Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed it was scrutinizing scrap-metal yards in Jordan for nuclear equipment it believes may have been removed from Iraq military and industrial sites. This matériel, hauled by flatbed trucks into Jordan under the eye of the American occupation, could easily find its way into the international underground market for nuclear components and be sold to countries seeking to get going with their own nuclear-weapons projects.
The underground nuclear market is extensive, with roots deep in the U.S. In a May 24 article in the Los Angeles Times, Josh Meyer provides a glimpse of what’s going on with his account of the odd case of Asher Karni, 50, an Israeli businessman now living in South Africa, who was arrested in the Denver airport and charged with attempting to sell parts of nuclear weapons to a businessman in Pakistan. He was charged with violating the federal Export Control Act and other nuclear-export statutes. He is in a jail just outside Washington, and the feds oppose letting him out for fear he might skip the country. If convicted, Karni would face a 10-year prison sentence.
The government thinks Karni is a key man in a big deal to export some 200 electrical components—stuff that can be used in medical applications or nuclear weapons—to one Humayun Khan, a Pakistani businessman. These components, called triggered spark gaps, are electrical switches that have such medical uses as breaking up kidney stones. But they also emit an electrical charge that can be used to detonate nuclear weapons, and for that reason, their export is restricted.
The story has it that Khan, who the U.S. thinks is hooked up with the Pakistani government, put in an order for the switches last summer. Pakistan denies any involvement in the deal, and both Khan and Karni deny violating any U.S. laws and insist they have no ties with Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan or his network.
But the Times discovered that Humayun Khan was engaged in purchasing matériel for Pakistan’s nuclear program in 1975 and had dealings with former Nazi and big-time nuclear-parts wheeler-dealer and industrialist Alfred Hempel. During the 1970s and 1980s, Hempel spread nuclear gear all over the world through a secret network of agents. He died in 1989.
The feds got on to Karni after an anonymous tipster told them that Karni was using dummy companies, misleading shipping documents, and straw buyers to sell restricted products to India and Pakistan. The feds tracked the intricate deal, watching as Karni tried unsuccessfully to buy the switches straight up from a U.S. electronics firm, and then apparently persuaded a New Jersey firm to buy the switches, claiming they were to be used in a South African hospital, renamed them to avoid export controls, and shipped them to Karni’s Cape Town office. From there, the switches were sent through Dubai—a world center for creepy deals—and on to Islamabad and to the final buyer at Humayun Khan’s address, which was listed as a lithography company, but which authorities believe is an office of a Pakistani political party that runs part of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and has terrorist links.