ROCKVILLE, Md. — 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.