Frontline World

Recent Reports
June 21, 2005
Part 3: The Guru
Listen to what Humayun Khan says about his involvement in the nuclear smuggling case. Khan, who's been indicted by the U.S. government and is still at large, spoke by phone from Islamabad with reporter Mark Schapiro.

May 17, 2005
The Conversation
Read excerpts from the smoking-gun emails between Asher Karni, a businessman originally from Israel and Humayun Khan, his contact in Pakistan.

April 21, 2005
Part 2: The Double Life Of Asher Karni
Watch the video report from South Africa to find out how Asher Karni, a respected Israeli businessman in Cape Town, became the middleman in a nuclear smuggling operation.

March 30, 2005
Part 1: The Middleman
Asher Karni

Read Mark Schapiro's original report on the Asher Karni case, coproduced by Mother Jones magazine, the Center for Investigative Reporting and FRONTLINE/World.

Moderator Comment:
What more should the international community be doing to stop the trafficking of nuclear devices?

Tell us what you think.

Read what others are saying.

Online Discussion
Read an archived conversation with FRONTLINE/World reporter Mark Schapiro on his nuclear smuggling investigation on

The Conversation
Illustration of Spark GapsEven the very first email exchange in the now public record between Asher Karni and Humayun Khan raises eyebrows. Perhaps the conversation wouldn't have been unusual for two men in the business of procuring military equipment, but it was very peculiar for two men whose respective nations share a long history of mutual distrust: Karni was a highly respected Jewish Israeli businessman living in South Africa. Khan, the man he supplies with nuclear triggers, is an Islamabad businessman with close ties to Pakistan's military.

In the emails, Khan asked Karni to supply him with three different types of equipment: infrared target detectors (of the type used by fighter planes to detect targets); oscilloscopes and oscillators manufactured by Tektronix (equipment used to build missiles and nuclear weapons); and triggered spark gaps manufactured by PerkinElmer (small cylindrical devices that can be used to spark nuclear explosions).

While there are gaps in the 30 or so emails in the records -- the deal was more than likely also cut through phone calls and in faxes -- the fragmented remains of the exchange between Karni, his customer, and his supplier reveal just how easily American-made nuclear detonators could slip through the cracks and potentially wind up in the hands of Islamic militants.

What follows below are excerpts of the emails that flew between South Africa, Pakistan, and the United States between May and September 2003, obtained by FRONTLINE/World.

May 29, 2003
Khan writes Karni:

"Dear Asher,
We urgently require the following detector; IR Target Detector for AIM9L. Used in the airforce fighter planes to help detect target before firing/shooting."

Karni writes back:


It is not something that I carry, if you have a make and model no please forward me I will try my best to help.

best regards,
P.S thanks for the fax"

June 9, 2003

Khan provides Karni with the details on the Lockheed Martin infrared detectors he would like to order. Karni asks Khan if Khan can provide an end-user statement. Khan writes back that he can't, and adds that his customer previously obtained detectors from a South African supplier.

June 12, 2003

In an email with the subject line EG&G, Karni forwards to Khan a letter from Polytec PI, a company that sells scientific instruments manufactured by PerkinElmer.(1)

The letter explicitly states that spark gaps are subject to an export license and require a certificate with the name and address of the end user, the detailed end use, and assurance that the spark gaps will not leave South Africa and will not be used for nuclear applications.

Karni writes to Khan:
"Sorry, I will decline to quote on this requirement."

June 16, 2003

Khan asks if Karni has been successful in finding the infrared detectors, stating that his customer is "anxious."

June 17, 2003

With respect to the triggered spark gaps and the letter from Polytec outlining end-user requirements, Khan writes Karni:

"Dear Asher,
I know it is difficult but thats why we came to know each other, please help to re-negotiate this from any other source, we can give you an end user information as it is genuinely medical requirement, I donot like to lose an account easily. Pls do look around for another source."

Karni writes back:

June 30, 2003

Karni and Khan bicker about which model of oscilloscope is best suited to Khan's customer's needs. Khan pushes Karni to purchase the model explicitly requested by his customer.

Karni responds to Khan:


August 6, 2003

Karni writes Zeki Bilmen, of Giza Technologies, a New Jersey-based company that, according to its Web site, provides "procurement services for state of the art electronic, electro-mechanical and mechanical components, systems, and other products related to the Electronics Manufacturing Sector."

Karni asks Bilmen for an update on the EG&G order [triggered spark gaps].

Bilmen replies that the Tektronix equipment has arrived in New Jersey, but that he will wait until additional equipment arrives to ship them on, and that EG&G order has been processed.

Bilmen adds in a separate email:

"One Good News regarding the EG&G order [the triggered spark gaps]. NO EXPORT LICENSE REQUIRED to South Africa. I thought you might want to know."(2)

August 11, 2003

Karni writes Khan that the first batch of 66 triggered spark gaps would be delivered at the end of September, the second batch of 67 delivered in October, and the last batch of 66 in November.

Karni's email to Khan reads:

"All is in place."

August 12, 2003

Karni writes Bilmen that he has a new order for ten Tektronix oscilloscopes in an email subject-lined "TEKTONIX-NEW ONE."

He writes:

"Ihave a new project for you, but we need to work this one very wisely, it is very important that they will not know it is coming to S. A. [South Africa]. So I leave this one in your good hand."

August 16, 2003

Karni writes Bilmen to ask about the original Tektronix [oscillators] order.

Bilmen writes Karni back that it should ship shortly. He adds that "they" -- presumably PerkinElmer -- has made a sudden demand with regard to the triggered spark gaps:

"They have just requested from us an End User Certificate before making the shipment just for their files as proof that no license is required.(3) Do you think you can get us this certificate?"

August 17, 2003

Karni writes Bilmen regarding the end-user certificate for the EG&G order:

"If it is only for the files, am I correct it is enough to tell them the NAME of the end user , city etc, or they actually wants some sort of forms to be filled in?"

August 18, 2003

Bilman writes back to Karni that all that is needed is the name of the end user and an address.

A woman named Marisa emails Bilmen end user information from Karni's account:

"Baragwath Hospital(4) , Soweto, South Africa"

She lists telephone numbers and a post office box for the hospital.(5,6)

August 21, 2003

Bilmen writes Karni that he has not been able to get the Tektonics oscilloscopes at the price Karni had hoped.

September 8, 2003

Karni inquires of Bilmen when the triggered spark gaps will be delivered. Bilmen responds to Karni that the triggered spark gaps delivery is delayed because of manufacturing problems at PerkinElmer.(7)

Undated communication obtained by FRONTLINE/World:

Karni writes Bilmen:

"Have sent them off to the cusomer and have not had any complains yet, i hope i will not have, is there a reason for the question?right away, had a look at one only and it looked o.k....

It is my pleasure to give you this kind of business and you are giving us gooexcellent service and I hope to much more."

Karni asks Bilmen when he might expect the next shipment of 66 pieces.

Karni writes Khan:

"We have sent the docs to the bank for payment for the 66 PCS EG&G parts we have shipped, please follow up on your end that this is gets paid asap."

Researched and written by Meghan Laslocky

Additional sources: "Asher Karni Case Shows Weaknesses in Nuclear Export Controls," by Jacob Blackford, September 8, 2004. Published by the Institute for Science and International Security.


1. Neither the term "triggered spark gaps" nor the company name PerkinElmer appears anywhere in the email train between Karni and Khan, aside from in the attached letter from Polytec. EG&G was a company that PerkinElmer bought, and in the emails, "EG&G" is shorthand for the triggered spark gaps equipment model number GP-20B, originally produced by EG&G.

2. South Africa, having dismantled its own nuclear weapons program (the only country in the world to do so), is not on the U.S. Commerce Departments' list of restricted countries.

3. In fact, end-user certificates need to be filed with the Bureau of Industry and Security at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

4. A misspelling of Baragwanath Hospital, a facility near Johannesberg that claims to be the largest acute care hospital in the world.

5. Baragwanath Hospital had no knowledge of the deal.

6. According to a report by the International Institute for Science and Security, when Giza shipped the spark gaps to Karni in South Africa, it declared Karni's company, Top-Cape, as the end user in the Shipper's Export Declaration, not Baragwanath Hospital, as instructed. In the export paperwork, Giza also listed the incorrect Schedule B product classification number for the spark gaps and no export control number, even though PerkinElmer had supplied the correct numbers on the invoice. Giza also made another curious error in the export documents by listing the spark gaps as "electrical splices and couplings for switching" -- a very general descriptor for this specific equipment.

7. By this point, agents with the Office of Export Enforcement at the U.S. Department of Commerce had contacted PerkinElmer and asked the company to render the first shipment of 66 triggered spark gaps inoperable and before shipping them on to Giza.

back to top