This is the 18th issue of the feature called the IBC Threat Assessment (IBC-TA) that we initiated in November 2014. It is intended to inform our readers about ongoing and emerging CRBNe-threats that need the attention of policymakers, experts and ordinary citizens. If left unattended these threats may result in grave consequences for different sectors of our societies and/or the security of ordinary citizens. As the threat environment is constantly changing existing regulations, crisis plans or security protocols are often insufficient and in need of adaptation or review. Every TA will cover a threat for each CBRNe category. The TA’s are based on open sources.
Topics covered in this threat assessment:
- Intensified counterterrorism offensives may result in more chemical attacks in Syria and Iraq
- First local outbreak of mosquito transmitted Zika in Florida
- Weaknesses in US licensing system for low-level radioactive materials provide opportunities for terrorist organizations to assemble dirty bomb
- Failed coup attempt in Turkey forces US to reassess the security of its tactical nuclear weapons in Europe
- Syrian and Russian governments violate international humanitarian law by using thermobaric bombs in their military offensives in populated areas
The Threat Assessments are based on open sources. End date of collection: August 18, 2016
Intensified counterterrorism offensives may result in more chemical attacks in Syria and Iraq
- The Syrian regime reportedly continues to use chlorine attacks to sow terror among the civilian population as retaliation for military gains of the opposition.
- In Iraq Daesh is regularly using chemical attacks against the Peshmerga.
- In a period of intensified counterterrorism operations more chemical attacks can be expected either as punishment or as access denial method.
As counterterrorism operations in Syria and Iraq intensified over the last month, there have been new reports of the use of chemical weapons. In Syria suspected chlorine attacks have been reported in Saraqeb (August 2) and Aleppo (August 10) and in Iraq almost weekly attacks have been reported on the frontline near Mosul.
Since the UN Security Council resolution to destroy the chemical weapon stockpile in Syria, more than 70 regime attacks with chlorine have been reported by the Syrian American Medical Society. Most attacks have been relatively small with limited casualties. The timing of the attacks indicates that they might be used as reprisals against civilians in areas where rebels make military gains. The chlorine dissipates quickly which makes it difficult to trace the perpetrator.
While most attention in the media is focused on the barrel bombs thrown from regime helicopters, it should not be neglected that rebel forces also acquired chemical weapons. An interview with a Daesh operative indicates that a rebel coalition that captured a military base near the town of Darat Izza in December 2012 also acquired barrels filled with chlorine, sarin and mustard gas. Jabhat al-Nusra reportedly took these chemicals and transported the containers in cargo trucks to an unknown destination. Several months later chemical attacks were reported. A Daesh commander said that the organization had used chemicals in VBIED attacks on military checkpoints and military bases. A Dutch foreign fighter indicated on his blog that the organization had seized its chemical stockpiles from its opponents. There have been media reports about a Daesh R&D program for chemical weapons and even production facilities. Some of these facilities were hit in air strikes or attacked by coalition special forces, but open source damage assessments are unavailable.
Continued chemical weapon attacks in Syria and Iraq undermine the international trust in the Chemical Weapon Treaty and the authority of the OPCW. The Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) is still working on its report that is soon to be submitted to the UN Security Council. Even if the final JIM report identifies the Assad regime as perpetrator of the specific incidents it has investigated, it can be doubted whether this will have any effect given the strong support Assad currently has by several members of the Security Council.
With the expected military offensives against Mosul and Raqqa, the likelihood of more chemical attacks will increase in the coming months. In Syria the attacks may concentrate in areas where the opposition may gain territory and the regime wants to sow terror. In Iraq, Daesh may use more chemical attacks to deny access to the coalition forces that will try to recapture the city of Mosul or raise the costs of the offensive for the coalition. Even if recent special operations against storages and production facilities were successful it can be expected that Daesh still has sufficient means to cause extensive damage.
First local outbreak of mosquito transmitted Zika in Florida
- The further spread of the Zika virus has resulted in the first local outbreak in Florida while Puerto Rico declared a health emergency. The rising numbers of identified Zika cases in Europe are mostly travel related
- As US politicians were indecisive during the last year they are now forced to take countermeasures that could be more harmful than the effects of the virus itself
- Dynamic GIS mapping is useful for response planning and experts expect that local outbreaks in the US will most likely remain concentrated in Florida and Texas
As predicted in the previous threat assessment, the Zika virus is further spreading and
affecting the US and Europe. In Florida the first cases of mosquito transmitted Zika have been identified. Nearly two thousand travel-related cases were identified in the past month while more than 30 cases were contracted locally. In Puerto Rico a health emergency was declared to raise more funds to counter the virus. Over ten thousand people in Puerto Rico are affected by the virus, including more than thousand pregnant women. In August, several more European countries identified Zika cases but these were mostly travel related.
As the Zika virus spreads further, Florida officials have ordered the spraying of mosquitoes with Naled, an organophosphate pesticide. Critics stated that exposure to this type of pesticide has been associated with developmental delay and autism. The method may therefore cause more harm than the Zika virus itself.
Over the past months US politicians were unable to reach agreement on a bill to fund measures to counter Zika. Only when lawmakers return from summer recess decisions can be made on federal funds to combat the virus. According to critics the indecisiveness of the politicians may be due to the fact that the Zika virus primarily affects poor people who have no political power.
The Department of Health & Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, is using GIS mapping as a tool to both track the spread of Zika and predict where it might cause the most damage in the future. This is very helpful in the response planning. It is estimated that in 2016 at least one of the two mosquito species (Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus) will be present in all but nine states of the US. In addition to being vectors for Zika, both of these mosquitoes can also infect people with the viruses that cause dengue fever, chikungunya and yellow fever. Due to weather patterns that determine breeding conditions for the mosquitoes, it is unlikely that the Zika virus will begin to spread locally in many other places in the US, other than Florida and Texas. In Florida the active transmission of the Zika virus is currently limited to a less than square mile of northern Miami, called Wynwood.
During the past months politicians in the US have wasted important time to figure out how to handle Zika. If they do not respond to the spread of the Zika virus more quickly and effectively, the US may risk a full-blown epidemic. The development of dynamic GIS maps to track the spread of Zika and predict where it may cause the most damage, is an important tool to prepare response plans, set up testing programs and target funding. While the two mosquito species that are vectors of several viruses including Zika have a presence in most of the states of the US, weather patterns that determine their breeding conditions indicate that local outbreaks of the Zika virus are most likely in Florida and Texas.
Weaknesses in US licensing system for low-level radioactive materials provide opportunities for terrorist organizations to assemble a dirty bomb
- An experiment has illustrated that the current US licensing system for low-level radioactive materials is vulnerable to terrorist exploitation
- By setting up a fake shell company and manipulating licenses it is possible to acquire sufficient radioactive material to locally assemble a dirty bomb
- To keep low-level radioactive materials out of terrorist hands it is necessary that regulating agencies implement the GAO recommendations as soon as possible
To find out whether weaknesses in the US licensing system for low-level radioactive materials still exists, the General Accounting Office (GAO) organized an experiment. The weaknesses in the licensing system were identified in 2007. An experiment was done by setting up a fake shell company that ordered low-level radioactive materials online that could be used to assemble a dirty bomb. In the US alone there are 21,000 active licenses for the purchase of these materials. In some cases, these active licenses were viewed by regulators only once a decade. Following the 2007 experiment, the regulatory agencies had promised to get their act together and close the gaps in the system.
The GAO report on the outcome of the recent experiment showed that the gaps still exist. The GAO concluded that if the purchases that were set in motion by the shell company had been completed, it would have been possible to acquire sufficient low-level radiological material to create a bomb that a terrorist organization like Daesh or al-Qa’ida may seek. In the report the GAO does not name the states involved and does not identify the precise materials that were improperly ordered. It concluded that the regulating agencies were not doing enough to keep such materials out of terrorist hands. The GAO wants the regulators to block license alterations and track sales and shipments of lower-level radiological materials, using measures like those already in place for the sale of more hazardous fissile materials.
Radioactive materials considered useful in a dirty bomb are widely present in the US and in international commerce. They are used legitimately for medical and industrial purposes.
While the direct effect of a dirty bomb attack may be limited in casualties, the economic and psychological effects may be severe. The cleaning up operation would be very costly and could take a long time. According to one estimate the economic harm of a dirty bomb attack in a business district of a major city could exceed $ 250 billion.
Over the last months there has been consistent reporting on the threat of a dirty bomb attack. Daesh and al-Qa’ida are mentioned as terrorist organizations that reportedly have the ambition, skills and resources to organize a dirty bomb attack. Due to this threat, security officials of the Rio Olympics borrowed state of the art radiation monitoring equipment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
It is a bad sign that the gaps in the US licensing system for low-level radioactive materials, that were already identified in 2007, apparently still exist. Many efforts to counter a dirty bomb attack are based on the assumption that such a bomb will be imported from abroad. The recent GAO experiment shows that this could be a false assumption and that a skillful and resourceful terrorist organization can exploit existing gaps in the licensing system and acquire all the necessary materials. A dirty bomb does not have to be imported. It can be assembled locally with the materials acquired by setting up a fake shell company. To keep these materials out of terrorist hands, it is of utmost importance that the US regulating agencies implement the GAO recommendations, including a foolproof tracking system for sales and shipments.
Failed coup attempt in Turkey forces US to reassess the security of its tactical nuclear weapons in Europe
- Against the background of deteriorating relations between Washington and Ankara following the July coup attempt, the security of US tactical weapons in Europe has become an issue again
- A possible transfer of the nuclear weapons from the Turkish Incirlik Air Base to the Romanian Deverelu Air Base may not only pose technical challenges, but also result in worsening relations with Russia.
- As the tactical nuclear weapons have zero utility on the European battlefield it can be argued that their total removal from Europe would result in significant savings that could be used to bolster conventional forces.
During the coup attempt in Turkey in July, the electrical power to the Incirlik air base was cut and the Turkish government prohibited US aircraft from flying in and out. Eventually, the base commander was arrested and implicated in the coup attempt. The events triggered a renewed debate about the security of some 50 US tactical nuclear weapons that are stored at the Incirlik air base. Questions were raised whether the US could have maintained control of the weapons in the event of a protracted civil conflict in Turkey.
Against the background of worsening relations between Washington and Ankara there have been unconfirmed media reports indicating that the US may be in the process of transferring the tactical nuclear weapons to the Deverelu air base in Romania. Such a transfer not only poses tough technical challenges but may also infuriate Russia.
In mid-August the American Stimson Center issued a report on the B61 Life Extension Program. The US plans to extend the service lives of an estimated 480 of the approximately 800 total B61 bombs at a projected total cost of more than $8 billion. About 180 of the tactical versions of the B61 remain at six bases in Europe, including 50 at the Turkish Incirlik Air Base. It is argued that these bombs have zero-utility on the European battlefield and are more of a liability than asset to NATO countries. The Stimson center recommends the immediate removal of all B61 nuclear weapons from Europe and cancelling the procurement of B61s that would be stored in Europe. The financial savings could be used to bolster US conventional forces.
A possible transfer of the American tactical nuclear weapons would be challenging in technical and political terms. The stationing of US nuclear weapons close to Russia’s borders is likely to trigger a strong reaction from Russia. The reports about a possible transfer have been strongly denied by the Romanian foreign ministry. The presence of US nuclear weapons on European soil has never been officially confirmed. It is, however, public knowledge that Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and Italy host US nuclear weapons. These countries reportedly were upgrading the storage sites to American safety standards, for a possible replacement of the B61-11 by the B61-12.
The report of the Stimson Center questions the utility of this upgrade and argues that a total removal of the B61s from Europe could result in significant savings that could be used to bolster US conventional forces. The removal of the tactical nuclear bombs from the six military bases in Europe would also solve a number of difficult security issues and deny terrorist organizations of several attractive targets for attack.
Syrian and Russian governments violate international humanitarian law by using thermobaric bombs in their military offensives in populated areas
- Syria and Russia have both been accused of the use of thermobaric bombs against rebel forces in populated areas.
- It can be argued that the use of this type of bombs is disproportionate to the threat the civilians in these areas pose to the Assad regime, thereby violating international humanitarian law.
- The May monthly report of the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) clearly shows that the tactic of warplane shelling causes the highest number of civilian casualties.
The Syrian and Russian governments have both been accused of using thermobaric bombs against rebel forces in populated areas. Due to the characteristics of these bombs civilians are just as likely to be affected as combatants. According to international humanitarian law, the presence of fighters or soldiers within the civilian population ‘does not deprive the population of its civilian character.’ The use of thermobaric bombs in cities like Aleppo is disproportionate to any threat the civilians pose to the Assad regime. By using this type of bombs the distinction between civilian areas and the battlefield has disappeared.
Thermobaric bombs use different combinations of heat and pressure to produce different high explosive effects. By combining two blasts all oxygen is used up in the surrounding air creating a vacuum that can be powerful enough to rupture the lungs and eardrums of anyone nearby.
The Violations Documentation center (VDC) collects data on the use of different types of weapons in the Syrian conflict and their consequences. It issues monthly statistical reports summarizing trends. The latest report on May clearly shows that the tactic of war plane shelling causes the highest number of civilian casualties. During May 745 civilians were killed with this tactic while only 19 non-civilians were killed. Any claim that only fighters are being targeted in these bombings is dishonest and inaccurate. The report does not make a distinction between different types of bombs delivered by war planes. It is therefore impossible to determine how many casualties were caused by thermobaric bombs.
The use of thermobaric bombs in populated areas can be seen as a tactic that disproportionately affects civilians and violates international humanitarian law. As the military struggle is again intensifying there is currently no way to stop Syria and Russia from using this tactic. Until some form of brokered peace is achieved, with distasteful necessary accommodations, the suffering of the Syrian civilian population in major cities is likely to continue. At the time of writing a greater political willingness is developing to initiate temporary cease-fires to allow humanitarian organizations to provide aid to entrapped civilians.