American mom Marisa Ann Sketo-Kirsh appeared in a South African court Jan. 28 for negotiating the sale of spark plugs. Yes, you read right — spark plugs. Her charge: importing and exporting “components of nuclear devices.”
It may be surprising to some that a common, everyday spark plug — or the igniter of a spark plug to be more precise, called a trigger spark gap — could be a weapon of mass destruction. Here’s why:
A spark gap is a cylinder set on a 4-inch square black box that emits an intense electrical pulse, whose timing and duration are controlled to the microsecond.
Hospitals use the devices to power lithotripters to deliver an electrical pulse that breaks up kidney stones.
These triggered spark gaps, however, also have another use: to detonate a nuclear bomb. Each of the switches could be installed into an enriched uranium casing, which could be mounted on a ballistic missile — with a consequence of … well, you know the rest.
This South African case is a sneak peak into murky and sometimes dangerous world of black-market nuclear weapons proliferation, teeming underworld movers and shakers, and maybe even terrorists. Items being sold here are not the stuff of Hollywood — glowing bits of enriched nuclear material — but dull-looking industrial parts, having viable commercial value but can be used for military purposes. The U.S. government calls these “dual use” items.
Police in South Africa allege the 46-year-old Sketo-Kirsh, aka Marisa Sketo, ordered 66 spark gaps from the U.S. firm PerkinElmer Optronics. She is believed to be working for and with Asher Karni, owner of Top Cape Technology company in South Africa. Sketo-Kirsh is thought to have sent the spark gaps to a Pakistani company without first obtaining a permit from South Africa’s WMD Nonproliferation Council.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, Karni, an Israeli Orthodox Jew, was cutting a deal with Humayun Khan from Islamic Pakistan in summer 2003 to export 200 spark gaps. These devices are easily concealed as they are small enough to fit into a coat pocket. The innocuous looking switches combined can pack enough punch to detonate 3-10 nuclear bombs, according to experts.
Its intended users, according to prosecutor Jay Bratt, were Pakistan and its arch rival, India.
The case is a classic example of how illicit nuclear traffickers work — by getting around export bans, lying about the intended use of the items, using middlemen to buy from legitimate manufacturers and forging documents.
The unsealed government charges in Karni’s case revealed the involvement of an unnamed “Co-conspirator B” who worked in Karni’s company, created fake certificates claiming the devices were needed by a hospital in Soweto, lied about how the devices were to be used in official documents and disguised the movement of the smuggled devices by falsifying shipping manifests.
The smuggling plan was foiled by an anonymous tip-off, rather than the current monitoring systems in place. A mysterious “anonymous source in South Africa” alerted U.S. authorities to a “possible diversion of U.S. origin equipment” starting in Summer 2003.
The squealer enabled investigators to build a plan to uncover the network, including sabotaging the switches before they left the U.S.
Could this anonymous source have been a repentant Sketo-Kirsh and explain why she has been allowed to roam free in South Africa while awaiting her trial?
Khan, who is believed to have with close ties to Pakistan's military and militant Islamic groups, remains the most elusive character in this case. Living free in Pakistan, he insists he broke no laws — this despite U.S. investigators tracing the dangerous package across three continents from Salem, Mass., to his address in Islamabad. AND in spite of a series of e-mails instructing Karni to persevere and succeed in obtaining the switches after being refused by one U.S. provider.
Khan’s claim of innocence: that a rogue employee sent the e-mails in his name and has since conveniently disappeared. If extradited and prosecuted Khan could get 35 years in the slammer. Instead he got a slap on the wrist - blacklisted by the U.S. Commerce Department and no longer able to import goods from America.
Karni, on the other hand, was nabbed on New Years Day 2004 while on a family skiing vacation in Denver, Colo.
Although he pleaded guilty and faced 25 years in prison, he only got three – quite the light sentence for a guy who had succeeded in selling blacklisted nuclear components on at least 17 other occasions. He had even tried to carry on black market deals while in custody in the U.S.
Sketo-Kirsh has managed to avoid jail. Instead, she is currently on a warning while staying in South Africa until the trial. The timeline on that is still pretty sketchy.
Why has only one of the three known co-conspirators involved in nuclear black market ring to Pakistan been prosecuted thus far?
Check back soon — I’ll make sure to bring you the latest instalment in the American mom’s role in the nuclear underground – a smuggling ring that could prove to trump the scale of the notorious A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan.
In Other Nuke Smuggling News From South Africa…
Yet another player in nuclear smuggling gets off lightly without harsh penalties.
Last week, a South African court gave Swiss engineer Daniel Geiges, accused of being part of a global nuclear weapons smuggling ring, a 13-year suspended jail sentence. Geiges, 69, pleaded guilty to involvement in the import and export of equipment capable of being used in uranium enrichment. His sentence was suspended for five years as part of a state plea bargain.
Last year, Geiges' former boss, Gerhard Wisser, at the Johannesburg-based engineering company, was also given a suspended sentence for his involvement in this nuclear weapons smuggling ring.
The head of this network was A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist who fathered the Pakistani nuclear bomb. Although also Pakistani, this Khan is not related to the alleged head of the American mom’s smuggling ring, Humayun Khan.
A.Q. Khan confessed to selling nuclear secrets to countries that are not on BFF terms with the US like Iran, North Korea and Libya.
And yet, he too has similarly managed to escape justice. This nuclear smuggling ringleader was pardoned and allowed to keep the considerable profits made from his illicit deals.
Anyone else see an alarming pattern here?
Allison Barrie is a defense specialist with experience in more than 70 countries who consults at the highest levels of defense and national security, a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees, and author of the definitive guide, Future Weapons: Access Granted, on sale in 30 countries. Barrie hosts the new hit podcast “Tactical Talk” where she gives listeners direct access to the most fascinating Special Operations warriors each week and to find out more about the FOX Firepower host and columnist you can click here or follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie and Instagram @allisonbarriehq.