Jeffrey LewisIndia Was Khan’s Fourth Customer

Josh Pollack has an amazing article in Playboy (of all places) that identifies AQ Khan’s so-called fourth customer: India.

The image of a Pakistani magistrate revoking AQ Khan’s pardon intercut with scenes of Josh cavorting with bunnies at the Playboy Mansion is wonderful to contemplate, even if neither is a likely outcome.

Still, a boy can dream.

Much of the evidence assembled by Josh has been hiding in plain sight, but the notion that India might be the much-debated “fourth customer” so fairly boggles the mind that some people can’t get their heads around it.  In deference to the cognitive dissonance, Josh spends a considerable part of the article dedicated to Khan himself, the actual man behind the myth that he carefully assembled through the exertions of journalists of all sorts. As biography, it is wonderful reading, as Josh meticulously demonstrates that Khan would have no qualms taking India as a client.

The evidence is becomes overwhelming once one admits this strange possibility.

Let’s get one thing straight: The evidence is incontrovertible that India was a customer of the Khan network.  South African court documents state that South African elements of the network sold UF6-resistant flow meters to India.  Moreover, Pakistani officials, including Khan himself, have openly stated that India acquired centrifuge design information from the network, usually blaming deceased individuals within the network for operating independently. We all have known about these relationships for some time, as well as the fact that the Indian centrifuge design bears a family resemblance to Pakistan’s P2.

What Josh has done is make a further claim: that rather than being any customer, India is the customer everyone guesses at — the so-called “fourth customer” after Iran, Libya and North Korea. Usually, one reads that the IAEA hypothesized the existence of a fourth customer on the basis of a series of missing shipments — the IAEA concluded the shipments may have been diverted to a fourth country.  What Josh discovered in his research is that the IAEA had a second, more revealing, reason for believing in a “fourth customer” — Khan and his associates actually used that very term to protect the client’s identity:

 “Members of the Khan network would refer to ‘the fourth customer,’ ” says Heinonen. “It was their code language. We still don’t know who they meant.”

The unusual degree of secrecy is striking: If Khan could admit to sales to Iran, Libya and North Korea, what country could possibly be so sensitive that it must not be mentioned even internally?  When I read this, I immediately thought of the second condition of AQ Khan’s pardon: “the pardon would be ineffective if an evidence of illegal export of “nuclear-related material” to some country other than Iran, North Korea or Libya was found.”

Pakistani officials, including Khan himself, have done everything possible to prevent this information from leaking.  Iran and Libya? Fine. North Korea? No problem.  India?  That’s a different kettle of fish. That would be a very big problem. Khan, even as he was burning customers and patrons alike, as well as leaking documents to accuse other Pakistani officials of taking bribes, protected the identity of fourth customer at all costs.  No wonder.

We know from leaked cables that Pakistani officials have claimed, perhaps not too convincingly, that they would be willing to make Khan available to the IAEA but for that troublesome pardon.  “The facts, said Kidwai, were clear — Khan had admitted his guilt and received a presidential pardon,” according to a leaked State Department cable (Warning! Wikileaks!) documenting a meeting between Khalid Kidwai, Director of the Strategic Plans Division, and the US Ambassador to Pakistan. The revelation that India was the fourth customer may alter that calculation, if not legally than politically. I suspect, now that this possibility is out in the open, we may find further evidence beyond the sale of the flow meters that makes clear Josh is correct about India’s identity as the fourth customer.

So, give the article a read — there is nothing unsafe for work on the story itself, although I wouldn’t go clicking on any links at the office.  When you do so, try  to set aside all your preconditions about the geopolitical rationales for proliferation and, instead, look closely at Khan the man. It isn’t a very pretty picture, but I think you’ll find it very illuminating.

Oh, and the pictures of LiLo aren’t half-bad either.


  1. Janet M. Simons (History)

    Links for “South African court documents” and “Indian centrifuge design bears a family resemblance” are missing.

  2. Patricia (History)

    Fascinating and disturbing. I think the most intriguing character in this roll call of dubious personalities – displacing Junior’s wife as the previous holder of the title – is “Khan’s estranged former psychiatrist”.

    • joshua (History)

      All credit goes to the authors of _Deception_ for bringing Haroon Ahmed’s story before the public. I’ve only sampled one bit of what he had to tell them.

  3. joshua (History)

    Jeff, I’m bowled over.

    Careful readers of the article, if they are not distracted too much by the surrounding images, will note that I’m not quite so unequivocal! There are a number of questions still left unanswered. But man, do you make it sound good. So it must be.

  4. John (History)


    interesting stuff….also, but unrelated: you see the GSN about patriot missiles in ship in Finland?? whwhwh what was that about?

    Can we expect post about that drone in Iran? Pretty please…need some feedback from real experts!

    • Red_Blue (History)

      The 69 MIM-104 Patriot missiles in M/S Thor Liberty were destined to ROK from Germany per an arms deal between those countries and confiscated by the Finnish Customs due to arms transit violations. They are currently held in a FDF garrison waiting for court proceedings against the ship captain for failing to secure licensing for their transit through Finland.

      The ship was coming to the port of Kotka to pick up additional cargo when it caught a storm in the Finnish Archipelago with cargo shift. After being piloted and towed to the port through a shelter anchoring point, a customs inspection team found a huge, hundreds of tons, load of various explosives, which were undeclared to Finnish authorities and would have required licensing as explosives and arms materials in transit (import and export for transfer to a third country through Finland).

      The missiles are clearly the most interesting part of it and there are lots of wild speculation about their real destination. The story thus far is very unclear, but seems more like a rather mundane and typical shipping SNAFU with the wrong papers being filed.

      The original news stories sounded a lot more alarming than in retrospect, for example the claims that the missiles were listed in the cargo manifest as “fireworks” was based on a mistranslation of the English manifest to Finnish. They were actually properly listed in the cargo manifest, but the required arms transit licences were not applied for. Finnish authorities also take these kinds of things with extreme prejudice and tend to launch huge, almost paranoid, operations with even a slightest hint of anything explosive or weapons related thing detected.

      For example, they once evacuated a block in the city of Vantaa, including a day care center etc. with FDF EOD and police TEPO (terrorist, explosives and bomb squad) teams present just because they found some old hand grenade shells (without explosives, primers or detonators) and a private arms collection in an appartment. Later it was determined there was no danger and everything as in order, with the exception of a few hundred grams of too much gunpowder being stored.

      It’s likely the missiles and the rest of the cargo will eventually be released with a fine levied to the captain and the shipping company, with the whole “hulabaloo” drying up and simply filed away to be forgotten as an embarrasing overreaction.

  5. Mansoor Ahmed (History)


    President Pervez Musharraf had already hinted at A Q Khan’s link with India in his book “In the Line of Fire”. In 1998, Mr. Munir Ahmad Khan, former Chairman PAEC, had also stated in an article in English daily, The News, entitled “India’s Nuclear Strengths and Weaknesses” that “India used strikingly similar technology for enrichment as Pakistan, which is a strange coincidence.”

    • joshua (History)

      I discuss Musharraf’s memoir at some length in the article, but was unaware of MA Khan’s remark. Thanks for pointing it out.

  6. John Hallam (History)

    When first spied this item, I thoght ‘Wow. There goes AQ’s credibility in five seconds.

    After reading the article twice, slowly, I’m not so sure.

    It gives fascinating insights into Khan’s history, and his personality.

    It suggests that – just maybe – he might, posibly, not have had qualms about selling technology to a national enemy, India. (but it by no means proves this point).

    It makes the point that India’s centrifuges look like Pakistan’s centrifuges, and are presumably based on the same 1970’s URENCO model.

    That is potentially damning, but it still isn’t anything like proof that Khan sold it to them. (I’m not saying that he didn’t – merely that if he did, we need more substantial proof.)

    What the article indicates is that Khan could, possibly, have sold technology to India. Or might not have.

    I was looking for an argument that would clinch it for me that the ‘fourth customer’ was, for sure, India.

    I found arguments that it MIGHT have been India, but then again it might not have been India.

    And though I might have been sympathetic had I found it, I found nothing – yet – that would put AQ behind bars.

    John Hallam

    • joshua (History)

      What I consider the strongest points: that Khan was hiding the identity of the fourth customer; that South African investigators uncovered a sale to India; and that Khan almost admitted it to his interrogators, while blaming the transaction on an Indian spy.

      Many questions remain, though, and I don’t claim to be absolutely confident of the answer.

  7. Olli Heinonen (History)

    What is the “A. Q. Khan network”? When you look at who exported sensitive goods,when, how and to whom, you can come to conclusion that there are actually a number of “networks”. With some actions A. Q. Khan had little or nothing to do.It appears to me that the network buying equipment and materials to Pakistan, and later providing same similar equipment, technology and advice to Iran and Libya is relatively well understood. Then there are cases where these network vendors likely sold or tried to sell equipment and know-how from 1980’s onwards to clients like North Korea. They also marketed in early 1990’s equipment remaining from the first failed Libyan deal to Iraq and Iran. There is a likehood that ,at this stage, some of these vendors were also “moonlighting” without a clear “approval” or knowledge of A.Q. Khan. The question of Government to Government deals remains still to be fully understood. The jury has not yet addressed the North Korea-Pakistan deal, which relation may have begun earlier than Mr. Musharraf says in his book. Questions regarding the initiation of 1994 deal with Iran remain still unanswered. The Syrian case stays still likely on the to-dos list of the IAEA. Some of the vendors of the “network” have had dealings with India, but to which extent A. Q. Khan was involved remains unknown. In other words, a lot of work remains to be done before we can have an answer to the first question.

    • joshua (History)


      Thanks for weighing in.

      We should not rule out the possibility that Khan was telling the truth to his interrogators when he suggested that elements of the network operated autonomously in their dealings with India. But I have my doubts, especially in consideration of the secrecy he imposed around “the fourth customer” and his increasingly elaborate tales he wove about the alleged villainy of S. Mohammed Farooq. But perhaps we can take this conversation offline.

  8. gak (History)

    there is a debate going on at the following site.

    Some Indians want to refute what you just said . Would you care to participate ?

    BTW , The site – Bharat -rakshak is a prominent Indian defence site and a forum for open source intelligence .

    • joshua (History)

      I’ll respond here.

      There is certainly a possibility that the Indians penetrated the Khan network. That could be one explanation for the resemblance between centrifuge designs. On the other hand, it seems quite suspicious that Khan himself suggested such a possibility to his interrogators. If that’s what happened, did he become aware after the fact? Or was he aware all along? It’s possible to imagine a situation involving one or more double agents conveying centrifuge drawings, probably incomplete ones, to India.

      The most serious other candidates for “fourth customer” that have been identified so far are Syria, South Africa, and China. At one point, Khan claimed to have supplied a complete centrifuge plant to the Chinese (apparently in the late 1970s or early 1980s — see: ). It’s not clear whether that happened as he described it; Khan may have had reasons to exaggerate his dealings with the Chinese. In another document, he wrote, “Because of my assistance to the Chinese, they in turn helped Munir Ahmed Khan in various projects that had been stagnating for years.” In this manner, he sought to take credit indirectly for everything achieved in the nuclear field in Pakistan! (See: )

      It’s certainly clear that Pakistan’s nuclear program received assistance from China. Whether and to what extent the Chinese nuclear program might have benefited from Pakistan is not equally clear.

      Whatever the truth about the 1970s and 1980s, by the 1990s, the Chinese enrichment program had moved in a different direction. At this point, the Chinese purchased centrifuge plants from Russia. In recent years, China has built its own commercial-scale enrichment plant, which apparently involves centrifuge technology resembling Russia’s.

      In these documents, Khan appears proud of his past association with the Chinese, which he describes as having lasted 15 years. (The starting point would have been ca. 1976, based on ZA Bhutto’s account.) Khan raises it in his own defense and depicts it as having benefited Pakistan. If there was a continuing relationship with China ca. 2003, Khan did not have a clear reason to hide it from the authorities.

    • joshua (History)

      I should also mention that Khan himself dated the start of nuclear cooperation with the Chinese to late 1976, according to this Washington Post story:

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