This is the fourth issue of the new feature called the IBC Threat Assessment 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. This week’s topics include: Daesh chemical weapon development program degraded with the targeted killing of one of its key chemical experts, a revival of the field of antibiotics discovery may contribute to the solution of the AMR health crisis, public inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium 210 in the United Kingdom, micro-cracks in the reactor pressure vessels (RPVs) of nuclear reactors may be a wider problem for the whole nuclear sector in Belgium, as well as the elimination of Jemaah Islamiyah’s explosives expert Zulkifli bin Hir (aka Marwan) in a targeted killing complicates peace negotiations in the Philippines. The Threat Assessments are based on open sources.
Iraq: Daesh chemical weapon development program degraded with the targeted killing of one of its key chemical experts
* Daesh tries to develop a chemical weapon capability building on the experiences a decade ago of its predecessor al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI).
* Until now the effect on the battlefield of adding chlorine to car bombs or to mortars has been limited.
* With the upcoming military offensive aimed at the city of Mosul, it can be expected that Daesh possibly will use its limited chemical weapon capability for defensive purposes, if it is not already disrupted by the coalition before the offensive begins.
Salih Jasim Muhammed Falah al-Sabawi (aka Abu Malik), a chemical weapons expert for Daesh, was killed in a coalition airstrike near Mosul on the 24th January. He reportedly provided Daesh with expertise to pursue a chemical weapons capability. Before he was killed he was said to be assembling a stockpile of specialized gear about which no specific details were given. Abu Malik was tracked for weeks before he was killed and Iraqi police rounded up several of his close associates. It is significant that Abu Malik was killed near Mosul, the largest population center (1,5 million people) under the control of Daesh.
Abu Malik had worked at Saddam Hussein’s al-Muthanna chemical weapon production facility, before he linked up with al-Qai’da in Iraq (AQI) in 2005. In the spring of 2007, AQI had experimented with the use of chlorine in truck bombs in Fallujah and Ramadi. At the time the US military discovered the factory where the car bombs were prepared.
In the past months there were strong indications that Daesh, the organization that replaced AQI, has continued the use of chlorine in terrorist operations and on the battlefield. A new factory was discovered in Karma, east of Fallujah, that could be linked to recent attacks in which chlorine was used. When the factory was raided five vehicles, mortar and artillery rounds, propane tanks, barrels of chlorine and nitroglycerine was found. In October 2014, another factory was discovered in Jurf al-Sakhar, where rockets were filed with chlorine. The use of 82 mm mortar shells filled with chlorine, were used against army troops in the al-Fadellya area.
In late January 2015, a chlorine gas factory exploded in the city of Mosul. Several dozen people were treated in hospital with breathing problems as a result of the gas. A panic caused many people to flee to other parts of the city. Kurdish intelligence sources reported that Daesh was operating ten chlorine factories in the west of the city and that it had accidentally destroyed one of the operations. They also reported that Daesh had used chlorine in clashes with Peshmerga fighters in battles west of Mosul.
The 2005 experiments of AQI with chlorine truck bombs had not been very effective. Despite this fact Daesh is building on AQI’s experiences of a decade ago and set up its own factories and hired the same technicians with chemical weapon expertise.
In the past months Daesh reportedly has been involved in a number of attacks against the Iraqi army and against Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. In some cases they have used car bombs with chlorine and in other cases mortar shells filled with chlorine were used. In most cases the chlorine did not have a significant added value, except maybe for the first confirmed case of the use of chlorine on the battlefield in Saqlawijah in September 2014.
As the Iraqi army with the support of the international coalition, is preparing a large scale military offensive against the city of Mosul, Daesh probably will use chlorine for defensive instead of offensive purposes. With the use of chlorine territory can be denied to an approaching opponent or escape routes can be created. This could be a reason why Daesh is operating multiple factories in the city.
In an attempt to deny Daesh from developing its chemical weapon program further, the US eliminated Abu Malik in a targeted killing, as he was seen as one of the key persons. While his death may have had a degrading effect, it cannot be excluded that other Arab Sunni technicians with chemical weapon expertise, who worked at the al-Muthanna facility in the past, will be hired by Daesh to continue the program. More coalition activity can be expected to disrupt the chemical weapon program of Daesh before the military offensive against Mosul begins.
A revival of the field of antibiotics discovery may contribute to the solution of the AMR health crisis
* The worsening health crisis of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) could reach catastrophic levels in the coming decades if nothing is being done.
* The development of the iChip opens the road for the discovery of new antibiotics.
* The establishment of an AMR Innovation Fund will contribute to a revival of the field of antibiotics discovery.
Health organizations have been warning for several years for the growing health crisis of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) which could result in a situation in which common infections can no longer be treated and would kill many people. This growing problem could reach catastrophic consequences in the near future if not taken serious. According to one estimate the true cost of AMR will be 300 million premature deaths and up to $ 100 trillion lost to the global economy by 2050. It is a global and complex issue which cannot be solved by anyone country acting in isolation.
The UK government has established an AMR review commission in 2014 that has to formulate recommendations to deal with the issue. The commission issued its first report in last December, which contains an initial list of recommendations. The final recommendations are expected in 2016. The commission found that the level of investment in antibiotics research compared to other health crises is very low and recommends the establishment of a global AMR Innovation Fund.
Since 1987 no new classic antibiotics have been discovered. But this may change as scientists at Northwestern University in Boston, Massachusetts, have developed a new method to grow bacteria in soil. With a new device called the iChip they expect that nearly half of all soil bacteria can be grown. On the basis of their experiments they have discovered 25 new antibiotics. One of them, the teixobactin, is the latest and said to be the most promising. The researchers claim that it could be used for the treatment of Gram-positive bacteria like MRSA and mycobacterium tuberculosis but not for Gram-negative bacteria like E.coli. They also claim that bacteria are unlikely to develop resistance to teixobactin. First tests on mice have been performed but it will take another two years before clinical tests with humans can be done.
The development of the iChip looks promising. The new method is likely to open the road to the discovery of other antibiotics. The uncultured bacteria in soil do harbor novel chemistry that was not known before. The discovery of teixobactin may contribute to a revival of the field of antibiotic discovery. The field has been neglected for some time due to the low level of R&D investments. A wide debate of the reports of the British review commission may contribute to a greater awareness of the AMR crisis and a boost of investments. The commission calculated that a solution to the AMR crisis would cost much less than 0.1 percent of global GDP and rightfully argues that this would be a wise investment weighed against the high number of premature deaths and tremendous future economic losses in the coming decades.
United Kingdom: Public inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium 210
* The long upheld public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko provides important details of the forensic investigation of the first case of an attack with the very lethal alpha radiation emitting isotope polonium 210.
* In addition to the evidence on the tasking and execution of the murder and the possible motive, the inquiry provides interesting insights into the activities of a former spy trying to make a living, and selling his services to several Western intelligence agencies and private companies.
* As the inquiry is likely to have a negative effect on the reputation of Vladimir Putin, the already worsening relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia is likely to deteriorate further. More intimidating aviation incidents and intensified information warfare can be expected as the inquiry is coming to a end.
In the last week of January a long delayed public inquiry began into the death of former-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko who was murdered in November 2006 in London. He died of alpha particle radiation poisoning after ingesting a lethal dose of polonium 210 that was put in his tea during a meeting in a hotel bar. The murder had no precedent and triggered a large-scale and very complex forensic investigation. The current public inquiry will last about ten weeks and more than 70 witnesses will testify. Their testimonies are expected to provide more and new details about the motive, tasking and execution of the murder. Also details will be presented on the difficulties in collecting information on the radiation effects on persons, localities and means of transportation that played a role in the murder.
In an attempt to find a motive for the murder the inquiry will also provide more details about Litvinenko’s activities in the United Kingdom and his dealings with Western intelligence services and private companies. He acted as paid consultant for MI6. The British intelligence service provided him with a passport on another name. This allowed him o travel freely in Europe. He was invited by the Italian Mitrochin Commission to provide information about links between Italian politicians and the FSB. This brought him into contact with influential Russian criminals who on their turn maintained contacts with the Italian mafia. He also provided due diligence services for a private company active in Russia. Litvinenko’s interviews with the police at his deathbed will be released for the first time. During these interviews he blamed the FSB and Vladimir Putin personally for his death.
The inquiry will try to find answers to the question why such a scarce and expensive substance was used for an assassination that could have been executed with more simple and cheaper means. The inquiry will also try to determine whether the killing was ordered by the Russian state or rogue elements within it. There are strong indications that the motive for the murder may have been related to the fact that Alexander Litvinenko was involved in exposing corruption in Russia and linking Vladimir Putin with key figures in Russian organized crime, including Semion Mogilevich.
After the first day of the inquiry Vladimir Putin showed his annoyance by sending two Tupolev 95 ‘Bear’ fighter planes over the British Channel that turned off their transponders creating an aviation incident. On February 18, a similar incident occurred in Cornwall. Russian media began an intense information operation indicating that Russia would reveal more details about 9/11, in order to distract media attention from the inquiry in London. This may be related to an alleged US Department of Energy (DOE) investigation into advanced explosives used in the 9/11 attack. Russian intelligence may have gained access to this report that was kept secret by the American government.
The public inquiry had been upheld as the British government did not want to endanger its relationship with Russia. It therefore refused to give access to secret MI6 information. That situation changed after the escalation of events in Ukraine in 2014. In the summer of 2014 the green light was given for the inquiry and MI6 was ordered to provide insight into secret documents that point in the direction of a state sanctioned murder. It is still unclear whether Vladimir Putin ordered the murder himself or whether it was instigated be rogue elements in the Russian FSB intelligence service.
A high concentration of polonium 210 was found in Litvinenko’s body. The forensic investigation found that this scarce and very expensive substance was probably produced at a facility under state control, most likely Avangard, a protected nuclear facility of ROSATOM, Russia’s atomic agency. It is highly unlikely that ordinary criminals could have had access to this lethal and expensive isotope. This makes the theory of a state sanctioned murder more likely.
The inquiry provided information indicating that the identified perpetrators acted clumsily and did not really know what kind of substance they were dealing with. They actually had to make a second attempt to poison Litvinenko, as the first attempt failed. This would support the theory that the perpetrators had wanted to hide that they had poisoned Litvinenko with the polonium. It still remains an open question why they chose such a difficult and risky method.
Russia has depicted the inquiry as a form of political theater and is downplaying the role of Alexander Litvinenko within the FSB. But as the outcome of the inquiry probably will have a negative impact on Vladimir Putin’s reputation, intimidating aviation incidents and information warfare are likely to increase and intensify as the inquiry is coming to an end.
Belgium: Micro-cracks in the reactor pressure vessels (RPVs) of nuclear reactors may be a wider problem for the whole nuclear sector
* The problem of micro-cracks in reactor pressure vessels (RPVs) of nuclear reactors is more severe than previously believed and probably not unique for Belgium.
* The outcome of additional tests and research will determine whether shut reactors can be re-started later this year.
* Nuclear oversight agencies should force operators to execute tests of reactors worldwide using a sensitive ultrasonic inspection technique.
In the threat update of December 2014 a reference was made to problems with Belgian nuclear reactors. Micro-cracks were discovered in the reactor pressure vessels (RPVs) and the Doel 3 and Tihange 2 reactors were shut down for a second time after unexpected results of a fracture toughness test were found. Electrabel, the operator of the reactors, was forced by the Federaal Agentschap voor Nucleaire Controle (FANC) to execute additional tests to support its Safety Case, before a decision can be made to start the reactors again. One of the tests concerned the measurement of hydrogen induced flaw indications with an ultrasonic inspection technique. In February, the test was completed showing that significant more flaw indications were found in both reactors.
Electrabel is currently continuing its research on the material properties of the RPVs and the results of a fracture toughness test. The findings are expected by April. They will be used for a planned meeting of an international panel of experts. After analysis of the new information and the outcome of this expert panel the Belgian security authorities will have to decide on restarting the reactors.
Safety issues with current reactor technologies may stimulate research into alternative safer production methods, including thorium reactors. The United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan, Israel have active thorium research programs, and China and India may introduce fully functional thorium reactors in the coming years. The technology using thorium reportedly produces less waste and is safer. Another benefit is that it is less practical for making a bomb.
The new research findings and outcome of an international expert panel point at a serious problem with the Belgian reactors. There is a risk that the micro-cracks that have been discovered may become bigger making the RPVs less safe. After the results have come in of other tests in the coming months, the FANC probably will have a better base for making the decision on restarting the reactors. A negative decision will have consequences for the Belgian electricity supply and will force the Belgian government to look for alternatives.
The problems with the Belgian reactors are probably not unique. That is why the FANC has informed other international and European nuclear oversight agencies about the Belgian problems. It could be a worldwide problem for the whole nuclear sector. That is why the recommendation has been made to inspect all 430 nuclear reactors in the world with the sensitive ultrasonic inspection method to identify micro-cracks in RPVs. If similar problems are found elsewhere, the standards for the construction of RPVs probably have to be adapted. The current safety problems are likely to stimulate research into other safer technologies.
Philippines: Elimination of Jemaah Islamiyah’s explosives expert Zulkifli bin Hir (aka Marwan) in a targeted killing complicates peace negotiations
* With the targeted killing of explosives expert Zulkifli bin Hir (aka Marwan) Jemaah Islamiyah has lost an important key asset.
* The large death toll of operation Exodus on the police side caused a serious political crisis for President Benigno Aquino and complicated ongoing peace negotiations.
* The postponement of the creation of a muslim government in the south could motivate insurgent organizations to take up arms again.
Jemaah Islamiyah explosives expert Zulkifli bin Hir (aka Marwan) who was hiding in Central Mindanao since the year 2000, was killed on the 25th of January in a large-scale counterterrorism operation in Mamasapano. The village is close to a known stronghold of the Bangsa Moro Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which did not observe a ceasefire. After the night raid the involved police commandos were forced to withdraw to an area where they clashed with fighters of the MILF, who were not informed about the operation. A twelve-hour firefight resulted in the death of 44 SAF police commandos and five MILF fighters.
Marwan was US-educated with an electrical engineering degree from Arizona University. From 1990 to 1994 he trained with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Later he trained members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and played a role in a terrorist plot against Western targets in the Philippines and Malaysia, by arranging a large quantity of ammonium nitrate. He also worked with Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian who experimented with biological weapons for al-Qa’ida. He came from a family of jihadists. Several of his siblings and cousins were involved in terrorist attacks. During the January 25th raid commandos cut the right-index finger of Marwan. It was sent to the US and the FBI found a fifty percent match with the DNA of his brother who is in US custody.
A week before Operation Exodus the Philippine police had information that Marwan planned to detonate a bomb during the arrival convoy of Pope Francis in Manila on January 18. As Marwan is specialized in bombs triggered remotely by cellular phones, the government requested telecommunications networks to weaken or even stop cellphone services during the five-day visit of the pontiff.
Operation Exodus was planned and coordinated by Alan Purisima, a suspended police general for corruption allegations, and close friend of President Benigno Aquino. He approved the operation plan in November 2014, and kept the leadership of the national police, the armed forces and the minister of Interior out of the loop. Purisima had been involved in an earlier attempt to arrest Marwan in April 2014 code-named Wolverine. That plan was aborted because the army refused to move without coordinating with the MILF, who were observing a ceasefire. Funding for Operation Exodus reportedly came from the office of Aquino’s executive secretary, Paquito ‘ Jojo’ Ochoa, who is also leading the anti-terrorism council and the national anti-organized crime council.
Abdul Basit Usman, another explosives expert, escaped during operation Exodus. In a public address President Aquino called on the MILF to surrender him or to help the authorities to capture him.
The botched and poorly planned operation has created a serious political crisis for President Benigno Aquino. There have been resignation calls and there are strong pressures to abandon the peace deal with the MILF and seek retribution for the death of the police commandos. President Aquino has ordered an official investigation into the incident. Key questions to be answered are why the proper chain of command was circumvented and why the police leadership and the armed forces were kept out of the loop. Alan Purisima and Noli Talino, the head of the SAF, have resigned.
Negotiators involved in the peace talks with the MILF have called for renewed efforts to keep the process on track. Close allies of President Aquino called for a suspension of deliberations on a proposed law to create a new autonomous government for muslims in the south, known as the Bangsamoro. Postponement or even cancellation of their state may motivate the MILF to take up arms again.
Although Marwan’s death probably has reduced Jemaah Islamiyah’s capabilities to plan and execute new attacks, there are about ten other JI operatives hiding in the Philippines who are likely to continue their terrorist activities.