Nuke Scam for Pakistan—Again

Yet Another Pakistani Charged With Slipping U.S. Nuclear Technology to Islamabad

Obaidullah Syed, owner of a Pakistani technology company living in Illinois, was indicted on Monday for illegally exporting American computer equipment to a Pakistani government-funded nuclear research company, according to the Department of Justice.

It’s just the latest incident in a decades-old covert effort by Pakistan to acquire sensitive nuclear-related and military technology from the United States.

Syed, who owns Pakistan-based Business Systems International and its branch in Chicago, provided U.S.-manufactured computers, servers and other equipment to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, or PAEC, a government agency “responsible for the design, fabrication, and testing of high explosives and nuclear weapon parts, uranium mining and enrichment and the development of solid-fueled ballistic missiles,” according to the indictment. (Syed remains innocent, of course, until he’s found guilty or confesses.)

Pakistan has been steadily seeking to improve its nuclear capabilities since the mid-1970s, when the Islamic government launched a secret program to develop nuclear weapons through uranium enrichment. In 2004, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb, made a dramatic television appearance in which he acknowledged that he had also secretly provided North Korea, Libya, and Iran with crucial nuclear bomb technology. 

By 2015, Pakistan had created a nuclear program more powerful than India’s, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stimson Center. The country has heavily invested in growing its nuclear weapons arsenal, which this year surpassed India’s 150 warheads, according to an Arms Control Association analysis, in hopes of entering the Nuclear Supplier group, the think tanks said. 

But Pakistan has relied for decades on secret agents and sympathizers in the U.S. to acquire prohibited technology. In 2004, a Pakistani military supplier was indicted for illegally exporting specialized equipment with military applications “that can be used to test, develop and detonate nuclear weapons,” the Los Angeles Times reported. A business associate who cooperated with the government in a plea deal said the equipment was routed through South Africa to conceal its destination.

“Documents in both of those cases portray a network that has operated longer and more extensively than federal authorities had previously acknowledged,” the Times said.

In 2010, a Pakistani national living in Maryland pleaded guilty to smuggling $400,000 worth of technology used in nuclear reactors to the PAEC, including radiation detection devices, for over five years, according to the FBI and the Justice Department.

And, most recently, in 2019, according to the Justice Department, five Pakistani nationals were accused of operating an international network of fake corporations that deceived 29 U.S. companies to export, without the required license, “sensitive technology” to the PAEC to use in Pakistan’s nuclear program. 

While, at times, President Donald J. Trump has praised the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, the administration last year cut more than $300 million in aid to Islamabad and increased drone strikes in the northwest of the country, including a 2017 strike in Kohat that marked “the deepest that American drones have penetrated into Pakistan’s airspace,” a Pakistani security official toldThe New York Times

“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools,” Trump tweeted in 2018. “They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

For nine years, from 2006 to 2015, Syed “falsely represented to U.S.-based computer manufacturers that the illegal shipments were intended for Pakistan-based universities,” instead of disclosing they would be received by the PAEC and a research institute that trained the agency’s engineers and scientists.

“Syed and his company caused the U.S.-based computer manufacturers to submit to the U.S. government shipping documents, including Shippers Export Declarations, that listed false end-users for the U.S.-origin goods,” the announcement said.

Syed was arrested Sept. 16 and has been charged with one count of conspiracy to violate foreign trade regulations and one count of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which authorizes the President to regulate foreign economic transactions to deal with a foreign threat. Given the charges, Syed could get a maximum sentence of up to 25 years in federal prison for both counts, according to the announcement.