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Context of 'August 29, 2001: A. Q. Khan Procurement Agent Found Guilty of Export Violations in Britain'

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A shipment of special aluminum for the A. Q. Khan network is seized in London by British customs. The shipment was arranged by Abu Bakr Siddiqui, a British-based supplier for the Khan network. Siddiqui’s company, Orland Europe Ltd., received the order in November 1998 from a Dubai-based facilitator for Khan’s network named Bukhary Sayed Abu Tahir, but it had originated with Mohammad Farooq, director of foreign procurement at Khan Research Laboratories.
Siddiqui Warned - Customs learned of the order thanks to a tipoff from the British intelligence agency MI6. Customs agent Maxine Crook and a colleague called on Siddiqui in January 1999 to inform him that the export of some metals required a license, and, if there was any doubt, it was best to contact the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to check if one was required for a specific transaction. Crook also told Siddiqui that he should contact the DTI if he again did business with three companies with which he had previously traded, and that Dubai was a well-known “diversionary point” for goods going to “countries of concern” related to the smuggling of components for nuclear programs. Finally, Crook told Siddiqui he should consult the DTI about the current order for the aluminum. After the visit, Crook sent Siddiqui a letter summarizing the main points of the visit, and Siddiqui acknowledged the letter.
Seizure - Siddiqui went ahead with the order without asking for a license anyway, and customs officials seize it on the docks in London. A search of his home and office yields records of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment that has been shipped to Khan over the last decade, a brochure describing the uranium enrichment process, a photo of Siddiqui and Khan together, and a magazine with an article on Khan in which he said he wanted to “buy whatever we can from the international market” to support Pakistan’s nuclear program. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 178-180)

Following a raid on Abu Bakr Siddiqui, a supplier for A. Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation ring (see May 7, 1999), British customs examines the evidence it has seized and realizes that the investigation is not a simple case of Siddiqui exporting specialized metals without a license, but that they have opened a much larger can of worms. The investigation, known as Operation Akin, is led by Atif Amin, a British-born Muslim of Pakistani descent assigned to a special counterproliferation team, and they question Siddiqui twice, learning a lot more about the Khan network in the process. Customs also arranges that if a contact of Siddiqui, the Dubai-based businessman Bukhary Sayed Abu Tahir, enters Britain, he will be arrested. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 180-181)

The British intelligence agency MI6 monitors shipments made by the A. Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network from Pakistan to Libya via Dubai, United Arab Emirates. MI6 asks a British customs officer, Malcolm Nesbit, who is stationed in Dubai, to help with the operation. At MI6’s request, he finds when certain containers arrive in Dubai, how long they stay, when they leave port, and what they carry. Nesbit does not understand the full implications of this surveillance at the time, but will realize why MI6 wanted the information later, when another customs agent investigates Khan’s network in Dubai (see Late March 2000). The contents of the containers are not known, although it is known that Khan is shipping centrifuge parts to Libya through Dubai at this time (see Late March 2000). (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 189)

After British customs expands an investigation into a supplier for A. Q. Khan’s nuclear smuggling network (see After May 10, 1999), it realizes that a key point of the operation is in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. In order for customs to prosecute the supplier for anything other than export license violations, they have to prove where the goods he shipped ended up. Customs submits a formal request to Dubai’s Ministry of Justice for permission to carry out the investigation in August 1999. The request contains a list of individuals and entities they plan to investigate, as well as phone numbers, bank accounts, and e-mail addresses they want to trace. Although the Dubai authorities usually cooperate with investigations into cigarette and drug smuggling, they have acquired a reputation for rejecting requests for counterproliferation investigations. It takes several appeals and over half a year before the request is approved and lead investigator Atif Amin is allowed to come to Dubai to pursue the investigation. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 181)

Shortly before British customs agent Atif Amin is to leave for Dubai to pursue an investigation into the A. Q. Khan nuclear smuggling ring (see After May 10, 1999), he is warned off a particular company by the British intelligence agency MI6. According to authors David Armstrong and Joe Trento, the message comes through “liaison channels” and informs Amin that he should “steer clear” of a company called Desert Electrical Equipment Factory, even if the company comes up in his investigation. British customs are not investigating the company in connection with Khan’s operations, although its owner is reportedly a partner of Khan associate Bukhary Sayed Abu Tahir in another company called SMB Computers. Libyan officials will later tell investigators that at this time Desert Electrical’s facilities are being used to manufacture centrifuge components and train Libyan scientists. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 181-182) The MI6 station chief in Dubai will warn Amin off another company involved in the smuggling ring (see March 2000).

A joint investigation by British Customs agent Atif Amin and Dubai police lieutenant Alwari Essam uncovers links between the A. Q. Khan nuclear smuggling ring and “high-ranking Dubai officials.” This occurs in the first two weeks of the investigation, which the authorities in Dubai had tried to hamper (see August 1999-March 2000). The two investigators are able to uncover the links because they are following leads uncovered by Amin in Britain, and the two agents check out a number of businesses whose names have previously come up in the inquiry in Dubai. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 183)

Investigators Atif Amin of British customs and Alwari Essam of the Dubai police learn that the A. Q. Khan nuclear procurement ring has shipped ring magnets, key components for building centrifuges, from Pakistan to Libya, via Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The discovery is made when they visit a company called Deepsea Freight Services, a shipping agency that had been used by Abu Bakr Siddiqui, the subject of a British customs investigation, to ship goods from Britain to two Khan front companies in Pakistan, United Engineering and Trading Co. and Allied Engineering. The manager at Deepsea, K. Hafeez Uddin, shows the two investigators files about the traffic and they find documents about shipments of goods from Siddiqui in Britain to Dubai-based businessman Bukhary Sayed Abu Tahir, and then from Tahir to the Khan fronts in Pakistan. However, Amin then notices documents about shipments of the ring magnets from one of the front companies in Pakistan to Tahir in Dubai, and then on to Libya. The consignee for some of the ring magnet shipments is a company called Desert Electrical, a company the British intelligence service MI6 had warned Amin to avoid looking into (see March 2000). Amin asks to take the files, but Hafeez refuses permission, and also does not allow copies to be made, meaning the two investigators leave with no documentation. Hafeez will later make a series of contradictory statements about his business dealings with the Khan network, but a source on the British customs investigation will say, “The fact is that Deepsea received multiple shipments from Siddiqui and forwarded them on to Pakistan,” adding, “It also received multiple shipments from [Khan Research Laboratories]-related companies destined for Tahir’s front companies in Dubai.” (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 186-7)

Immediately after an investigation by Atif Amin of British customs and Alwari Essam of the police in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, finds that Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan is shipping centrifuge components to Libya (see Late March 2000), Essam’s superiors impose heavy restrictions on the inquiry. There is a “widespread commotion” at police headquarters when they arrive back from conducting a key interview and they are confronted by a group of police officers. The two men are split up and Essam receives a 40-minute talk from his police bosses and Dubai’s internal security service telling him that what he and Amin have been doing has to stop. He is accused of helping Amin “reveal A. Q. Khan in Dubai,” and asked why Amin wants to know where Khan stays in Dubai. The security service even suggests that Amin is really an MI6 agent plotting to assassinate the Pakistani. New limitations are imposed on their inquiry:
bullet They cannot conduct interviews in the field, but witnesses and suspects have to be invited to police headquarters, and may decline to come. Amin will be allowed to submit questions, but will not be allowed to perform the interviews himself. However, if the interviews are to be used in a British court case, Amin has to perform them himself under British rules of law;
bullet If Atif wants materials or records, he cannot go and get them himself, but must ask the Dubai police to do so;
bullet In addition, Amin must give the Dubai police all the documents he has collected during the investigation, including those from the British section of the inquiry.
Amin is understandably angry at the restrictions, which will make it impossible to conduct a meaningful inquiry, but, as there is little he can do at this time, he decides to continue and try to get the restrictions lifted. He asks the Dubai police to get him a file containing documents about shipments from Khan front companies in Pakistan to Libya, but, when the file arrives, the Libyan documents have been removed and the file is noticeably thinner. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 187-9)

British customs agent Atif Amin briefs the chief of station for the British intelligence service MI6 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, about the state of his investigation into the A. Q. Khan nuclear smuggling ring, but the station chief fails to disclose important information to Amin. Amin has found that Khan is not only procuring material for Pakistan’s nuclear program, but is also shipping centrifuge components to Libya (see Late March 2000). MI6 is already aware that Khan is moving material to Libya and has actually been monitoring these shipments in Dubai (see Second Half of 1999), but the station chief fails to mention this to Amin. In fact, MI6 had previously warned Amin to stay away from one of the companies involved in the shipments to Libya (see March 2000). Instead, the station chief insists that Amin narrate a detailed report of his investigation, which is then immediately sent to London. When writing down what Amin tells him, the station chief embellishes some of the facts, and Amin has to go through the report and have the embellishments taken out. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 189-190)

The British intelligence service MI6 tells Atif Amin, a British customs agent investigating the A. Q. Khan nuclear smuggling ring in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, that the ring may attempt to kill him. However, Amin will later suspect that MI6 exaggerates these threats in an attempt to hamper his investigation. MI6 passes the news to Amin by having him woken at two o’clock in the morning at his Dubai hotel, and telling him to come down to the lobby, where he is met by the MI6 station chief and another customs agent.
Threats - At a table, the station chief leans over and whispers to Amin, “You’re at risk here,” and, when Amin seems not to understand the urgency of the threat, adds, “You’re in danger.” He also tells Amin, “You can’t stay here,” and: “You can’t keep doing what you’re doing. You have to get out.” The station chief then says he has received a telex from London that said Khan and his associates were discussing Amin and were angry about him. Apparently, physical reprisals had been mentioned, and, implying MI6 is monitoring Khan’s phone, the station chief says that the Pakistani scientist has called Amin—a Muslim—a “traitor” to the “cause.” The station chief adds, “These people are dangerous,” because: “They have assets in the local mafia they use for smuggling. They won’t hesitate to kill people.” He even suggests Amin might not be safe in his hotel and that he should move in with the other customs agent, Malcolm Nesbit. However, Amin does not regard the threats as serious and remains in his hotel.
Exaggerated - Later that day, Amin speaks to Nesbit on the phone and expresses the idea that the station chief may have been playing up the threat from Khan’s network. Nesbit agrees and suggests it is because Amin has stumbled across information showing that Khan is shipping nuclear technology to Libya (see Late March 2000). MI6 had been monitoring these shipments (see Second Half of 1999), had warned Amin off one of the companies involved (see March 2000), and had failed to disclose information about the Libyan shipments to him (see Late March 2000). Authors David Armstrong and Joe Trento will comment, “It seemed both Khan and MI6 shared an interest in shutting down Amin’s inquiry.” (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 190-191)

Euan Stewart, a senior official at British customs, talks to a high-level representative for the British intelligence service MI6 about a British customs investigation into the A. Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. According to lead investigator Atif Amin, who Stewart later tells about the discussion, the MI6 official compliments customs on its work, “Your man’s turned over far more stones over there than we’ve managed in the last few years and he’s found lots of insects crawling around underneath.” This is apparently a reference to Amin’s discovery that the network is shipping centrifuge components from Pakistan to Libya via Dubai (see Late March 2000). MI6 has been monitoring Khan’s operations in Dubai and knows a lot about them, but did not know of these components. However, the MI6 official then says, “If I was you, I’d get my man out of there.” This is seemingly a reference to threats coming from the Khan network against Amin (see Late March 2000) and also MI6’s displeasure at the investigation (see March 2000 and Late March 2000). Authors David Armstrong and Joe Trento will explain: “But while Amin had turned up valuable intelligence, he had also created what MI6 and the policy makers who control it perceived to be a quandary: Should they act on the intelligence, disrupt Khan’s network, and expose Libya’s nuclear program, or should they continue their monitoring operation? They chose the later option. In fact, it would be another three years before MI6 and its American counterpart finally deemed the time right to take action—a move that would be accompanied by great fanfare and self-congratulation. In the meantime, Khan’s network had been allowed to continue peddling its dangerous goods.” (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 192-193)

British customs recalls one of its agents, Atif Amin, from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where he was investigating the A. Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network. Amin learns of his recall in a phone call from his acting boss, who tells him to “[g]et your ass on the next flight to London.” Amin protests, saying that threats that have apparently been made against him by the network are not as bad as is being made out (see Late March 2000), and that he could stay at the British embassy, rather than a hotel. However, his boss says that the orders have come from above and there can be no discussion. Amin had been about to interview a key Khan associate, Bukhary Sayed Abu Tahir, but is forced to return home before doing so. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 191-192)

British authorities continue to be concerned that the A. Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network may take action against a British customs agent named Atif Amin, who had headed an investigation into the network. Members of the network had previously discussed taking action against Amin when he was in Dubai (see Late March 2000), and this had led to his investigation being curtailed (see Late March 2000). Discussions between network members are overheard by the British intelligence agency MI6, which passes the information on to British Customs. Customs talks to Amin about improving security around his home and investigates network members based in Britain who may pose a threat to him. However, the risk appears to be minimal while he remains in Britain. On the other hand, Khan associates attempt to locate members of his extended family still living in Pakistan, and Khan apparently vows to take action against Amin if he ever comes to Pakistan. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 192)

Abu Bakr Siddiqui, a procurement agent for A. Q. Khan’s nuclear smuggling ring, is convicted in Britain on three counts of violating British export regulations. He had been shipping materials and technology to be used to build nuclear weapons, but his activities were uncovered by British customs (see May 7, 1999). The prosecution had argued that Siddiqui knew well that what he exported was destined for Pakistan’s nuclear program, and linked him to Bukhary Sayed Abu Tahir, a Dubai-based middleman in the network. Many of the details of Khan’s operations are revealed in court, but, due to obstruction by authorities in Dubai, not all of them can be submitted as evidence. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 194) Siddiqui will be given an extremely lenient sentence (see October 8, 2001).

Abu Bakr Siddiqui, a procurement agent for the A. Q. Khan network, receives what an individual familiar with the case describes as a “remarkably lenient” sentence for assistance he gave the network. The judge, George Bathurst-Norman, acknowledges that the crimes Siddiqui committed (see August 29, 2001) would usually carry a “very substantial” prison term, but says that there are “exceptional circumstances,” claiming that Siddiqui had been too trusting and had been “blinded” to facts that were “absolutely staring [him] in the face.” Siddiqui gets a twelve-month suspended sentence and a fine of £6,000 (about $10,000). Authors David Armstrong and Joe Trento will comment, “In a scenario eerily reminiscent of earlier nuclear smuggling cases in the United States and Canada, Siddiqui walked out of court essentially a free man.” They will also offer an explanation for the volte-face between conviction and sentencing, pointing out that there was a key event in the interim: due to the 9/11 attacks “Pakistan was once again a vital British and American ally. And, as in the past, it became imperative that Islamabad not be embarrassed over its nuclear program for fear of losing its cooperation….” (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 194)

The A. Q. Khan nuclear proliferation ring sets up a new company in Malaysia to replace a plant in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, that was shut down. The Dubai plant, the Desert Electrical Equipment Factory, was closed down by the network the previous year due to a British customs investigation into the smuggling ring’s operations in Dubai (see Late March 2000). Under a contract with Khan associate Bukhary Sayed Abu Tahir, the new company in Malaysia manufactures centrifuge components for the Libyan nuclear program. (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 194-195)

Bukhary Sayed Abu Tahir, an associate of A. Q. Khan, sends an emissary to see one of his business partners, Peter Griffin, to tell him to destroy all records of his dealings with Tahir. Griffin and Tahir have been assisting Khan’s activities for some time, but their most recent transactions concerned equipment for Libya’s outlaw nuclear program (see August 1997). Griffin will later say: “A Dubai sponsor who had helped us start up a company arrived on my doorstep in France in November or December 2003. He just turned up out of the blue. He had an important message from Tahir in Kuala Lumpur. He wanted me to destroy all records of our business together. I rang Tahir and asked what was going on. He said, ‘I can’t say, I can’t talk to you. Just destroy everything.’ I said, ‘No, these documents are my only insurance.’” At this time Tahir is under investigation by Malaysian authorities for nuclear proliferation activities in their country (see December 2001), and this is apparently an attempt to get Griffin to destroy documents showing he did not know the equipment he helped Tahir procure was for Libya’s nuclear program. If Griffin destroyed the documents, Tahir would be able to place a greater part of the blame on him. (Levy and Scott-Clark 2007, pp. 365-366)

British customs agent Atif Amin is amazed by comments made by George Bush about the A. Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network in a presidential debate with John Kerry, when Bush says that the network has been “brought to justice.” Amin had investigated the network several years previously and found out a good deal, but his inquiry had been shut down (see Late March 2000). Although Amin had been astonished that it had taken until 2004 to close the network, authors David Armstrong and Joe Trento will describe Bush’s comments as the “most galling moment” for Amin, as he is “sickened by the notion of Bush trying to get political mileage out of the affair.” Amin tells colleagues: “[The CIA and the British intelligence service MI6] knew exactly what was going on all the time. If they’d wanted to they could have blown the whistle on this long ago.” (Armstrong and Trento 2007, pp. 195)

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