Khan operated his international sales network undetected for more than a decade. There is only one international body with the authority to monitor and prevent the trafficking of nuclear technology, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it wasn't looking for operations such as Khan's.
Instead, until recently, both the United States and the IAEA have focused on the smuggling of uranium by criminals or terrorists. The U.S. poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a program aimed at providing former Soviet nuclear scientists with employment to keep them out of the black market.
But while the world looked to block the traffic in enriched uranium, A.Q. Khan, with the help of men like Wisser and Meyer, set out to help countries enrich their own.
"You have a situation where what you and I would view as respectable businessmen are going about selling the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons," says David Albright, a former nuclear inspector in Iraq and now president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
The most significant threat of nuclear proliferation today, says Albright, "comes not from smugglers with pocketfuls of uranium, but from people typically who are very successful businessmen who just want more. … You'd probably be sitting down at the country club and making a deal, or walking into someone's office and making a deal in some luxurious conference room."
Tradefin is housed inside a huge warehouse in a cluster of small factories called Vanderbiljpark about 30 miles south of Johannesburg. It shares a dusty street alongside tile, tire and paint manufacturers. Inside is a complex of rusting tanks, lathes and rumbling conveyor belts. From the looks of it, Tradefin might as well be producing ball bearings. Gerhard Wisser told German investigators that the factory was producing a water purification facility.
But when South Africa's Crimes Against the State police raided Tradefin in 2004, they found 11 shipping containers packed with machinery fully labeled for reassembly in Libya. IAEA inspectors would later confirm that the machines were capable of capturing and transporting uranium gas after it's been enriched in thousands of whirling centrifuges, the final stage before it's capable of being used for a nuclear bomb. They also found a promotional videotape from A.Q. Khan's laboratory back in Pakistan which advertised Khan's ability to build the world's "finest uranium enrichment plants."
Tradefin did not produce the most sensitive technology offered by A.Q. Khan to the Libyans; that was provided by factories in Malaysia and elsewhere. But it manufactured the connecting tissue, the mechanical valves and pipes, for the complex circulatory system of transformations necessary to convert uranium from its natural state in dirt into uranium hexafluoride gas and back into highly enriched, potentially explosive material for a bomb.
It's just these kinds of enterprises, doing work that looks commonplace on the surface, that make cracking down on proliferators a particular challenge, says Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's Deputy General of Safeguards, and the agency's chief nuclear inspector in Iran and Libya. "There are tens of thousands of … these kinds of workshops … doing the same kind of job that Tradefin was doing," Heinonen says.
In September 2007, seven years after "the beast" was born at Tradefin, Gerhard Wisser pleaded guilty to making and trafficking in nuclear weapons parts ordered by A.Q. Khan in violation of South Africa's laws against nuclear proliferation. Last February, Wisser's chief engineer, Daniel Geiges, who was supervisor of the Tradefin project, confessed to similar charges. Tradefin's owner, Johan Meyer, the man who had turned that one and a half foot stack of documents into an actual, functioning "beast", had confessed to multiple charges of violating South Africa's anti-proliferation laws in 2005, and had assisted with the investigation into his former colleagues' activities on behalf of A.Q. Khan. None will serve time in jail; all were given suspended sentences and forced to pay fines that, cumulatively, amount to more than $3 million.