This month’s Threat Assessment includes
- Syrian regime’s continued use of chlorine barrel bombs against civilians
- Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus spreading along major bird migration flyways in Canada and the US
- Unsolved scientific dispute about health effects of low dose radiation
- Proposal to abolish the launch on warning concept from current nuclear strategies
- European IED precursor chemicals regulation integrated in Dutch legislation
The Threat Assessments are based on open sources. End date of collection: April 22, 2015
Syrian regime’s continued use of chlorine barrel bombs against civilians
* During last March the Syrian government reportedly continued the use of barrel bomb attacks, including at least six chlorine barrel bombs, mainly in the Idlib governorate.
* On April 16, Syrian doctors who treated the victims of these attacks briefed the UN Security Council in a closed session about their experiences and showed video footage of the aftermath of one of the attacks.
* Indecisiveness about the choice for an attribution mechanism that can be used to hold the Syrian government accountable, may put the issue on the backburner and may motivate the Assad regime to escalate further.
The previous IBC Treat Assessment already reported on the first chlorine barrel bomb attacks in Idlib in mid-March. Since then Syrian Civil Defense volunteers documented fourteen barrel bomb attacks that contained apparently toxic chemicals. They were used in seven attacks in four locations in Idlib governorate between March 16 and March 31. Local activists and journalists reported additional similar attacks.
Human Rights Watch documented six of these attacks (Qmenas 16/3, Sarmin 16/3, Sarmin/Qmenas 23/3, Binnish, 24/3, Sarmin 26/3 and Idlib City 31/3) by interviewing eyewitnesses and collecting video footage and forensic evidence. All the attacks took place in territory controlled by the armed opposition groups and in the context of fighting for control of the city of Idlib. On March 18, the Jabhat al-Nusra and other armed opposition groups opened a major offensive against government forces in the city that culminated in its capture on March 28.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that it was not possible to conclusively determine what toxic chemicals were used but the witness accounts and the symptoms of the victims point in the direction of chlorine. Some symptoms of the victims could have been the result of exposure to refrigerants or to toxic gases that can result from the combustion of such refrigerants. Witnesses also reported on bottles with a red liquid that HRW has not been able to identify.
The HRW report was published just before the April 2 meeting of the UN Security Council where the toxic attacks in Syria were on the agenda. In its report HRW recommended to take decisive action to stop the use of toxic chemicals as a method of warfare and to establish responsibility for the attacks. It further recommended an OPCW fact-finding mission and an arms embargo on parties using such weapons. In a follow-up meeting on April 16, Syrian doctors who treated the victims of the attacks in March briefed the UN Security Council in a closed session about their experiences and showed video footage of the aftermath of one of the attacks. These meetings have put the UN Security Council under more international pressure to take steps against the Syrian regime and make a choice on an attribution mechanism that is not yet in use.
The alleged use of chlorine barrel bombs would be a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2209 and puts the council under pressure to take steps against the Syrian regime if its culpability can be proven. The permanent five members of the UN Security Council reportedly have privately discussed the prospects of establishing an investigation into the use of chlorine and possible ways to determine the culpability of the Assad regime. There is, however, no agreement on the best way to approach the problem of the attribution mechanism.
As the UN Security Council has been overwhelmed by the next crisis in Yemen, some observers fear that the issue will be put on the back burner. One observer made a comparison to developments in early 2013 when the international community ignored minor attacks that were subsequently followed by a big attack in August. A similar dynamic could happen again. Leaving the attacks in March without a response could motivate the Assad regime to escalate the attacks even further.
There have been proposals to impose a limited and temporary no fly zone over Idlib that would stop helicopters dropping barrel bombs from flying in the area. Some military observers have been optimistic about the feasibility of establishing such a no fly zone. Other observers, however, have argued that it would not make anyone safer and could even expand the war and lead to more deaths. No further decisive steps by the UN Security Council are to be expected before the OPCW presents the results of its fact-finding mission on the March attacks in Idlib and more clarity on an attribution mechanism.
Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus spreading along major bird migration flyways in Canada and the US
* Wild bird migration has brought the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus to Canada and the US affecting the poultry industry, especially turkey farms.
* Three highly pathogenic and one lesser pathogenic varieties of the virus have been identified and there are indications that new strains are emerging.
* Next fall and winter the most important production areas could be hit as the birds move down and the virus may spread along all four major flyways.
In November 2014, IB Consultancy reported on the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the Netherlands affecting the Dutch poultry industry. The outbreaks were most likely linked to wild bird migration patterns. It therefore was to be expected that new outbreaks would occur in other countries depending on the major flyways of infected wild birds.
In December 2014, the first outbreaks were reported in Canada and from there the virus spread to the United States where it hit turkey farms in particular. The HPAI virus has primarily infected flocks of so-called large toms, turkeys that are mainly used in ground meat products and animal feeds. The virus so far does not appear to be as deadly in chickens as it is in turkeys. In mid-April, however, the virus hit a commercial egg-laying facility in Iowa with the consequence that 5.3 million hens had to be culled.
The first outbreak in the US was in backyard flocks in Washington State, Oregon and Idaho. From there it spread to Arkansas, California, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and South Dakota. Farmers must destroy entire flocks to prevent the virus from spreading.
Four varieties of the virus have been identified in the US: the highly pathogenic strains H5N2, H5N8, H5N1 and the lesser pathogenic H7N3 strain. Only the H5N1 variety can be lethal to humans. Cases of H5N1 have been reported in sixteen countries and more than 429 people have died. According to American investigators the deadly H5 part of the virus is mingling with North American strains, resulting in new ‘mixed race’ viruses. Controlling the virus in poultry is key to reducing the risk of a human pandemic.
Although the overall effect of the HPAI virus on the turkey production has been relatively small (nearly one million birds culled on a total annual production of more than 240 million turkeys) it had an affect on the American export. The outbreaks prompted several foreign countries to ban or curb American poultry products. This happened while American agriculture was just recovering from the effects of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus that hit pig herds and killed over eight million pigs in more than thirty states since 2013.
It is still unclear why the current HPAI virus has not hit chickens in the US as much as it did in several other countries. Stepped up biosecurity measures by the chicken farmers after the first outbreak reports in Canada may have played a role. In mid April, however, the first outbreak was reported in an egg-laying facility in Iowa, which is a major egg producing state. As new strains of the HPAI virus are emerging it can’t be excluded that these new strains may also affect chicken farms in the coming period. Strict hygienic measures at the farms will remain necessary for the time being. The risk to humans to contract the HPAI virus is minimal as the number of H5N1 cases is small. As a preventive measure workers at poultry facilities are being monitored for infection. US federal guidelines stipulate that poultry workers responding to an outbreak of the HPAI virus should take antiviral medication to protect them from infection.
As wild bird migration has been found to be a major factor in the spreading of the HPAI virus, it is expected that new outbreaks are most likely to occur along the four major flyways in North America. Birds carrying the virus flying the Atlantic flyway could endanger flocks in North Carolina, the state producing the second-most turkeys in the US. That has not yet occurred. If the virus stays virulent and the birds start moving down next fall and winter, there is a risk that the virus can be spread along all four (the Atlantic, the Mississippi, the Central and the Pacific) flyways. Bird migration patterns are likely to become a major factor in planning new poultry farms.
Unsolved scientific dispute about health effects of low dose radiation
* In January the US House of Representatives passed a bill calling for a new road map for low-dose radiation research to find a science-backed reason to be used to change restrictive regulations on nuclear industries.
* The validity of the so-called Linear Non Threshold-model that has been used as a standard for decades has come under fire. Two major lines of research, epidemiological studies on very large cohorts and laboratory research, may result in findings that could solve the puzzle of low dose health risks.
* If accepted the new American bill may place scientific inquiry in the service of a deregulation agenda that could make people less safe-not more.
Seventy years after the use of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki scientists still don’t understand the health risks of radiation, especially the effects of low doses (anything below 100 mSv). In hundreds of research projects costing millions of dollars no definite answer has been found yet. Over the years a consensus emerged about the so-called Linear Non Threshold (LNT)-model that assumes that radiation at any dose is harmful. The model is used by regulatory bodies, both in the US and internationally. It offers a reasonably conservative guide for establishing standards. It is based on an estimate and it is assumed that eventually studies will pinpoint the exact effects of radiation at low doses. There are scientists believing that there is a threshold below which harm is either non-existent or of no consequence. There are also scientists believing that minor doses can have beneficial effects.
In the late 1970s the LNT-model was accepted and it remained a standard for several decades. During the 1990s scientists were finding new large populations to examine, groups that could fill in some of the gaps left by previous studies, like the well-known Life Span Study on the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These studies showed that even if low doses were spread over years, they did increase the risk of developing cancer. Currently epidemiological studies are being done in the US and Europe using the largest radiation cohorts ever. It could, however, take up to seven years before the outcomes of these investigations will be available. It is expected that these studies will provide a definite answer to the question about the health effects of low-dose radiation.
In the late 1990s new technologies became available that allowed for another method of studying low-dose radiation effects. Effects could now be studied in the laboratory at the human cell level. It was found that cells unaffected by radiation could have DNA damage in it, if it is near a cell that is affected by radiation. The outcome of these studies could be used to question the accuracy of the LNT-model. The research showed that the relationship between high and low dose risks is probably more complicated and that it is unclear what it means for human health. It is expected that the two lines of research, the epidemiological studies and the laboratory studies, have to be brought together to conclusively prove the risks of different radiation levels.
Recent research has also shown that the health effects of radiation on different age groups are unequal. Children tend to be more vulnerable to radiation. It is not known exactly how much more. According to the UN children could be up to three times more sensitive for some health effects. Radiation tends to concentrate in breast milk of mothers and will therefore have a high effect on infants. A WHO panel investigating the effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan found that infants were at the highest risk. Females exposed as infants have a 70 percent greater life-time risk of developing thyroid cancer. Researchers of the Fukushima Medical University already have detected increased rates of thyroid cancer in children.
Radiation standards have a huge impact on operating costs of several industries, government compensation programs and government cleanup, resettlement and evacuation programs. The new proposed American bill illustrates how policymakers under pressure by strong industrial lobbies try to use uncertainty to advance their own agendas. The abolishment of the LNT-model and the introduction of other standards could save millions of dollars for different industries and governments. They tend to be more concerned with cost differentials than differentials in human health. Industrial lobbies will try to influence government and change standards in their own interests irrespective of the health consequences for people exposed to low dose radiation. The US government will try to set standards that allow for cost reductions of clean-up operations and compensation programs.
It will take several years before the ongoing large American and European epidemiological research projects will come up with a definite answer to the question of the health effects of low dose radiation. In the mean time setting standards will become a societal, moral and ethical debate. More and more governments and industries will involve communities in debates to determine acceptable risks. While the industry tends to follow the flawed logic of what’s not proved to be dangerous should be assumed to be safe, the general public tends to be more risk-averse, thinking that what’s not proved safe should be assumed dangerous. Intense debates will determine how these two logics can be reconciled.
Proposal to abolish the launch on warning concept from current nuclear strategies
* The current nuclear chains of command in Russia and the United States are under increasing strain, making it more likely that a global catastrophe could be triggered on the basis of a false alert or deliberate manipulation.
* In the current situation nuclear decision-makers are confronted with more compressed timelines (in some cases ten to twenty minutes) making ill-considered decisions very real.
* The abolishment of the launch on warning concept from current nuclear strategies and the reinstitution of the military-to-military talks, would allow for stepping away from a very dangerous situation and would provide nuclear decision-makers with a safer time buffer.
In the previous IBC threat assessment attention was paid to the increasing risk of a nuclear exchange in the current climate of heated tensions and to politicians making irresponsible statements who do not understand the details of decision-making during a nuclear crisis. These are themes that will play a role in the upcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that the United Nations will host later in April.
One of the most dangerous aspects of the current strategic environment is the fact that we are still living with the nuclear strike doctrine of the Cold War, which provides for three strategic options: first strike, launch on warning and post-attack retaliation. As long as this nuclear architecture of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) remains in tact, there is no reason to believe that the major nuclear powers have discarded these options.
In a recent opinion piece in the International New York Times James a Cartwright (a former Marine Corps general, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commander of the United States Strategic Command, chairman of the Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction) and Vladimir Dvorkin (a retired major general, who headed the research institute of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces and a member of the commission) suggest to the presidents of Russia and the US in tandem to eliminate the launch on warning concept from their nuclear strategies and to reinstitute the military-to-military talks that were suspended during the Ukraine crisis. In their view a joint decision on this issue would not destabilize nuclear deterrence. An accord could be further reinforced if both countries refrained from conducting military exercises that involve practicing missile launches on information from early warning systems.
In their opinion article Cartwright and Dvorkin point at provocations and malfunctions that make the launch on warning option the riskiest scenario. The emergence of cyber warfare threats has increased the potential of false alerts and deliberate manipulation of early warning systems. Problems on the Russian side with early warning systems have made them look for alternatives that compress the time for decision-makers even further. The authors argue that the launch on warning puts enormous strain on the nuclear chains of command in both countries and allows for a risk of a cataclysmic error that could be eliminated.
Cartwright and Dvorkin rightfully point at the increasing dangers of the current nuclear architecture in Russia and the Unites States, two countries currently involved in proxy warfare in Ukraine that is likely to escalate further. The tense situation already has resulted in a situation in which military-to-military talks were suspended. The authors argue convincingly that a stand-down and a reinstitution of the military-to-military talks would not destabilize nuclear deterrence. Both countries would still have nuclear forces designed to withstand a first-strike attack, guaranteeing retaliatory strikes.
Their additional proposal to refrain from conducting military exercises that involve practicing missile launches based on information from early warning systems, is an illusion under the current circumstances. Russia and also the United States are already involved in an intensified series of exercises this year testing warning and launching systems. There are also indications that they are shifting their command centers to underground bunker systems. We live in very dangerous times and can only hope that decision-makers will make the right decisions. Hopefully a debate of the Cartwright/Dvorkin proposals during the upcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, will convince politicians of the necessity to create a safer time buffer for nuclear decision-making and reduce the risk of an accidental cataclysm.
European IED precursor chemicals regulation integrated in Dutch legislation
* In early April the Dutch government gave the green light for a draft law that would integrate European legislation on precursors for explosives into Dutch law.
* The 2014 EU regulation on the marketing and use of explosive precursors was the outflow of a EU action plan that was adopted in 2008. The future EU policy approach to the detection and mitigation of CBRNe-risks was formulated in May 2014.
* The greater difficulty in acquiring precursor chemicals to construct home-made explosives may motivate terrorist organizations to shift to different tactics like ax/knife attacks or shootings as suggested in jihadist internet magazines.
In September 2014, EU Regulation No.98/2013 on the marketing and use of explosive precursors entered into force with a view to enhancing protection of citizens from the threat of terrorism. EU member countries have to integrate this regulation into their own national legislations. The Dutch government has announced its intention to do so in early April.
The EU regulation was the outflow of a 2008 EU Action Plan on enhancing the security of explosives that consisted of a total of 48 different measures. The regulation establishes a tighter regulating regime for high-risk chemical explosive precursors, to reduce their accessibility to the general public (private individuals). The regulation also introduces the obligation for economic operators to report any suspicious transactions involving both the restricted precursors and other non-restricted substances that are also considered of concern. The regulation restricts the accessibility and use of seven dangerous substances by members of the general public. Member states may grant access by the public to these substances only through a system of licenses and registration. These substances and their limit values are: hydrogen peroxide (12%), nitro-methane (30%), nitric acid (3%), potassium chlorate (40%), potassium perchlorate (40%), sodium chlorate (40%) and sodium perchlorate (40%).
The current list is under continuous scrutiny and new substances can be added if needed. A Standing Committee on Precursors (SCP) looks into the risks of certain chemicals that are used to fabricate home-made explosives and can make suggestions to change the list. An expert working group consisting of representatives from national security institutions and EU bodies has been set up to deal with the specific issue of detecting explosives and their precursor chemicals. The group develops relevant detection scenarios to identify possible technology gaps. The future policy approach to improving the security of explosives is set out in the May 2014 Communication on a new EU approach to the detection and mitigation of CBRNe-risks.
The text of the Dutch legislation and the advice of the Council of State will become public after the draft law is submitted to Dutch parliament. The new legislation will not have a significant impact on the security situation. In advance to the new legislation many Dutch companies involved already took measures to reduce the availability of certain substances. Suspicious transactions were already reported to a special desk, which is a cooperative effort of the national police and the FIOD.
In the past years the majority of terrorist perpetrators have acquired or sought to acquire precursor chemicals legitimately through the supply chain, particularly by retail purchase. The ease of legitimate access to these chemicals remains therefore a key area of concern for law enforcement agencies. The deliberate use of precursor chemicals to make home-made explosives is not a prerogative of terrorists. Individuals or other groups, driven by various motivations, may be interested to cause damage with home-made explosives without a political purpose.
There is no consensus on the list of precursor chemicals and there can be variation between the lists of different countries. Some lists are more inclusive than others. Some countries have a system of up to four tiers of chemicals of concern that cover several hundred chemicals. These differences may be related to the popularity of specific types of IEDs in certain regions or countries. Terrorist organizations learn from each other and do share explosives expertise. Terrorist explosives experts in training camps sometimes teach representatives from different organizations, and contribute to the proliferation of specific bomb designs.
Constant monitoring of IED trends within different organizations and different countries is therefore necessary. The work of the SCP and the EU expert group remains of great importance. The greater difficulty in acquiring precursors for home-made explosives may not necessarily result in a reduction of terrorist attacks. It may motivate terrorist organizations to shift to different tactics. The most recent attacks in Europe have not been IED attacks but ax/knife and shooting attacks, inspired by internet magazines of various jihadist organizations.