This is the 24th 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.
End date of collection: March 1, 2017
Topics covered in this issue:
- UN Security Council resolution on sanctions against Assad regime vetoed by Russia and China
- Steps to develop a global mechanism to counter the threat of pandemics
- Decommissioning costs of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant doubled again due to complicated situation
- Clingendael Strategic Monitor 2017 includes thematic study on CBRN weapons
- Information warfare about the impact of Operation Inherent Resolve
UN Security Council resolution on sanctions against Assad regime vetoed by Russia and China
- Before the JIM finished its investigation, a UN Security Council resolution to impose sanctions against the Syrian regime was vetoed by Russia and China.
- Foreign involvement in Syria has resulted in important changes on the battlefield and has strengthened Assad’s position.
- Evidence about war crimes and crimes against humanity is expected to play a role after the various conflict parties have been able to agree on a future government for the country.
On February 20, the fifth report of the JIM was presented to the UN Security Council. According to leaks to the media from the previous report, the chain of command for the investigated chemical attacks had been reconstructed, resulting in a detailed list of names of persons involved in the attacks. According to the fifth report the Assad regime has now been pressed to hand over the names of commanders, military units and other entities suspected of carrying out chemical attacks in Syria. The Syrian government has been formally requested to provide details of air operations specifically at two air bases that were used by helicopters involved in the chlorine attacks.
On February 28, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution sanctioning the Assad regime for its responsibility of chemical attacks in Syria. The resolution would have banned the sale of helicopters to Syria and would have led to sanctions against eleven Syrian commanders and officials, and ten groups linked to the chemical attacks. While Russia claimed that adopting the resolution would have undermined ongoing peace talks in Geneva, China held the view that it was too early to impose sanctions as investigations were still ongoing.
On March 1st, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria unveiled a report looking at violations by all parties in last year’s battle for Aleppo, including indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, and the use of chemical agents and cluster munitions. The report looked at violations in the period of July 21, 2016 to December 22, 2016, when Syrian troops and allied forces assumed full control of the city. The Commission indicated that it is ready to hand over a list of names of suspects to the recently established Impartial, Independent International Investigative Mechanism for Syria. This panel was established by the UN General Assembly to pursue justice for atrocities committed in Syria.
As peace talks on Syria are ongoing in Geneva, Western states want to hold Syrian officials accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. They continue to seek a regime change and want to remove Assad. With a greater involvement of Russia, Iran and Turkey, there have been changes on the battlefield and Assad’s position has become stronger again. The passing of a UN resolution could have undermined Assad’s negotiating position. The outcome of the current talks is critical as a solution for Syria can only be political. Behind the scenes, there are intense negotiations about which military forces will participate in the offensive against the city of Raqqa. The chances for a positive outcome of the talks in the short term are minimal and they are expected to remain stalemated for some time. In the mean time investigations will continue to collect evidence on war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. The evidence is expected to play a role in a later stage after the various parties agree on a future government for their country.
Steps to develop a global mechanism to counter the threat of pandemics
- Pandemic preparedness was high on the agenda of the annual Munich Security Conference held February 17-19, 2017.
- In his speech at the conference, Bill Gates warned that a fast moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year, and that such an outbreak has a reasonable probability to occur in the next 10-15 years.
- A new Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has been launched in January, with the aim to produce safe and effective vaccines as quickly as new threats emerge.
In February, the 53rd edition of the Munich Security Conference was held. The conference report provides analyses, data statistics, info-graphics and maps on major developments and challenges in international security. This year, the topic of health security was included. The report provides statistics on attacks on healthcare resources. Since 2014, the WHO has recorded more than 700 attacks on health care resources. Almost 60 percent (444 attacks) were deliberate attacks on health care facilities. This type of attacks undermines the ability to identify and respond to infectious disease outbreaks, potentially enabling epidemics. The report also presents an info-graphic on the risk for initiation, development and spread of an epidemic. It identifies fifteen key factors, some mitigable while others are not, that may contribute to the emergence of a pandemic.
During his speech at the Munich conference, Bill Gates warned that a fast moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. There is a reasonable probability that the world will experience such an outbreak in the next 10-15 years. He also warned that the next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of a contagious and deadly virus. During his speech, he listed a series of measures that could be taken to reduce the risk of natural and intentional pandemics.
Before the conference, a new public-private partnership was launched in January: the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The hope is that CEPI will enable to produce safe, effective vaccines as quickly as new threats emerge. It is hoped that emerging technology platforms may leverage advances in genomics in order to significantly reduce the time needed to develop vaccines. The WHO has identified a top ten list of priority diseases that potentially could cause a next outbreak. Three relatively little-known diseases could cause the next global health emergency: MERS, Lassa fever and the Nipah virus. CEPI is currently raising funds up to almost $1 b. with the aim to have two experimental vaccines ready for each disease within five years.
In February, the WHO issued a R&D blueprint for action to prevent epidemics. The update announces a willingness to cooperate with CEPI and pays attention to a global mechanism to improve coordination, the assessment of epidemic threats and the definition of priority pathogens, roadmaps to accelerate the development of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, and finally the development of new norms and standards adapted to the epidemic context.
The cost of ensuring adequate pandemic preparedness worldwide is estimated at $ 3.4b a year while the projected cost from a pandemic could run as high as $570b. This cost effectiveness argument is widely used by experts to raise awareness for pandemic preparedness. The attention gained at recent international conferences and political summits like the G7 and G20, illustrates that awareness is rising, resulting in a greater willingness to join a coordinated global effort. As Bill Gates emphasized during his speech in Munich: innovation, cooperation and careful planning can dramatically mitigate the risks presented by pandemics. It is well known that epidemics can quickly take root in places least equipped to fight them. This means that a significant amount of the money should be invested in strengthening basic public health systems in the most vulnerable countries in order to improve surveillance. This would ensure that disease outbreak intelligence can be gathered, verified, and shared in a timely way.
Decommissioning costs of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant doubled again due to complicated situation
- TEPCO announced that it will draft a plan this summer to begin the complex task of extracting the highly radioactive fuel from the damaged reactors.
- Despite a constructed ice wall, TEPCO still has to pump contaminated groundwater from the complex and store it in tanks.
- A Japanese government plan to return evacuees to their hometown while radiation levels remain above international standards has caused international concern.
In February, TEPCO measured record high radiation levels in Reactor 2 of the Daichii nuclear plant in Fukushima, as it continues its investigation of residual nuclear material with remotely controlled robots. This summer TEPCO is expected to craft a plan to extract highly radioactive fuel from the damaged reactors. This is a key step in the decommissioning work that is expected to take at least 40 years.
TEPCO is still facing problems with contaminated groundwater seeping into the Pacific Ocean. It is constructing an ice wall around the four damaged reactors that will freeze the soil 30 meters into the ground. The ice wall has to prevent ground water from nearby mountains from flowing into the complex and into the Pacific Ocean. Even with the ice wall almost complete, TEPCO is still forced to pump out 150 tonnes of underground water from the complex and store it in tanks.
The Japanese government intends to stop the financial support for 6,000 evacuees of the town of Iitate, 35 km north of the plant. This will force them to return to their town even as radiation levels remain above international standards.
The Japanese government announced in December that it expects the total costs –including compensation, decommissioning and decontamination – to reach 21.5 trillion yen ($190 b.) This is about double the amount of the last estimate made in 2013. The whole process is likely to take decades as high radiation levels have slowed operations.
As predicted, the decommissioning and decontamination work is a complicated task with many technical challenges. Delays caused by high levels of radiation force planners to constantly adapt their plans to new situations. As a result, the costs have to be reviewed and re-estimated. The news stories about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant indicate that it is a continuing disaster that will last for several decades. In the mean time the Japanese government creates a false impression that the situation has returned to normal, allowing for the return of evacuees to their hometown despite radiation levels above international standards.
Clingendael Strategic Monitor 2017 includes thematic study on CBRN weapons
- In the next five years the CBRN threat is expected to slightly increase and there are no easy solutions to reverse this trend.
- The system of international multilateral accords and organizations is showing cracks making it less effective in reducing existing or potential risks.
- A number of unexpected (low probability/high impact) events may upset the whole system and could result in higher risks with extensive economic and societal consequences.
Last month, the Clingendael Institute published its new annual Strategic Monitor 2017. Over the years it has become an important document describing key strategic trends impacting Dutch and European security and presenting risk assessments with a five-year time horizon. The latest monitor includes a thematic study about the threat of CBRN weapons. This study consists of two parts. The first part describes the four factors having an impact on the risk of deploying a CBRN weapon, including 1) arsenal trends; 2) modernization programs; 3) escalation potential; 4) non-state actors acquiring access to CBRN-weapons. For each of these four factors the report describes developments that may result in a higher risk of the deployment of a CBRN weapon.
Gradual trends may be interrupted by shock events with a low probability and a high impact. Clingendael makes use of an Expert Panel to assess the impact of these specific events. For the next five years the following possible events were assessed and the report describes their impact on the CBRN threat: 1) Civil war and societal unrest in France; 2) Isolationist foreign policy of the US; 3) A collapse of the EU; 4) Daesh uses a CBRN weapon or attacks a nuclear plant; 5) A non-state actor acquires a nuclear weapon; 6) Nuclear intimidation causing a nuclear arms race in Europe; 7) A Russian attack on one or more of the Baltic states; 8) An armed conflict between US and China about Taiwan or South China Sea; 9) North Korea uses a nuclear weapon against a neighbor; 10) A nuclear conflict between Pakistan and India; 11) A worldwide financial crisis.
The second part of the study describes the developments related to the international multilateral accords and organizations concerning CBRN weapons. The report concludes that the existing institutions are beginning to show cracks and are becoming less effective. The existing norms still hold but one or more shock events could cause a collapse of the system.
While the report presents a broad overview of the main trends and developments related to CBRN weapons, with references to strategy documents and government papers, one gets the impression that a number of problems are only touched upon superficially. Trends are described in very general terms and a reader will not find clear examples of incidents or attacks with disturbing consequences. Technical experts will also be disappointed as technical details were probably deliberately omitted.
A previous IBC treat assessment covered the first case of a white supremacist terrorist constructing a functioning radiological weapon. This indicates that not only jihadist organizations have an interest in CBRN weapons as the Clingendael study implies. The radiological threat is hardly covered in the Clingendael study. The report does mention developments in the ‘life sciences’ and the possibilities of DIY chemistry and biology but does not specify the risks. One would also have expected more details about events in Syria and Iraq. The report only makes a general remark about the investigations by the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) and the OPCW. As expected, Russia and China used their veto right on a UN Security Council resolution on the introduction of more sanctions against the Syrian regime. This will have a negative impact on the multilateral regime.
When it comes to the selection of the shock events, one wonders why Iran and the conflict in Ukraine were omitted. In a previous assessment IBC covered the dangers of a military attack on a nuclear plant in Ukraine, which could have enormous consequences for the security of Europe. While the isolationist foreign policy of the US was selected as a possible shock event, the author could not have predicted the recent statements by President Donald Trump on defense expenditures and nuclear modernization and the appointment of advisers well-known for their views on dealing with Russia and Iran. This will have a major impact on the multilateral regime. The author of the report could have been far more pessimistic in his conclusions.
The author chose to focus on CBRN weapons. Among experts the acronym CBRNe is currently widely used, as the effects of some categories of conventional explosives have increased in a way that they are comparable to the effects of CBRN weapons. This aspect has been completely omitted from the report. The environmental consequences of the Western air war in Iraq and Syria will be devastating and will effect generations in the Middle East for decades. The US recently admitted to have used explosives with depleted uranium (DU) on several occasions in Syria. This aspect is consistently withheld from Western media and the public debate.
Information warfare about the impact of Operation Inherent Resolve
- The cross-referencing of American and Daesh videos of Western coalition air strikes provides better insight into how civilians are caught in the cross-fire.
- Operation Inherent Resolve resulted in far more civilian deaths and destruction of the infrastructure than is officially admitted.
- Citizen research groups add useful perspectives and more reliable assessments of the real consequences of the ongoing counter-terrorism operations in Iraq and Syria.
A report by C. Triebert, who works for Bellingcat and Airwars, two citizen investigative research groups, illustrates how the cross-referencing of Western military videos, A’maq videos and commercial satellite pictures, may contribute to better insight into the real effects of Western military operations in Iraq and Syria. The report cites several examples of air strikes with contradictory views that are part of the ongoing information war.
The Combined Joined Task Force has been involved in an intense air war against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Besides destroying military targets and killing terrorists they also cause infrastructural destruction and substantial civilian casualties. While the US has admitted to causing 119 civilian fatalities, Airwar’s researchers claim Western airstrikes caused at least 1,900 civilian deaths. The Western military command has released more than 100 videos of airstrikes to present an image of clean and surgical strikes against military targets with limited numbers of civilian casualties. These videos are widely used by Western media to mobilize support for the military operation. They are also meant to show that the airstrikes are successfully executed and contribute to a reduction of military capabilities of Daesh.
In response, A’maq, the media branch of Daesh, began to publish their own videos of the aftermath of Western military airstrikes by presenting a ground perspective. These videos are first distributed via the Telegram channel and find their way to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The videos are widely shared by Daesh supporters, the mainstream media and academics. Over the last year these aftermath videos have become more important for Daesh and play an important part in the information war. In the videos A’maq has adopted a victim narrative in which it emphasizes the civilian casualties attributed to coalition airstrikes. The A’maq videos deliberately hide evidence of its own fighters or military equipment. They are meant to illustrate the barbaric nature of Western military operations and to mobilize support.
One of the examples the report describes is the airstrike on the Nineveh Pharmaceutical Company on September 14, 2016. US Central Command claimed the facility was a ‘chemical weapons factory’ that was massively bombed by twelve different aircraft. Daesh claimed the facility was the only company left in the region that produced medicines. For outsiders without access to intelligence it is impossible to determine whether the facility was still a pharmaceutical company or whether it was used as a chemical factory. But given the intense fighting in the neighborhood and its strategic location questions can be raised whether it was still being used as a legitimate pharmaceutical company.
The videos published by both sides in the ongoing conflict are part of an intense information war and one should be aware of their propaganda purposes. While the West tries to create an image of a clean and surgical war with limited civilian casualties and infrastructural destruction, Daesh tries to create an image of victimhood and emphasizes the barbaric nature of Western military operations and Western hypocrisy. By cross-referencing the videos of both parties in the conflict, presenting an aerial view and a ground perspective, and combining them with analyses of commercially available satellite pictures, it is possible to make more reliable assessments of the impact of Western military operations in Iraq and Syria.