This month’s Threat Assessment includes:
- New reports on Da’esh chemical capabilities trigger warnings of a chemical attack in Europe
- The global response of outbreaks to global diseases needs to be adapted to be able to deal more effectively with the increasing risk of existing and newly emerging pathogens
- The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster is an ongoing accident and the adverse effects of radiation exposure may be worse than generally assumed
- Multiple incidents of smuggling of highly enriched uranium (HEU) possibly related to theft at Russian nuclear facility in Ozersk in the mid 1990s
- An explosive causing the crash of the Russian A321 plane at the Sinai is part of a Da’esh campaign of external attacks against coalition countries
The Threat Assessments are based on open sources. End date of collection: November 25, 2015
New reports on Da’esh chemical capabilities trigger warnings of a chemical attack in Europe
On November 12, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that AQ and Daesh can produce and use at least some chemical weapons. They have apparently done so in Syria and Iraq. There is intelligence that Daesh has been trying to recruit individuals with chemical weapon expertise. Technical experts are widely available as chemical weapon facilities have been closed in Iraq, Syria and Libya. The use of chemical weapons in Syria has also been confirmed by a fact-finding mission of the OPCW that presented its findings in a closed session of the Executive Council of the OPCW on November 23.
In the weeks following the November 13 Paris attacks, the French and British prime ministers publicly warned of the danger of chemical attacks in Europe. In France security measures related to the drinking water supply in Paris was stepped up.
There were other reports in November confirming earlier claims about the capabilities of Daesh to produce and use chemical weapons. The organization was reported to have been successful in attracting foreign and domestic chemical experts. (see earlier IBC threat assessments) There were also reports that the organization may be moving research laboratories, experts and materials from Iraq to locations inside Syria out of concern for a military offensive by the coalition against Mosul. The exact status of the chemical production capabilities of Daesh is widely disputed. While some agencies report progress that would increase the risk, others downplay the success and claim that only small quantities and chemical weapons of low quality can be produced. In general, Daesh capabilities have been underestimated by intelligence agencies over he last years.
Experts maintain that foreign fighters who have been exposed to training in Syria in the use of chlorine as a terror weapon and construction of IEDs are a bigger threat to security after their return to their home countries. It is assumed that they have a reasonable idea on how to use chlorine and other toxic chemicals and weapons of terror. Others maintain that the capabilities of Daesh are still limited.
The use of chemical weapons by extremist non-state actors is a big challenge for the current Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC) that originally was mainly aimed at the use of chemical weapons by states. Investigations on the use of chemical weapons by non-state actors have to be executed in active and dangerous war zones making it quite difficult to collect legally and scientifically acceptable evidence. On the basis of UNSC resolution 2235 (2015) a Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) was established to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. It is, however, questionable whether the JIM can come up with useful results as the long time period between the actual use of the weapons and the investigation does not allow for a scientific rigorous chain of evidence. As the JIM reports back to the UN Security Council, a political body dominated by its five permanent members, political infighting can be expected to have a paralyzing effect on taking effective countermeasures against perpetrators.
The recent warnings by several European prime ministers about the danger of a chemical attack by Daesh should be taken serious and are probably based on intelligence assessments of current capabilities and information about active attack plans of Daesh. Increased resilience to complex Paris-style attacks could increase the risk of attacks by unconventional means.
Jihadist propaganda messages have repeatedly warned about chemical attacks and poisoning of the drinking water supply, illustrating a consistent ambition of jihadist organizations. In the past years operatives involved in specific attack planning related to the water supply were arrested in Europe. Daesh has shown to be more capable and innovative than al-Qa’ida and reportedly has greater financial resources.
The complex terrorist attacks of the past month in several countries indicate that Daesh now has a branch that focuses on external attacks by deploying foreign fighters trained in Syria that join local groups in their home countries for the final execution of attacks. Experts maintain that even a few competent scientists and engineers, given the right motivation and material resources, can produce a hazardous and weapon-specific chemical in limited quantities. A critical factor is the possession of a safe environment to carry out experiments. The operatives involved in the development program of Daesh were constantly harassed by intelligence agencies and in some cases important experts died in targeted killings. The on-going armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the stepped up aerial bombardments by the international coalition reduce the possibilities for any safe environment. Transport of equipment and materials from one location to another increases the risk of destruction of convoys in air raids.
The global response of outbreaks to global diseases needs to be adapted to be able to deal more effectively with the increasing risk of existing and newly emerging pathogens
In a lengthy essay Laurie Garrett has evaluated the international response to the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. She not only describes the outbreak of the epidemic and how it gradually developed but also the delayed response by the international community which was only speeded up after the virus threatened to reach the West. She concludes that the global response to the rise of new pathogens has continued to be limited, uncoordinated, and dysfunctional. Especially in less developed countries with substandard health systems it appears to be impossible to detect new diseases quickly and bring them under control. In case of an emerging epidemic, richer countries only show an interest if it threatens their own citizens. Garrett shows how they tend to overreact in such a situation and how they look after there own interests, cover up outbreaks, hoard scarce pharmaceutical supplies, prevent exports of life-saving medicines, shut borders and bar travel. Garrett ends her evaluation of the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa with a discussion of the credibility of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its effectiveness in dealing with life threatening epidemics. Due to its ineffectiveness other competing multilateral organizations like the Global Fund, Gavi, the Vaccin Alliance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have become important players in the field of global health action and have become more influential in determining the agenda.
After Sierra Leone was declared Ebola free on September 3 and November 7, new cases have been discovered and currently about 150 people are being monitored who have been in contact with a 15 year old boy who died of the disease. An awareness raising campaign has been resumed and civil society groups stepped up a campaign to get volunteers against the disease. The Liberian government has asked for American help in determining the origin of the new infection. As the WHO was on the verge of declaring Guinea free of the virus also in this country new cases were identified.
It has been discovered that the Ebola virus can remain in the body of survivors, especially in the parts where the immune system is weaker such as the eye, nervous system, cartilage and testes. Tests on male survivors have shown that the virus can linger in semen for at least nine months. There has been at least one case in which the virus was spread via sex with a survivor six months after the symptoms had started. More research is needed into these so-called Ebola reservoirs and what risk they pose to the health of the patient and the risk of infection to others. As this phenomenon may cause Ebola flare-ups continuous monitoring will be necessary for years to come.
Future epidemics are not just likely but also inevitable as people are moving around more, the contact between humans and the wild is on the increase and adverse effects of climate change have to be expected. The international community should therefore prepare to deal with epidemics more effectively. The essay by Laurie Garrett provides a number of suggestions how that can be done. She still believes in the credibility of the WHO if it succeeds in adapting from a more technical organization to a health emergency manager that has prepared policy templates for future rapid action. A second suggestion is the plan for a competent, quickly deployable, international volunteer medical corps. A third suggestion is related to the availability and use of experimental medicines, vaccines, and rapid diagnostic tools. All three were lacking during the recent Ebola crisis. Finally, an effective response to an epidemic is more likely if a good health-care system exits. The health-care systems of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone were in terrible shape before the recent Ebola epidemic struck. Having lost a significant number of health-care professionals to the disease it can be expected that the health-care systems will be in worse shape after the epidemic has passed. The recent optimism about having brought the epidemic under control has been tempered by the most recent flare-ups in Guinea and Liberia. Continuous monitoring will be necessary for years to come and much more research is needed into the risk of survivors who still have the virus in their body.
The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster is an ongoing accident and the adverse effects of radiation exposure may be worse than generally assumed
On October 19, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the beginning of the decommissioning of unit one of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. He attended the opening ceremony of a research facility and was briefed about a remote-controlled robot that can be used to inspect the interiors of nuclear reactors. The decommissioning work is expected to take 30 to 40 years. The high levels of radiation near the reactors and the inability to grasp the details about the melted nuclear fuel are complicating the planning of the decommissioning. Another problem is that key technologies to execute the decommissioning are not available yet and still have to be developed.
TEPCO is making progress at unit three in creating conditions to inspect the condition of the fuel assemblies in a storage pool with an underwater camera. After removal of larger pieces of rubble from the pool a protective cover will be put over the unit to protect it from the weather and prevent any release of radioactive particles during subsequent decommissioning work. A separate structure will be built to facilitate the removal by crane of used fuel from the storage pool. TEPCO expects to begin removing spent fuel in unit three in 2017, which is two years later than estimated in 2013. Fuel removal in units one and two is expected to begin in 2020.
Water management at the reactor is still a major issue for TEPCO. It is estimated that water management and reactor stabilization at the Fukushima facility will cost more than $ 8.4 billion in the next ten years. TEPCO is reinforcing the drainage system from the various parts of the facility with a new covered channel. By the end of the year a frozen soil barrier has to prevent contaminated water from leaking into the ocean. TEPCO has been criticized for poorly monitoring periodic radiation leaks, which still occur in the event of heavy rains. The contaminated water can re-enter land, contaminating coastal shores many miles down the coast.
As the international community is failing to keep the public properly informed about the fall-out of the Fukushima disaster, there has been a proliferation of citizen journalists and citizen scientists in an attempt to fill the gap. They collect and analyze information to make sense of a government approved narrative that is considered insufficient. An example is the ‘Our radioactive ocean’–project initiated by researchers of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, that is based on crowd funding. So far they have not been able to find traces of radioactivity from the meltdowns of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in fish collected off the coast of British Colombia. They concluded that the faint traces of radioactivity they have found, can be traced to nuclear weapons testing done over the Pacific in the 1960s and 1970s. There is an important difference between Cesium-134 (with a half life of two years) and Cesium-137 (with a half life of 30 years). Cesium-134 is the fingerprint of Fukushima. Recent data on radio-isotopes in sea water off the coast of California showed levels of 0.2 Becquerels. Activists have been threatening the scientists participating in the project.
Some scientists claim that radiation exposure levels and effects are chronically underestimated due to the use of outdated science. They claim that the adverse effects associated with nuclear fall-out may be many times worse then present radiation risk models used by the nuclear industry, medical establishment and government, presently project. They predict that the heavy radioactive discharges will spike cancer in Japan. A recent report by medical professionals appears to confirm their claim.
On October 15, Japan’s Kyushu Electric Power Company brought the second reactor at its Sendai plant online, making it the second reactor to restart. The Sendai reactors are situated in one the world’s most seismically active areas, where the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis is constant. Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) is reviewing the reactors that haven’t been restarted yet. While the nuclear regulators were reorganized and strengthened after the Fukushima disaster, some doubt whether they are strong enough and independent enough. The Japanese government plans to have nuclear power account for 20 to 22 percent of the country’s total electricity supply by 2030, compared with roughly 30 percent before the disaster at the Fukushima complex.
As the public is not fully informed about the adverse effects of the Fukushima disaster, citizens are finding ways to collect and analyze information to counter the official narrative. Many people don’t realize that it is on ongoing disaster with regular new discharges of radioactivity. The use of risk models based on outdated science may result in assessments that could be much worse if newer models based on current science would be used.
As the decommissioning of the plant is now underway there are many uncertainties and complications that make planning almost impossible. Key technologies are not available yet and the circumstances in the reactor pools are still unknown. Time schedules and costs estimates are subject to continuous change.
The economy and the upcoming Olympic Games put the Japanese government under pressure to return to business as usual as quick as possible. The first nuclear reactors already have been reactivated. Other closed reactors are currently under review and will be reactivated as soon as regulators give the green light. Japan will remain dependent on nuclear energy in the coming decades. The dependency level will be reduced by ten percent until 2030.
Multiple incidents of smuggling of highly enriched uranium (HEU) possibly related to theft at Russian nuclear facility in Ozersk in the mid 1990s
On November 13, the Center for Public Integrity published a lengthy piece on cases of nuclear smuggling of highly enriched uranium (HEU). The publication followed a recent piece of Associated Press on an American FBI sting operation in cooperation with the Moldovan police that resulted in the arrest and prosecution of several criminals.
It is assumed that thieves in Russia made off in the mid-1990s with a batch of HEU. Since then repeated attempts were made to offer the material on the black market. First small samples are offered for inspection with the promise that larger quantities can be provided later. By infiltrating the criminal networks the Moldovan police has been able to arrest and prosecute several low-ranking criminals but the major kingpins got away. Aleksandr Agheenco has been identified as a major organizer of the illegal sale of HEU but is still at large.
A weapons-grade cache of HEU in the wild is a major concern of Western intelligence services. It is assumed that a terrorist buyer could transform it into a viable weapon, using technical information about nuclear bomb designs that have been in the public domain for some time. There are indications that the criminal networks involved are deliberately looking for potential buyers that are enemies of the West. Due to the breakdown of relations between Russia and the West, Russia has not been very cooperative in providing details about cases of nuclear theft in the past. By training the Moldovan police the US has attempted to increase Moldovan capabilities to counter the nuclear black market and identify the criminal networks involved in the smuggling.
In the mid-1990s Russia went through a difficult time of political turmoil and economic problems that resulted in weakened security at Russia’s nuclear installations, as guards and scientists were not paid and their morale was low. There have been documented cases of theft but Russia has been uncooperative in providing detailed information about the nature and the size of these incidents. There is therefore uncertainty about the exact amount of material that is available on the black market, the ownership of the material and the location where it is stored. It took until 2012 before new nuclear security regulations came into force in Russia and a civilian oversight group was created to ensure its implementation.
It is not surprising that Moldova has been the location of nuclear smuggling incidents as this type of cross-border crime is often prevalent in poorly governed and fractured states. It is, however, unsettling that an unknown quantity of HEU that is assumed to be sufficient to build a viable weapon, is somewhere around and offered on the black market to potential buyers. It has been a long-feared scenario that organized crime groups could link up with terrorist organizations. In this respect it is an ominous sign that smugglers have been explicitly targeting buyers who are enemies of the West. Western intelligence agencies are expected to remain focused on this issue and try to persuade Russia to come forward with additional information.
An explosive causing the crash of the Russian A321 plane at the Sinai is part of a Da’esh campaign of external attacks against coalition countries
On October 31, a Russian Airbus 321 (Flight 9268) crashed in the Egyptian Sinai about 23 minutes after take off from Sharm al-Sheikh, killing all 224 passengers aboard. The passengers were mainly Russian tourists on their way back to St. Petersburg.
The crash of the Russian Airbus 321 was claimed by the Wilayat Sinai, a Daesh-affiliate. In Dabiq, the official magazine of Daesh, the claim was repeated that the organization had been able to successfully bring an explosive aboard. The magazine showed a picture of the parts of the alleged bomb, a Soda can, a detonator and a switch. The organization did not disclose the nature of the explosives and the trigger device. The picture may provide clues about the explosives expertise of the organization and the origin of the parts that were used. Daesh stated in the magazine that the attack was to show Russia and its allies that they will have no safety in the lands and the airspace of the Muslims. It also stated that it had originally targeted a Western coalition country but decided to switch to a Russian target in a later stage.
After initial denials of foul play, more indications, intelligence and evidence was discovered that the most likely hypothesis would be that an explosive had been smuggled on the plane. On November 17, the Russian authorities admitted that explosives residue had been discovered on the debris and the belongings of the passengers. They stated that the explosive that had brought down the plane probably had the equivalent of about one kilogram of TNT. President Putin declared that the perpetrators would be sought and severely punished and offered a $50 million reward for information leading to the perpetrators. He also ordered to intensify the Russian bombing campaign in Syria, by using more cruise missiles and strategic bombers.
The crash of the Russian A321 has triggered a renewed debate on airport security. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has scheduled a meeting for March 2016. The organization wants to evaluate and judge security at all airports worldwide and wants to formulate new guidelines for airport security.
Russia must have been convinced quite soon that the Airbus 321 was most likely downed by an explosive, as most indications pointed in this direction and other hypotheses could be quickly excluded. The initial denial was probably a deliberate disinformation maneuver to gain tactical military surprise for its massive retaliation. The outcome of its forensic investigation was made public while its military planes were already underway for an intensified bombing campaign in Syria. Russia stepped up the campaign already underway by sending more cruise missiles (airborne and sea-based) and strategic bombers. Combined with the consequences of other lethal terrorist attacks in other countries (e.g. France, Lebanon, Tunisia and Mali) Russia is currently calling for a broad anti-terrorist coalition to counter of what is now seen as a deliberate campaign of external attacks planned and coordinated by a branch of Daesh. While a content analysis of Daesh threat video’s distributed in the past two years indicated that Russia and France were high priority targets, in principal all members of the international coalition are a potential target..
Over the past year Western intelligence had been very concerned about terrorist plots against aviation originating from the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Khorasan group in Syria. These attack plans were substantially disrupted by targeted killings of a number of important operatives of the group earlier this year. It now appears that its competitor also plotted against Western aviation. In its latest magazine Dabiq, Daesh stated that it originally had targeted Western planes but decided in a later stage to switch to a Russian target as a response to the ongoing Russian air operations in Syria. By exploiting the weak security at the international airport in Sharm al-Sheikh it was able to bring an explosive aboard. By downing a Russian airplane in the Sinai, Daesh also affected the Egyptian economy. The attack will have significant negative impact on the Egyptian tourism industry and can be seen as a punishment for the development of warm relations with Russia. It also triggered a renewed debate on airport safety in or near conflict zones and in less developed countries where safety measures are substandard.