Saturday, February 14, 2009

And You Thought A. Q. Khan Was Bad

A few weeks ago the New York Times Magazine published an article by David E Sanger titled Obama's Worst Pakistan Nightmare which examined the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the 'wrong' hands.

I’ve been meaning to comment on the article but haven’t had the chance. The article is a must read, I'm reprinting the most troubling, yet hilarious, part of the whole article:

Soon after Kidwai
[i.e. Khalid Kidwai, the guardian of Pakistan's nuclear weapons] took office he also faced the case of an eccentric nuclear scientist, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, who helped build gas centrifuges for the Pakistani nuclear program, using blueprints Khan had stolen from the Netherlands. Mahmood then moved on to the country’s next huge project: designing the reactor at Khushab that was to produce the fuel Pakistan needed to move to the next level — a plutonium bomb.

An autodidact intellectual with grand aspirations, Mahmood was fascinated by the links between science and the Koran. He wrote a peculiar treatise arguing that when morals degrade, disaster cannot be far behind. Over time, his colleagues began to wonder if Mahmood was mentally sound. They were half amused and half horrified by his fascination with the role sunspots played in triggering the French and Russian Revolutions, World War II and assorted anticolonial uprisings. “This guy was our ultimate nightmare,” an American intelligence official told me in late 2001, when The New York Times first reported on Mahmood. “He had access to the entire Pakistani program. He knew what he was doing. And he was completely out of his mind.”

While Khan appeared to be in the nuclear-proliferation business chiefly for the money, Mahmood made it clear to friends that his interest was religious: Pakistan’s bomb, he told associates, was “the property of a whole Ummah,” referring to the worldwide Muslim community. He wanted to share it with those who might speed “the end of days” and lead the way for Islam to rise as the dominant religious force in the world.

Eventually Mahmood’s religious intensity, combined with his sympathy for Islamic extremism, scared his colleagues. In 1999, just as Kidwai was beginning to examine the staff of the nuclear enterprise, Mahmood was forced to take an early retirement. At a loss for what to do, Mahmood set up a nonprofit charity, Ummah Tameer-e-Nau, which was ostensibly designed to send relief to fellow Muslims in Afghanistan. In August 2001, as the Sept. 11 plotters were making their last preparations in the United States, Mahmood and one of his colleagues at the charity met with Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, over the course of several days in Afghanistan. There is little doubt that Mahmood talked to the two Qaeda leaders about nuclear weapons, or that Al Qaeda desperately wanted the bomb. George Tenet, the C.I.A. chief, wrote later that intelligence reports of the meeting were “frustratingly vague.” They included an account that there was talk of how to design a simple firing mechanism, and that a senior Qaeda leader displayed a canister that may have contained some nuclear material (though almost certainly not bomb-grade).

Courtesy of The New York Times

1 comment:

Bruno said...

Great read; I still believe that the risk of nuclear terrorism is overstated, but this sounds scary nonetheless...