The Lasting Legacy of A.Q. Khan

His network sold substantial nuclear equipment and assistance to Iran, Libya, and North Korea and contributed to lasting security crises.

The Pakistani engineer who operated the world’s most prolific black market nuclear proliferation network—Abdul Qadeer “A.Q.” Khan—passed away on October 10 from complications related to COVID-19. Khan’s legacy: selling nuclear weapons capabilities to some of the worst regimes in the world and contributing to security crises that endure today.  

In the early 1970s, Khan, a metallurgical engineer, exploited his employment at a Dutch company affiliated with URENCO, the European uranium enrichment consortium, to steal restricted gas centrifuge design drawings and documents. Khan later returned to Pakistan to lead Islamabad’s illicit procurement efforts to acquire components and materiel for a centrifuge program, taking advantage of weak European and Japanese export controls on nuclear dual-use equipment to achieve his goal. Khan’s efforts allowed him to rise in prominence within the nuclear weapons complex and, later, in Pakistani society.  

Pakistan also benefited from significant Chinese assistance, which included designs for a nuclear weapon, supplies of weapons-grade uranium, and on-site technical help. As Pakistan’s plutonium-based nuclear weapons program faltered, Khan reportedly led Islamabad’s successful effort to develop atomic bombs fabricated with highly enriched uranium by 1984. 

Khan also realized that selling Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities to other countries would turn a handsome profit. In 2009, the State Department reported that he “provided ‘one stop shopping’ for countries seeking to develop nuclear weapons. With the assistance of Khan’s network, countries could leapfrog the slow, incremental stages of other nuclear weapons development programs.”  

The A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network relied on numerous corrupt companies, manufacturers, engineers, and businessmen worldwide. Khan and his agents grew key nodes of the network in Malaysia, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The black market ring used offshore manufacturing businesses, shell companies, opaque shipping methods, and illicit banking to facilitate the transactions. 

By the time the United States and Europe endeavored to close down the Khan network in 2004, it had sold substantial nuclear equipment and assistance to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, and had reportedly approached others.  

Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the Khan network’s most significant customer, purchased a turn-key nuclear weapons capability—including equipment for a uranium enrichment plant that Tripoli could quickly construct and operate itself—and nuclear weapon designs. In 2003, in a major intelligence coup, the United States and United Kingdom arranged the seizure of the BBC China, a ship en route to Libya with centrifuge equipment that Gaddafi had purchased from the Khan network. Caught red-handed, Gaddafi renounced his nuclear program in a deal with the United States and United Kingdom, and dismantled it under U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency oversight.  

Iran also purchased substantial assistance from Khan’s network in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, enabling it to establish the uranium enrichment program that exists today. Tehran later planned to build an initial five atomic bombs by 2003, but eventually opted not to do so. World powers have yet to broker a lasting arrangement to ensure the peacefulness of Iran’s nuclear program.  

North Korea, which successfully pursued the plutonium route to nuclear weapons, received uranium enrichment assistance from the Khan network. Pyongyang’s enrichment program eventually enabled it to develop nuclear weapons with greater explosive yields.  

The Khan network’s damage to the nonproliferation regime was unprecedented and lasting. But it also galvanized international efforts to close gaps in global export controls to prevent illicit nuclear trade. After the Khan revelations, the United States spearheaded the development of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a coalition of countries committed to impeding shipments of weapons of mass destruction, delivery systems, and related materials. And in 2004, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1540, which mandated national controls to prevent nuclear trafficking. 

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), established in 1974 to formalize standards and guidelines for the sale or transfer of nuclear-related capabilities and commodities, took additional steps to thwart proliferation. Members adopted “catch-all controls” to stem the spread of less-than-ideal dual-use goods sought by proliferant states. By 2011, the NSG also agreed to a common set of criteria for controlling the supply of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, including a stipulation that states be in compliance with their nuclear safeguards agreements. 

Khan’s death provides an opportunity to assess the current state of nonproliferation controls. National controls over exports of nuclear-related commodities are the first line of defense against proliferation, yet according to the Institute for Science and International Security’s “Peddling Peril Index” for 2021/2022, only 76 countries have adequate export control legislation in place. Meanwhile, the implementation of controls also remains deficient. This reality has elicited bipartisan concern, making it possible for the Biden administration to reach across party lines to redouble efforts to control nuclear-related technology, both within the U.S. and abroad. 

In particular, the Biden administration should work with Republicans in Congress to evaluate improvements to key nonproliferation tools, including U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 and the PSI as they near their 20-year anniversaries. Washington should assess their effectiveness and whether these initiatives require additional resources to address nonproliferation challenges.  

The United States must also develop a coalition of like-minded states and establish a new international consensus against the further supply of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. Supplier countries in the coalition would agree not to share enrichment and reprocessing technology and states without the technology would commit not to develop or seek it. In so doing, Washington can advance the global goal of ending proliferation of nuclear weapons.  

Unfortunately, Biden’s failure to stop Iran’s continuation of its destabilizing enrichment program undercuts this effort. Likewise, Washington has not resolved the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons activities and threatening technical advances. Meanwhile, the decades-long stalemate over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program persists, presenting an additional challenge to Washington. Addressing these issues will be critical for the success of any U.S. nonproliferation initiative. 

After the Libya incident led to the unraveling of A.Q. Khan’s network, Khan apologized on Pakistani national television and took full responsibility for his actions, confessing, “There was never, ever any kind of authority for these activities from the government.” President Pervez Musharraf pardoned Khan, but forced him to serve five years under house arrest, a source of Khan’s continued anger at the government he claimed had participated in some of his network’s proliferation activities. He later claimed the government forced him to say there was never any official authorization of his illicit activities. 

In addition to his facilitation of nuclear proliferation, Khan’s legacy may consist of waking the world to its dangers. To prevent another A.Q. Khan network, Biden and U.S. allies must intensify efforts to address continued weaknesses in the nonproliferation regime. 

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Andrea Stricker is a research fellow. Follow the authors on Twitter @NatSecAnthony and @StrickerNonpro. FDD is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.