Malaysia Arrests Nuclear Network Suspect
Sri Lankan Accused of Helping Pakistani Sell Arms Components to Libya, Iran
By Alan Sipress and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 29, 2004; Page A21
JAKARTA, Indonesia, May 28 -- A Sri Lankan businessman who helped Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan build a secret international network for supplying nuclear material and equipment was arrested by Malaysian police on Friday for threatening national security, officials said.
Police detained Buhary Syed Abu Tahir three months after they released a report, based largely on his interrogation, detailing how Khan provided Libya with enriched uranium and equipment that could be used in developing weapons and how he provided Iran with components for its nuclear program.
Though Malaysian police said in February that Tahir had committed no crime, they are holding him under the country's internal security act, which allows suspects to be detained without charges or trial, Malaysian officials said.
Police had opened the investigation after U.S. and British intelligence agents informed local authorities late last year that Malaysian-manufactured parts for building centrifuges used in making weapons-grade uranium had been found aboard a German-owned ship bound for Libya. The discovery proved to be a major breakthrough in efforts to unravel Khan's network.
Tahir remains a central figure in the investigation along with two other alleged Khan associates -- Swiss engineer Friedrich Tinner and British businessman Peter Griffin. All three have been scrutinized for possible arms proliferation activity at various times over more than two decades.
In 1980, following complaints from the United States, Swiss authorities examined a company where Tinner was export director for possible violations of export laws in the sale of industrial valves to Pakistan's nuclear program. Neither he nor the company, which he left, was charged with any crime. Swiss officials said this year that they had opened an inquiry into a Tinner family company concerning alleged dealings with Khan, in light of information provided by Malaysian police.
Griffin, who allegedly collaborated with Tahir in drawing up plans for a machine shop to manufacture centrifuge components in Libya, was the subject of a British investigation in the 1970s into alleged business ties with Khan, then one of the leaders of Pakistan's nuclear research program.
Investigators now believe Khan built his nuclear trading scheme around essentially the same network of foreign middlemen and manufacturers that he began assembling three decades ago to circumvent restrictions on sensitive technology that Pakistan needed to build a nuclear bomb.
Tahir's association with Khan dates to 1985, when Tahir took over the management of a Dubai-based family business, SMB Group, and secured a contract to sell air conditioners to Khan's research lab, according to a Malaysian police report. The report said he subsequently moved to Malaysia, where he married a diplomat's daughter and invested in several successful businesses, forging partnerships with, among others, the son of the current prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Tahir became involved in Khan's proliferation network in the mid-1990s. He helped Khan organize the shipment of centrifuge components from Pakistan through Dubai to Iran, for which Khan was given two briefcases filled with $3 million in cash, according to the account Tahir gave investigators.
A senior Malaysian government official said Tahir was seeking to build a cover for nuclear-related activities in the country by developing relationships with credible business people so he would be seen as having clout and money.
By 2001, however, that cover was beginning to fray when a trial in London's Southwark Crown Court cast light on Tahir's role in procuring restricted equipment for Khan's laboratory.
The accused in the trial was not Tahir but Abu Bakr Siddiqui, his friend and partner in a thriving London-based import-export business that dealt mostly in microelectronic parts, according to Siddiqui's attorney, Andrew Trollope. The prosecution established that Siddiqui was also personally acquainted with Khan, a family friend whom he reverently addressed as Doctor Sahib.
In 1999, Khan asked Tahir and Siddiqui to arrange several shipments of equipment from Britain, according to information made public at the trial. The shipments included a 12-ton heat treatment furnace, a high-specification measuring machine, an overhead crane and high-strength aluminum bars. The customers were listed on shipping papers as Peoples Steel Mill in Karachi and UETC in Islamabad, and Tahir provided a false end-user certificate, according to Trollope.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company