World’s most prolific nuclear arms smuggler admits CIA link

Urs Tinner

Urs Tinner

On October 4, 2003, Italian authorities, acting on a tip by the CIA, inspected a Libya-bound German ship anchored at Taranto, Italy. The ship was found to be carrying several centrifuges for use in Libya’s uranium enrichment program. The discovery led to the uncovering of the role of Dr. Abdul Qadeer (A.Q.) Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, in subcontracting his nuclear knowhow to North Korea, Iran and Libya. It also led to the uncovering of Urs Tinner, a Swiss engineer who worked under A.Q. Khan, and was said at the time to be leading “the world’s biggest nuclear smuggling ring”. Tinner was eventually arrested along with his father Friedrich and brother Marco, both members of Tinner’s ring, and extradited to Switzerland. Strangely, however, he was never charged and was in fact released from detention last December, with the blessings of the CIA, who did not wish to see him prosecuted. Now Swiss TV station SF1 has announced the scheduled airing of a documentary, in which the freed Tinner will acknowledge that he tipped the CIA about the German ship in Taranto and A.Q. Khan’s nuclear subcontracting. Tinner’s scheduled acknowledgement will confirm rumors that he covertly worked for the CIA. The Agency has been monitoring A.Q. Khan’s activities since the mid-1970s. These allegations, which initially surfaced in 2006, were further substantiated by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins in the book The Nuclear Jihadist. The two investigative writers claimed that Tinner was recruited by the CIA in 2000. In 2004, referring to the A.Q. Khan case, former CIA Director George Tenet said that Khan’s role was exposed by, among other things, “the classic kind of human intelligence that people have led you to believe that we no longer have”.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

8 Responses to World’s most prolific nuclear arms smuggler admits CIA link

  1. Is the characterization of Khan being jihadist a fair one, in your estimation?

  2. intelNews says:

    It depends. How do you define a “jihadist”? [JF]

  3. I think, rather, that it depends on how authors Frantz and Collins define it in their book, and by extension on how it is cited in this post. (My question was an honest one, as I haven’t read the book.)

    If you were to ask me, I would probably attempt to employ the definition as laid out in the Quran — which opens up the question of which school I subscribe to. Not being a Muslim, I have no real authority to propose a definition in a meaningful way.

    To further complicate things, I am wholly unsatisfied with the unrigorous, pejorative use of the word in Western academic and policy circles. (The latter in particular.)

    The significance of nesting an Islamist/jihadist motivation in the discussion of Khan’s activities and crimes is something that needs clarification, I think. The subtext has very profound policy implications, does it not?

    In my own estimation Khan was motivated by things altogether different — more egotistical, practical and perhaps political. The distinction is an important one, is it not? I’m interested in your view.

    I will definitely check out the book.

    Great blog by the way. I’ll be stopping in often!

  4. I forgot to mention that I am also unhappy with the way the idea of jihad is used by Salafi- and Wahhabi-influenced extremists. But that is another conversation for another time.

  5. analyst says:

    Interesting. Al Qaddfi did give up his nuclear weapons. My guess is why they let him continue is to see if there where others involved. They would use front companys to see if any materials where floating around on the black market.

  6. I wonder if al-Q really did give up the pursuit. (He didn’t actually have any, right?) These aspirations tend to persist, and I suspect they operate on longer historical arcs than those on which our intelligence analysis usually operates.

  7. intelNews says:

    To the “Lonely Trader”: Thanks for the thumbs up and for the interesting comment. My personal view (and in this we certainly appear to be in agreement) is that the term “jihadist” has been corrupted beyond recognition, to the point that it is now devoid of any meaning. I further agree with you that people like A.Q. Khan are motivated by a variety of beliefs and pursuits of varying intensity, of which religion is simply one. In most national nuclear armaments programs, immediate geopolitical concerns tend to be far more dominant than long-term ideological, religious or other non-pragmatic concerns. And this, incidentally, would include the case of the Soviet Union, China, as well as Israel. In the case of Pakistan, its immediate geographical periphery, which is heavily nuclearized, seems to me to have been much more decisive in its decision to pursue a nuclear program, than any sort of ideological antagonism with Christianity, Hinduism, or the “West”. In this sense, the religious “jihadist” terminology may not be as relevant as one may initially believe. Having said that, it is worth remembering the complexity of nuclear politics, which, in the case of Pakistan is immense. Remember that the US during the 1970s was actually quite favorably inclined toward the idea of a Pakistani nuclear weapons program. In fact, some recent research shows that Washington encouraged Islamabad to pursue its nuclear ambitions. So an appropriate conclusion to this would be your own (very accurate) statement that these things “operate on longer historical arcs than those on which our intelligence analysis usually operates”. Amen to that. [JF]

  8. intelNews says:

    To the analyst –> Re: front companies — indeed, some things never change! [JF]

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