This month’s Threat Assessment includes:
- Hyped fear of an unconventional Daesh threat to Europe exploited to mobilize political support for stronger military action in Syria
- As anthrax alert in Brussels turned out to be baking powder the green light has been given in the US to develop a new anthrax diagnostic test
- New peak in radioactivity levels at the Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear power plant in Japan complicates decommissioning work
- IAEA report about military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program clears the way for a new resolution
- Dismantling of Daesh production site of suicide vests dismantled in Gaziantep prevents new attacks in Turkey
The Threat Assessments are based on open sources. End date of collection: December 11, 2015.
Hyped fear of an unconventional Daesh threat to Europe exploited to mobilize political support for stronger military action in Syria
Since the Paris attacks in early November there have been continued warnings by politicians and experts about Daesh ambitions to attack Europe with unconventional means. The reporting did not refer to specific intelligence but to general information that has been around for some time. Previous IBC Threat Assessments covered the Daesh program to develop a chemical warfare capability. The assessments also mentioned the recruitment of operatives with specific scientific expertise and former government employees that dealt with chemical programs of governments. The recent warnings allege that Daesh already has smuggled substances into Europe without being specific on the nature and the quantities of these substances. It is also claimed that Daesh may exploit the failure of EU governments to share information on ongoing threats. The fear level in Europe was also heightened by the suspicious theft of chemical protection gear from a hospital in France and the discovery of a gas mask in an illegal weapon depot in the United Kingdom. A new document by the European parliament summarized the available information about the Daesh threat to Europe.
Early December, the 20th session of the Conference of the State Parties to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was held in The Hague. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) published a statement in which it focused on two matters that deserve more attention. The first is the lack of international capacity specifically to assist the victims of any use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons. The second is the development of highly toxic chemicals as weapons of law enforcement, so-called ‘incapacitating chemical agents’ or ‘central nervous system-acting chemicals.’ The ICRC emphasized the need for legislation to restrict the use of toxic chemicals as weapons for law enforcement purposes to riot control agents only.
While the Syrian representative at the OPCW meeting denied that the Syrian government had ever used chemical weapons in the 4-year war and is fully cooperating with the destruction of its toxic stockpile, representatives of other countries expressed serious doubts whether the Assad-regime is truly committed to ridding the country of all chemical arms. They have pointed at gaps and contradictions in the declarations handed over by the Syrian government. Based on three internal reports by investigative teams that were issued in October, the OPCW also has expressed grave concern at the continued use of toxic weapons in Syria, not only by the government but also by terrorist groups.
The Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), installed earlier this year on the basis of a UN Security Council resolution, became operational on November 13, and is expected to produce its first report in February 2016. Under its mandate the JIM has to identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria. While the headquarters of the JIM is in New York, the investigative unit is located in The Hague. It also has a liaison-office in Damascus facilitated by the UN political office.
In late November, Kurdish sources reported another attempt by Daesh to use chemical weapons in the fighting along the Gwer-Makhmour frontline in Iraq. Mortars filled with chemicals were discovered and defused before they could be used. On December 7, an air strike by the Iraqi air force on Samarra Island reportedly killed thirty Daesh operatives, including fifteen French ‘experts’ on chemical weapons. No further information was available on these French operatives and on what role they played. An OPCW fact-finding mission has visited Iraq to find information on earlier incidents of the use of chemical weapons by Daesh against Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The Iraqi Defense Ministry prepared a draft report on the issue.
The recent warnings about an unconventional threat by Daesh to Europe following the Paris attacks are not based on new information. The concise summary published by the European Parliament is based on information that has been around for some time and does not contain new intelligence information. Nevertheless, the mainstream media have used the report to hype the terrorist threat. This has contributed to a heightened level of fear in society that is exploited by European governments to justify stronger military action in Syria. As the United Kingdom has decided to begin air strikes in Syria, it is likely that it will face a retaliatory mass casualty attack, just as France and Russia were hit after they had stepped up air operations in Syria. Other countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Italy have shown more restraint although the debate about their contribution to the international coalition still continues.
The new attempt by Daesh to use chemical weapons against the Peshmerga illustrates that the organization still possesses low-quality improvised chemical weapons, which can be strategically deployed to cause panic. The recent airstrike on chemical experts indicates that the chemical branch of Daesh has the attention of the intelligence services and will be hit when sufficient targeting information is available. On the basis of available information it is unlikely that Daesh will be capable to develop sophisticated chemical weapons like nerve gas or biological agents and use them against Europe. It is more likely that it will send European operatives trained in Syria back to Europe to make contact with local networks to execute Paris-style attacks in other European countries participating in the international coalition against Syria.
As anthrax alert in Brussels turned out to be baking powder the green light has been given in the US to develop a new anthrax diagnostic test
Envelopes containing a white powder thought to be anthrax but actually flour were discovered at the Grand Mosque in Brussels in November, which is located close to the headquarters of the European Union. Several people exposed to the white powder were hospitalized. The discovery of the powder-laced envelopes came in the wake of the attacks in Paris. Following a series of arrests related to these attacks, the Belgian authorities decided to reduce the threat level from four to three.
In the US, the company First Light Biosciences, Inc. of Bedford, Massachusetts signed a contract for the development of an anthrax diagnostic test for use in a doctor’s office, hospital, clinic or field setting that will provide results within twenty minutes.
The diagnostic device that is being developed by the company will also be able to provide rapid antimicrobial susceptibility testing results within three to four hours, allowing for the early identification of drug-resistant anthrax. The earlier such infections are identified, the more quickly appropriate alternative therapy can be provided.
Suspicious envelopes with white powder are a regular occurrence in European countries and usually do not attract much attention in order to prevent evacuations and paralysis of official agencies or institutions. In most cases innocent flour is used and the perpetrators are mostly motivated by anger or revenge. They assume that the suspicious envelopes will cause panic and disrupt normal operations in an office or agency as authorities decide to evacuate buildings. During high terrorism alert conditions authorities are under pressure to take no risks and are likely to activate decontamination units. Hyped media attention for this type of incidents contribute to a higher level of fear in society and often result in copy-cat incidents. These copy-cat could be prevented if media show more restraint in reporting on these incidents.
In case of real anthrax threats, the quick diagnosis of anthrax infections would aid doctors and other healthcare workers in providing life-saving antibiotics, anthrax antitoxins, and other necessary supportive care to infected patients. Anthrax victims initially exhibit flu-like symptoms, so it is vital after an event to distinguish victims in the early stages of anthrax infection from those with similar symptoms. With the new diagnostic test under development, doctors will soon be able to make more timely decisions.
New peak in radioactivity levels at the Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear power plant in Japan complicates decommissioning work
Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) discharged 850 tons of formerly contaminated water it had extracted from the ground near the plant into the sea, saying a filtration process had now made it safe. It was the first time the plant has released once radioactive water into nature after a years-long battle with fishermen, who feared it could destroy their livelihood. Other highly radioactive water used to cool the reactors four years ago and which is still kept in tanks in the plant reportedly could be a potential threat. Early December, TEPCO reported a sharp rise in the levels of radioactivity in underground tunnels at the plant. It detected 482,000 becquerels per liter of radioactive cesium in water samples taken from the tunnels in early December. That’s 4000 times higher than data taken in December last year.
TEPCO has built a 780-meter coastal wall along the damaged reactor of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in an attempt to stifle the flow of tainted water into the sea. A new inspection into the construction was completed in late October. Cracks were discovered along the perimeter of the wall in the embankment’s pavement. Rising groundwater levels have been blamed for the cracks. Repairs are needed to make sure that rain does not increase the groundwater levels even further. TEPCO claimed that the structure should reduce the amount of radioactive cesium and strontium flowing into the sea to one fortieth of previous levels, while the tritium levels should be reduced to one-fifteenth.
Monitoring by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution indicates that radiation from Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster has spread off North American shores. Contamination by radioactive isotopes is increasing at previously identified sites, although levels are reported to be still too low to threaten human or ocean life. Trace amounts of cesium-134 have been detected within several hundred kilometers of the Oregon, Washington and California coasts in recent months, as well as offshore from Canada’s Vancouver Island. Another isotope, cesium-137, a radioactive legacy of nuclear weapons tests conducted from the 1950s through the 1970s, was found at low levels in nearly every seawater sample tested by Woods Hole, a nonprofit research institution.
After the Fukushima disaster the Bruce Power nuclear site in Ontario, Canada developed a new gamma monitoring system. The innovative system was installed following the Fukushima accident and is intended to develop a world-class emergency response program. The goal of the project was to devise and deploy a strategy that would improve emergency response communications, and bolster radiological-monitoring systems. A customized centralized, analytical software tool has been developed that will enable all responders to access a “single version of the truth” in the event of an emergency. These new tools and associated processes are expected to reduce the risk of radiation exposure for first responders in the field. They may also diminish the potential for erroneous or conflicting data that could hamper response efforts in a rapidly evolving situation. The new tools are presented as a cost-effective way to improve radiological monitoring and response capabilities while enhancing collaboration and communication between the utilities and government agencies.
In November, a Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs discussed the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster and the risks of nuclear power generation. While some experts called for a cautious approach in response to the 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, others presented the case for continued use of atomic energy. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, who served as chairman of the Parliamentary Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, emphasized that safety awareness was insufficient in Japan. During the meeting he suggested that measures to deal with nuclear accidents be formulated in an open forum with international experts contributing.
In the case of the Fukushima disaster the official authorities including the Japanese government, the IAEA and the US government failed and refused to tell the public about the meltdown. Declassified documents show that the US National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC) was informed within weeks after the accident about the melt downs. According to this document NARAC was informed that 25 percent of the total fuel in unit 2, 50 percent of the total spent fuel from unit 3, and 100 percent of the total spent fuel from unit 4 was released into the atmosphere.
While the first release of previously contaminated water into the sea may reduce the problem of wastewater, other highly radioactive fluid still stored on site could pose a major threat. The newly discovered cracks in the wall to prevent the leaking of contaminated water into the sea adds to the continuing problem of waste water management. The cause of the spike in the radioactivity level found in early December is still being investigated and complicates the decommissioning work. As radioactive isotopes are still spreading in the ocean and reaching North American shores monitors have established that the reported contamination levels are still too low to threaten human or ocean life.
The new emergency preparedness tools developed in Canada are likely to reduce the risk of radiation exposure for first responders in the field and diminish the potential for erroneous or conflicting data that could hamper response efforts in a rapidly evolving situation. The new tools may prove to be a cost-effective way to improve radiological monitoring and response capabilities while enhancing collaboration and communication between the utilities and government agencies. While the nuclear industry is still trying to recover from the Fukushima disaster scientists have recommended to discuss the consequences of nuclear accidents in a more transparent way. This will be necessary as the appetite for nuclear power is on the rise with several dozen developing countries seriously considering the use of nuclear power.
IAEA report about military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program clears the way for a new resolution
Ninety days after an agreement was reached between Iran and the P5+1 Group in July, Iran has begun to dismantle components of its nuclear program that could be used to build nuclear weapons. Iranian hardline parliamentarians, however, have tried to sabotage the speed of the dismantling process of centrifuges, arguing that the deal should only be implemented once allegations of past military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program had been settled. In November, the IAEA published a report on this issue that concluded that Iran had conducted activities relevant to developing nuclear weapons until at least the end of 2003. But the activities didn’t go past planning and basic component experiments. The findings of the report will be discussed during the IAEA Board of Governors in mid December. It is expected that a resolution will be adopted that will result in the annulling of previous resolutions that do not match existing realities. This development is expected to contribute to Iran’s willingness to cooperate with the implementation of the deal reached last summer.
In October and November Iran has tested new types of missiles (Emad and Ghadr-110) that are expected to have a greater degree of accuracy. It is currently being reviewed whether these tests violate UNSC resolution 1929 that prohibits Iran from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles. Iran maintains that the tests did not violate the agreement signed in July. However, according to a July 20 resolution endorsing the deal, Iran is still called upon to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons, for up to eight years. Iran denies that the recently tested missiles were capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.
As sanctions against Iran are being lifted the country is expected to step up its oil exports to North Korea, possibly in a barter arrangement for weapons or technological knowledge. The two countries have cooperated in the past on a wide variety of military ventures, including the sharing of information on weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology. As North Korea has limited hard currency of its own, it may be willing to trade knowledge for desperately needed oil. Iran needs this knowledge now its own development projects are strictly monitored under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The discussions with the Iranian government on the implementation of the deal reached last summer will continue for years to come. Domestically hardliners will try to slow down the process of the dismantling of centrifuges and adaptation of nuclear facilities. The Iranian government will, however, be careful not to do things that may trigger new sanctions and harm the national economy. As sanctions have been lifted it will now be possible to export oil to former allies in barter agreements in exchange for military hardware or technological knowledge. Also the debate on missile development will continue. While maintaining that the development program has nothing to do with a nuclear program Iran may develop an arsenal of more accurate missiles that can be used for more specific targeting purposes and expand its military options.
Dismantling of Daesh production site of suicide vests dismantled in Gaziantep prevents new attacks in Turkey
The Ankara Prosecutor’s Office had said in a written statement on Oct. 28 that a sleeper cell based in Gaziantep was behind the twin suicide bombings in Ankara on Oct. 10. According to the investigation, there is evidence that the involved organization also was involved in the attacks against the HDP in Adana and Mersin, the bomb attack at the HDP rally in Diyarbakir and the bomb attack in Suruc. One of the suicide bombers in the Ankara twin blasts was identified as Yunus Emre Alagöz, a Daesh militant. He is the brother of another Daesh militant, Şeyh Abdurrahman Alagöz, the perpetrator of the Suruç bombing that killed 33 and wounded more than 100 in late July in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa. Three weeks after this attack, thirty ready-to-use suicide vests reportedly were seized in the country in anti-terror operations against Daesh.
The Turkish investigators discovered that the plotters maintained a high-level of operational security. They purchased standard market hair dye to use during bomb-making, in order to not attract attention while purchasing hydrogen peroxide. The Daesh plotters had decided to conduct attacks and to send suicide bombers into Kilis over the border either one day before or on the day of the attacks in Ankara. They were taken to cell houses and given bombing materials before being transferred to the site of the attacks. The plotters communicated with each other through social media or courier.
In the mean time, the Turkish government has announced plans to intensity its struggle against Daesh. Turkey will continue to support global anti-Daesh efforts in close cooperation with its regional and international partners. This may motivate Daesh to continue executing attacks in Turkey. The Turkish government has been informed by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) about a Daesh threat against American interests in Turkey, including consulates, embassies, residences and military bases.
Ankara has developed plans for ending the Daesh presence near its border in northern Syria. Daesh supply routes for electronic bomb components and precursors such as aluminum oxide and fertilizer run via Turkey. Turkish companies are known to sell equipment to clients who then secretly pass it on to the terrorist organization. During the year 2015 the Turkish military detained 913 Daesh militants who tried to cross the Turkish border in an attempt to get to Syria.
Daesh may have decided to produce suicide belts in Turkey from scratch after Turkish police had discovered suicide belts in Gaziantep and Kilis during counterterrorism operations in 2014. Following the recent discovery of the houses in Gaziantep used by Daesh militants, the Turkish police reportedly has been able to prevent further attacks planned by the organization such as suicide bomb attacks against a gathering in Gaziantep due to be attended by Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ, a HDP rally in Istanbul, and the G-20 Summit in Antalya.
The discovery of the houses in Gaziantep illustrates that Turkey is not only used as a hub for launching attacks but also that the country increasingly has become a target of Daesh terrorism. The recent announcement by the Turkish government to end the Daesh presence on its border with Syria is a clear shift from its previous stance. Over the past years Daesh used Turkey as a location for rest and recreation, medical treatment and supply route for personnel and material, sometimes with the active involvement of Turkish intelligence. Limited access to the border due to war activity reportedly has already resulted in price increases for weaponry, ammunition and other equipment.