This is the 21st issue of the feature called the IBC Threat Assessment (IBC-TA) that we 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 Threat Assessment:
- Increased risk of the use of chemical weapons due to Intensified battles around Mosul (Iraq) and Aleppo (Syria)
- The evolving landscape of new biological threats necessitates a complete overhaul of the system of anticipation, preparedness and response
- Traditional risk model of radiation effects questioned by proponents of hormesis theory
- New nuclear and radiological threat detection system tested in Washington DC
- Organized arms trafficking networks that have looted weapons from state stockpiles fuel conflicts in Africa, and raise fears that arms may be smuggled to Europe via migration routes
The Threat Assessments are based on open sources. End date of collection: November 23, 2016
Increased risk of the use of chemical weapons due to Intensified battles around Mosul (Iraq) and Aleppo (Syria)
- The ongoing military offensives in Mosul and Aleppo have been accompanied with a series of new allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria.
- While there have been condemnations by several international agencies and institutions, the UN Security Council has thus far been unable to accept a resolution on the punishment of the identified perpetrators of investigated chemical attacks.
- The deliberate destruction of hospitals in Aleppo is hampering the treatment of victims of attacks and the battle circumstances prevent international investigators from doing their inspective work on the crime scene.
As had been concluded in previous IBC threat assessments the likelihood of new chemical attacks by Daesh and other armed opposition groups, as well as by the Syrian regime, will increase with the escalation of the fighting. According to a recent inventory Daesh has used chemical weapons 71 times since 2014, 52 times in Syria and 19 times in Iraq. With the ongoing military offensives in Mosul (Iraq) and Aleppo (Syria) Daesh may use chemical weapons against civilians or against the military forces that are trying to recapture these two cities. There are also renewed reports of attacks with barrel bombs containing chlorine by the Syrian regime. The deliberate destruction of hospitals in Aleppo and the battle circumstances complicate the treatment of victims and international investigative work. To compensate for the reluctance of the OPCW to send investigators to the battlefield the Russian military has begun to take its own samples after alleged chemical attacks.
Daesh reportedly had a R&D program for chemical weapons in Mosul that has been partly destroyed by the coalition before the military offensive began in October. There are, however, reports that the organization may have transported materials and experts to Syria ahead of the offensive. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has analysed samples of mustard gas from attacks in Syria and Iraq. The analysis suggested that the substance was produced by Daesh itself. The OPCW assessed that it was of poor quality and that it was weaponized. The OPCW has decided to take measures to respond in a more timely way to new incidents of the use of chemical agents. On November 11, the Executive Council of the OPCW also took a decision to authorize additional inspections of Syrian government facilities related to chemical weapons.
On November 17, the UN Security Council decided to extend the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mission (JIM) for another year and to allow it to investigate the chemical attacks that were reported this year.
The international community has until now been powerless in punishing identified perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria. This means that the parties involved in the ongoing fighting around Mosul and Aleppo are not deterred. Escalation of the fighting may even motivate them further to use the chemical arsenals they still possess. Uncertainty about the size and quality of their arsenals make predictions difficult. The deliberate destruction of hospitals complicates the treatment of victims. Until now the number of victims has been relatively low. The use of chemical weapons in more desperate circumstances in a situation of no access to medical treatment, may result in higher numbers of casualties in the near future. While the OPCW has introduced a rapid response team that can be deployed within 24 hours, the reluctance to send investigators to the battlefield is expected to result in continued disputes about facts and identification of perpetrators.
The evolving landscape of new biological threats necessitates a complete overhaul of the system of anticipation, preparedness and response
- In the coming years the nature of biological threats will change substantially in predictable as well as unpredictable ways.
- The adequacy of ongoing defensive efforts is increasingly challenged by advances in biotechnology, and existing directives are increasingly out of date.
- There is a pressing need to rethink the overall organizational structure for anticipating, preparing and responding to newly evolving biological threats.
In November, the US President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) made a report on the new evolving landscape of biological threats public. In the report, the PCAST sketches the quickly changing threat landscape and advances in biotechnology that have an immediate impact on the way we think and organize to counter these biological threats. The PCAST describes the developments in second-generation methods for biological engineering which entail great promises for medicine and agriculture. But they also harbor the potential for misuse.
The risks are real and will only grow as biotechnology becomes more sophisticated in the years ahead. As an example, the PCAST points at the CRISPR technology that can be used to create viruses that can cut, modify, repress, or activate a host gene so as to disrupt an important cellular function. The PCAST also points at the growing dangers of naturally-occurring infections (like SARS, H1N1 influenza, MERS, Ebola and Zika). These outbreaks reflect changes in hosts and environments, such as urbanization, movement of people, and changes in climate and land use, as well as ongoing evolution of pathogens. The PCAST favors maximal coordination between biodefense efforts directed at deliberate and naturally-occurring threats.
To counter the newly evolving biological threats the PCAST describes a comprehensive biodefense strategy that consists of five key components: 1) Scientific analysis of the scope of the problem; 2) Intelligence gathering to detect activity by potential adversaries; 3) Biosurveillance to detect the presence of biothreats; 4) Development of effective medical countermeasures to protect against these threats; and 5) Leadership and organization. The PCAST formulated several recommendations (2 short-term, 3 mid-term and one long-term) that are necessary to become better prepared and to have a more efficient response system in place to deal with future biological threats. The short-term measures entail the establishment of a new interagency entity charged with planning, coordination and oversight of national biodefense activities and the creation of the Public Health Emergency Response Fund of at least two billion dollars.
Although the PCAST report deals specifically with the United States and its own history and characteristics, the report may also be useful for many other countries dealing with similar developments and related threats. One of the key elements to be discussed in other countries is the need to rethink the organizational structure dealing with the preparedness and response to biological threats. The PCAST rightly emphasizes the need for an interagency entity charged with planning, coordination and oversight of national biodefense activities. In many countries responsibilities are divided over too many ministries and agencies to be effective against future biological threats. Another key take away is the need to establish a significant public health emergency response fund that can be used in case of an emergency. Current existing funds are too small to deal with future threats.
Traditional risk model of radiation effects questioned by proponents of hormesis theory
- New research indicates that low doses of radiation may have beneficial effects under certain circumstances.
- The majority of scientists finds proof for the hormesis theory insufficient for adaptation of the traditional risk model of radiation effects
- Additional statistical research combined with biological experiments may eventually result in sufficient reasons for changing the current risk model.
A small scientific minority group doing research on the effects of low level doses of radiation, claims that the traditional risk model of radiation effects cannot be upheld. They claim that cells can deal very well with low doses of radiation. They point at the fact that big nuclear catastrophes, like Chernobyl and Fukushima have claimed relatively few victims. In Fukushima most victims were caused by the earthquake and the tsunami. The evacuation of 100,000 people resulted in 600 deaths. It has been calculated that maybe 30 people would have died of radiation poisoning if there had been no evacuation. They also claim that there are places on earth where the natural background radiation is far higher than normal doses, but that there are no indications of an increased risk of cancer.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the United States is currently looking to answer the question whether the current risk model should incorporate the findings that support the theory of hormesis. A subcommittee that has looked into the issue has stated that the commission should stick to the current model for the time being.
The majority of scientists holds that the theory of hormesis is still too unproven, even if it does appear increasingly plausible. The traditional risk model is largely based on statistical studies some of which are still continuing. Some hold that these statistical studies should be combined with the results of biological studies. More research is necessary to get clearer results that would allow for an adaptation of the current risk model.
New nuclear and radiological threat detection system tested in Washington DC
- DARPA is developing a new nuclear and radiological detection system to counter nuclear terrorism.
- After a series of initial tests DARPA hopes to upgrade the system for wide areas.
- The operational system is expected to become operational in 2018.
In October, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) tested a new citywide radioactive threat detection system in Washington, after earlier smaller tests were done in New York and New Jersey. The new system is designed to aid defense personnel with responding to potential nuclear and radiological threats. During the test, a thousand volunteers equipped with smart-phone sized radiation detectors were tasked with walking around the city to search for simulated threats, which included small quantities of radioactive materials. Based on a fictional scenario the ‘hunters’ had to foil a terrorist plot by saving a geneticist kidnapped by masked men.
The test was intended to determine how effective the sensors could act as nodes of a mobile network over an area of 13 square kilometers and to use the aggregated data to upgrade the algorithms for the final version of the system. The SIGMA program aims to revolutionize detection and deterrent capabilities for countering nuclear terrorism. It consists of low-cost, high-efficiency, packaged radiation detectors with spectroscopic gamma and neutron capability.
The test program will use citywide scenarios in the future and upgrade to wide area monitoring in 2017. By 2018, DARPA hopes to transition the operational system to local, state and federal entities.
The SIGMA program will revolutionize nuclear detection and deterrence. It is based on a network of cheap $400 detectors in an automated system. The activated network of detectors is always on and can constantly adapt. In this way the number of false positives can be reduced to acceptable levels. The new system is expected to become operational in 2018.
Organized arms trafficking networks that have looted weapons from state stockpiles fuel conflicts in Africa, and raise fears that arms may be smuggled to Europe via migration routes
- In the past years, Islamist insurgent groups have plundered arms from inadequately secured national stockpiles in Libya, Mali, CAR and Ivory Coast.
- Arms trafficking is highly organized and jihadist groups already have significant stockpiles of weapons, including MANPADs, ATMs and RPGs.
- Effective physical security and stockpile management (PSSM) efforts in combination with intelligence-led tracking of trafficking networks may contribute to a reduction of arms trafficking levels.
The Conflict Armament Research (CAR) organization has issued a new report in November dealing with arms trafficking in the Sahel region. The report follows earlier reports on the Libyan arms arsenals that were looted after the ouster of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi in 2012. This report is broader and deals with the supply and demand chains of weapons that fuel several armed conflicts in the region. The report found that the arms traffickers have diversified their supply chains and have added new sources, as the outflow from Libya has decreased, due partly to interdiction and a rising internal demand in Libya for weapons. The report also found that several insurgent groups plundered arms from inadequately secured national stockpiles in Mali, the Central African Republic and Ivory Coast. Various armed factions in the region have now access to a range of weapons, including MANPADs, ATMs and RPGs. The arms trafficking is highly organized. It not only adapts to the dynamics of ongoing armed conflicts in the region but may also fuel new conflicts.
The CAR researchers warn that the Libyan conflict provided opportunities for both Chadian and Sudanese armed groups to procure weapons and financial resources that may eventually be returned to Sudan and Chad. CAR researchers also discovered an emerging trend that arms from the Middle East were used in Islamist attacks in the Sahel. One of the main conclusions of the report is that the flows of weapons and ammunition that are fuelling armed conflict in the region can largely be traced back to the breakdown of physical stockpile security following state collapse or to the whole-sale seizure of government arsenals by non-state actors.
The proliferation of arms from various armed conflicts in Africa have raised fears in Europe that that they could be smuggled along migrant routes and be used in terrorist attacks in Europe. High-Seas interdiction by the European maritime force Sophia has only a minor impact on the weapon flows across the Sahel. An exclusive focus on the Libya stockpiles probably would not be sufficient.
A reduction of the level of arms trafficking in the region will only be possible through a combination of more effective physical security and stockpile management (PSSM) efforts and intelligence-led tracking of trafficking networks, including those beyond the boundaries of the Sahel itself. In the meantime, more attacks on stocks of state-security forces of fragile states are to be expected. The proliferation of competing insurgent groups in the region continues as developments in the Middle East forces foreign fighters to return to Africa.