For the February IBC Threat Assessment please click here
This month’s Threat Assessment includes:
- While the OPCW finds proof of the use of sarin in Syria, EUROPOL warns of new mass casualty attacks in Europe
- Collapsed healthcare system in Syria contributes to the spreading of Cutaneous Leishmanianis (CL)
- Ten major threats and trends determine US planning and programming to prevent, counter and respond to nuclear terrorism and proliferation
- New Nuclear Security Index 2016 emphasizes vulnerability of nuclear power plants to cyberattacks
- Databases on suicide terrorism indicate a decrease in the total number of suicide attacks during 2015 but their effects have become more lethal
The Threat Assessments are based on open sources. End date of collection: January 25, 2016.
While the OPCW finds proof of the use of sarin in Syria, EUROPOL warns of new mass casualty attacks in Europe
In late December 2015, there were new allegations by the Syrian opposition of a suspected chemical weapons attack on a suburb outside Damascus on December 22. The victims reportedly suffocated to death after government rockets and barrel bombs struck the rebel-held suburb of Muadhamiya. The reported symptoms of the injured included running noses and drooling, followed by nose bleeds, shortness of breath, vomiting, and involuntary urination and defection. These were followed by spasms and suffocations in some cases. Five to ten people reportedly died. The agent used may have been sarin. Normally, a sarin attack would produce a larger number of victims. The low number of victims may indicate that the gas used was old. It is assumed that the attack may have been launched by ‘rogue’ commanders rather than a result of an order from the top.
In December 2015, there also was a report about the destruction of a chemical weapons workshop of Daesh by Syrian special forces in the province of Latakia.
Syrian troops reportedly seized laboratory equipment and precursor materials that could be used for the production of chemical weapons. Syrian government sources stated that Daesh had intended to launch chemical and biological attacks in false flag operations. The Syrian opposition reported the destruction of an underground chemical facility of the government with a huge tunnel bomb that allegedly was involved in the production of chlorine used in barrel bombs.
In early January 2016, the destruction of the last of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile was completed. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) stated that U.S. firm Veolia destroyed the last 75 cylinders containing hydrogen fluoride at a facility in Texas. There had been a delay in the destruction because some cylinders were badly corroded. The OPCW also made public that its fact-finding mission in Syria found indications that some people in Syria were exposed to deadly sarin gas, or a compound like it. The OPCW fact-finding mission investigated eleven incidents. It announced further investigations into the circumstances of the incident in which sarin or a sarin-like substance was used. The OPCW-FFM said that it had not come across evidence that would shed light on the specific nature or the source of the exposure. The OPCW director is expected to provide more information about several outstanding issues at the planned March meeting of its Executive Council. Previous fact-finding missions by the OPCW in Syria have pointed to the use of chlorine and mustard gas.
Early January, Mikhail Ulyanov, the head of the Russian foreign ministry department for non-proliferation and arms control, called for an investigation into possible supplies of sarin components from Turkey to Syria. The Russian government has been pushing for expanding the mandate of the OPCW investigations. Daesh is operating both in Syria and Iraq, and has used chemicals in numerous weapons against Kurds in Iraq.
Turkish MP Eren Erdem has stated that Daesh terrorists, then going under the name of Iraqi Al-Qaeda (AQI) received all the necessary materials to produce deadly sarin gas via Turkey. Erdem, who is now being charged with treason for his comments, revealed that an investigation by Turkish police was started but then the case was closed, and all the suspects were released near the Turkish/Syrian border. He accused the Turkish authorities of a high-level cover up. In the mean time, the debate on how Daesh may have acquired sarin continues. In December 2015, there were new allegations that Daesh stole sarin from secret underground storage facilities in the Libyan desert that were not properly guarded.
Over the past months unspecified threat warnings have been issued about intentions of Daesh to possibly use unconventional weapons in mass casualty attacks in Europe. Daesh reportedly trained a special unit to be used for external operations. The organization also sent detailed training manuals to operatives in Europe for the construction of improvised explosives and guidelines for the execution of attacks. There are indications that the organization is investing heavily to contract scientists and experts with the aim to develop more sophisticated and unconventional weapons. British and French officials have stated that new mass casualty attacks were foiled after the November Paris attacks. On January 25, Europol launched the European Counterterrorism Center. The launching was accompanied with the publication of a threat assessment of the modus operandi of Daesh. Europol warned of new mass casualty attacks, with a particular focus on France. Daesh issued a new propaganda video showing most of the Paris attackers and provided a threat warning directed against the United Kingdom.
While the OPCW has made progress in the investigation of alleged incidents of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, it still remains vague about the circumstances and the responsibility of the attackers. Additional investigations will be necessary and outstanding issues have to be discussed. In the meantime a new alleged incident of the use of chemical weapons has been reported, necessitating a new fact-finding mission.
The Syrian conflict causes significant spill-over effects to Europe. Warnings are getting stronger of new mass casualty attacks in Europe, especially in France, the United Kingdom and Germany and to a lesser extent in Spain and Italy. Expected attacks may include unconventional means since Daesh has been investing heavily in attracting scientists and experts to assist in the development of unconventional arms.
Collapsed healthcare system in Syria contributes to the spreading of Cutaneous Leishmanianis (CL)
Cutaneous leishmaniasis (CL) is a worldwide disease caused by an infection with the protozoan parasite Leishmania transmitted via sand flies. Usually, there is an incubation period of two weeks to several months. First, a small red-brownish papule appears, normally on areas of the skin not protected by clothes. In addition, nodes or plaques can develop in the course of the disease. Ulcerations are frequent. Within 12–18 months, and without treatment, CL normally heals with an ugly scar.
The disease is endemic in many of the poorest countries of all continents. The transmission of endemic cutaneous leishmaniasis (CL) has been reported in a total of 98 countries, particularly those in development, and 3 territories on 5 continents, with an incidence of around 1.2 million new cases annually. Among the 10 countries with the highest estimated case counts stands Syria.
Although CL used to be well-controlled and well-documented in Syria, its incidence has dramatically increased since the beginning of the war which has resulted in massive population displacement. Dead corpses in the streets became a leading factor in the rapid spread of the disease. As preventive measures are no longer taken, due to the collapse of the health care system in war zones, CL spread to new areas in Syria that were previously not affected by the disease.
In 2012, the Leishmaniasis Control Team of the World Health Organization published a report on the incidence of leishmaniasis. Syria had, according to the reports from 2004–2008, a constant annual incidence of CL of about 23,000 cases per year; however, this team assumed that there was likely to be an underreporting of the real incidence of CL, which should be 3–5 times higher.
The Syrian Ministry of Health has revealed an incidence rate of 53,000 cases in 2012 and 41,000 cases were reported in the first 2 quarters of 2013. The head of the Leishmaniasis Centre in Aleppo reported 22,365 cases in Aleppo alone.
A strengthened international collaboration under the supervision of the WHO is necessary in order to reduce the incidence and to improve the treatment of CL in Syria. In anthroponotic foci, as is the case for many patients with CL in Syria, such an intervention would have a major impact on morbidity and transmission.
Due to the increased ability to travel, and especially the flight of Syrians to neighboring countries, as well as to Europe, CL may become a new threat in formerly unaffected regions. Refugees in neighbouring countries (Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey), and also in Europe, pose a risk, given the availability of vectors, for the transmission of the disease to new as yet unaffected countries.
Ten major threats and trends determine US planning and programming to prevent, counter and respond to nuclear terrorism and proliferation
In 2010, US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) began an initiative, known as the “Over the Horizon” (OTH) initiative, to identify and assess future nuclear and radiological proliferation threats and related trends over the next 5 to 10 years—beyond NNSA’s 5-year budget planning horizon—and to consider the implications for the future of DNN programs. The OTH-initiative was intended to institutionalize long-term DNN planning, and the information produced by the initiative would, among other things, support DNN program planning and organization decisions.
In March 2015, NNSA issued a new unclassified strategic plan for NNSA efforts to address future nuclear proliferation and terrorism threats for fiscal years 2016 to 2020 in response to an August 2014 interim report by the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Task Force on Nuclear Nonproliferation. The plan defines and describes DOE and NNSA missions and the DNN programs. For each DNN program, the plan identifies program objectives, priorities, and performance measures; program activities, accomplishments, and challenges; and program plans over NNSA’s fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2020 budget horizon. A classified appendix will contain more details on nuclear and radiological risks, threats, and vulnerabilities, and will update portions of the plan annually following the release of the President’s budget request.
The ten trends impacting Nuclear and Radiological Security and Non-proliferation in 2018-2023 (Report from third OTH phase)
1-Increasing nuclear weapons and materials production and stockpiles of civil highly enriched uranium and plutonium, including in regions of concern.
2- Growing reliance on civilian nuclear energy and radiological sources – increasingly via non-U.S. suppliers and leadership to new states/states of concern.
3- Increased sophistication of trafficking networks coupled with increased illegitimate and legitimate trade volumes, growth of customs unions, and other border blurs.
4- Increased sophistication and availability of cyberattack tools to state/non-state actors and their use against nuclear facilities and related infrastructure.
5- New technological advancements and pathways for information retrieval and transmission, and greater nascent WMD expertise in nonnuclear weapons states.
6- Persistent insider threats.
7- Terrorist networks, counter government groups, and lone wolf actors with potential nuclear/radiological weapons aspirations and abilities.
8- Persistence of weak and failing states with access to radiological or nuclear materials.
9- Continued state-level pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities and resulting strains on nonproliferation and arms control regimes.
10- Continued suboptimal implementation of nuclear/radiological security standards and lag in updating of standards to keep pace with threats.
The NNSA has taken an important step through the OTH initiative to identify and assess proliferation-related threats and trends over the next decade and evaluate what they mean for the future of the DNN programs. A recent review by the General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that the NNSA could enhance the usefulness of the OTH initiative as it moves forward by better implementing established methods— including literature reviews, structured interviews, and peer reviews associated with threat identification and assessment. The GAO had difficulty understanding how information generated by the OTH initiative informed the January 2015 DNN reorganization. It also questioned the extent to which the OTH initiative informed the March 2015 DOE and NNSA strategic plan to reduce global nuclear threats. The plan will, however, remain an important guiding document to define and describe program missions to prevent, counter, and respond to future threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism.
New Nuclear Security Index 2016 emphasizes vulnerability of nuclear power plants to cyberattacks
In January, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) published the third edition of the Nuclear Security Index that assesses the security of highly enriched uranium and plutonium in the world. The index is meant to encourage governments to take action and build confidence in the security of these materials. The index has become a major tool for tracking progress on nuclear security and identifying priorities. The new 2016 index (available in three formats) will be a major document to be discussed at the upcoming final Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in March 2016.
The 2016 index includes for the first time a sabotage ranking, an assessment reviewing the security conditions of 45 states with respect to the protection of nuclear facilities against sabotage. The NTI found that many states with only research reactors (e.g. Algeria, Bangladesh and Morocco) have yet to establish domestic nuclear security regimes to protect their nuclear facilities from sabotage. Other countries do not yet have the legal and regular structure required for effective security of their nuclear facilities. Many countries are still unprepared to cyberattacks that might lead to sabotage. Of the 24 countries with weapons-usable material, nine received a maximum score for the cyber security indicator and seven scored a zero. Of the 23 countries that have nuclear facilities, but no weapon-usable facilities nuclear materials, four received a maximum score for the cyber security indicator, thirteen countries scored a zero, including some that are expanding the use of nuclear power. Of the twenty countries that scored a zero, NTI found that they do not even have basic requirements to protect nuclear facilities from cyberattacks.
The new Nuclear Security Index 2016 identifies five important challenges for the near future. One of them is the fact that the strategic goal of developing an effective global nuclear security system remains unachieved, despite the progress made as a result of the Nuclear Security Summits that have been held in the past years. The current global system for security nuclear materials still has major gaps that prevent it from being truly comprehensive and effective. A total of 83 percent of all stocks are military materials and thus remain outside existing international security mechanisms, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines for the protection of civilian materials.
The Nuclear Security Index 2016 has become one of the most important tools to assess the security of nuclear materials. It allows governments to identify priorities in improving nuclear security. With the new edition NTI has attempted to set the agenda for the upcoming final Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in March. With the addition of the sabotage ranking NTI has identified a major gap in nuclear security that has to be closed as soon as possible. The recent hacking attack in Crimea to paralyze the power grid only underlines the findings of the NTI and the capabilities of hacking groups. It is now up to governments to take effective measures to improve their security during the upcoming final nuclear security summit.
Two databases on suicide terrorism indicate a decrease in the total number of suicide attacks during 2015 but their effects have become more lethal
The Israeli terrorism expert Yoram Schweizer and his colleagues of the INSS maintain a database of suicide attacks. In January they presented their findings about the year 2015. They recorded a total of 452 suicide attacks during the year 2015 (a decrease from the total of 592 attacks for 2014) that resulted in a total of 4370 fatalities. The research showed that the suicide attacks of 2015 have become more lethal. Of the total number of attacks 450 were executed by Muslim extremists. A total of 174 suicide attacks were attributed to Daesh. Most suicide attacks took place in Iraq (115), Nigeria (95), Afghanistan (69), Syria (39), Pakistan (24), Yemen (13). The research showed an increasing role of women, especially in Nigeria, 66 of the 95 attacks were executed by women dispatched by Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiyya, the new name for Boko Haram to indicate its affiliation with Daesh.
In January the Joint Terrorism and Insurgency Center (JTIC) of IHS, published its overview of attacks during 2015 in its Global Attack Index 2015. The center recorded a total of 18,987 attacks that resulted in 29,424 fatalities and 36,839 injured. The top ten of most affected countries were Syria (5496 attacks) Iraq (4748 attacks), Afghanistan (1185 attacks), Ukraine (1113 attacks), India (884 attacks), Pakistan (666 attacks), Yemen (551 attacks), Gaza (450 attacks), Egypt (375 attacks) and Sudan (364 attacks). The poster summarizing the JTIC findings also provides details about primary targets and most preferred tactics. Almost half of the attacks were directed against security forces and about a third of the attacks were stand off or area attacks. JTIC also provides an overview of suicide attacks. Compared to the Israeli data it recorded significant more suicide attacks in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. This is probably due to the more strict recording rules of the Israeli researchers and the more chaotic situation in these countries complicating data collection.
In the fall of 2015, UNIDIR issued a report on the phenomenon of IEDs and how it is dealt with within the United Nations. The report is meant to identify options and opportunities to better utilize UN processes and actors. The report also wants to inform, legitimize and motivate dialogue and collective action to address the issue of IEDs at the global level. Among the possible options for consideration UNIDIR includes a global database, portal or platform on information sharing; a compilation of best-practices and guidelines; a global knowledge bank; and finally partnerships between stakeholders. A major challenge that is identified in the report is the lack of adequate resources and technical knowledge to access, collect and analyze IED data.
The IHS and NISS databases on terrorist attacks especially suicide attacks are two examples of initiatives to bring together relevant information on IED attacks to inform agencies dealing with IEDs and their consequences. The UNIDIR report presents a useful comprehensive overview of all these agencies and organizations. The international response to IEDs requires the attention and commitment of a variety of stakeholders from governments to militaries, to humanitarian operational and other specialized agencies, to industry and to research organizations and advocacy groups. The report also presents a number of useful possible options that can be further developed in the near future to reduce the number of attacks and mitigate their consequences.