Review: ‘Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network’

bombsAbdul Qadeer Khan is a now infamous character in the nuclear age, known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon along with being linked to spreading his nuclear know-how to several rogue states such as North Korea, Iran, and Libya. Gordon Corera’s book opens with a history of the man behind the myth, detailing his fervent desire to make Pakistan a strong, proud country after its humiliation at the hands of India’s army. This desire and perhaps a stroke of luck landed him in the field of nuclear research despite the fact that his professional training was in metallurgy. Once he acquired his nuclear proficiency and its potential for deterrence was understood, bringing that power into the hands of Pakistan was A.Q. Khan’s way of ensuring another military defeat would never happen again.

A.Q. Khan was a successful spy, smuggling in secret nuclear technology from Europe into Pakistan and heading its nuclear program which ultimately came to a head in the late 1980′s when the first bomb was created. Corera portrays a U.S. government aware of what was going on but powerless to stop it — being mired in a Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan that relied on strong diplomatic ties with Pakistan. With American hands tied, A.Q. Khan was free not only to aggressively pursue the creation of nuclear weapons in Pakistan but also began constructing an expansive network of scientists, businessmen, and other international contacts that enabled the export of his nuclear knowledge to the highest bidder. There is evidence of complicity by the Pakistani government but details of its knowledge are largely unknown.

Corera weaves an enthralling story of A.Q. Khan’s network while at the same time warning about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. How one man worked to arm countries with nuclear technologies, without regard to how they intended to make use of it, illustrates the challenge of nuclear proliferation today.

What led to A.Q. Khan’s downfall was Libya’s decision to give up its nuclear technologies in order to obtain economic ties to the United States after tough sanctions crippled its economy. Muammar Gadaffi realized that it was in his country’s best interests to fork over its nuclear data to the West. It was only then that firm links to A.Q. Khan’s network could be established and external pressure be applied on the Pakistani government to ultimately call for his arrest.

The world would be a much less threatening place without the efforts of this still heroic figure in Pakistan’s history. North Korea would probably not have been able to develop its nuclear arsenal without the help of A.Q. Khan. Iran’s nuclear program might not be as advanced as it is today without his blueprints and list of suppliers. A.Q. Kahn gave Pakistan a powerful deterrent and was responsible for putting his country on the world stage once again, but at what cost?

One of the most disturbing realities of the story of A.Q. Khan is the fact that it may happen again. What is to stop a young scientist from turning rogue and selling his deadly knowledge to the highest bidder? Shopping for Bombs is a well-researched and well-written expose of one of the most intriguing figures in modern history — a man who former CIA Director George Tenet claimed was “at least as dangerous as Osama bin Laden.”

Duran Parsi is an intern with the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies.