Nuclear bomb plot inspires research

A spy story with all the ingredients for a best-selling novel provided the inspiration for Paul Winter’s 2018 research project, funded in part by an Asia-New Zealand Foundation Postgraduate Research Grant.
A portrait photo of Paul standing outside

Paul Winter: “In many ways, it was dumb bad luck that Malaysia became embroiled in the A Q Khan scandal.”

The story begins in 2003 with a ship leaving Malaysia bound for Libya, carrying components for use in the construction of a nuclear bomb. Its seizure by British and U.S. intelligence in the ancient Italian port of Taranto revealed hundreds of components, hidden in five shipping containers, bound for Libya's secret nuclear weapons programme.

The components had been sold to Libya by A Q Khan, who had for several years been using his position as head of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme to illegally supply nuclear weapons technology in kitset form to Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

Paul says Khan had hoped to avoid the attention of export controls and intelligence services by having the various parts produced in different countries, including in a quiet industrial zone in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“Individually the pieces looked like components you might use for something else – such as medical research. But they came together with an instruction manual for a nuclear bomb.”

Fifteen years after the incident, Paul’s research project focused on the development and implementation of Malaysia’s export controls around dual-use and sensitive nuclear components in the wake of the A Q Khan revelations.

Paul began his research by trying to understand why the A Q Khan network, which had branches across the developed and developing world, opted to set up a manufacturing operation in Malaysia.

In the end, it proved that the personal connections of one of Khan's cronies in combination with hostile operating environments elsewhere and ready access to skilled labour in Malaysia clinched Khan's decision.

“In many ways, it was dumb bad luck that Malaysia became embroiled in the A Q Khan scandal,” Paul says.

But why Khan chose Malaysia is only part of the story. Paul also wanted to understand the Malaysian government's response.

In particular, he wanted to understand why some states rapidly implement export control restrictions to combat the spread of weapons technologies while others lag.

“Often (but not always) it is emerging supplier states – many of which are located in Asia – who tend to be a bit behind. But the diffusion of nuclear technology and growing international instability make it imperative that we have a sound understanding of these states' motivations and capabilities.”

In Malaysia's case, there was a lag of seven years been the A Q Khan revelations and Kuala Lumpur's development and implementation of export control capabilities.

“Details are still sketchy, but when the controls were developed, it appears that political pressure from the Attorney General and the Prime Minister's Office  drove the process.”

Paul believes the pressure came so that Malaysia could show progress on non-proliferation when Prime Minister Najib Razak met US President Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010.

In the end, Malaysia's export control law was rushed into statute in the space of months. 

A container ship at port

Malaysia's lax export controls at the time made it the perfect place for Khan's operations

Besides speed of implementation, Paul also noticed that the Malaysian Government sought advice from partner governments including the US and EU on how best to develop and apply export controls. “This collaboration helped Malaysia overcome some of the capacity challenges involved in setting up and maintaining an export control regime.”

But it was not all plain sailing.

“A number of Malaysian policymakers admitted that they had difficulty convincing firms in the private sector that export controls would not harm business by adding another layer of bureaucracy.

“Some foreign companies were also concerned that Malaysia's initially stringent punishments for breaking the laws – death for repeat offenders – could be misapplied and that their employees could be victims of mistaken sentencing. A long public relations campaign and a legal rewrite in 2017 were required to ease private sector disquiet.”

Paul also realised the work that started with the A Q Khan case in 2003 has no obvious end insight even 15 years later. “Malaysian export controllers continue to face new challenges including how best to regulate the transfer of intellectual property and intangible skills and how to address the loop-holes related to shipment of dual-use components.”

In 2018, Paul spent three weeks in Malaysia where he interviewed scholars and policy experts about their view on the A Q Khan case and some of the more esoteric parts of the country’s export control system.

He was fortunate to meet a contact at a local university who offered a gateway to other interviewees, including former senior officials.

In addition, Paul tacked on a trip to Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies where he gave a presentation on his doctoral research on the spread of nuclear weapons – with a particular focus on the relative success of international sanctions against North Korea.

Paul retains some contacts from his trip to Malaysia and draws on his experiences there often in his current role as an analyst in the New Zealand Government where he spends the vast majority of his time thinking about Asia, export controls and the spread of weapons technologies. He says his time in Malaysia has given him a far richer appreciation of the challenges some of his counterparts in Asian governments are wrestling with.

Having completed his doctoral studies at the University of Otago last year, Paul expects to focus his energies on his career in the public service and on publishing academic pieces drawing on his dissertation, including a summary of his research on Malaysia.