A look at the life of A.Q. Khan, scientist behind Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program

The father of Pakistan's atomic bomb and a proponent of nuclear proliferation, Abdul Qadeer Khan, died Sunday at the age of 85 after a lengthy battle with COVID-19. He was a figure mired in controversy who launched Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, but also admitted to sharing nuclear technology secrets with Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb and a proponent of nuclear proliferation, died on Sunday after a lengthy battle with COVID-19.

    He was a controversial figure known for launching Pakistan's nuclear weapons program and for admitting to sharing nuclear technology secrets with some of America's adversaries, including Iran, Libya and North Korea.

    Nick Schifrin has our report.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He was once one of the world's most dangerous men, shunned even by his own government. But this weekend, he was hailed a hero.

    On Sunday, Pakistan hosted a state funeral for Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, known as A.Q. Khan, who helped create Pakistan's nuclear weapons program and the Muslim world's first nuclear bomb.

  • Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, Pakistani Interior Minister:

    Yesterday, a great man died. He was a great scientist. He served this country. He served this country with emotion, dignity, respect, and with hard work.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the 1970s, Khan was a metallurgist working for European companies that designed centrifuges, equipment that can create nuclear fuel.

    By then, Pakistan had lost a portion of its territory when Bangladesh became independent. By 1974, India tested its first nuclear device. Khan started stealing centrifuge designs for the Pakistani military.

    By 1998, they were ready. He and Pakistan's leaders tested their first nuclear weapon. For Pakistan, he had helped assure the country's survival. Just days before, India had tested its own nuclear devices.

  • Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Belfer Center:

    A.Q. Khan was acting as a patriot, as he saw himself.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Rolf Mowatt-Larssen is a senior fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center. In the early 2000s, he ran the weapons of mass destruction unit in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center.

    That's when A.Q. Khan's other legacy became public.

  • Rolf Mowatt-Larssen:

    As a Pakistani arms merchant, merchant of death, some have called him, to enable other rogue states that wanted to follow Pakistan's secret path.

    The unique aspect of A.Q. Khan's network was, first, how sophisticated it was. He had unique contacts, unique sources, unique supply chain that I don't think we had ever seen in any other proliferation network.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Iran's program started as a virtual copy of Pakistan's program. North Korea already had a plutonium program, but Khan provided a second path to the bomb through uranium enrichment.

    And Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up Khan's network and the centrifuges bought from Khan after the invasion of Iraq.

    A.Q. Khan seemed to be willing to sell to the highest bidder, but with one obvious exception, which is what you were so focused on, right, al-Qaida?

  • Rolf Mowatt-Larssen:

    We had information that nuclear scientists in Pakistan were in contact with al-Qaida. We ended up finding several sources that looked like al-Qaida had never benefited from any assistance from the A.Q. Khan network.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the U.S. confronted Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf about Khan's proliferation, and Musharraf confronted Khan.

    Khan went on TV to say he had gone rogue.

  • Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, Nuclear Physicist:

    There was never ever any kind of authorization for these activities by the government.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you believe the Pakistani military knew and endorsed what he was doing?

  • Rolf Mowatt-Larssen:

    The scale, the number of years he went about doing this activity, it's hard to believe, first, that he could get away with it without people having knowledge of what he was doing, and, second, that he wouldn't have had at least the confidence that he had the endorsement of the Pakistani government to some level.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, in a statement, Khan's family said: "His lasting regret was that he was never officially exonerated from the accusations leveled against him by the government of Pakistan."

    For the last 15 years, Khan was prevented from engaging with the world, the world prevented from engaging with him, which means he died Saturday from COVID-19 at 85 years old likely carrying some of his secrets to the grave.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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