Friends saw what they wanted to see. Manufacturers in Europe and North America mostly saw dollar signs. Foreign intelligence agencies underestimated the Pakistani scientist. And Western heads of state figured they faced bigger threats than a social-climbing metallurgist.
Abdul Qadeer Khan surprised them all. For 30 years, Mr. Khan worked – first quietly, then increasingly brazenly – to establish his nation as a nuclear power and himself as a broker of the world's most dangerous technologies.
By the time he made a televised "confession" in 2004, after diplomatic pressure forced Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to place Khan under house arrest, he had sold those secrets to Iran, North Korea, and Libya – and possibly others.
Today, poorly secured nuclear materials are the single greatest security threat facing the United States. Presidential hopefuls debate the best course of action in case of a nuclear attack on a major American city. Analysts call this a reasonable possibility. Our "second nuclear age" is Khan's legacy.
No wonder, then, that the globe-trotting tale of the audacious, megalomaniacal "father of the Islamic bomb" has been the subject of a mountain of investigative reporting and a shelf full of books.
Now three fine additions – "America and the Islamic Bomb" by David Armstrong and Joseph Trento, "Deception," by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, and The Nuclear Jihadist by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins – take Khan's story a step further.
All are scathing indictments of the Western powers that knew what Khan was doing and yet looked the other way.
"America and the Islamic Bomb" is a chilling account of the political calculus that led five successive US presidents to turn a blind eye. "Deception" provides rich new information about Khan's life and work while making the case that Pakistan shares the credit and the blame for his notorious crimes.
"The Nuclear Jihadist," too, offers fresh, behind-the-scenes detail. Husband-and-wife reporting team Frantz and Collins spent four years crisscrossing the globe, interviewing intelligence officials and Khan's friends and former colleagues. The resulting account adds much to what was previously known about the origins of Khan's program.
In 1947, when bloody strife split Britain's subcontinental empire, a teenage Khan left his family in Bhopal, India, and followed masses of countrymen into the new Muslim nation of Pakistan. The violence he witnessed on his journey, and the indignities he suffered, engendered in the boy a lifelong hatred of India.
After studying in Germany and marrying a Dutch woman, Khan got a job working for a Dutch company that designed centrifuges for uranium enrichment – a process used to generate nuclear energy, but also the most easily concealed way to fill a nuclear warhead.
When, in 1974, India tested an atomic weapon, Khan felt his country would no longer be safe without one. So from under the noses of his colleagues, he stole blueprints, photos, and lists of materials suppliers. He packed all these, and his wife and daughters, and moved back to Pakistan to build the nation a bomb.
He did so in record time, against the predictions of Western experts, who thought Pakistan – which Khan himself described as a "country which could not make sewing needles, good and durable bicycles or even ordinary durable roads" in the early years of his weapons program – was incapable of mastering uranium enrichment technology. Khan proved them wrong.
But he didn't stop at a Pakistani bomb. As his greed and ambitions grew, Khan became what Frantz and Collins call "a nuclear Wal-Mart," peddling those secrets that had made him a national hero to other states anxious to join the "nuclear club." Stealing from work, he sold materials and plans to Pyongyang, Tehran, and Tripoli.
Even when evidence of Khan's work was indisputable, US officials calculated that it would be better to watch and wait than to antagonize a sometime-ally like Pakistan into prosecuting him.
There were a few lonely souls who tried to block Khan's way, and they are an important part of Frantz and Collins's story.
Richard Barlow, a promising young Central Intelligence Agency analyst, sounded the alarm on Khan and was run out of Washington for his temerity. Leonard Weiss, an alarmed Senate staffer, fought for decades for stronger counterproliferation measures. But such men were the exception.
The book's brightest spot is an account of the demise of Libya's nuclear ambitions. Leader Muammar Qaddafi underwrote the development of Khan's bomb in Pakistan with the understanding that his own nation would benefit.
But after Sept. 11, 2001, "[Qaddafi] recognized that international terrorism had taken a brutal turn, and he risked being crushed by the American response unless he quickly altered his ways."
Anxious, too, for the lifting of international sanctions, he cut a deal with US and British diplomats and abandoned his nuclear weapons program.
Overall, though, "The Nuclear Jihadist" leaves little room for optimism. In lively prose and well-chosen detail, it enumerates the dangers our world now faces thanks to Khan and those who abetted him. What's less clear is where we should go from here.