This is the 22nd issue of the feature called the IBC Threat Assessment (IBC-TA) that was 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 issue:
- Samples and documentation about renewed chemical attacks in Syria will soon be handed over by the Syrian government to the OPCW
- Expanding wave of outbreaks of avian influenza in Europe (H5N8) and Southeast Asia (H5N6) getting worse
- New UN General Assembly resolution on depleted uranium (DU) weapons puts pressure on countries still using them
- Global Incidents & Trafficking Database useful tool to reduce nuclear security risks
- Mossad hit team conducts targeted killing of Hamas drone expert in Tunisia
End date of collection: December 20, 2016
Samples and documentation about renewed chemical attacks in Syria will soon be handed over by the Syrian government to the OPCW
- Over the last months new alleged chemical attacks by non-state actors and by the Syrian government have been reported in Syria.
- Russian experts were deployed to collect samples and documentation about attacks by non-state actors that will be handed over by the Syrian government to the OPCW.
- While the Syrian government denies its own involvement in chemical attacks, the OPCW continues to examine any credible report it receives about chemical attacks in Syria.
In previous threat assessments it was concluded that the likelihood of new chemical attacks in Syria would rise as the conflict would further escalate. That has occurred in the past months, especially near Aleppo and Palmyra. The Syrian government and non-state actors reportedly were involved in renewed chemical attacks.
In late October, neighborhoods in western Aleppo were shelled with grenades that contained chemical substances. An unexploded projectile was found in the village of Ma’arat Umm Hawsh in northern Aleppo. It contained up to 1.5 liters of an unknown black oily liquid. The projectile was securely sealed and brought to a specialized Russian military laboratory accredited by the OPCW, for further investigation. The attack left almost 40 people injured and the victims described symptoms that one would expect following a mustard gas attack.
In late October, munitions were dropped from helicopters on al-Lataminah, al-Rashedeen and al-Hamdaniyah. Some of the munitions may have contained chlorine. A Bellingcat investigation found that the tactics used was consistent with earlier attacks that were investigated by the OPCW and the UN.
In late November, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported barrel bomb attacks east of Aleppo. The bombs allegedly contained chlorine. No detailed casualty figures were available.
In December, the Aamaq newsagency that is linked to Daesh, reported an alleged chemical attack that killed 20 people and injured 200 others. The attack took place during retaliatory airstrikes following the re-occupation of Palmyra by Daesh. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claimed that 34 people had been killed, including eleven children and eight women.
The danger in the battle zones complicates the work of OPCW investigators. That is one of the reasons that Russian experts are currently the only ones available to make first assessments and collect samples and other documentation. It has been officially announced that these samples and documentation will soon be handed over by the Syrian government to the OPCW for an independent investigation. The outcome of this investigation is expected in January 2017 or even later. The material concerns mainly information related to attacks by non-state actors.
The Syrian government continues to deny its own involvement in attacks with barrel bombs containing chlorine. Documentation and samples from these attacks are mainly collected by local groups. Findings by citizen investigative groups indicate that the government tactics of throwing barrel bombs from helicopters is consistent with earlier investigations by the OPCW and UN.
Expanding wave of outbreaks of avian influenza in Europe (H5N8) and Southeast Asia (H5N6) getting worse
- Since the first discovery of the H5N8 strain of avian influenza in Siberia the virus has spread to Europe and to Southeast Asia and is currently affecting nearly twenty countries.
- While Europe is mainly affected by the H5N8 strain, Southeast Asia is affected by the H5N6 strain.
- This year the wave of outbreaks has been more significant than last year, despite the timely warnings and preventive measures, and could get worse as infected birds migrate further southwards and affect other countries.
In the October threat assessment IBC warned for new outbreaks of avian influenza following proof of an association with bird migration patterns. As the first strain of the H5N8 was discovered in June in Siberia, it could be expected that the virus would spread along the flyways of migratory birds to Europe and Southeast Asia.
Currently the following countries have been affected: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Israel, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom. Farmers keeping ducks, geese, broiler hens and turkeys have been affected. Several countries were forced to start extensive culling procedures. In South Korea already 20 million birds have been culled which is more than a fifth of the poultry population. The culling and other safety measures may have a significant impact on local poultry markets. But also exports may be endangered as several countries introduced import bans for poultry products from affected countries.
Thus far the H5N8 strain of the virus has not affected humans. In the past the H5N1 and H7N9 strains did affect humans and caused deaths. Experts do have a concern that the virus could mutate into strains that could affect humans and eventually could cause a global pandemic. This usually starts when a virus jumps to other animals, e.g. cats or pigs, and then to humans. Recently, the strain of H7N2 was found in the US, spreading among cats. In order to be prepared for the event of a jump from animals to humans a clinical study has begun at Saint Louis University to develop an investigational vaccine designed to protect against the new A/H5N8 strain.
The current wave of outbreaks of avian influenza appears to be worse than last year and has an impact on national and international poultry markets. Several countries did learn from the last time and established funds to assist affected farmers to repopulate their farms and recover from their losses.
Health agencies maintain that the virus is still predominantly a bird virus without any specific affinity for humans. Experts are concerned that the virus could mutate to infect humans. The development of an investigational vaccine is a useful measure to raise the level of preparedness for the eventuality of an epidemic or even a pandemic caused by a lethal strain of avian influenza for humans.
New UN General Assembly resolution on depleted uranium (DU) weapons puts pressure on countries still using them
- Early December 151 countries voted for a new UNGA resolution on depleted uranium (DU) weapons
- The provision of detailed information on target areas and quantities used by the countries using DU in their military operations is a first necessity for an assessment of the problem and the organization of clearance operations
- As the current resolution still doesn’t contain a formal obligation to provide this information, target countries remain dependent on the willingness of user countries to provide details on their military operations.
Depleted uranium (DU) is mainly used in solid slugs or penetrators in armour-piercing projectiles because of its density. DU is pyrophoric, so that upon its impact about 30 percent of the projectile atomizes and burns to uranium oxide dust. This can be a health hazard if ingested or inhaled in significant quantities. DU was widely used in the 1990/91 Gulf War and the 1998/99 Kosovo war. It is alleged that DU may be used in the current air operations of the international coalition in Syria and Iraq. In November the US finally admitted that it had used DU in its operations in Syria. CENTCOM acknowledged that it had used the equivalent of 1524 kg of DU during two operations in November 2015. A study on the use of DU in Iraq by the US found that more than half of the DU fired by the US is still unaccounted for. The refusal to release more detailed data to UN agencies is hampering post-conflict assessments and clearance operations.
In a second vote 151 countries voted early December for a new resolution on depleted uranium weapons. This recognizes the ongoing concern for the health risks from DU. The US, UK, France and Israel, voted against the resolution. These are exactly the countries that are suspected of using DU in their military operations and provide incomplete and insufficient information about target areas and quantities used. Detailed information about target areas and quantities used is a first requirement for the assessment of the problem and the organization of clearance operations.
The toxic and hazardous remnants of war were on the agenda of UNGA’s 6th committee that deals with the legal principles that govern the protection of the environment after armed conflict. Some of the principles discussed in this committee could have ramifications for the development of post-conflict obligations for DU clearance.
Over the years a growing international consensus has emerged about the fact that the use of DU in munitions in military operations is no longer acceptable. The US has been struggling with this position and wants to have an escape route under certain conditions. With the new resolution the international pressure can be maintained on countries seeking escapes. This pressure can also be used to force countries to come forward with additional and more detailed information about previous military campaigns. This information can be used to organize more effective clearance operations aimed at minimizing negative health effects.
Global Incidents & Trafficking Database useful tool to reduce nuclear security risks
- In 2015 there were 188 incidents of nuclear or other radioactive materials outside of regulatory control. Eight of them involved nuclear materials but none involved weapons-usable nuclear material.
- The majority of the incidents were the result of opaque reporting, lax physical security and human negligence.
- Nuclear security could be significantly improved by focusing more on end-user training and other capacity-building efforts to address these problems.
Four years ago the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies (CNS) established a database on Global Incidents & Trafficking as a resource to assess the nature and scope of nuclear security risks. The incidents included in the database are incidents where nuclear or other radioactive materials have gone out of regulatory control anywhere in the world. Every year CNS issues an annual report with an analysis of the incidents that were added to the database. Up to July 2016 the database contains 514 incidents. Each incident is broken down to 21 descriptive categories.
The latest annual report covering the year 2015 identified 188 incidents from 26 countries. Only eight cases involved nuclear materials (uranium thorium and plutonium beryllium) and in all eight cases the material was recovered. There were two Category 1 cases (posing the greatest danger to human health) and seven Category 2 cases (very dangerous materials). The majority of the incidents captured in the database involve sources used for medical or industrial applications.
Analysis of the 2015 incidents showed that in over half of the incidents negligence played a major role. Also lax physical security and opaque reporting were major factors in losing control over nuclear and/or radiological sources. Genuine trafficking incidents remain rare. Thieves targeting expensive-looking equipment remain much more common than smugglers or terrorists. During 2015 there were three cases of trafficking. One involved the trafficking of radiological material to Daesh for a dirty bomb. All three cases ended in arrest.
The CNS database is an important tool to better analyze long-term trends. It allows researchers to assess the impact of new policies designed to reduce nuclear security risks posed by materials out of regulatory control. From the latest annual report it can be learned that benefits can be gained at reasonable costs by focusing on areas like end-user training and several capacity-building efforts to address the issues of standard reporting, better physical security and more effective implementation of existing standards.
Mossad hit team conducts targeted killing of Hamas drone expert in Tunisia
- On December 17, a professional hit team organized by the Israeli Mossad eliminated Hamas drone expert Mohammed al-Zawahri (49) in the Tunisian town of Sfax.
- As he had been a longtime member of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military branch of Hamas, and headed a UAV program, a retaliatory attack by Hamas against Israel can be expected.
- The threat of the use of drones for terrorist purposes is a rising concern as regulation is lacking and effective countermeasures are not yet available.
On December 17, Mohammed al-Zawahri (49) was killed in the Tunisian town of Sfax by a Mossad hit team consisting of eight nationals from several European countries. He was shot at close range by several bullets, including three through the head, as he tried to enter his car following an arranged interview that probably was part of the plot. He had been a longtime member of the military branch of Hamas and headed the UAV department. His professional career started as a pilot for Tunisair and head of the civil aviation organization in Tunisia. He also trained youth in flying drones and was credited with a number of innovations in drone technology. He had lived in Lebanon and Syria and had close contacts with a Hezbollah weapons expert who was assassinated by Israel several years ago.
The Israeli targeted killing of a drone expert of a terrorist organization is an illustration of the rising concern among terrorism experts about the growing danger of the use of drones for terrorist purposes. On December 16, Matthew Hughes gave a presentation on the threat of drone attacks by lone wolves in the United States. In January 2015, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had hosted the first conference on the terrorist applications of drones and the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) working group on drones has grown from four to 65 members. The use of drones for terrorist purposes has a number of advantages. They can be used to bypass existing security measures. They can be used as a standoff weapon and are not easy to detect. The probability of interdiction is low and it is easy to achieve proximity to a potential target. Hughes gave an overview of the current defense measures against drones. The text of his presentation will be available in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Global Security and Intelligence.
Terrorist attacks with drones are feasible and it is an evolving threat for which no effective defense measures are available yet. Huge investments are currently being made to develop more effective countermeasures. It will however take time before these new measures can be introduced. Regulation of the use of drones is also still in development and often delayed due to slow bureaucratic procedures. In the mean time, lone wolves and/or terrorist organizations have the opportunity to experiment with the drones that are currently available and/or adapt them for their own purposes.
The killing of drone experts of terrorist organizations will only cause a temporary delay in the coming developments and will not prevent lone wolves from conducting attacks. It is just a matter of time before the small and harmless incidents we have seen until now will be replaced by bigger and more lethal incidents. Future drones will become cheaper and will have higher payloads. They are also expected to have longer ranges and longer flight times. These beneficial factors will be exploited by terrorists to develop new innovative attack scenarios, resulting in higher threat levels.