A.Q. Khan

Alejandro Rosenkranz
March 27, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: AQ Khan, (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Behind every nuclear program there is a mastermind. The man responsible for putting Pakistan on the map as a nuclear weapons state was Abdul Qadeer Khan, more commonly referred to as AQ Khan (see Fig. 1).

Khan was born in India proper, prior to the creation of Pakistan following India's independence from Britain in 1947. He immigrated to Pakistan in 1952, where he eventually attended university to study metallurgy. [1] Khan completed higher education degrees in other corners of the globe to further enhance his expertise. He studied in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium before returning to Pakistan.

In 1972, Khan took a job at the Physical Dynamics Research Laboratory (FDO) in Amsterdam. [2] The firm worked with URENCO, a nuclear fuel company that provided enriched uranium to the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. [2] Khan was given access and clearance to several private projects within URENCO, which he eventually illegally transmitted back to Islamabad.

On May 18, 1974 India conducted its first peaceful nuclear test. That following September, Khan wrote a letter to the Prime Minister Bhutto of Pakistan, expressing his concern over India's nuclear developments. [2] He offered his expertise to help Pakistan build its own arsenal to defend itself from India, which Bhutto accepted.

Khan unexpectedly left his post at FDO in December 1975, and journeyed back to Pakistan. [3] He brought with him designs for centrifuges and information regarding suppliers for centrifuge materials. Upon his return in Pakistan he briefly worked for the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, but left due to conflicts with PAEC leadership. [3] The Prime Minister gave Khan the necessary resources to operate his own lab, and by 1978 Khan had successfully replicated UNRECO designs to enrich uranium. By 1980, Khan and his team produced the highly enriched uranium (HEU) necessary for making a nuclear weapon. [3]


Although AQ Khan is largely seen as a national hero in Pakistan, other nations beg to differ. The international community sees Khan as a source of danger, given the underground networks that he helped establish. After his lab was able to produce HEU, Khan began to export centrifuge components all over the world. He offered his services to Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, and Libya, ultimately assisting several of these nations to develop their own nuclear programs. [3] Intelligence communities struggled to pinpoint and dismantle the black market proliferation rings that Khan fashioned, and speculate that some of his networks continue to operate today.

The countries that Khan aided, particularly Iran and North Korea, pose some of the greatest threats to international peace and stability due to their nuclear capabilities. Moreover, tension between Pakistan and India only amplified following their respective nuclear booms. Counter-proliferation operations and non-proliferation institutions like the NPT seek to prevent the illicit transfer of nuclear knowhow that Khan's networks facilitated.

In 2004, Khan publically admitted to several of his illegal nuclear dealings. Shorty after his confession, President Musharraf pardoned him and placed Khan on house arrest. In 2009 Khan was officially freed from house arrest, and now lives as a free citizen in Pakistan. [4]

© Alejandro Rosenkranz. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. Windrem , "Pakistan Nuclear Father, Master Spy," NBC News, 2013.

[2] "Chronology: A.Q. Khan," New York Times, 16 Apr 06.

[3] W. Langewiesche, "The Wrath of Khan," The Atlantic, November 2005.

[4] J. Warrick, "Nuclear Scientist A.Q. Khan Is Freed From House Arrest," Washington Post, 7 Feb 09.