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Nuclear Smugglers Still at Work, Expert Says

WASHINGTON -- Iran admits building a secret uranium enrichment facility in the religious hub of Qum. Pakistan's High Court releases nuclear black marketer Abdul Qadeer Khan from house arrest. Spy satellites reveal North Korea boring another tunnel in a remote mountainside. Israeli warplanes bomb a suspicious facility in the Syrian desert (see GSN, Aug. 17, 2009).

Former top Pakistani nuclear scientist and proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan steps out of a car in Karachi, Pakistan, last month. An international nuclear black market has endured despite the crackdown six years ago on a smuggling ring operated by Khan, an independent expert said (Rizwan Tabassum/Getty Images).

This drumbeat of seemingly unconnected news reports has prompted many experts to warn that the world is fast approaching a nuclear tipping point. Beyond that invisible mark, the proliferation of nuclear technologies gains an unstoppable momentum and leads to a cascade of new nuclear weapons states and an era of increasing global instability, with grave consequences for the United States.

The common thread running through those disparate reports is a secret, global smuggling network that traffics in nuclear technologies, materials, and know-how. Few experts have spent more time studying that illicit nuclear trade than David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former weapons inspector in Iraq. National Journal Staff Correspondent James Kitfield recently spoke with Albright. Edited excerpts follow.

NJ: We tend to think of nuclear weapons capability as the purview of a handful of elite powers that jealously guard their arsenals and technology. But you make clear that secret sharing and clandestine smuggling networks have enabled proliferation since the dawn of the nuclear age. The Soviet Union stole nuclear secrets from the United States and assisted China in acquiring the bomb, with Beijing in turn enabling Pakistan to go nuclear. The U.S. helped Great Britain acquire nuclear weapons, just as France aided Israel. India procured plutonium from Canada under the guise of a civil nuclear program. So why did you decide to focus on Pakistan and the black market in nuclear technologies formerly run by A.Q. Khan, the "father" of the Pakistani bomb?

Albright: Because in many ways A.Q. Khan represents our worst nightmare. It would be equivalent to the head of one of our national laboratories, like Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore, deciding to secretly sell to the highest bidders not only nuclear equipment and technology but also nuclear weapons designs. That may sound preposterous to Americans, but it happened in Pakistan and it may be happening in North Korea as we speak. Khan's clients included North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya. So Khan and his smuggling buddies developed a transnational network that did what only states were capable of in the past, which is sell facilities for enriching uranium along with weapons designs. That smuggling network bypassed all international controls on the transfer of nuclear technology, and it operated largely undetected for years.

NJ: Even though Khan's operations were exposed in 2004 and he was placed under house arrest in Pakistan, do nuclear smuggling networks continue to operate?

Albright: Yes. The transnational black market in nuclear technology and know-how continues. Khan's network was created to procure nuclear technologies and components to advance Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, for instance, and those illicit procurements continue to this day. Pakistani agents still go out and acquire these components on the international black market. North Korea and Iran do the same thing. India likewise procures components under false pretenses to improve its nuclear arsenal. We think that the Chinese illicitly buy advanced components for their nuclear arsenal as well, sometimes from foreign companies that have a presence inside China. So illicit trade and smuggling have been fundamental enablers of nuclear proliferation from the beginning, and they continue.

NJ: In 2008, Khan recanted his confession and accused former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the country's army of making him a scapegoat for their nuclear proliferation. Were the Pakistani government and security forces complicit?

Albright: The Pakistani government knew of some of Khan's activities. The transfer of centrifuges for uranium enrichment to North Korea, for instance, was almost certainly sanctioned by the government. North Korea was selling Pakistan missiles and missile technology, and the North Koreans got interested in Pakistan's centrifuges, so the two countries made a deal to trade information and equipment. Khan's initial contacts with Iran may have grown out of Pakistan's desire to form a closer relationship with Tehran. However, when Khan later went back to Iran in the mid-1990s and essentially offered to sell them a nuclear weapons capability, that was way beyond anything the Pakistani government would have approved.

NJ: Although it was initially reported that Khan's network was primarily peddling centrifuges and uranium enrichment technology, was it also offering nuclear warhead designs?

Albright: Yes. After agreeing to give up its weapons program in 2003, Libya told [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors and U.S. agents that Khan had personally given the Libyans nuclear weapons designs contained in eight large volumes delivered in plastic bags. As it turned out, it was the same information packet that China had given Pakistan in the early 1980s. Libya turned over the paper volumes to U.S. officials, who had the IAEA put them under lock and key.

NJ: In your new book, you also detail the case of Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, Khan's rival in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, who tried to help Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda acquire a nuclear weapon.

Albright: Mahmood is a very scary guy. He was an Islamic fundamentalist and true believer who thought that Pakistan and Afghanistan should be united as the core of a new [Islamic] caliphate, with nuclear weapons at the center of its capabilities. He was eventually forced out of Pakistan's nuclear program in the 1990s because of his extremist views. Mahmood then moved to Afghanistan where he contracted with the Taliban government, which in turn put him into contact with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In later interrogations by Pakistani authorities, Mahmood admitted that he and bin Laden talked about how Al Qaeda could acquire the components and know-how to make a nuclear weapon.

NJ: How serious was their cooperation?

Albright: I asked a former CIA official about Mahmood, and the agency's assessment was that the talks between him and Al Qaeda on acquiring a nuclear weapon were still in their preliminary stages. No one at the time thought that a terrorist organization could cobble together a nuclear weapon, but with Mahmood's expertise and the backing of the Taliban government in establishing a procurement network for nuclear components and materials, I think Al Qaeda could have made a lot of progress. Looking back on the tragedy of 9/11, if anything good came out of the attacks it was that they prompted us to finally put an end to an extremely dangerous situation that was developing between Al Qaeda, Mahmood, Khan, and Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. In that sense, we were lucky.

NJ: What became of Mahmood?

Albright: Pakistan also placed him under house arrest, but whether he is still in confinement I don't know. Unlike Khan, he keeps a very low profile.

NJ: Given that bin Laden and his Qaeda deputies have enjoyed sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal areas ever since 2001, how can the United States be sure that they haven't developed further contacts with officials in Pakistan's nuclear program?

Albright: The short answer is, we can't be sure. U.S. intelligence agents tell me that the Pakistani nuclear weapons program is not as airtight as Islamabad insists. When you understand how much money is involved in this trade; how much of it is conducted offshore and outside the gaze of watchful eyes; and how hard it is to monitor or police people-to-people transfers of information, equipment or materials, you can't help but worry about the fact that Al Qaeda continues to operate in Pakistan.

NJ: After Khan's network was at least partially dismantled in 2004, your book suggests, North Korea stepped into the nexus of the illicit nuclear trade.

Albright: I think we do have to worry that North Korea wants to become the new A.Q. Khan. Like Khan, Pyongyang's anti-Western ideology and political goals align with an acute desire for cash. We also know that North Korea was a client of Khan's and that it acquired centrifuge equipment and expertise from his network. In the 2002 time frame, North Korea broke a bottleneck in the trade by providing uranium hexafluoride to Libya. There is also compelling evidence that North Korea was instrumental in helping Syria construct the nuclear facility that Israel bombed in 2008. There are well-grounded suspicions that North Korea is collaborating on nuclear programs in Iran and Burma. All of that suggests to me that North Korea has become a major node in the illicit, worldwide, nuclear smuggling network.

NJ: What can nations do to counter that network?

Albright: First, we need much tougher export-control laws in every country, and greater cooperation and intelligence-sharing among prosecutors around the world. If a person is willing to help terrorists or tyrants acquire the most destructive weapon of terror ever devised, and put hundreds of thousands of people at risk, then that should be judged a "crime against humanity" prosecutable anywhere in the world. That kind of international norm doesn't exist today.