Thatcher, Begin, and the “Islamic Bomb”

29 Aug

As part of the research process, you often find interesting little snippets that, while not hugely significant themselves, form part of something bigger. On May 17, 1979, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin wrote a short letter to newly installed British leader Margaret Thatcher. His letter formed part of a wider popular outburst centred around the idea of an “Islamic bomb.” Although the idea of an “Islamic bomb” – an imagined nuclear weapon that transcends state boundaries and spans a transnational religious community – had come up in previous years, it was only in 1979 that the issue really burst into the consciousness of policymakers and the public.

The concept was founded in the rhetoric surrounding the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme. Indeed, it was the two markedly different Pakistani leaders Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Mohammed Zia ul-Haq who gave birth to the idea. But it was the Western (and to a lesser extent, Indian) media that really gave life to the notion that one Muslim state would automatically share the fruits of its nuclear labours with other Muslim states.

In May 1979, when the media frenzy about the “Islamic bomb” was ramping up, Menachem Begin wrote to the leaders of the UK, France, and the Federal Republic of Germany, warning of the dangers of the Islamic bomb and requesting action. Writing to Thatcher, Begin warned in dire terms of the awful consequences of a Pakistani nuclear weapon in the hands of Muamar Gadaffi.[1] The enclosed Israeli briefing outlined the links between Pakistan and the Arab world, all of which were common knowledge. Indeed, none of the Israeli intelligence was new and none of it confirmed the actual existence of nuclear cooperation between Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world.[2]

Paul Lever of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) did not think much of Begin’s assertions, stating, “While we share their concern, we believe that they may be making over much of Pakistani-Arab links. Although the Pakistanis are getting financial aid from Arab states the limited evidence available to us (and the Americans) does not support the suggestion that there is any plan to produce an “Islamic Bomb” or to produce weapons-usable material in Pakistan for other Islamic countries.”[3] This viewpoint, which was shared throughout the FCO and other departments of government, was reflected in the speaking note prepared for Thatcher’s meeting with Begin on May 23.[4] Despite the media furore surrounding the idea of the “Islamic bomb”, Robert Alston of the FCO Joint Nuclear Unit emphasised that the conclusion of British intelligence reporting from April that there was little in the way of evidence of Arab assistance for the Pakistani nuclear programme still held true.[5]

In the end the Prime Minister did not raise the matter with Begin face-to-face and responded via a letter which she took a personal hand in drafting. [6] Thatcher shared Begin’s concerns about the situation, but pointed out to the Israeli leader “None of the evidence currently available to us suggests there is any arrangement to transfer weapons-useable material from Pakistan to other Islamic states or organisations.” She went on to point out the many steps Britain had taken to thwart the clandestine Pakistani purchasing programme and concluded by urging Begin to consider his own country’s role in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.[7]

It is not so much the Thatcher response that is illuminating, but its part in the wider political analyses of the “Islamic bomb” phenomenon. In the media, it was taken as axiomatic that the “Islamic bomb” existed, that Pakistan would share nuclear technology with its co-religionists based solely on bonds of faith. Within the governments of those states attempting to thwart Pakistani nuclear ambitions – primarily the US and UK – the view was much more nuanced. Rather than being a concrete proliferation or security threat, the Islamic bomb was a propaganda problem.

When you look at the documentary evidence, it is plain that this is how policymakers viewed the problem. Despite what a raft of variously conspiratorial, histrionic, or just plain wrong-headed newspaper articles, documentaries, and books have claimed in the interim, there was no concrete threat of an “Islamic bomb.” The threat was one of images, rhetoric, and belief. Thatcher and her advisors recognised this and acted accordingly. Sadly, the reality did not become the dominant narrative and the “Islamic bomb” remains a trope around which much discussion of Pakistanis historical nuclear ambitions revolves.


[1] Begin to Thatcher, Letter, May 17, 1979, TNA FCO 96/954

[2] ‘Pakistani Activity in the Nuclear Field,’ appended to Begin to Thatcher, May 17, 1979

[3] Lever to Cartledge, ‘Pakistan’s Nuclear Programme,’ May 22, 1979, TNA FCO 96/954, 4

[4] Alston to Moberly, ‘Pakistan’s Nuclear Programme,’ May 22, 1979, TNA FCO 96/954; FCO, ‘Briefs for Quadripartite Ministerial Dinner in the Hague on 29 May,’ May 22, 1979, TNA FCO 37/2204

[5] Alston to Moberly, ‘Pakistan’s Nuclear Programme,’ June 5, 1979, TNA FCO 96/955, 1. Like the majority of British secret intelligence sources, this particular Joint Intelligence Committee report remains classified. The conclusions, however, can be apprehended from the statements made by Alston in his briefing.

[6] Alston to Moberly, June 5, 1979.

[7] Thatcher to Begin, Letter, June 19, 1979, TNA FCO 96/955

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5 Responses to “Thatcher, Begin, and the “Islamic Bomb””

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    […] ‘Islamic bomb‘ (which, for the record, I firmly believe to be a construction of the American, European, […]

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