As they race to dismantle a global black market in nuclear weapons components, U.S. authorities are focusing on an unusual case: an Orthodox Jew from Israel accused of trying to sell nuclear weapons parts to a business associate in Islamic Pakistan.
Asher Karni, 50, currently a resident of South Africa, was arrested at Denver’s international airport as he arrived with his wife and daughter for a New Year’s ski vacation. Friends and family have been pressing for his release, describing him as a hard-working electronics salesman just trying to earn a living.
However, federal authorities contend that Karni is something more: a veteran player in an underground network of traffickers in parts, technology and know-how for the clandestine nuclear weapons programs of foreign governments.
The Karni case offers a rare glimpse into what authorities say is an international bazaar teeming with entrepreneurs, transporters, scientists, manufacturers, government agents, organized-crime syndicates and, perhaps, terrorists.
Authorities say the case also provides a classic illustration of how illicit nuclear traffickers operate -- readily skirting export bans, disguising the real use for products, using middlemen to buy from legitimate manufacturers and routing shipments through several countries.
Such traffickers have flourished amid little effective response by the United States, its allies or the U.N. watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, despite repeated warnings, authorities say.
“There are Iranian networks, Chinese networks, Middle East networks, sophisticated networks buying technology and parts all over the world,” said a senior official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who cited sensitive investigations in demanding anonymity. “They’re operating in the United States every day. Some of them are family businesses, where fathers pass it on to their sons.”
One such network came to light several months ago when top Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan admitted selling nuclear weapons programs to Iran, Libya and North Korea for tens of millions of dollars.
Authorities have kept Karni in custody since his arrest, arguing that he is a flight risk and a threat to national security. He has been charged with violating the federal Export Control Act and other laws aimed at curbing nuclear proliferation. Ensconced in the county jail in a Washington suburb, he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Karni is accused of orchestrating a deal to send as many as 200 electrical components that can be used for medical or nuclear weapons purposes to a Pakistani businessman named Humayun Khan.
Karni and Humayun Khan have denied knowingly breaking any U.S. laws, and both say they have no ties to Abdul Qadeer Khan or his network.
Some U.S. officials believe the ultimate destination of the electrical components would have been the Pakistani government, which is also suspected of complicity in Abdul Qadeer Khan’s network. Federal agents plan to go to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, as part of their probe.
The components, called triggered spark gaps, are sophisticated electrical switches that have nonmilitary uses, including breaking up kidney stones. But because they emit intense and rapid-fire electrical charges, they are also ideal as nuclear detonators, prompting the U.S. government to restrict their export.
In court documents filed in Karni’s case in Washington, authorities say Humayun Khan, in Islamabad, placed an order with Karni for 200 of the switches last summer, at $447 apiece, and that Khan has links to Pakistan’s military and a militant Islamic political group.
“The charges are extraordinarily serious. The allegations couldn’t be more grave,” said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.
“This is another piece in the global puzzle of suppliers and buyers, middlemen and [front companies] all over the planet,” said Cox, who said he was not commenting on Karni’s innocence or guilt. “The problem was hardly created on Sept. 11. But the stark reality of it and the unspeakable consequences of it have now gripped policymakers.”
Pakistani officials insisted in interviews with The Times that the government was not involved in any effort to buy U.S. products prohibited for export to their country, a ban prompted in part by Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
1975 Deal With Ex-Nazi
But The Times has confirmed that Humayun Khan’s family import-export business, Pakland Corp., was a purchasing agent for that nuclear program as far back as 1975. At the time, Pakland was negotiating at least one deal for suspected nuclear weapons material with Alfred Hempel, a German industrialist, former Nazi and central figure in the then already-burgeoning global nuclear bazaar.
Hempel, who died in 1989, did as much to spread nuclear weapons in his day as did Abdul Qadeer Khan, perhaps more, said Gary Milhollin, founder of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. During the 1970s and ‘80s, Hempel used cargo planes, bribes and a secret network of operatives to supply countries in South Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East with nuclear weapons materials. Like Abdul Qadeer Khan, he made millions and, despite years of scrutiny by nuclear proliferation watchdogs, escaped any serious consequences.
The Homeland Security Department official said investigators planned to aggressively pursue any connections between the Karni case and what may remain of Hempel’s network. Humayun Khan, the official said, appears to have been involved in illegal deals going back at least several years.
Channing Phillips, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, said he could not comment because the investigation was in its preliminary stages. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “We’re trying to follow the trail, if you will.”
Karni and his lawyers have declined to comment on the case. But authorities say he has already provided them with a rare window into the nuclear underworld, without even knowing it.
Over the years, Karni has built up a global list of intermediaries and clients as a salesman of sophisticated military and aviation electronics equipment, most recently through his company, Top-Cape Technology in Cape Town, South Africa.
In a stroke of good fortune, federal agents were able to get an inside view of one of those business deals. Authorities launched their investigation in July, after an anonymous South African tipster said Karni had been using front companies, straw buyers and misleading shipping documents to sell restricted U.S. products to Pakistan and India. The tipster said Karni was in the process of buying as many as 400 of the switches for Humayun Khan.
Updates From Tipster
Agents with the U.S. departments of Commerce and Homeland Security monitored the deal with updates from the tipster, including Karni’s e-mail correspondence and shipping information for the switches.
Karni first tried to buy the switches directly from Perkin- Elmer Optoelectronics of Salem, Mass., according to an affidavit filed by Special Agent James R. Brigham of the Commerce Department’s Office of Export Enforcement.
The affidavit and other court documents lay out the alleged criminal conspiracy to evade U.S. export control laws, including e-mails between Karni and Khan.
A PerkinElmer official told Karni he needed to submit required U.S. certificates detailing what the switches would be used for, and promising not to send them to blacklisted countries such as Pakistan or use them in nuclear-related applications. Karni told Khan he wouldn’t submit such paperwork.
“Dear Asher, I know it is difficult but thats [sic] why we came to know each other,” Khan replied. “Please help to re-negotiate this from any other source, we can give you an end user information as it is genuinely medical requirement.”
Karni then contacted Zeki Bilmen, head of Giza Technologies of Secaucus, N.J. On Aug. 6, Giza ordered 200 of the switches from PerkinElmer for $89,400, submitting certificates saying they would be used in a Soweto, South Africa, hospital.
Authorities contacted Per- kin-Elmer officials, who told them a typical hospital order was for five or six switches. In response, the U.S. agents asked them to discreetly disable the first batch of 66 switches and send them on.
The original tipster told authorities that Karni might list a lithography company at Khan’s address as the end user, not Khan’s firm, Pakland PME, and later provided Federal Express tracking numbers showing a circuitous route through Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
Traffickers frequently ship restricted U.S. items to Dubai, Malta and other unrestricted trade zones worldwide and then re-export them to third countries to hide the origin or destination and avoid laws aimed at curbing nuclear proliferation, authorities say.
Karni did just as the tipster predicted, and agents tracked the package at every step.
Giza, which had certified to PerkinElmer that the switches were for hospital use, sent them to Karni’s Cape Town office by declaring them “electrical splices and couplings for switchings,” which don’t require an export license, Brigham’s affidavit says. Providing such false or misleading information is a violation of federal law, he noted.
Karni then labeled them electrical parts and sent them to Dubai and on to Islamabad, where, in late October, someone identifying himself as an employee of the AJKMC Lithography Aid Society signed for the spark gaps.
Authorities suspect the letters stand for All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, a political party that controls the Pakistani-ruled part of the disputed Kashmir region and allegedly has terrorist affiliations.
On Dec. 11, South African police raided Karni’s offices at U.S. authorities’ request. Karni admitted sending the spark gaps, court papers say. Less than a month later, in one of the many mysteries of the case, he came to the U.S., where he was arrested.
Bilmen, of Giza Technologies, has not been charged. His lawyer, Robert C. Herbst, said Giza employees “were a victim of Asher Karni as much as anyone else was.”
In court records, authorities said Karni often sent air freight to Pakistan and that he either completed or discussed other suspicious deals. In one, Karni bought for Khan a type of sophisticated oscilloscope often used in nuclear weapons and military programs, also through Giza. In another, he exchanged e-mail with a man identified as an Indian contact trying to buy several kinds of high-tech material for two Indian rocket factories.
Soon after his arrest, Karni and his case were transferred to Washington. He was eventually moved from federal custody to the county jail.
“This case represents one of the most serious types of export violations imaginable,” one prosecutor argued in a court filing. “Karni has exported goods that are capable of detonating nuclear weapons to a person he knows has ties to the Pakistani military.
“Although Pakistan’s current leadership has vowed to curb the spread of this technology, that region of the world remains volatile, and Islamic militants in the area have made no secret of their desire to obtain nuclear weapons,” the filing says. “The threat that Karni’s conduct posed was real.”
Karni insists that he didn’t know the spark gaps could be used as detonators in nuclear weapons, according to Rabbi Herzel Kranz of the Hebrew Sheltering Home in Silver Spring, Md., who says he keeps in frequent contact with Karni. A federal judge has approved bail for Karni if he were to stay at the home and wear an electronic monitoring bracelet, but authorities have kept him in custody on alleged immigration violations.
In an interview, Kranz said a friend told him about Karni’s “distressed situation.” He said he went to his aid believing he was innocent, perhaps an unwitting victim of some kind of conspiracy.
“Why would a religious Jew send nuclear weapons parts to a country that hates Israel as much as Pakistan?” Kranz asked. “He has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. But he’s really grabbed a tiger by the tail here.”
Kranz said everything about Karni seemed to contradict the profile of a black-market trafficker: Karni was born in Hungary but grew up in Israel, where he was orphaned at a young age, Kranz said. He displayed prowess in the Talmud, or Hebrew scholarship. He spent 15 years in the Israeli army, becoming a major while obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and an MBA.
Karni moved his young family to South Africa in behalf of an Orthodox Jewish organization and decided to stay.
Destination of Material
Privately, senior U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the case said a critical question is where the spark gaps were headed, particularly because Humayun Khan -- Karni’s alleged collaborator -- apparently is a supplier to the Pakistani military.
In e-mail exchanges, Humayun Khan had no comment on a February 1975 letter obtained by The Times, in which a man named M. Akram Khan of Pakland Corp. in Karachi tells Switzerland-based firm Adero Chemie that it must act quickly to beat out a competing Australian firm for a large shipment of material used to run nuclear reactors that make plutonium.
But he confirmed that M. Akram Khan was his late father and that he spent 11 years working with him at the family business, Pakland Corp., before starting Pakland PME in 1994.
Khan didn’t respond to questions about his father’s apparent role as a purchasing agent for the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission or whether he took over any of those business relationships upon his father’s death.
But he insisted that he had done nothing wrong, and said someone else used his e-mail address to send incriminating e-mails to Karni. He added, “The obvious is not what it seems.”
Milhollin, who provided the letter to The Times, first exposed Hempel’s activities more than 15 years ago, sounding repeated alarms before congressional committees.
Milhollin, whose organization maintains a database that tracks suspected nuclear proliferators, which is used by dozens of governments, warned in 1989 that U.S. officials needed to stop the nuclear black market before it was too late.
“Otherwise, the strategic map of the world is being redrawn without anyone really understanding the consequences,” Milhollin wrote. “That these sales are still happening -- after a decade of U.S. efforts to stop them -- shows how U.S. diplomacy has failed.”
Fifteen years later, it appears little has changed. A senior Energy Department official said the latest intelligence showed that nuclear black market activity had continued to flourish.
“Demand hasn’t diminished. In fact, it’s increased,” the official said. “Where there’s demand, there are people willing and able to supply it.”