Malaysia’s Neutralized Nuclear Threat

On May 7, in response to a question in Malaysia’s parliament, Home Affairs Minister Syed Hamid Albar said Sri Lankan businessman Buhary Seyed Abu Tahir remained a threat to Malaysia’s national security because of his alleged part in a ring that helped the Pakistani nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, sell nuclear technology to rogue nations across the world.

Less than a month later, however, Tahir was quietly freed from a high-security detention center where he had been held for four years under Malaysia’s draconian Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without recourse to habeas corpus. Despite having been identified as a linchpin in an international effort to transfer nuclear weapons technology, Tahir has never been charged with a crime. He has been told he can’t leave the country, and must report to police on a regular basis. Actually, he may not want to leave. Reportedly the US would still like the opportunity to interrogate Tahir.

Tahir made the pages of the world’s press when President George W Bush himself identified him as a major catch in the so-called war on terror in a speech on Feb. 11, 2004. Bush read out the charge sheet on Tahir:

“To increase their profits, Khan and his associates used a factory in Malaysia to manufacture key parts for centrifuges [used for enriching uranium for nuclear bombs]. Khan’s deputy a man named B.S.A. Tahir ran SMB computers, a business in Dubai. Tahir used that computer company as a front for the proliferation activities of the A.Q. Khan network. Tahir acted as both the network’s chief financial officer and money launderer. He was also its shipping agent, using his computer firm as cover for the movement of centrifuge parts to various clients. Tahir directed the Malaysia facility to produce these parts based on Pakistani designs, and then ordered the facility to ship the components to Dubai. Tahir also arranged for parts acquired by other European procurement agents to transit through Dubai for shipment to other customers.

“Mr. Tahir is in Malaysia, where authorities are investigating his activities. Malaysian authorities have assured us that the factory the network used is no longer producing centrifuge parts. Other members of the network remain at large… As a result of our penetration of the network, American and British intelligence identified the shipment of advanced centrifuge parts manufactured at the Malaysian facility. We followed the shipment of these parts to Dubai, and watched as they were transferred to the BBC China, a German-owned ship. After the ship passed through the Suez Canal, bound for Libya, it was stopped.”

So why was the 44-year-old Tahir freed? Was his threat overblown or has Malaysia lost interest in continuing to prosecute a politically well-connected figure on behalf of Washington? The answers are hard to find.

“Well, as far as we’re concerned, he really is not a threat,” shrugged a lawyer with links to top officials in the Malaysian government. “Actually, the only reason he was detained for up to four years was because of US pressure. He was just a middleman, we believe. Four years is about the maximum time suspects are held under the ISA.”

American officials in Kuala Lumpur were noncommittal. “The US Embassy understands that Malaysian authorities will monitor Mr.Tahir, a former associate of A.Q. Khan, in order to prevent him from engaging in any proliferation-related activities, and we would refer you to the Malaysian authorities regarding the specific conditions imposed on his release,” said Bettina Malone, the embassy’s information officer.

A businessman who is married to a Malaysian citizen, Tahir was the director of the Dubai-based SMB Group, which was involved in computer and information technology sales. He gained notoriety in Malaysia partly because of his friendship with Kamaluddin Abdullah, the owner of Scomi Precision Engineering and the son of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Through a subsidiary, Scomi manufactured the centrifuge parts cited by President Bush. A police investigation ensued, with the company declaring it had been misled about the purpose and designation of the parts, which allegedly had been ordered by Tahir on behalf of A.Q. Khan.

Tahir is said to have made a detailed confession of his activities within days of his arrest, helping US, British, German and International Atomic Energy Agency officials crack the Khan network. Indeed, according to a 13-page report prepared by Malaysia’s Special Branch, he appears to have sung like a bird, telling police Libya had contacted Khan in 1997 to try to get its hands on the uranium-enrichment centrifuge and describing in detail meetings in Casablanca and Dubai with a Libyan team headed by an official named Mohammad Matuq Mohamad through 2002.

In 2001, Tahir told officials, enriched uranium as well as a number of centrifuge units manufactured by a Dutch company and obtained in Spain and Italy were sent from Pakistan to Libya aboard a Pakistan International Airlines plane. He identified British, German, Turkish and Swiss citizens as part of Khan’s ring. He delivered details of Scomi’s activities on what they thought they were manufacturing.

That appears to have been about enough for Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi, who in March of 2003 had already contacted British and American officials about giving up a search for nuclear weapons that had begun as long ago as 1970. At the same time, the rewards of dropping the program increased as US and Libyan interests in counterterrorism began to coincide. Libya managed to get on a wait-list for US military assistance (through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorisn Initiative, no less) and in May 2006 it was dropped from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

So did Tahir know what he was doing? “I’m sure he did,” said the Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer. “But many items are considered sensitive these days. After all, the US delivered nuclear parts to Taiwan and didn’t even know about it.” (US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently sacked two top defense department officials after nuclear triggers were mistakenly sent to Taiwan 18 months ago.).

Khan, who remains a national hero in Pakistan for his role in developing the country’s nuclear weapons capability, recently retracted his confession and denied selling nuclear weaponry blueprints to either Iran or North Korea, telling Agence France Press that western countries were to blame.