to accomplish great things.

Excerpted by permission of the publisher from Nuclear Jihadist. Copyright © 2007 by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins.

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Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins