This is the 16th issue of the new 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.
This month’s Threat Assessment includes:
- New UN Security Council resolution debated to deal with chemical weapon related activities of non-state actors in the Middle East
- Zika global risk map may help governments to chose and fine-tune containment measures
- Exact purpose of the nuclear interest of the Brussels terrorist network unknown
- North Korea displays its military strength in advance to important upcoming congress of the Worker’s Party
- Willingness to share valuable information constrains European defense and acquisition related to C-IED and CBRNe
The Threat Assessments are based on open sources. End date of collection: April 23, 2016
New UN Security Council resolution debated to deal with chemical weapon related activities of non-state actors in the Middle East
- During the past months there have been new reports on incidents of the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq by non-state actors as well as by the Syrian government.
- New information about the R&D program of Daesh has resulted in renewed warnings that it could develop chemical weapons to be transferred for attacks in Europe.
- A new draft UN Security Council resolution would require states in the Middle East to report chemical weapon related activities by non-state actors on a regular basis to the UNSC, JIM and OPCW.
Over the past months there have been new reports of incidents of the use of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria by non-state actors as well as the Syrian government. Also new information has become available on the R&D program of Daesh and its use of a university laboratory and equipment for the design and testing of new terrorist weapons. More deadly and more sophisticated devices were found over the last year. There are indications that the devices used in the recent Paris and Brussels attacks were a direct outflow of the Daesh development program. The US has executed airstrikes on the campus of Mosul university, but the extent to which the laboratory was destroyed is unknown.
The reporting on the new incidents has triggered a new draft UN Security Council resolution aimed at preventing non-state actors from developing or using chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria. The new resolution is intended to fill the gaps in existing resolutions that mainly focus on the Syrian government. Under the current mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) there is no reporting on alleged incidents of the use of chemical weapons by non-state actors.
The draft resolution would require countries in the Middle East to immediately report any actions by non-state actors to transfer, develop or acquire chemical weapons, to the UN Security Council, the JIM and the OPCW. It would also require the JIM to monitor any alleged activities and report monthly to the Security Council.
Although the consequences of most incidents of the use of chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria have been limited, the rising level of sophistication of the devices and the possible export to other regions is an increasing concern for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Adoption of the new resolution may fill gaps, but it can be questioned whether the JIM has sufficient capabilities and resources to take on extra responsibilities that would distract from their current investigation of a number of selected incidents related to the Syrian regime. While the Kurds have been trained to prepare for attacks with chemical weapons they are still in need of more and better equipment to protect them. Bigger and more sophisticated attacks could result in much higher casualty rates.
Zika global risk map may help governments to chose and fine-tune containment measures
- New research results on the association of Zika and microcephaly put pressure on governments to make decisions on specific containment measures.
- A global risk map may help decision-makers to direct specific measures on the most relevant areas.
- As vaccines are not likely to be available in time governments will be forced to focus on mosquito control and public education programs.
In the past months new research results have been made public on the possible association between the Zika virus and microcephaly. A strong association does not necessarily mean a causal relation. The publication of the research results was possibly timed to influence political decision-making. Some observers have mentioned the possibility of scaremongering that would be beneficial to the pharmaceutical industry receiving funds for the development of new vaccines. Other beneficiaries could be the companies and research laboratories involved in the development of genetically engineered mosquitoes that could be used to cut off future generations of Zika carrying mosquitoes. As the virus is spreading there is a lot of pressure on governments to allocate funds for the containment of an emerging health crisis. Many experts have emphasized the need for a multi-pronged effort, including research on vaccines and rapid diagnostics, mosquito control programs and public education. It is clear that there will be no effective vaccine in time to deal with the spreading of the virus to new areas.
Scientists of the University of Oxford and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle have developed a global risk map revealing priority regions where authorities could intervene to control vector populations and where surveillance of the virus should be concentrated in order to improve rapid outbreak response and clinical diagnosis. According to the map an estimated 2.17 billion people live in parts of the world where the Zika virus can spread. It can be extrapolated that an estimated 5 million births to women in these areas could result in babies with microcephaly. The risk map can be used to chose specific measures or to fine-tune measures. The map cannot explain why large numbers have not already been reported in areas where the Zika virus may be prevalent.
Having learned from the slow response to the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, governments tend to move faster with the outbreak of the Zika virus. They are however constrained by other pressing needs and in some cases don’t want to allocate new money but shift within existing health budgets. This could increase the risk of outbreaks of other infectious diseases for which the money originally was meant. An effective vaccine against the Zika virus will not be available soon. This means that governments will have to focus on a combination of other countermeasures. Companies involved in the development of genetically engineered mosquitoes may exploit the Zika health crisis to promote their products.
Exact purpose of the nuclear interest of the Brussels terrorist network unknown
- During the investigation of the recent Brussels attacks it was discovered that the network had an interest in the movements of a manager of a nuclear plant in Belgium
- One of the scenarios is that they may have had a plan to assemble a dirty bomb. While experts have been warning for years of the dangers of dirty bombs, the number of incidents has been small.
- The amount of resources, the level of expertise of Daesh explosives experts and its ruthless ideology justifying mass killing, have contributed to rising fears of the use of a weapon of mass destruction.
During the investigation of the recent Brussels attacks, video footage of a manager of one of the nuclear plants in Belgium was found in a safehouse in Auvelais. The terrorist suspects had collected information on the movements of the plant manager and his family by placing a camera near his house. It is unknown why exactly they had collected this information and for what purpose they wanted to use it. But it has led to speculation about nuclear ambitions of the terrorist network. One of the scenarios could have been to kidnap the manager and to force him to steel radioactive material or to force him to assemble a so-called dirty bomb. It is known that Daesh operatives in Iraq had an interest in stealing radioactive isotopes and its explosives experts may have experimented with possible designs.
Terrorist organizations have had an interest in radio-isotopes with the aim to assemble a dirty bomb because it is technically not so complicated and because it requires materials that are relatively easy to obtain as they are widely available in medicine, agriculture, industry and research. A so-called radiological dispersion device (RDD) combines a conventional explosive with the radioactive material (e.g. Cobalt-60, Cesium-137, Iridium-192). It is designed to scatter dangerous and sub-lethal amounts of the radioactive material over a general area. The primary purpose is to cause psychological fear and economic disruption. If distributed in an economically important business district of a big city, it may have to be evacuated for a substantial period and decontamination could cost significant amounts of money.
From open sources it is difficult to assess what the intentions of the Brussels network could have been. Intelligence sources may have additional information that will be kept secret. Daesh is considered to have sufficient resources and expertise to assemble an RDD. It can be questioned whether the operatives in the Brussels network had sufficient education and training to assemble an RDD. It is unknown whether other more skilled experts were in the country or on their way to get involved in a possible plot. In a previous threat assessment in 2015 IBC reported on an FBI sting operation in the US, which was the first case in which operatives were able to successfully assemble an RDD. This underlines that law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies should remain alert on signals of interest of terrorist organizations with nuclear ambitions.
North Korea displays its military strength in advance to important upcoming congress of the Worker’s Party
- In advance to an important congress in May, North Korea is showing the world its military strength by stepping up its nuclear activities, testing ballistic missiles and preparing a fifth nuclear test.
- In protest of annual joint American South Korean military exercises North Korea has also been firing a number of missiles and artillery shells into the sea.
- Although new UN sanctions may not have an immediate significant impact on the gradual nuclear progress being made by North Korea, they may contribute to a higher level of instability in the country.
In advance to an upcoming congress in May, North Korea has been executing several missile tests to display its military strength to the world and boost the legitimacy of Kim Jong Un. New satellite imagery indicates the country may prepare to produce more plutonium for nuclear weapons. Some observers believe that the country may carry out a fifth nuclear test before the congress opens. They base their judgment on reports of increased activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. While an ICBM test on April 15 reportedly failed, a test with a submarine launched missile on April 23 reportedly was a success.
In the past months, North Korea has also launched missiles and artillery shells into the sea in what appears to be a protest against ongoing annual military exercises between the United States and South Korea. If the US suspends these exercises the North Korean regime has offered to stop its nuclear tests. However, the US does not take North Korea’s promises seriously and has called on China to put more pressure on its neighbor to stop its provocative acts. Due to the harsh sanctions issued in March, North Korea is experiencing an increased level of defections, including high-level military personnel.
By executing regular tests and expanding its activities it North Korea is gradually making progress with its nuclear program. It may already be able to fit a nuclear warhead on one of its existing missiles. While opinions differed on the success of the previous nuclear test another test is being planned. The recent ICBM and submarine launched missile tests indicate that the regime wants to diversify its arsenal.
The recent missile tests are violating existing UN Security Council resolutions. In March, harsh sanctions were issued against the country in an attempt to starve the country of money for its nuclear program. Since then the number of defections reportedly increased. It is however difficult to assess whether these defections were a result of the sanctions or a sign of elite discontent. If indeed the elite is voting with its feet instability in the country could grow in the coming period.
Willingness to share valuable information constrains European defence and acquisition related to C-IED and CBRNe
- Despite the high level of alert and extensive security measures a determined terrorist network was able to strike in the heart of Paris and Brussels with mass casualty attacks.
- The expanding and changing IED threat has resulted in duplicative C-IED/CBRNe enhancement and planning efforts in Europe.
- Constraints and tensions inherent to the European security defence and acquisition related to C-IED/CBRNe are hard to overcome as participating countries are not willing to share valuable information.
The recent attacks in Paris and Brussels have again illustrated that a determined terrorist network with sufficient funds and training can acquire the necessary precursors and materials to assemble lethal IEDs. The execution of mass casualty attacks against soft targets in the capitals of European cities was possible despite the fact that these cities were on high alert and had introduced extensive security measures. In both cases law enforcement agencies were able to secure intact explosives enabling them to determine clues about the design, the type of explosives and the trigger mechanisms. Also the assembling locations were identified and searched providing information about the acquisition of the precursor materials. There was sufficient material to produce several more bomb vests.
The dynamics of on-going armed conflicts stimulate violent non-state actors to adapt to changing circumstances and enhance their IED-capabilities. The IED attack has become the most favored type of attack in asymmetric armed conflicts. According to one estimate there were 27,000 IED incidents in 2014 worldwide resulting in more than 56,000 casualties. IED use is increasing internationally. The market for IED materials is open. Non-state actors have access to IED materials and are attracted to their accessibility, low cost and casualty-(and chaos) causing potential. Currently, the weapons employed in the Syrian civil war have implications for C-IED and CBRNe threat assessments and capabilities planning.
To mitigate this expanding and worsening threat possible technical solutions and countermeasures are being developed. Efforts by national governments and international organizations have however resulted in duplication. The question remains whether they can develop less wasteful and more effective joint countermeasures.
During a recent meeting at NATO COE-DAT in Ankara, a paper was presented with a comprehensive overview of the European capacity and enhancement programmes in the field of C-IED and CBRNe. One of the key questions was whether European states were willing to forego some individual capacities for the sake of avoiding duplication. The author discussed the C-IED and CBRN capabilities and gaps that were highlighted in recent action plans issued at the European level and by governments and NATO. He also presented a comprehensive overview of the various ongoing and new R&D programs related to the C-IED/CBRNe threat.
A useful framework for countering IEDs consist of the following elements: 1) Future nature of conflict and the role of IEDs in it; 2) Mapping threats; 3) The role of C-IED doctrine; 4) Technology requirements for C-IED and IEDD; 5) training; 6) Impact on the network; 7) Attacking the network. For each of these points the author presented useful suggestions for improvement and sketched the ideal of a single integrated solution for CBRNe and C-IED. He also presented a listing of the names of European C-IED actors, selected armored vehicle manufacturers and European CBRNe actors.
The on-going efforts continue to shrink the physical and digital space of non-state actors to operate and train. There are, however, limits to how well such efforts can go towards disrupting globally diffuse autonomous terrorist operations and countering violent ideologies and preferred narratives.
After presenting a comprehensive overview of on-going R&D projects and initiatives related to C-IED/CBRNe in Europe, a number of important key questions remain related to future European level actions. One of them is whether EU member states should continue to rely on ad hoc cooperation among willing and capable partners (within and outside NATO) and use NATO as the principle platform for multilateral cooperation on security and defence acquisition.
Another important question is how EU states are affected that are not a member of NATO. Future steps will be dependent on high-level political decisions and understandings based on a shared strategic vision. Multilateral cooperation can only proceed effectively if participating governments are convinced that sharing valuable information may outweigh security, political and economic risks.
J. Hart. C-IED/CBRN security and defence acquisition in the non-state actor context. Presented in meeting on Terrorist use of WMD, at COE-DAT, Ankara, April 2016. (work in progress)