BHARAT KARNAD | 14 DECEMBER, 2020
Assassination of scientists
Having mulled the assassination of the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near the town of Absard northeast of Tehran on Nov 27, it is clear it was an event that was foretold.
On September 9, 2019 the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu briefed the home and international media about how the Iranians had experimented on prototype nuclear weapons at a site in Abadeh, not far from the uranium centrifuge enrichment complex in Natanz, and how on realizing that the site was compromised Tehran proceeded to cover up its tracks by demolishing this facility. Probably because it feared attracting an US or joint US-Israeli aerial/remote strike under cover of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action) prohibitions.
In that briefing Fakhrizadeh was identified as central to Iran’s crossing the weapons threshold. His goose was cooked then. Driving to work in his car, he was terminated with a super-sophisticated kill system involving a remotely controlled weapon firing at a mobile target tracked — whether by a standoff drone or by satellite is a matter of speculation.
A year earlier in May 2018, Netanyahu had taken to the stage to reveal a rich haul by the Israeli external intelligence agency, Mossad, of what Jerusalem claimed was most of the Iranian weapons-related archive spirited away from a warehouse in Tehran.
If Fakhrizadeh’s killing was evidence that the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) in-charge of the country’s nuclear programme was lax about providing security to the leading scientists involved in critical and sensitive work, the spiriting away by the Israelis of a treasure trove of some 55,000 highly classified papers and an equal number, as BBC reported, of files in 183 CDs stored in an apparently unattended building, proved the Iranians to be just as loose with their secret documents.
But the world is well aware of Israel’s proven partiality for preemptive-preventive military action to neutralize even the remotest threat. In 1990 an inspired Canadian long range gun designer and ballistics expert Gerald Bull, who helped Canada, the US and China design and perfect long range artillery systems, was shot by Mossad agents outside his home in Brussels.
He was, at the time, helping the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussain develop ‘Project Babylon’, perhaps, the biggest artillery system ever conceived — a 150 meter long gun, weighing 2,100 tonnes, with a bore of one meter (39 inches), capable of placing a 2,000-kilogram projectile into orbit and, if fired laterally, of its massive shell hitting any target in Israel, or Iran. (Iraq and Iran were then in a 10-year war.)
Attempts to cripple in the early stages the nuclear weapons programmes of adversary countries by terminating the lives of leading scientific and engineering figures involved in them is by now a tried and tested strategy. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reveals that the nuclear pioneer Niels Bohr proposed to the Allied governments during the Second World War the kidnapping of the leading German physicist Werner Heisenberg, the 1932 Nobel prize winner for creating the field of ‘quantum mechanics’, lest he produce the A-Bomb for Hitler.
India was the first country targeted for its nuclear weapons ambitions post-1945. On January 24 1966, an Air India Boeing 707 aircraft, ‘Kanchenjunga’ — Flight AI 101 on a hopping flight — Bombay-Beirut-Geneva-London crashed into the 15,300 foot high Mont Blanc on the approach to the Geneva airport. A US CIA agent Robert Crowley admitted getting a Bombay airport services staff member — for a few rupees no doubt — to place a bomb in the luggage hold. As he told a reporter Gregory Douglas, who reproduced this revelation in his book ‘Conversations with the Crow’, “We had trouble, you know, with India back in the 60’s when they got uppity and started work on an atomic bomb.”
On Bhabha, he said, “[T]hat one was dangerous, believe me. He had an unfortunate accident. He was flying to Vienna to stir up more trouble when his Boeing 707 had a bomb go off in the cargo hold.”
According to Douglas, Bhabha was targeted by the CIA after his statement in October 1965, that India could, in fact, build an atomic bomb within 18 months if okayed by Delhi. But as I detail in my book 2002 book ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’ (now in a 2nd edition published in 2005), Bhabha had actually pleaded with Nehru in November 1962 to allow him to test a nuclear explosive as a means of raising the morale of the Indian people who saw their army being pummeled in the Himalayas by the Chinese PLA.
Nehru, as always when it came to weaponising the capability, demurred and set India back in the nuclear realm in such a way that it has never really recovered. With that also went the chance of the country beating China to the A-Bomb and vaulting into the ranks of the great powers. China tested its fission device in October 1964 –some three months after Nehru died. India did not test until ten years later, and then failed formally to weaponize.
Incidentally, John F Kennedy thought of ending the Chinese nuclear weapons programme by attacking the Chinese nuclear weapons complex at Lop Nor but desisted for fear of Russian reaction. Later Russia considered doing the same and so informed Washington but the US was discouraging because by then it had begun to perceive a nuclear China’s utility in containing the Soviet Union.
Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme could have been throttled had Indira Gandhi permitted the Israeli strike aircraft staging out of Indian bases in early 1982 to take out the Kahuta nuclear weapons facilities. This operation was revealed to me by the Israeli General Aahron Yaariv, the military intelligence chief to General Moshe Dayan in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, when I was in the kibbutz at Kiryat Shimona covering the 1982 Lebanon War. I wrote about it then, and have detailed the strike operation in ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’. That operation would also have eliminated the frontline generation of Pakistani nuclear scientists and technologists. Recall that Israel had bombed the Iraqi Osirak reactor the previous year and had displayed the required expertise.
I had advised in a Sunday paper column in the Summer of 1987 (if I remember correctly) that India still had a six month window to strike, but if it did not it would have to forever hold its peace with Pakistan. India did not and the situation is what it is today.
Except, the ground reality is as perilous for Indians involved in the weapons directorate at BARC, Trombay, and elsewhere today as it is for their Iranian counterparts. According to one count (https://www.newsbytesapp.com/news/india/mystery-abound-with-india-s-nuclear-scientists/story), between the years 2008 and 2016, some 70 Indian science and technology personnel employed by the Atomic Energy Commission in Trombay and at Kalpakkam have mysteriously died, 38 of them in extremely suspicious circumstances.
Many of them were involved in the high-value breeder reactor project to secure for the country “energy independence” that Bhabha had chalked out per his 3-stage plan — heavy water-natural uranium reactors producing the feedstock for breeder reactors which, in turn, fuel reactor run thorium — a mineral of which India has the 2nd largest reserves in the world. In many of these cases, the local police have rushed to judgement and usually pronounced the deaths suicides!
In the last four years there might have been more such unexplained deaths. This is a ridiculous state of affairs where Indians involved in ostensibly high-security projects — weapons, breeder and thorium reactors — are being bumped off with the Indian government seemingly unaware of the threats, and doing less than nothing to protect the country’s prized nuclear science and engineering talent.
Of a piece is the case of the ISRO scientist responsible for indigenously developing cryogenic rocket technology DrNambi Narayanan. One day in 1994 he was hauled up by Kerala Police for espionage and leaking sensitive documents to Pakistan, tortured in jail, and asked to confess. He didn’t. CBI took over the case in 1996 and after a thorough investigation concluded Dr Narayanan was not guilty of anything. This exoneration did not prevent the Kerala Police from troubling him again, nor did it persuade ISRO to return the good Doctor to his previous job. In the meanwhile the cryogenic engine project floundered, and cost and time over-runs accrued. The opportunity cost to the country of this action of the Kerala Police was immeasurable. And yet no one from that State Police cadre was hauled up and held accountable for this action that was obviously engineered by any number of countries who didn’t want to see India become a space power.
Put all these cases related to strategic technologies sector together, and one can discern the clear intent and pattern of targeting technical personnel in order to sabotage and subvert India’s progress. There is no trained police agency providing 24/7/365 protection for Indians in highly sensitive technology programmes as is the case in most advanced countries, and especially in China and Pakistan.
There’s something phenomenally wrong here. Time the government and country woke up to these dangers and did something meaningful to assure members of our nuclear and space communities the safety and the peace of mind they deserve.
Cover photograph: Homi J.Bhabha and Albert Einstein (at the two ends) in Princeton with physicists Hideki Yudawa (Nobelist for predicting the pi meson) and John Wheeler (who defined the ‘black hole’)
Bharat Karnad is a defence and strategy analyst.