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Pakistan's nuclear hero, world's No. 1 nuclear suspect

Revered as the father of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, Abdul Qadeer Khan has confessed to sharing weapons secrets with regimes around the world.

By Peter Grier, Faye Bowers,, Owais Tohid / February 2, 2004


In Pakistan Abdul Qadeer Khan has long been a respected, almost genial, figure - a cross between a CEO and a sports star.

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Streets, schools, even cricket teams carry his name. He paid for a community center near his home in Islamabad, so elderly neighbors would have a place to watch TV. And it's widely noted in the local media that feeding monkeys is his favorite pastime. But Dr. A.Q. Khan didn't become famous for his quirks or charitable impulse.

He is revered in his homeland as the father of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, as the man whose knowledge and drive brought his country fissile equality with archrival India.

In the West, his image is darker. For years US intelligence has considered the tall, gray-haired man as a dangerous kind of A-bomb Johnny Appleseed - a man willing to share weapons secrets with anyone, for a price.

On Sunday, Khan confessed to sharing nuclear technology with Iran, Libya, and North Korea in a 12-page document presented to President Pervez Musharraf, according to a briefing given by government officials to Pakistani media in Islamabad.

On Saturday, Khan was dismissed from his government post by the nuclear command authority, a grouping of top military and political officials supervising the probe.

The government of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has insisted that if secrets were leaked, the scientists were acting on their own. Considering the importance of Pakistan to the war on terrorism, the White House may have little choice but to accept this theory - for now.

"Washington is banking on General Musharraf's assurances that Pakistan's nuclear program is in safe hands and can control the ambitions of individual scientists," says Pakistani defense analyst Aisha Agha Siddiqua.

A colonial upbringing

Khan's roots stretch back to the era of colonialism. As a 10-year-old he saw first-hand the violence that accompanied the end of British rule and the partition of the subcontinent, when he took a harrowing train ride through the desert border region of Khokhrapar to what would become independent Pakistan.

That ride - and what it symbolized - have apparently become central to his character. In Khan's beautiful stone house in the Margalla Hills of Islamabad, a main item of décor is a massive painting depicting the last train crossing into Pakistan before borders were sealed. Throughout his career his chauvinistic rhetoric and anti-Indian taunts have been a crucial reason for his appeal to the Pakistani masses.

"He is hard-core nationalist and a very ambitious person," says A.H. Nayyar, a physicist at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "He is in for fame and money."

But neither is Khan an Islamist extremist of the sort suspected to be behind recent assassination attempts against President Musharraf. His wife is a Dutch national whose first name is Henny. Neither she nor their two daughters wear the traditional hijab, or veil. "He is not a fundamentalist . . . but he prays five times [a day] and is a religious person," says his biographer, Zahid Malik.