This is the 26th issue of the 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. The TA’s are based on open sources.
End date of collection: April 26, 2017.
Topics covered in this issue of the IBC TA
- Western intelligence reports on Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack criticized by experts leaving open hypothesis of a false flag operation
- More funding needed to reach 2020 goal to eradicate ten neglected tropical diseases (NTDs)
- Global network of alliances aimed at the reduction the threat of the use of dirty bombs weakened by budget cuts of new US administration
- Tensions related to North Korean nuclear activities reach unprecedented level and timeframe for decisive military action appears to be closing
- New report describes major characteristics of five widely used explosive munitions in current on-going armed conflicts
Western intelligence reports on Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack criticized by experts leaving open hypothesis of a false flag operation
- On April 4, a nerve agent attack killed 87 people in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun that was quickly blamed on the Assad regime by international media and Western intelligence agencies.
- The US responded with a symbolic cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase and new sanctions directed against persons linked to a Syrian agency responsible for producing non-conventional weapons.
- Holes in Western intelligence reports about the April 4 attack point at possibility of an alternative hypothesis, a false flag intended to trigger US military action against the Assad regime.
On April 4, a chemical attack killed 87 people in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in the province of Idlib. The victims showed symptoms that assumingly were caused by a nerve gas agent, most likely sarin. The agent reportedly was delivered by air.
The chemical attack provoked a US cruise missile strike on the Syrian Sharyat airbase that was used by the plane that reportedly delivered the sarin. The US government also issued sanctions on 271 people linked to the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), the Syrian agency said to be responsible for producing non-conventional weapons.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on April 19 that sarin or a similar banned toxin had been used in the Khan Sheikhoun attack. The OPCW has no mandate to put blame on an attack. An OPCW fact-finding mission had collected samples that were sent to laboratories and also interviewed witnesses and victims.
Turkish, UK, US, Israeli, Dutch and French government reports have blamed the Assad regime for the sarin attack, citing the results of intelligence and laboratory results of samples taken from the attack site and from victims. French intelligence established that the sarin used in the attack came from Bashar al-Assad’s stockpiles. The French report assesses that the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated the chemical attack using sarin against civilians and that it was delivered with aerial munitions. The US government reached a similar conclusion based on its own intelligence assessment.
Russia has denounced Western reports blaming the Assad regime. It has said that the samples and the fact that the nerve gas agent was used are not enough to prove who was behind the attack.
Several academics and critics have been critical about the Western intelligence reports. They have pointed at many anomalies in the reporting and have emphasized that media and Western governments have jumped to conclusions without a proper investigation. They seem to have forgotten that anti-Assad rebels have already been implicated –by a UN report- in staging a false chemical attack to pin the blame on the Assad government. They also appear to ignore the fact that Donald Trump has given jihadis many reasons to stage false flag attacks with chemical weapons to prompt more US military action.
According to one expert investigation there is no evidence that the attack was the result of a munition being dropped from an aircraft. His analysis indicates that the munition was almost certainly placed on the ground with an external detonating explosive on top of it. In his view the White House again issued an obviously false, misleading and amateurish intelligence report. If the attack was a false flag operation then one important question has not been answered. How were the rebels able to time their attack with the Syrian air attack? Did they have advance knowledge of this air attack in order to be able to blame the Assad regime?
While the US was quick in its response to the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack with a retaliatory symbolic cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase and new sanctions directed against officials linked to SSRC, no definite proof has been presented that the Assad government was responsible for the attack. The gaps in the Western intelligence and media reports allow for another hypothesis, a false flag operation intended to trigger US military action against the Assad regime. Until a proper investigation is being made it cannot be said with certainty which of the two possibilities is true.
More funding needed to reach 2020 goal to eradicate ten neglected tropical diseases (NTDs)
- The 2012 London Declaration identified ten neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) that should be eliminated by 2020 through mass administration of safe and effective drugs or by innovative and intensified disease management.
- Progress is monitored and described in annual reports with a detailed score card for each of the ten identified diseases.
- The goals set for 2020 can only be reached by continued investment by states and private parties as there are still many challenges to overcome.
In 1986, professor David Molyneux decided to brand a number of little known but horrible conditions ‘neglected tropical diseases’ (NTDs), in order to raise their profile and to emphasize that in at least some cases they could be prevented at relatively low costs. While more than a billion people were affected by these NTDs, there were perfectly adequate solutions available at very low costs and known to be capable of working. Nevertheless, the NTDs were overlooked by the scientific community and the pharmaceutical industry.
Molyneux’s efforts resulted in the 2012 London Declaration. The partners that signed the declaration committed themselves to working to control, eliminate or eradicate ten NTDs by 2020 for which there are currently effective drugs or other measures. Five of the diseases could be eliminated through mass administration of safe and effective drugs while the other five remaining diseases could be eliminated by innovative and intensified disease management.
During a period of five years significant progress has been made and some of the ten NTDs have almost been eradicated. The progress being made is described in annual reports that contains a detailed score card for each of the ten diseases. According to the latest annual report human cases of Guinea-work disease and African trypanomiasis (sleeping disease) were substantially reduced in 2015, while trachoma (the world’s main infectious cause of blindness) had been eliminated as a public health problem in Mexico, Morocco and Oman.
Further success is highly dependent on continued financing. The United States has always been a major contributor. But with the ‘America First’ policy of the new US president Donald Trump continued financing has become uncertain. Despite intense lobbying it is uncertain how much money US Congress and the new president will actually commit.
The battle to eradicate the ten identified NTDs by 2020 shows how an alliance of interested parties can gradually eradicate a number of infectious diseases that historically were ignored. There is still a long road to go and many challenges to overcome until 2020. Not all affected populations are covered yet and better data are needed to identify where the diseases are located in various countries. The effort to reach the goals set for 2020 can only succeed with continued and sufficient investment by states and private parties.
Global network of alliances aimed at the reduction the threat of the use of dirty bombs weakened by budget cuts of new US administration
- Smuggling of nuclear material continues in conflict zones and ungoverned territories with links to nuclear reactors and nuclear facilities of the former Soviet Union.
- Global network of alliances aimed at the prevention this type of smuggling is weakened by budget cuts of the new US administration of foreign aid, diplomacy and development programs.
- Continued interest by terrorist organizations in nuclear affairs has stimulated research in new nuclear detection technologies and methods.
Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, radioactive material was frequently stolen from poorly guarded reactors and nuclear facilities in Russia and its former satellite states. Conflict zones and ungoverned territories like Abkhazia, Trans-Dnistr, Donbass and Luhansk are known for smuggling of nuclear material. People living in these zones will try to make a living any way they can, and they may not have any scruples about what they’re smuggling across borders. Georgia reportedly sits on the ‘nuclear highway’, a smuggling route that runs from Russia down to the Caucasus Mountains to Iran, Turkey and from there to the caliphate of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Over the last few years a number of cases have been reported in which attempts were made to smuggle nuclear material. In most cases these were small amounts of low grade material.
The United States has been actively involved in aid programs aimed at the prevention of nuclear smuggling. It helped install nuclear detectors at borders, trained police units to intercept traffickers and provided intelligence and equipment to local regulators of nuclear material. Georgia, for example, did receive more than $50m. in US aid to counter the trade in nuclear materials.
US President Donald Trump has taken steps that threaten to weaken the existing system to prevent nuclear smuggling. By cutting the budgets for foreign aid, diplomacy and development programs, he limits the possibilities to maintain the global network of alliances against nuclear trafficking.
In the mean time, there are indications that Daesh has an interest in nuclear affairs. The organization has stated in its propaganda outlets that it has sufficient financial resources to buy a nuclear device on the black market. The organization also monitored the activities of a nuclear expert in Belgium assumingly with the aim to acquire nuclear material. It is also reported that the organization stole 40 kg of radioactive uranium from Mosul University in Iraq. The uranium is said to be of ‘low grade’ and not potentially harmful.
The treat of the use of dirty bombs by terrorist organizations has stimulated research aimed at detection. The SIGMA program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Activity (DARPA) is focused on the development of new detection methods. Last February it outfitted fire and emergency medical services ambulances in Washington with radiological detectors that were used to draw a real time map of radiation levels in the city. After evaluation the system may be refined so that it eventually may also be deployed in other cities. The program may also consider incorporating other vehicles in addition to ambulances.
In an earlier treat assessment IB Consultancy reported on a Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) report assessing the security threats of radiological materials that was issued during the Nuclear Summit in 2016. The report made specific recommendations for improving radiological security. It emphasized the importance of raising awareness about the threat, the development of a more effective system for securing radiological sources, and the replacement of the use of dangerous isotopes with alternate technologies, where feasible.
The budget cuts by the new US administration is likely to weaken the global network of alliances to prevent nuclear smuggling. New smuggling attempts have been reported while Daesh has shown an interest in nuclear affairs and may already possess material that can be used for the assembly of dirty bombs. Monitoring systems in conflict zones and ungoverned territories have deteriorated. These negative trends may point at a greater risk of the use of a dirty bomb by a terrorist organization.
Tensions related to North Korean nuclear activities reach unprecedented level and timeframe for decisive military action appears to be closing
- Time frame for decisive military action appears to be closing as May 9 election in South Korea approaches
- US strategy focused on applying overwhelming military and economic pressure to force North Korea to freeze its nuclear tests and reduce its nuclear arsenal
- Deployment of large-scale military assets in the region increases the risk of unwanted escalation
Since our last month threat assessment the North Korean nuclear crisis reached a new unprecedented peak level of war rhetoric and deployment of military assets posturing for a maximum show of force. The timeframe for military action seems to close as the upcoming elections in South Korea on May 9 are approaching. It is assumed that a new South Korean government would be less willing to support a hardline approach by the US.
North Korea is gradually expanding its nuclear arsenal with one nuclear bomb every six or seven weeks, and will soon be capable to hit the US with a nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. The regime still has to overcome several technical problems but is expected to reach that goal in about four to five years. North Korea is using two pathways to expand its nuclear arsenal: uranium and plutonium. As the country has factories that produces lithium 6, it is also assumed that the country is aiming for a hydrogen bomb.
April 15: North Korea tested an apparent nuclear capable ballistic missile. It blew up almost immediately after launching. According to some reports the explosion of the missile may have been the result of US cyber warfare activity. The regime appears to be hesitant to test the missile types that are intended to reach the continental US.
April 25: North Korea celebrated the 85th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean army. The regime marked the occasion with a large-scale artillery drill.
As the US administration loses its patience with the North Korean regime, the Trump administration held an emergency meeting at the White House on April 26. At the meeting some of the military actions were laid out as well as the Pentagon’s view of the current situation. The Senate was also briefed on the US posture and activities.
April 26: The US military began transporting parts of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area defense (THAAD) missile system to a planned deployment site in South Korea.
April 28: The UN Security Council will discuss additional sanctions against North Korea.
In the last week of April the first ships of the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group are expected to arrive in South Korea. The group will conduct large-scale and high-profile joint operations with the South Korean Navy. The USS Michigan plus a mini-sub marine for transporting Navy SEAL commando teams ashore has pulled in the South Korean harbor of Busan. The ship possesses unprecedented strike and special operation mission capabilities from a stealthy, clandestine platform.
In response to the US warnings North Korea has threatened the US with ‘all out war’ and announced that it would continue to test missiles on a weekly basis. The North Korean regime says its missile and nuclear program act as deterrence against possible invasion by its adversaries, particularly the US.
China has opposed any move against North Korea that runs counter to the UN Security Council resolutions already in place against the regime. China’s current diplomatic pressure is focused on the prevention of a sixth North Korean nuclear test. In doing so it may prevent North Korea from making advances in warhead miniaturization and the design of a hydrogen bomb.
In the past month the US administration has indicated several times that all options, including a military strike, were being considered to halt North Korea’s missile and nuclear activities. The US strategy appears to be focused on the application of overwhelming pressure on North Korea, both militarily and economic, to freeze its testing and reduce its stockpile. North Korea is not likely to give up all its nuclear weapons as it regards a small arsenal as critical to its survival.
It is assumed that the US will be under pressure to take decisive military action before the upcoming May 9 elections in South Korea. Even if a diplomatic solution can be found it is feared that the cumulative weight of so many opposing military assets in the region can easily spiral out of control and could result in unwanted escalation. If it comes to military action and a pre-emptive US military strike, experts have warned that North Korea is capable of devastating retaliatory attacks against South Korea, Japan and the US. It is assumed that these retaliatory attacks may also include chemical attacks.
New report describes major characteristics of five widely used explosive munitions in current on-going armed conflicts
- A new GICHD report assesses the effects, the accuracy & precision, and characteristics of use of five explosive weapon types that are widely used in populated areas in on-going armed conflicts.
- Any decision on the method of employment and timing of an attack with explosive weapons, including the choice of optimal munition type and fuse configuration, can assist in mitigating wide area effects.
- A better understanding of the ramifications of the use of explosive munitions in populated areas may contribute to an informed debate and changes in military doctrine aimed at harm reduction to civilians and civilian structures.
Last February the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) published its final report of its two-year research project on the characterization of explosive weapons. The report reviews five common weapons categories that are widely used in populated areas in on-going armed conflicts. These are: the 122 mm multi-barrel rocket launcher, 81-122 mm mortars, 152-155 mm artillery guns, 115-125 tanks guns and the MK82 aircraft bomb. The report describes and explains the destructive effects on humans and structures of these five weapon categories.
The effects of the use of these high explosive-munitions within populated areas are influenced substantially by the presence of built structures and geographical features. The report shows how vehicles, housing, commercial property, factories, schools, hospitals etc. may provide some protection from primary and secondary explosive weapons effects but that they also can amplify these effects due to the channeling and reflective blast waves. Buildings and vehicles contribute glass, rubble and other debris to the fragmentation from the weapons.
Fuel sources or toxic chemicals within the munitions impact zone may pose a further deadly hazard to humans, as does the compromised structural stability of buildings, which may be prone to collapse.
Humans are particularly vulnerable to blast over pressure and reflected blast waves. Surviving an explosive weapons attack with only surface bruises visible does not exclude ruptured eardrums, damaged lungs, internal bleeding, brain damage, infections and poisoning, and bone fracturing.
Key findings of the report include the following:
- Any decision on the method of employment and timing of an attack with explosive weapons, including the choice of optimal munition type and fuse configuration, can assist in mitigating wide area effects.
- Case studies indicate that the critical assessment of the probable damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure prior to the use of specific explosive weapons was in many cases inadequate. In addition, recommendations generated by such assessments were quite often not followed, resulting in substantial collateral damage.
- Additional research is necessary to better understand, quantify and prepare for the various effects of secondary fragmentation, debris and other deadly sources of hazard in populated areas.
- The lack of standardized terms to describe arms and munitions and their effects in populated areas still is an impediment to the accurate characterization of explosive weapons.
- While indirect fire en masse still is a highly effective method for a quick delivery of lethal power to incapacitate an area target, it is unsuitable for populated areas considering the presence of civilians and civilian objects.
The new GICHD report fills an important knowledge gap of the humanitarian consequences related to explosive weapons use. By narrowing this gap it is hoped that harm to civilians can be reduced and that the ramifications of using explosives in populated areas are better understood. It is hoped that a better understanding of the destructive effects of selected explosive weapons may inform the international debate. Another hope is that increasing awareness of the substantial area effects of explosive weapons may result in changes of military doctrine concerning good tactical use of air-launched weapons.