This month’s Threat Assessment includes:
- Impending third phase of Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) will focus on five specific chemical attacks (four chlorine attacks, one mustard gas attack)
- Uncertainties about the size and nature of North Korea’s biological weapon program
- Fifth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster will be a day of global action to raise awareness about the environmental and political costs
- North Korean tests of ‘hydrogen bomb’ and satellite rocket trigger new sanctions and other counter measures
- Collapse of peace process creates political vacuum that can be exploited by jihadist groups pledging allegiance to Daesh
The Threat Assessments are based on open sources. End date of collection: February 17, 2016.
Impending third phase of Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) will focus on five specific chemical attacks (four chlorine attacks, one mustard gas attack)
On February 12, the first report of Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) was submitted to the UN Security Council. The report provides an overview of the work of the JIM to date, the sources of the information available to the mechanism, and the methodology behind the investigation. The UN Security Council is scheduled to discuss the report on February 22.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) collected information on 116 alleged incidents of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Of these incidents 29 incidents occurring in the period of April 2014 to August 2015, were further investigated.
According to the plan, the next stage of the investigation will begin in March and will focus on five specific cases, four chlorine gas attacks and one mustard gas attack. During this stage the focus will be on an in-depth analysis of these cases, field visits, witness interviews and obtaining information from relevant UN member states and others. This stage will continue until sufficient evidence is gathered to enable it to report its findings to the UN Security Council.
In February the OPCW reported that it had found evidence of the use of sarin in the Daraya suburb of Damascus in Syria. The incident occurred on February 15, 2015, near the Shrine of Sukayna, where government soldiers reported a strange smell and began exhibiting symptoms consistent with sarin gas. The blood samples analysis indicated that four individuals were at some point exposed to sarin gas or a sarin-like substance. The blood samples were linked to casualties through DNA analysis testing, and followed up with interviews with victims. It was however impossible to determine the exact date of exposure and when the samples were drawn. The soldiers who were under fire from various weapons were unable to determine what kind of device was used to disperse the gas.
An American threat assessment issued in February contains confirmation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq. It said that the OPCW Fact-finding Missions had concluded that chlorine had been used on the Syrian opposition forces in multiple incidents in 2014 and 2015. It also said that non-state actors in the region are also using chemicals as a means of warfare. American intelligence agencies track numerous allegations of the use by Daesh of chemicals in attacks in Iraq and Syria, suggesting that attacks might be widespread.
Following the congressional hearing on the worldwide threat assessment, John Brennan, the director of the CIA, warned of the possibility that Daesh could seek to export chemical weapons to the West. He also commented on a number of instances where Daesh used chemical munitions on the battlefield. In mid-February the OPCW confirmed the use of mustard gas by Daesh against the Kurds in August 2015 near the town of Makhmour.
With the impending beginning of the third phase of the JIM investigation, the investigations will focus on five specific incidents in the coming months. The selection of cases shows that the main focus will be on Syrian government involvement. Under current war conditions the JIM will have to overcome major challenges in executing field visits and interviews and collect information. According to the mandate the investigation can be prolonged as long as necessary until sufficient evidence has been collected.
Media and intelligence reporting indicate that the use of chemicals on the battlefield continues, not only in Syria but also in Iraq. While American intelligence officials maintain that they keep track of non-state actors using chemical weapons and take action when necessary, it is an ominous sign that warnings are given that chemical weapons may be exported to the West. Current reporting contains very little information on the origin of the chemical weapons leaving open several options.
Uncertainties about the size and nature of North Korea’s biological weapon program
While there has been a lot of attention for North Korea’s nuclear capabilities lately, far less is known about its biological capabilities. Little is known with certainty about the biological weapons that North Korea has developed, which of these agents it has weaponized and how the current regime would use them. A biological weapons program is easy to hide and can be developed in a university setting or hidden within efforts to develop vaccines. Current knowledge is largely based on indirect inferences creating substantial uncertainties.
An institute that may play a role in North Korea’s biological weapon program is the Pyongyang Biotechnical Institute. This institute reportedly can produce regular, military sized batches of bioweapons, specifically anthrax. North Korea maintains, however, that the institute is intended to produce insecticides. This is a common well-used cover for a biological weapon program. Video footage of the institute shows modern equipment indicating that North Korea violated export control laws based on the dual-use control lists of the Australia group. It is assumed that a Swiss branch of an international non-governmental organization provided training and basic equipment to North Korea that may have inadvertently contributed to North Korea’s ability to produce biological weapons. A pilot facility for the production of Bt insecticide may have been a training ground in preparation for the construction and operation of a larger-scale facility.
In an American congressional hearing in 2013, a list of about twenty viruses was presented that North Korea may possess and use for experiments. Among others, the list included anthrax, botulinum, brucellosis and dengue fever. During the hearing speculations were made under which circumstances North Korea would use biological weapons and which methods it would use to deliver them. Also three recommendations were formulated related to the detection, attribution and consequence management of a possible use of a bioweapon by North Korea against South Korea.
Since the 2013 hearing there have been several reports about US forces in South Korea experimenting with anthrax and plague bacteria. The anthrax and bubonic plague samples were shipped to South Korea and tested at the Yongsan garrison in Seoul. In June 2015, North Korea complained in a letter to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon about American biological warfare schemes targeting North Korea and demanded an investigation by the UN Security Council.
In June 2015, a North Korean expert on biological weapons defected to the West, carrying 15 gigabytes of information on human experiments in order to bring North Korea’s inhumane tests to light. The defector alleged that he had worked at a microbiology research center in Ganggye Chagang province. In 2014 another North Korean defector to the West had come forward and stated how the North Korean regime had tested chemical and biological weapons on children and adults.
While there have been no proven North Korean uses of biological weapons against South Korea, North Korea may have experimented with small amounts of endemic biological agents like dysentery, to assess South Korea’s ability to detect biological agents use and manage the consequences of that use.
In February, South Korean intelligence warned that North Korea had stepped up its biological and chemical warfare drills, carrying out at least a dozen large-scale exercises in the previous twelve months. It also warned that the North Korean leader had ordered the Reconnaisance General Bureau, a specialized military unit for intelligence operations in foreign countries and cyberwarfare, to prepare terrorist attacks, including the use poisons, against the south.
While it is clear that North Korea has circumvented existing control regimes to acquire equipment that can be used to develop a biological weapon program, there are many uncertainties about the exact size and nature of the program. The information provided by defectors may have contributed to a better insight into North Korea’s motivations and capabilities, it also brings back memories of an Iraqi defector, code-named Curveball, who provided the West with information about Saddam Hussein’s biological weapon program. His information was used to justify the military operation against Iraq. Later the information provided by Curveball was proven to be false.
In extremely tense situations false flag operations may trigger military reactions. It can not be excluded that a biological false flag operation in South Korea that will be attributed to North Korea, could be used as a justification for military action against North Korea. Over the past years and months intelligence agencies and media have contributed to the conditions that would make a false flag more likely.
Fifth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster will be a day of global action to raise awareness about the environmental and political costs
Five years after the disaster the Japanese authorities are still faced by enormous problems related to the clean-up operation and the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Critics have emphasized that it was only due to luck that the incident was not far more serious. Some believe that it could have resulted in the forced evacuation of 50 million people. The majority of the 200,000 people that were forced to evacuate their home due to the disaster will most likely never go home.
The removal of some 1,500 spent fuel rods from storage pools, starting as early as fiscal year 2017, will be a principle task for the near term.
Equipment has been installed to prevent ground water from flooding the reactor buildings. The amount of water flowing into the reactors has been significantly reduced. The plant houses about 1,000 tanks holding 600,000 tons of treated water. Even after a decontamination process, the water still contains radioactive tritium. A way to dispose of the water has yet to be found.
Large quantities of radioactive water from Fukushima entered the Pacific Ocean. The total amount of radioactive material released from Fukushima is constantly increasing and steadily building up in the food chain.
The black bags of radioactive soil scattered over many locations across Fukushima are eventually to be moved to yet-to-be built interim facilities in two towns close to the nuclear plant. The temporary storage sites are to hold the contaminated material for more than 30 years before it is processed at a different location that has yet to be named. An estimated 13 million cubic meters of toxic soil is yet to be collected.
The amount of radiation in an 80-kilometer radius surrounding the nuclear plant has decreased significantly according to official measurements. Radiation levels outside the evacuation zone reportedly are back to normal. The population often distrusts official reports. The disaster has triggered a citizen-science network dedicated to the measurement and distribution of accurate levels of radiation in and around Fukushima. The Safecast network is an open source network that allows everyday people to contribute to radiation-monitoring.
The current Japanese government has decided to raise the ratio of electricity produced by nuclear energy to 20-22 percent of the nation’s total output by 2030. This goal will be hard to achieve unless Japan extends the maximum legal period of reactor operations or builds a new nuclear plant. Three reactors have been reactivated since new safety standards were put into place.
The day of global action on March 11 will raise awareness about the environmental and political damage of the Fukushima disaster. While the government will try to present an image that the situation is slowly returning to normal activists will show that the situation is still unfolding and actually is getting worse. The Japanese government takes a risk by ignoring its population and to continue with an energy policy that will remain dependent on a high percentage of nuclear energy. It still holds the view that nuclear energy is safe, cheap and stable, even after the disaster. As the authorities delay necessary long-term decisions about the clean-up operation critics doubt whether Fukushima can ever be adequately decontaminated.
North Korean tests of ‘hydrogen bomb’ and satellite rocket trigger new sanctions and other counter measures
North Korea went forward with a fourth nuclear test on January 6, followed by a long-range rocket launch on February 7, despite a UN resolution prohibiting such action. The rocket is believed to be part of a program to develop intercontinental ballistic missile technologies. The satellite put into orbit weighed about 440 pounds, twice that of the one it launched in 2012.
The January nuclear test was claimed to be a successful test of a ‘hydrogen bomb’. Experts and intelligence assessments indicate that the low yield of the test was not consistent with a successful test of a thermonuclear device.
North Korea has expanded its Yongbyon enrichment facility and restarted the plutonium production reactor. It has been operating the reactor long enough so that it could begin to recover plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel within a matter of weeks or months. North Korea already has enough fissile material for at least 18 nuclear weapons and may expand its capacity to make six to seven more bombs annually. The current regime is unwilling to subject itself to IAEA inspections and physically and verifiably dismantle critical nuclear infrastructure. Pyongyang’s efforts to develop road-mobile ICBMs and a submarine-launched ballistic missile highlight its commitment to diversify its missile forces and nuclear delivery options.
In response to the recent North Korean tests the United States has announced measures to tighten sanctions against anyone who imports goods related to weapons of mass destruction into North Korea, or someone who knowingly engaged in human rights abuses.
It can be questioned whether the new sanctions announced against North Korea will deter the regime from continuing with its development of miniature nuclear warheads and the long-range missiles that would carry these warheads. This is a natural process all nuclear powers went through with the aim to expand and diversify their options.
The recent North Korean steps underline that the efforts to deter the regime through dialogue did not work. The nuclear program is seen as an ‘insurance policy’ and continued testing is a way of demonstrating independence of action. The more isolated the regime is and the more it is driven into a corner, the more it is likely that it will resort to provocations and shows of strength. The creation of a Northeast Asian Security Dialogue Mechanism (NEASDM) could contribute to trust building to reduce the risk of unwanted escalation.
The latest North Korean moves will strengthen the US call for a more vigorous missile defense for its allies in the region. The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) will be resisted by China as it is perceived as a US tool to interfere with China’s defenses and to contain China. China is unlikely to support stronger sanctions as its interest is to keep a minimum degree of stability, and to keep North Korea as a friend.
Putting a satellite into orbit does not quarantee an ability to deliver a nuclear warhead on an ICBM. It remains uncertain whether North Korea is capable to build a warhead small enough to mount on a long-range missile.
Collapse of peace process creates political vacuum that can be exploited by jihadist groups pledging allegiance to Daesh
Following the beheading of a Malaysian hostage the Philippine army stepped up its offensive against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) on the island of Basilan. In December 2015, the army succeeded in destroying a bunker complex in a remote village that could accommodate 250 people. During the operation 26 ASG fighters were killed including Malaysian explosives expert, Mohammed Najib bin Hussein (aka Abu Anas).
Following a lengthy period of consultations the Philippine legislature failed to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which would establish a new autonomous Muslim-majority political entity in Mindanao. A growing number of legislators withdrew their support for the legal foundation of the peace process following the Mamasapano tragedy, a failed counterterrorist operation in which 44 special forces were killed. Both the government and the MILF leadership share the concern over the potential spread of radicalism amid the deadlock in the peace process as there is little guarantee that a successor government will build on recent gains and find a mutually acceptable agreement with the MILF leadership which favored negotiations over war.
From 2013 to the present Mindanao has seen the rise of the Black Flag movement with new groups like Khalifah Islamiyah Mindanao, Ansar Khalifah Philippines, Katibat Ansar al Sharia, Katibat Marakah al-Ansar, that have pledged allegiance to Daesh. Although Daesh has officially recognized the pledges from the Philippine groups it has not yet established a ‘wilayat’ (province) for the Philippines or the wider Southeast Asian region.
The older jihadist groups in the Philippines like Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) were affiliated with al-Qa’ida. There are strong indications that sections of these older groups are defecting to Daesh. Defectors from JI established a new splinter group with the name Jemaah Ansharusy Syariah. In the past month the Philippine army continued operations against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a more radical splinter group of the MILF.
Following the collapse of the peace process the Philippines is now confronted with the threat of renewed conflict with the MILF. The organization may fragment and more hawkish members may promote violent action. The political vacuum that has emerged may also be exploited by radical splinter groups that have been consolidating their ranks and pledged their allegiance to Daesh. No ‘wilayat’ has been announced yet, but is expected that the new groups, taking in defectors from older Al-Qaida affiliated groups, will push for the establishment of a caliphate in Mindanao and will use it as a safe haven for operations in the region in the near future.