Da’esh as a Hybrid Threat to European Security – the CBRNe Dimension



With the tragic attacks on a concert hall and several bars and restaurants in Paris last month, the rise of Da’esh and its threat to international security has reached Europe. While countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Lebanon are suffering devastating attacks since October 2015, it barely comes as a surprise that also major European capitals are on Da’esh’s target list. U.S. President Barack Obama already stated in 2014 that Da’esh poses a ‘hybrid threat’ to Iraq and Syria and it seems that Da’esh extends its so-called hybrid warfare tactics to neighboring countries and European soil. Recently, this lead to the statement of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls that Da’esh might consider the future usage of chemical agents against its adversaries in Europe. Experts from the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) and the NATO WMD Non-Proliferation Center agree and urge that Europe must prepare for the possibility of a chemical or biological attack as a new ‘weapon of terror’ of Da’esh.

But how real is the threat? What respective indications can the Paris attacks give on the change of tactics of Da’esh? A look at the concept of ‘Hybrid Warfare’ can help finding answers to these questions.

Hybrid Threats: A definition

In the past years, the concept of ‘Hybrid Threats’ and ‘Hybrid Warfare’ witnessed quite a hype. While the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 can be called one of the prime examples of hybrid warfare, the concept received more attention since the escalation of the Ukraine Crisis in 2014. The term ‘hybrid threat’ is commonly used as a warfare tactic including low-level conventional operations and targeted Special Forces operations against an adversary.  In addition, the aggressor uses psychological warfare tactics including social and traditional media that have an influence on public perception and international opinion. It is a mix of conventional warfare, terrorism and asymmetric warfare, and other criminal actions. Together with modern means of warfare such as cyber warfare and CBRNe attacks, hybrid threats can pose a disruptive threat to especially unstable countries. Western scientists, and prominently NATO, often see the ongoing conflict in Ukraine as a prototype of ‘hybrid warfare’. There is an ongoing debate on how this concept based on a warfare tactic that is only exploiting the opponent’s weaknesses is anything but new and this discussion deserves its merit. However we will see that the term very well describes a very prominent tool of Da’esh that uses modern ways of conventional and non-conventional warfare to achieve political goals.

Da’esh Attacks in Paris and Beirut: Shift of Strategy

U.S. President Barack Obama already said in 2014 that Da’esh is a terrorist network that poses a hybrid threat to Iraq and Syria. They have territorial ambitions while applying tactics and strategies of a professional Army. They apply means of conventional warfare such as bataclanbombings and artillery, while also relying on ways of non-conventional warfare including suicide attacks and chemical warfare against adversaries such as the Peshmerga Forces. In addition, Da’esh sophisticatedly uses social media for a worldwide propaganda campaign that managed to attract thousands of foreign fighters from Europe, the Maghreb and Asia. Altogether, their way of combining conventional and non-conventional warfare with terrorist operations ticks many boxes when describing a hybrid threat. But with the devastating attacks in Beirut, Ankara, Tunis, the Sinai Peninsula and Paris since October 2015, something in Da’esh’s strategy has changed – and a lot is speaking for the fact that Da’esh will increasingly export this strategy to Europe.

After the recent attacks in Paris in November 2015, French counterterrorism experts expected a new wave of major terrorist attacks orchestrated by the terrorist organization. Also the TIME Magazine analyzed in a recent article that the series of IED attacks, shootings and mass hostage-takings announced a shift in the terrorist network’s tactics. Together with the bombings in Beirut one day earlier, they announce a new phase of Da’esh operations: orchestrating well-prepared attacks outside the theater of war in Iraq and Syria, expanding means of psychological warfare and aiming at disruptive political impact that enforces cultural cleavages and conflicts. In the midst of the refugee crisis, major terrorist plots in the Middle East, Europe and the USA show that Da’esh successfully infiltrated local societies with either comprehensive sleeper cells or lone wolves. The consequences in European security and defense policies were severe: Da’esh’s new tactics lead to a lockdown of Brussels the week after the Paris attacks. Major events were canceled in Belgium, France and Germany. French President François Hollande proclaimed war against the terrorist organization. And several NATO allies are bombing Da’esh targets in both Iraq and Syria. The situation is escalating – and it’s in Da’esh’s interest!

Da’esh vs. Al-Qaeda – New Escalation of Hybrid Threats

As said before, modern ways of hybrid warfare include means of cyber warfare, propaganda and, at the last level of escalation, attacks including CBRN material. At the first look, one may think that the Al-Qaeda attacks in Madrid and London in the early 2000s and the recent attacks committed by Da’esh are comparable kinds of hybrid threats. But the potential of escalation an all levels makes the difference. In contrast to Al-Qaeda, Da’esh’s perceives its fight against its adversaries as an existential conflict which translates into far more indiscriminate methods of action. Bringing the conflict with the Western community to a new level of escalation by means of CBRNe attacks would perfectly fit to the organization’s psychological warfare strategy that included images of beheadings, the live burning of adversaries and mass executions. And we must take this scenario serious:

Kobanê,_Syria_-_Oct_2014Da’esh possesses a state-like territory that gives them access to significant funding. Also, many CBRN experts of the former Saddam Hussein regime joined their ranks. Da’esh is actively recruiting experts with a background in physics and chemistry, and has already proven its capability to use chemical agents against its adversaries in Syria and Iraq. In Libya, Syria and Iraq they control facilities that stored raw CB material, including traces of sarin-type chemical weapons, ricin-type biological weapons and mustard agents. And in July 2014, the International Atomic Energy Agency disclosed that militants linked to Da’esh seized low-grade nuclear material from Mosul University in northern Iraq. (A comprehensive overview of Da’esh’s access to CBRN material in the Levante can be found here)

The evolving CBRNe threat – challenges for European security

Only one week after the attacks in Paris, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said: “We must not rule anything out. I say it with all the precautions needed. But we know and bear in mind that there is also a risk of chemical or bacteriological weapons.” The statement was followed by news that chemical and biological protection suits had been stolen from a Paris children’s hospital, and warnings that water supplies in the French capital could be a target for future attacks.

Indeed, there are annually hundreds of cases of CBRN theft and smuggling according to the 2014 Communication of the European Commission on a new EU approach to the detection and mitigation of CBRN-E risks. In a highly interesting briefing paper of the European Parliaments Research Service (EPRS), experts warn that European member states must prepare for the possibility of CBRN attacks on European soil by Da’esh. Stating that the Brussels Policeorganization’s aim is to conduct more shocking and devastating attacks in Europe, the usage of WMD would be the final level of escalation in the array of hybrid threats. Possible scenarios could indeed include complicated und unlikely operations such as the contamination of major water supply systems, but also the detonation of an improvised explosive device including chemical and radiological material in public transportation that would cause panic and fear across Europe. Other potential targets include sites of critical infrastructure such as nuclear power stations or large chemical factories. Experts such as Wolfgang Rudischhauser, Director of the WMD Non-Proliferation Center at NATO, largely agree.

However there are also voices saying that a CBRN attack launched by Da’esh outside of Iraq and Syria is highly unlikely. Experts from the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London argued in 2014 that acquired CBRN material in Iraq, Syria and Libya is not suitable for large scale CBRNe attacks, and the deployment of such material would be incredibly challenging if not impossible. In addition, it is highly unlikely that their sleeper cells in Europe are capable of producing CB agents on their own. Also French counterterrorism and CBRN expert Oliver Lepick from the ‘Fondation pour la recherche stratégique’ recently agreed on French television that logistical and technological barriers are too high to plan CBRN attacks outside of Iraq and Syria. However, he concluded that such a scenario might be unlikely, but it is real. European first responders therefore need to be sufficiently prepared for the worst case.

Da’esh, CBRN and Hybrid Threats – Enhancing CBRN Prevention after Paris and Beirut

To conclude, President Barack Obama was correct when describing Da’esh’s tactics and strategies in Syria and Iraq as hybrid warfare. And since October 2015, it is likely that Da’esh will pose a hybrid threat not only to Syria and Iraq, but to international security. The description of Da’esh as a hybrid threat implies that future threat scenarios can include the usage of CBRNe material. Da’esh’s current power and military operations in the Levante, its acquired expertise and psychological warfare strategy confirm this possibility.

So while there are vast technological and logistical barriers for Da’esh to conduct a CBRNe attack outside of Iraq and Syria, the threat is real and European member states and NATO partners must prepare for the worst. Recent incidents of stolen CBRNe material and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) show that industrial sites and soft targets such as hospitals that store CBRNe material and PPE must be better secured. In addition, the stockpile of medical CBRN countermeasures must be extended, sites of critical infrastructure from public transportation to water supply systems must be better surveilled and international intelligence sharing must be improved. The high awareness of policy makers and NATO, as well as extensive funding programs of the European Commission for counterterrorism and CBRNe are therefore a first step in the right direction. But in order to enhance preparedness, CBRNe response capabilities must remain adequately funded and the exchange of best practices must be enhanced.