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Terror and the Bomb – Dangerous Cocktail

Reprinted with permission from South Asia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings. Volume 3, No. 51, July 4, 2005

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s June 25-26 unscheduled trip to Saudi Arabia has raised many an eye brow in Islamabad-based diplomatic circles which believe the visit was meant to seek the assistance of the Kingdom to circumvent the ongoing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigations into reports that the Saudis might have purchased nuclear technology from Pakistan. And the Musharraf-King meeting was aimed at chalking out a joint strategy on what stance the two leaders should adopt to satisfy the IAEA and address its concerns.

Saudi Arabia has been under increasing pressure to open its nuclear facilities for inspection as the IAEA suspects that its nuclear programme has reached a level (with Pakistani cooperation) where it should attract international attention. The pressure has also come from Europe and the United States, who want Riyadh to permit unhindered access to its nuclear facilities.

Well before the IAEA probe began, the US had been investigating whether or not the father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, sold nuclear technology to the Saudis and other Arab countries. Acting under extreme pressure of the IAEA, the Saudi Government signed the Small Quantities Protocol (SQP) on June 16, 2005, which makes inspections less problematic. However, the US, European Union and Australia want it to agree to full inspections. The Saudi stand is that they would agree to the demand only if other countries did so, including Israel.

International apprehensions that Saudi Arabia would seek to acquire nuclear weapons have arisen periodically over the last decade. The Kingdom’s geopolitical situation gives it strong reasons to consider acquiring nuclear weapons: the current volatile security environment in the Middle East; the growing number of states (particularly Iran and Israel) with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the region; and its ambition to dominate the region. International concerns intensified in 2003 in the wake of revelations about Dr. A.Q. Khan’s proliferation activities. The IAEA investigations show that Khan sold or offered nuclear weapons technology to Saudi Arabia and several Middle Eastern states, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Last year’s unearthing of the black market nuclear technology network increased international suspicions that Khan had developed ties with Riyadh, which has the capability to pay for all kinds of nuclear-related services. Even before the revelations about Dr. Khan’s activities, concerns about Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation persisted, largely due to strengthened cooperation between the two countries. In particular, frequent high-level visits of Saudi and Pakistani officials over the past several years raised serious questions about the possibility of clandestine Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation.

In May 1999, a Saudi Arabian defense team, headed by Defense Minister Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz visited Pakistan’s highly restricted uranium enrichment and missile assembly factory. The prince toured the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant and an adjacent factory where the Ghauri missile is assembled with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and was briefed by Dr. A Q Khan. A few months later, Khan traveled to Saudi Arabia [in November 1999] ostensibly to attend a symposium on “Information Sources on the Islamic World”. The same month (November 1999), Dr. Saleh al-Athel, president King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology, visited Pakistan to work out details for cooperation in the fields of engineering, electronics, and computer science.

Interestingly, Saudi defector Mohammed Khilevi, who was first secretary of the Saudi mission to the United Nations until July 1994, testified before the IAEA that Riyadh has sought a bomb since 1975. In late June 1994, Khilevi abandoned his UN post to join the opposition. After his defection, Khilevi distributed more than 10,000 documents he obtained from the Saudi Arabian Embassy. These documents show that between 1985 and 1990, the Saudi government paid up to five billion dollars to Saddam Hussein to build a nuclear weapon. Khilevi further alleged that Saudis had provided financial contributions to the Pakistani nuclear program, and had signed a secret agreement that obligated Islamabad to respond against the aggressor with its nuclear arsenal if Saudi Arabia is attacked with nuclear weapons.

In 2003, General Musharraf paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, and former Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali visited the Kingdom twice. But the United States had warned Pakistan for the first time in December 2003 against providing nuclear assistance to Saudi Arabia. Concerns over possible Pak-Saudi nuclear cooperation intensified after the October 22-23, 2003, visit of Saudia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to Pakistan. The pro-US Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan, who is next in line to succeed to the throne after Abdullah, was not part of the delegation. During that visit, American intelligence circles allege, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia concluded a secret agreement on nuclear cooperation that was meant to provide the Saudis with nuclear-weapons technology in exchange for cheap oil.

However, in 2005, the US claims to have acquired fresh evidence that suggests a broader government-to-government Pak-Saudi atomic collaboration that could be continuing. According to well-placed diplomatic sources, chartered Saudi C-130 Hercules transporters made scores of trips between the Dhahran military base and several Pakistani cities, including Lahore and Karachi, between October 2003 and October 2004, and thereafter, considerable contacts were reported between Pakistani and Saudi nuclear scientists. Between October 2004 and January 2005, under cover of Haj, several Pakistani scientists allegedly visited Riyadh, and remained “missing” from their designated hotels for fifteen to twenty days.

The closeness between Islamabad and Riyadh has been phenomenal and it is not without significance that the first foreign tour of General Pervez Musharraf, who ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999, was to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Sharif himself, his younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif and their families live in Saudi Arabia after a secret exile deal between Musharraf and Sharif, in which Riyadh had played a key role. During Sharif’s prime ministerial tenure, the Americans believe, Saudi Arabia had been involved in funding Islamabad’s missile and nuclear programme purchases from China, as a result of which Pakistan became a nuclear weapon-producing and proliferating state. There are also apprehensions that Riyadh was buying nuclear-capability from China through a proxy state, with Pakistan serving as the cut-out.

Following Khan’s first admission of proliferation to Iran, Libya and North Korea in January 2004, the Saudi authorities pulled out more than eighty ambassador-rank and senior diplomats from its missions around the world, mainly in Europe and Asia. The pull out is widely thought to have been meant to plug any likely leak of the Pak-Saudi nuclear link.

Before 9/11, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan were the only countries that recognized and aided Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which had been educated in Pakistan’s religious schools. Despite the fall of the Taliban regime, the Saudis continue to fund these seminaries that are a substitute for Pakistan’s non-existent national education system and largely produce Wahhabi extremists and Islamist terrorists. Also, a substantial proportion of their curricula, including the sections which preach hatred, has also emerged from that country.

Pakistan, with a crushing defence burden, only spends 1.7 per cent of GDP on education (compared to 4.3 per cent in India and 5 per cent in the United States). An estimated 15,000 religious schools provide free room and board to some 700,000 Pakistani boys (ages 6 to 16) where they are taught to read and write in Urdu and Arabic and recite the Holy Koran by heart. No other disciplines are taught, but students are indoctrinated with anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Indian propaganda, and encouraged to engage in jehad to defeat a ‘global conspiracy to destroy Islam’. These schools supplied thousands of recruits for the Taliban militia in Afghanistan and are still being used to recruit militants to fight the US-led Allied Forces and the Afghan troops in that country.

While Saudi Arabia actively uses charities to promote Wahhabi extremism across the world, Pakistan has been the recipient of huge direct economic assistance from the desert kingdom. The Saudis have bailed out Islamabad over the past decade by supplying Pakistan with an estimated $ 1.2 billion of oil products annually, virtually free of cost. Just after the visit of Dr. A.Q. Khan to Saudi Arabia in November 1999, a Saudi nuclear expert, Dr. Al Arfaj, stated in Riyadh that “Saudi Arabia must make plans aimed at making a quick response to face the possibilities of nuclear warfare agents being used against the Saudi population, cities or armed forces.”

Following the departure of American troops from its soil, the biggest problem for the Saudi Kingdom is how to deal with such nuclear contingencies. More recently, Saudi officials have discussed the procurement of new Pakistani intermediate-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Some concern remains that Saudi Arabia, like its neighbours, might be seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, apparently by purchase rather than indigenous development. The 2,700-kilometres range CSS-2 missiles the Kingdom obtained from China in 1987 are useless if fitted only with conventional warheads. One cannot, therefore, avoid the inference that, like the Pak-North Korean “nukes for missiles deal”, Dr. Khan might have struck an “oil for nukes” deal with Saudi Arabia on behalf of Islamabad at a time when there is a growing homogeneity of strong Pan Islamic affiliations worldwide. If Dr. Khan’s interaction with the scientists of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya were similar to those during his reported visits to North Korea, norms of the nonproliferation regimes can be expected to have been more brazenly violated.

While the aspirations of a few Islamic countries to acquire nuclear weapons are wedded to the idea of the ‘Islamic Bomb’, the al-Qaeda’s quest for components and know-how relating to weapons of mass destruction reflect on the potential rise of nuclear terror throughout the world. The role of wealthy and politically connected Saudi Arabian families in secretly funding al-Qaeda and other Islamist terror organizations has, till now, been kept deliberately in the background by Washington, largely out of sensitivity to the precarious internal situation in Saudi Arabia itself. King Fahd is near death, and his designated successor, Crown Prince Abdullah, is known to be more actively hostile to American foreign policy, and more sympathetic to militant Wahhabi Sunni currents in the Islamic world. Washington knows well that a head-on clash with the Saudi Royal House at present would serve the interests only of the radical faction inside the Royal family. A major strategic goal of the al-Qaeda’s terror attacks within Saudi Arabia in recent years has been to escalate the pressure what are regarded as Western westernized corrupt elements of the Saudi Royal House, with the aim of replacing them with fanatical feudal Wahhabi elements – a kind of Talibanization of the Saudi Kingdom. The internal Saudi situation is complicated by the fact that many powerful Saudi families financially support the al-Qaeda effort as part of a strategy to purge the Kingdom of ‘infidels and Western corruption’. In many cases these influential Saudis reach into the extended Royal family, including the murky figure of the former Saudi intelligence chief, Turki al-Faisal, son of the late King Faisal. The Americans had accused Turki’s Faisal Islamic Bank of involvement in running accounts for Osama and his associates.

Turki himself maintained ongoing ties with bin Laden even after the latter fled Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990’s, after imprisonment by order of the King. Considered close to both Osama as well as A.Q. Khan, it was Prince Turki who had persuaded King Fahd to grant diplomatic recognition to the Taliban. The possibility of Turki having played a role in a nuclear deal between Osama and Khan cannot, consequently, be ruled out, especially when many members of the Pakistani military and nuclear establishments have been found involved in holding meetings with the al-Qaeda leader. The first indications of the presence of pro-jehadi scientists in Pakistan’s nuclear establishment came to notice during the US-led allied forces’ military operations in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, when documents recovered by the troops reportedly spoke of the visits of Pakistani nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, to Kandahar when Osama was operating from there before 9/11. Bashiruddin was the first head of the Kahuta Uranium Enrichment project before Dr. A Q Khan, who replaced Bashiruddin in the 1970s.

Subsequent investigations carried out by American intelligence discovered that Osama had contacted these scientists for assistance in making a small nuclear device. On February 12, 2004, Dr. Khan appeared on Pakistan’s state run Television after holding a lengthy meeting with General Musharraf and confessed to having been ‘solely responsible’ for operating an international black market in nuclear-weapons’ materials. The next day, on television again, Musharraf, who claimed to be shocked by Khan’s misdeeds, nonetheless pardoned him, citing his service to Pakistan (he called Khan ‘my hero’).

For two decades, the western media and their intelligence agencies have linked Dr. Khan and the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), to nuclear-technology transfers, and it was hard to credit the idea that the successive governments Dr. Khan served had been oblivious of these activities. In the post-9/11 period, analysts continue to express fears about the possibility of extremist Islamic groups like al-Qaeda gaining access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or fissile or radioactive materials. Secret deals with Saudi Arabia can only aggravate such risks and concerns.