In January 2000, a German engineer living in South Africa met with a friend and business partner to hatch a deal. Gerald Wisser, a 61-year-old broker, visited his friend's pipe factory outside Johannesburg to see if his friend wanted to make a bid on a manufacturing project. According to what Wisser later told investigators, his friend, Johan Meyer, pointed to a foot-and-a-half tall stack of documents and said, "That is the beast. I will make an offer."
"The beast" was machinery to assist with the enrichment of uranium. It was just one part of a much larger operation. Its goal: to provide the fuel enabling Libya to produce its own nuclear bombs.
To men like Wisser and Meyer, it was just another business project.
Wisser and Meyer's deal illustrates the increasingly white-collar nature of the nuclear bomb business. The popular image of desperate terrorists smuggling enriched uranium across borders may not be the most serious nuclear threat to the world. Instead, the people helping to make the bombs are often successful businessmen made even richer through illicit deals for making the machines to enrich uranium and build bombs. They may live in suburbs and belong to country clubs. And their ability to operate under the guise of "legitimate" business makes catching up with them far more difficult.
Wisser sent word back to his business connection in Switzerland: His partner would take the job. It would cost $2.5 million between the two of them. Wisser's Swiss connection was the intermediary for a man in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His name was Abdul Qadeer Khan.
A.Q. Khan was the architect of an audacious global trafficking network in sophisticated technology that supplied nuclear know-how and uranium enrichment equipment to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Manufacturers and businesses from as many as 30 countries participated in the enterprise. "The beast," according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, was intended to become part of a uranium enrichment facility enabling Libya to produce as many as several nuclear bombs a year.
Gerhard Wisser and his partner, Johan Meyer, owner of the factory called Tradefin Engineering, had become part of the global network created by Khan to build nuclear weapons. Their job was to construct the inner plumbing—pipes, valves and the like—for the processing of uranium hexafluoride, a gas that is the precursor to enriched, weapons-grade uranium.
Khan assembled a network of businesses able to dodge international export controls by secretly obtaining the technology for nuclear enrichment from multiple locales. In some instances, the job was made easier by the fact that much of the technology needed to enrich uranium and build nuclear bombs has a civilian use as well, in everything from navigation to medicine to energy production, making exports far more difficult to control (and penalties, for mere export violations, far less than those for illegally building a nuclear bomb).
A global network of manufacturers, linked together by Khan according to their specialties, turned their otherwise legitimate businesses into contractors for enriching uranium. Most of them, unlike Gerhard Wisser and Johan Meyer, have yet to be prosecuted; some critics say one reason has been the United States' reluctance to cooperate on international investigations.