This month’s Threat Assessment includes:
- New chemical attacks by Daesh in Syria and Iraq revive debate on safe zones and a no-fly zone
- Expanding MERS-CoV outbreak major challenge for Saudi Arabian health authorities during this year’s hajj
- White supremacist of Galway found guilty of the assembly of a radiological dispersion device (RDD) to be used against Muslims
- Causes of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant disaster clarified in two scientific reports while a new typhoon complicated the ongoing cleanup operation
- Rising use of suicide attacks by islamist organizations causing significant economic, societal and infrastructural effects
The Threat Assessments are based on open sources. End date of collection: September 25, 2015
New chemical attacks by Daesh in Syria and Iraq revive debate on safe zones and a no-fly zone
Late August and early September there have been three chemical attacks in Iraq and three chemical attacks in Syria in which Daesh reportedly used mustard gas, a class 1 chemical agent. The attacks are interpreted as a major escalation of the Daesh terrorist campaign and the psychological warfare on those who oppose the organization.
The alleged use of mustard has triggered an intense debate on its origin. Of all the available hypotheses the possibility of a small production facility in Iraq is currently believed to be most likely. Laboratories of the university of Mosul are mentioned as a possible location where Daesh could produce the mustard gas using their own operatives with chemical skills. This program could be a revival of an earlier production program near Baghdad that was disrupted in 2013 with the help of foreign intelligence services.
In June 2013, the Iraqi military announced that it had dismantled an AQI cell that was seeking to manufacture chemical weapons including sarin, and was plotting to conduct attacks within Iraq, Europe and North America. With the help of foreign intelligence services raids were made on two factories in Baghdad that were used to research and manufacture deadly chemical agents. The cell reportedly was seeking to produce sarin as well as mustard blistering agents and had acquired the precursor chemicals as well as the formulas needed for the manufacture of the agents. The cell reportedly had an active attack plan for the use of drones to spread a chemical agent on shi’ite pilgrims in Iraq. Insiders believe that operatives involved in the development program may have revived the program elsewhere in Iraq, possibly Mosul. This may explain the concern about on ongoing production activity by Daesh operatives.
A Russian report submitted to the UN on the 2013 Ghouta sarin attack makes reference to the possible role of Adnan al Dulaimi, a Saddam-era general working under the outlawed Baath Party leader Izzat Ibrahim al Douri. Adnan al Dulaimi had been a key player in Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapon production projects. He was killed earlier this year in an American drone attack near Mosul as he was suspected of being involved in reviving the production of chemical weapons.
British officials maintain that the chemical threat of Daesh could be exported to Europe, especially to the United Kingdom. One of the scenarios held possible is the use of a swarm of small drones spreading a lethal chemical during a public event. Daesh operatives reportedly studied on this scenario on a university in a Daesh-controlled city. To counter this possible threat the British government has established a special task force. In the meantime British intelligence is monitoring suspicious online orders of laboratory equipment and precursor chemicals.
On September 10, Russia dropped its objections to the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) mission of the UN and OPCW and expressed its willingness to cooperate. The objections were related to the scope of the investigation, its finances and concern about Syria’s sovereignty. The concerns appear to have been allayed in a letter of secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon to Russia in which he pledges to consult with the Syrian government about how the mission will function and the grounds for its demands for access. With the green light given by the UN Security Council, the investigative mission is expected to start before the end of September.
As the capture of chemical weapon caches by Daesh is believed to be less likely, the hypothesis of a small Daesh cell dedicated to the production of the chemical agent is held to be more probable. The knowledge to make mustard agent is widely available, and it is not a complex chemical to produce. Daesh may rely on experts who had been active in military projects of the former regime of Saddam Hussein. It may also have imported foreign experts with the right chemical expertise and skills. The cell is believed to build on earlier efforts to create a chemical production capability.
The ongoing chemical threat in Syria and Iraq by Daesh and the alleged ambition to export the threat to Europe, is widely used to mobilize the Western world for a policy shift that will allow for renewed and intensified military intervention in Syria. Several Western countries, including Australia and France, lifted their earlier objections and decided to join the air campaign of the coalition and allow their fighter planes to bomb Daesh targets in Syria. The recent Russian military buildup in Syria and its diplomatic initiative to find a political solution has complicated the current situation. President Vladimir Putin will use the UN General Assembly in the last week of September to present his proposals.
While the details of the recent alleged mustard gas attacks are still murky, the overall picture is clear. Daesh appears to have incorporated chemical warfare into its strategy and is using chemical weapons on a regular basis, especially during intensified battles at strategic locations. So far, the alleged attacks have been relatively small and claimed relatively few casualties. If the indications that the organization may have a considerable stockpile are true, that may change in the near future. Thus far no country has shown any serious interest in dealing with the Daesh specific chemical threat issue head on, let alone come up with a response, except for calls to provide the Kurds with better protection equipment and investigative capabilities.
As the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) mission is expected to begin its work before the end of September, it will face many practical challenges, especially with Daesh controlling a large part of Syria. The first report has to be presented within 90 days meaning that it can be expected before the end of the year. As the JIM will mainly focus on earlier reported chlorine attacks in Syria, Russia has been active to prepare a proposal for a mandate to investigate the more recent mustard attacks in Iraq.
Expanding MERS-CoV outbreak major challenge for Saudi Arabian health authorities during this year’s hajj
While South Korea has been successful in bringing an outbreak of MERS-CoV under control this summer, Saudi Arabia has been experiencing an expanding outbreak with significant new cases and deaths. Also in Jordan and Kuwait new cases were reported. According to the latest statistics (as of September 16, 2015) 1238 cases have been identified and 523 people have died in Saudi Arabia since 2012. A total of 661 patients recovered while 54 patients are currently being treated. Worldwide a total of 1570 cases have been identified with 555 related deaths (as of September 23, 2015). During August ninety new cases were identified, mainly in Riyadh. Eleven people died. The King Abdulaziz Medical City (KAMC-R) was closed after at least 46 people including hospital staff contracted the virus. Two doctors and a nurse were penalized for violating the regulations related to dealing with coronaviruses.
The surge in new cases was an additional reason for the Saudi authorities to prepare a comprehensive preventive plan for the hajj, which is to begin on September 21 and will end on September 26. About 1,2 million Muslims from many countries will come to Mecca and Medina to attend the annual mass event. This year a lower number of pilgrims were allowed to attend the event due to construction activities. At the beginning of the event government officials made optimistic statements that the number of new infections had decreased in the first weeks of September and that the current number of patients is twenty percent less than the number for last year.
The Health Ministry will dedicate all its efforts to prevent any infectious disease from spreading in the kingdom during the hajj season. The Eastern Province regional directorate launched a comprehensive awareness program to warn the people of hazards of the disease and provided instructions for preventive measures. The Health Ministry urged vulnerable groups to postpone their hajj this year. As a precautionary measure a quarter of the population was vaccinated with the seasonal flu and spiral fever vaccinations.
A 24/7 epidemiological surveillance system was established in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, covering all healthcare centers and hospitals to monitor the virus within the holy areas. A total of 25,000 medical staff was mobilized from different cities into Mecca. A total of seven laboratories in Mecca, Mina, Arafat and Medina were equipped to give results of suspected samples within eight hours. In case of positive diagnosis, the infected patients had to be isolated and removed from the sacred areas, to prevent the spread of the disease among he pilgrims. A total of 52 intensive case units on the holy sites were available for immediate treatment. After first treatment, patients will be moved to Jeddah, to the King Abdullah Medical Complex. Non-Saudis infected with the disease will not be permitted to leave the kingdom until they are fully recovered from the infection. Access of camels into Mecca as well as the slaughtering of camels during the Eid al Adha will be prohibited.
The World Health Organization (WHO) worked with health ministries in the region to implement a MERS campaign so pilgrims can understand the disease. At a meeting held late August the WHO explained the six pillars of preparedness: leadership and coordination; improved vigilance at health facilities; enhanced surveillance and contact tracing; infection control; enhanced laboratory capacity and finally, risk communication for public awareness.
MERS-CoV outbreaks have stimulated research on an effective vaccine and other products that could be used against the virus. Recent tests by the company Mundipharma showed a high efficacy of three povidine iodine (PVPI) products against MERS-CoV. The company claims that proper hand hygiene and cough etiquette coupled with PVPI antiviral efficacy, will help in limiting the transmission of the virus and protect against the spread of infection among healthcare workers and the public.
In August, researchers of the University of Pennsylvania received funding to continue their investigative work on a synthetic DNA vaccine. Field tests of the vaccine on camels are expected to begin in October. Human tests will follow by the end of this year. Another important direction of research is focused on the presence of MERS antibodies in populations who aren’t currently sick.
Having learned from the experiences in South Korea and other countries earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been very active this year to persuade health authorities in Saudi Arabia, in the region and in the Islamic world, to take preventive measures to prevent the spread of the virus during this year’s hajj. MERS-CoV has been reported in 26 countries so far and all cases showed a direct or indirect link with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has not always been forthcoming in providing sufficient information on the infections identified in the country and providing cooperation with international health authorities. It must have been a shock that after the events in South Korea, health personnel of the King Abdulaziz Medical City in Riyadh could be infected.
With all the preventive measures in place it can only be hoped that the MERS-CoV will not spread among the pilgrims or spread to their countries of origin when they return home. During the past three years the Saudi government declared zero MERS-CoV infections among hajj pilgrims. It has to be seen whether the government will be able to give the same statement this year, given the recent spike in new cases, the mistakes made in KAMC-R and Saudi Arabia’s record of non-cooperation. As countries like Saudi Arabia are not fully transparent about the extent of the MERS-CoV outbreak, South Korea could become a major source of lessons learned from its MERS-CoV outbreak earlier this year.
White supremacist of Galway found guilty of the assembly of a radiological dispersion device (RDD) to be used against Muslims
Glendon Scott Crawford of Providence approached two Jewish organizations in 2012 with an offer to defend Israel with ‘off-the-shelf’ technology that could silently kill enemies. A representative of one of the organizations informed the police after which the FBI launched a so-called sting operation on the suspect to find out more about his background, motives and intentions. They let him continue with his project in a controlled way using informants, until the day of assembly of the different parts and the device would be ready for use.
The suspect turned out to be an unstable white supremacist who was involved with the website whitelife.com and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). During meetings with an FBI informant he provided more details about his plans. He allegedly had a plan to construct a radiological dispersion device (RDD) based on a commercial X-ray machine that could be placed covertly outside intended targets to silently kill Muslims. The jury members will be allowed to see the device that was built with the help of the FBI undercover agents. According to the plans the machine was to be used against a mosque and a Muslims school.
Eric Feight of Hudson was a co-conspirator who was going to provide the remote control for the RDD. He pleaded guilty of material support to terrorists and is to be sentenced in September.
On August 17, a US District Court in Albany issued three charges against Crawford: attempting to produce, construct, acquire, transfer, receive, possess and use a radiological dispersion device; conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and distributing information with respect to a weapon of mass destruction. During the opening statement the prosecutor outlined the various stages of Crawford’s alleged plan on the basis of the information gathered by an FBI informant.
Crawford’s defense lawyer held that his client had nothing more than ‘a piece of paper and an idea’, and that the FBI had pulled him further into the plot. Without the help of the FBI undercover agents his client would not have been able to build the device.
US authorities regularly organize exercises to address the dangers of nuclear and/or radiological terrorism. This year’s annual exercises were held in September at a hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, under the names of Silent Thunder and Game Shield Thunder. These exercises are designed to provide federal, state, local officers, first responders and law enforcement with hands-on experience in responding to a terrorist attack involving radiological materials. This year’s exercise was based on a fictitious scenario of terrorists attempting to seize control of high-activity radiological sources by infiltration of a hospital facility. After a first cooperative threat assessment, the participants had to manage the crisis as if it was actually happening.
In September, former vice president Dick Cheney was interviewed in the Hewitt radio show and warned for an attack ‘worse than 9/11’ . He referred to the possibility of the smuggling of a nuclear device in a shipping container and driving it up to the beltway outside Washington, DC.
The latest issue of Dabiq, the electronic magazine of Daesh, contains an article titled ‘The perfect storm’, which claims that the organization has the ambition to buy a nuclear weapon in Pakistan and smuggle it into the United States, by using drug and smuggling routes already in use by Mexican and South American drug cartels.
German journalist J. Todenhoefer visited Daesh on the frontline and wrote a book about his experiences. In the book ‘Inside Daesh-Ten days in the Islamic State’ he claims that Daesh is planning to kill several hundred million people. He only writes about stated ambitions but doesn’t provide information about ongoing projects or specific indications about preparatory activities.
The constant barrage of warnings of neoconservative politicians, experts and journalists about the nuclear ambitions of terrorist organizations, especially al-Qa’ida and Daesh, contribute to a steady climate of fear about nuclear or radiological terrorism. Most of these warnings are general and are not supported by specific intelligence. Very often they make use of articles from terrorist propaganda magazines or rhetorical statements by terrorist leaders.
The Crawford case is the first time that a terrorist suspect succeeded in constructing a functional device that could have been used to kill people, according to claims of the FBI. Crawford was the target of the questionable method of a sting operation and it is difficult to judge if he had been able to come that far without the aid of his FBI informants.
The case probably raised alarm about the possibility of acquiring X-ray machines via hospitals that could be adapted for terrorist purposes. It is therefore no surprise that this year’s exercises related to nuclear terrorism were based on a scenario of terrorists infiltrating a health facility. A greater awareness at health facilities may contribute to the reduction of the risk of theft of dangerous equipment or radiological sources that can be used for terrorist purposes.
As most attention goes to islamist organizations when it comes to nuclear or radiological terrorism, Crawford was a white supremacist who wanted to kill Muslims. It is not the first time in the US that a suspect coming from an extreme- rightwing or white supremacist environment was arrested related to a plot involving a weapon of mass destruction. This means that the danger can come from different directions and can have different motivations. It may also be that the FBI is exploiting these groups to find out how far individuals or small groups can come given the fact that they have the right skills and resources. The method of the sting operation allows the FBI to gain knowledge in a controlled way that can be useful in overall threat assessments.
Causes of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant disaster clarified in two scientific reports while a new typhoon complicated the ongoing cleanup operation
In early September the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its final report on the Fukushima-Dai-ichi nuclear plant disaster in Japan. The report deals with the human, organizational and technical factors and aims to provide an understanding of what happened, and why, so that the necessary lessons can be acted upon by government regulators and nuclear power plant operators throughout the world.
One of the key findings is that Fukushima number 1 plant’s vulnerability to external hazard had not been assed in a systematic and comprehensive manner during it’s lifetime, and that plant operator TEPCO was not fully prepared for the multi unit loss of power and the loss of cooling by the tsunami. The plant’s operators had therefore not received appropriate training and had not taken part in relevant severe accident exercises. The equipment available to them was not adequate in the degraded plant conditions after the accident.
Environmental organizations like Greenpeace have been criticizing the IAEA for being complicit in covering up the truth about the potential harm posed by the Fukushima fallout. A Greenpeace investigation this summer registered radioactive contamination levels in Fukushima prefecture at such high level that it would be impossible for the people to return to their homes. The Japanese government plans to lift the evacuation order by the Spring of 2017 for many parts of the evacuation area stretching a 20 km radius around the Fukushima plant in addition to other zones that had high levels of radiation. By 2018 it plans to eliminate state compensation for victims.
Currently, about 79,000 people from ten localities remain evacuated. The Abe government claims that portions of the Fukushima prefecture are safe again for habituation. Scientific data by third party NGO’s, however, indicate that levels of radioactivity are still at dangerous levels. Greenpeace Japan found radiation levels that were ten times the maximum allowed to the general public.
In June, the government began to return evacuated people to the village of Iitate. While international protection standards recommend public exposure should be 1mSV or less in a non-post accident situation, the Japanese government said that the people in Iitate could receive radiation doses of up to 20mSV each year and in subsequent years.
In September, the journal Philosophical Transactions published the research findings by C. Synolakis and U. Kanoglu of their investigation of the Fukushima Dai-chi disaster. They describe the disaster as a cascade of industrial, regulatory and engineering failures. They found that if a pre-event hazards study had been done properly it would have identified the diesel generators as the lynchpin of a future disaster. As the tsunami flood levels were estimated too low, all the backup generators were flooded in the disaster causing a loss of power. As a result the reactors could no longer be cooled and melted one by one.
Early September, TEPCO began pumping up contaminated ground water from wells at the Fukushima plant in an operation to prevent further contamination. The radioactive isotopes will be removed from the water to a preset level after which it will be released into the ocean. A more advanced liquid processing plant is under construction and has to speed up the process. It is expected that a total of 100-200 tons of groundwater have to be pumped up from the 20 to 41 sub-drains and temporarily stored at a tank with a capacity of 1,000 tons. The operation was complicated as Japan was hit by typhoon Etau early September that flooded large areas of the country. In the Fukushima area more than 700 bags containing contaminated soil were swept away into the river. Many are still unaccounted for and some may have spilled their radioactive content into the water system.
The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster is a tragedy that is extremely difficult to fully understand or gain trustworthy information. As of today there is no certainty about the status of the molten cores of the reactors. Japanese secrecy legislation gives government bureaucrats enormous powers to withhold information produced in the course of public duties that they can claim a secret.
It is therefore of utmost importance that scientific reports by international experts are now available with detailed information about the causes of the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster. They counter the idea that the disaster was an act of God and illustrate that it was just a matter of time for a huge accident to happen. The information about the arrogance and ignorance of the nuclear industry, the design flaws, the regulatory failures and improper hazard analyses, should be lessons for the whole nuclear industry and should result in a re-assessment of safety regulations for existing and planned nuclear reactors. Initiatives already been taken by the IAEA should be further expanded. The introduction of new international standards for specific training and certification of engineers and scientists involved in hazard studies, and for regulators who review them, is just one of the suggested recommendations that should be taken serious.
Rising use of suicide attacks by islamist organizations causing significant economic, societal and infrastructural effects
The British organization Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) that monitors IED attacks and developments related to the use of explosives, concluded in a recent report that the number of suicide attacks in the first seven months of this year rose 45 percent in comparison to the same period in 2014. Globally the use of the tactic is on the rise and suicide attacks caused more than 5,000 civilian casualties in the first seven months of 2015. Of the 10,800 civilians casualties of all IED attacks in the first seven months of 2015, almost half (47 percent) were from suicide attacks.
Suicide attacks have become by far the most lethal form of IED attacks with an average of 22 casualties for an attack. Other forms of detonation show much lower averages: fourteen casualties for time-operated attacks, six casualties for command operated attacks and four casualties for victim-operated led attacks. During 2015, the average number of casualties for suicide attacks rose to 31. Of all the casualties recorded in 2014, 84 percent were civilians (5027 of 5978). In eleven of the eighteen countries in which suicide attacks were recorded so far in 2015, over 90 percent of the casualties were reported civilians.
Another notable trend found by the AOAV was the geographical spread of suicide attacks. The tactic tends to spread to countries neighboring conflict regions that hitherto had no or little experience with suicide terrorism.
The AOAV report focuses on two organizations that have largely been responsible for the geographical spread of the suicide attacks, Daesh in the Middle East, and Boko Haram in West Africa. The report details how the two organizations have integrated the tactic in their action repertoire. Daesh has integrated the suicide attack, especially the suicide car bombs that have become very sophisticated, in their battle strategy, sometimes using multiple car bombs simultaneously during military offensives. These car bombs have become so powerful that they can destroy an entire city block. Daesh can rely on a large reservoir of willing candidates for suicide attacks. New recruits must pass a boot camp and prove themselves on the battlefield before they can put their name on the waiting list to become a suicide bomber. In 2014, Daesh has begun training of children to become suicide bombers. In 2015, Daesh has been responsible for spreading the tactic to Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Libya.
While Daesh integrated the tactic in its battle strategy, Boko Haram has typically targeted civilian populated areas, like markets and bus stations. Almost 94 percent of the casualties of suicide attacks during the first seven months of 2015, in Nigeria, were civilians. The use of females, some of them as young as ten or thirteen years old, is characteristic for Boko Haram. Of all the suicide attacks perpetrated by females in the world in 2014, 85 percent took place in Nigeria. During 2015 Boko Haram began to expand the tactic to neighboring countries Cameroon and Chad. The armies of both countries are involved in military counterterrorism operations in Nigeria.
Suicide terrorism during the first half of 2015 is characterized by the growing lethality of attacks affecting mainly civilians in non-conflict zones, and the geographical spread to neighboring countries of conflict regions. The popularity of a culture of martyrdom among islamist organizations results in an unlimited reservoir of potential perpetrators which is even further extended by the use and training of minors, especially females. The integration of the tactic in battle strategies of islamist organizations has resulted in more powerful and sophisticated car bombs. If current trends continue the year 2015 will become the worst year in history for suicide terrorism. To reverse this trend the following countermeasures have been suggested.
In the past years several states have failed to secure storage sites of weapons and explosives in conflict zones. Much of the explosive material used in suicide bombings by organizations like Daesh and Boko Haram, came from abandoned or insecure armories. More open lines of communication between national, regional and international police and customs organizations could be used to counter this development and identify and neutralize the networks smuggling the weapons and explosive materials.
A greater awareness is needed of the hidden harm caused by suicide attacks in the form of long-lasting injuries and psychological effects. Beside the economic and infrastructural effects, suicide attacks have long-lasting societal effects. Improved knowledge about the effects on casualties could be shared more effectively among interested organizations.
More steps could be taken to try to stop the culture of martyrdom among islamist organizations. By engaging a broader range of actors the rhetoric about martyrdom among islamist organizations could possibly be challenged in a more effective way and contribute to the stigmatization of the tactic.