Pakistani Scientist AQ Khan Led Israel To Syrian Nuclear Sites, Saved From Existential Threat: Ex-Intelligence Chief
Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan sold nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Syria, and North Korea. He is known as the Father of the Pakistani Nuclear Program. The Syrian nuclear program was a copy of North Korea’s.
UPDATED: 10 OCT 2022 7:44 PM
A former top Israeli intelligence official has revealed that Israel came very close to having an existential threat because of its misguided approach regarding the then-suspected Syria nuclear program
The Israeli intelligence agency Mossad followed the trail of Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan, whose trail ultimately led them to the Syrian nuclear weapons program, said Dr. Amnon Sofrin, a former head of Mossad’s intelligence division, in a recent interview.
Khan is known as the Father of Pakistan’s Nuclear Program. He went rogue and sold nuclear weapons technology to several countries such as Libya and North Korea. Israelis ultimately found that Syrian nuclear reactors were a copy of North Korea’s, sayd Sofrin.
Sofrin told Times of Israel‘s sister publication Zman Israel that Khan was the “seed of calamity” whose trail had to be “sniffed” around.
After learning of Khan-Syria nexus, Israel bombed the Syrian nuclear facility and demolished it in 2007. The mission was named Operation Outside the Box.
Sofrin described the tortuous developments ahead of a decisive conversation he had with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during which the premier was informed that within a few weeks Syria was set to become a nuclear-capable nation.
In 2003, Israeli intelligence was caught unaware when the British and Americans announced that they managed to convince Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to give up his plans for nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting sanctions, said Sofrin.
“With the American announcement, we realised that the Pakistanis were heavily involved in Libya,” said Sofrin, adding that the person behind the project was Khan, a disgraced Pakistani physicist who sold his nuclear know-how to anyone who wanted it.
He added, “I looked at the data and said to myself, ‘If Dr. Khan is the project manager, let’s see where else he has been in the Middle East’. After a quick check, three countries jumped out at me: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. I immediately dismissed the first two because of their dependence on and fear of the US.”
Israel received certain information in early 2000s from a third party about Syrian activities related to nuclear centrifuges, but it was “raw and initial”, and did not develop to the point of being enough to launch an intelligence operation.
Sofrin said, “I told my people, ‘Let’s see what’s going on. Is there something here that we didn’t recognise before as a suspicious sign?’ I took two of my researchers —veteran and experienced— and asked them to take all the material from the last decade and analyse Syria’s intentions in the context of the Libyan case.
“My idea was to focus on the relationship with the Pakistanis and whether there is anything in the intelligence that could point to a nuclear project. After a month and a half of work, they came back to me with a clear conclusion that Syria has a nuclear programme.”
In February 2004, Mossad issued a first warning about the possibility of a nuclear project in Syria.
Sofrin said the Mossad document “clearly pointed” to suspicious activity based on the Libyan experience and the involvement of the Pakistani scientist.
Both Israeli Military Intelligence and the Mossad were then deep in a global intelligence operation to understand Syrian President Bashar Assad’s intentions and the meetings of the two organisations to discuss the situation had multiplied and become more and more frequent.
Racing against time as Syria was almost on the verge of going nuclear, Olmert appealed to the United States to carry out the attack, according to Sofrin.
“George W Bush refused and Olmert ended the conversation with the sentence, ‘Israel will do what it has to do’,” said Sofrin.
In what was dubbed Operation Outside the Box, the Israeli military on September 6, 2007, bombed the Syrian reactor, demolishing the site.
North Korea, under the guise of aid to the missile industry, managed to trick the West once again. The Syrian reactor was an exact copy of the nuclear reactor in North Korea.
Khan is known as the Father of Pakistan’s Nuclear Program. He also shared nuclear weapons know-how with other countries like Libya, Iran, and North Korea.
Khan initially worked at European Uranium Enrichment Centrifuge Corporation (EURENCO) at Amsterdam, the Netherlands. From there, Khan stole classified plans to make nuclear centrifuges used in the making of nuclear weapons. He stole such information of years and shifted to Pakistan before he could be caught.
After moving to Pakistan, Khan began the Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. At its peak, around 10,000 scientists and other personnel worked under him.
Not long after starting work in Pakistan, Khan began exporting nuclear know-how.
“Long before Pakistan tested its first nukes, A.Q. Khan began making deals with other countries interested in acquiring his lab’s technology…Iran was the first. In 1987, Khan closed a $3 million deal with Iran for centrifuge designs and the materials needed to produce them,” reports nuclear and security affairs website Outrider.
It further reported Khan’s dealing with Iraq and North Korea.
“Khan was doing business with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—though their deal fell through when the First Gulf War began…In 1992, the Pakistani government reached out to North Korea to inquire about their missile technology. Over the next decade, the two countries traded missile technology for uranium enrichment technology,” reported Overdrive.
Khan’s activities were uncovered in 2003. He admitted to his nuclear trading in 2004 and was put on house arrest. He was released in 2009.
Khan died in 2021 at the age of 85.
(With PTI inputs)