This is the third edition of the new feature called the IBC Threat Assessment which 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: The use of Chlorine gas for hostile purposes in Syria and Iraq, the increased risk of infectious diseases in situations of civil war, the possible terrorist use of a ‘dirty bomb’ in the West, Syria’s potentially continued program in another location and the threat of an aviation plot against the West. The Threat Assessments are based on open sources.
Use of chlorine gas for hostile purposes in Syria and Iraq
In January 2015, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported in a closed session of the UN Security Council on the progress made related to the destruction of chemical weapon program of Syria. During the meeting the OPCW also presented a report of its fact finding mission established in April 2014 to establish the facts surrounding allegations of the use of chlorine for hostile purposes. The investigators presented different forms of evidence and concluded with a high degree of certainty that chlorine gas was used against three Syrian villages, two in Idlib and one in Hama, affecting between 350 and 500 people. Thirteen people died. The villages were attacked by helicopters dropping so-called barrel bombs containing the chlorine. As helicopters are only flown by the Syrian military, this would indirectly mean that the Assad regime can be held accountable for these attacks. The Syrian regime, however, has denied that it has used chlorine during the war and has stated that terrorist groups have used chlorine gas in several regions of Syria and Iraq.
In the last week of December 2014, media reports indicated Daesh shelled the al-Baghdadi sub-district of Anbar province in Iraq by using mortars filled with chlorine.
In the same week an attack was reported in the town of al Waer near Homs, alleging the use of napalm. Eyewitnesses reported severe burns and cases of suffocation by gasses emitted from shells. They also reported orange material splattered on walls of targets.
In January the Syrian regime continued with the destruction of about ten underground bunkers and hangars that were used for the production and storage of chemical weapons. The destruction activities had been postponed due to severe winter conditions.
The OPCW has confirmed what civilian researchers and investigative journalists had already found out much earlier. While they clearly point the finger at the perpetrator, the name cannot be mentioned in an OPCW report. As the organization wants the Assad regime to cooperate with the unfinished program to destroy its chemical weapons, it can’t express too harsh criticism about the regime.
While the international community has shown a great interest in chemical attacks it is largely ignoring other types of weapons like napalm, cluster bombs or barrel bombs, that are used for indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population. The government has been bombing from helicopters since mid-2012 and is still continuing to do so. The easy-to-make barrel bombs have effectively turned the government helicopter fleet into bombers. The barrel bombs that have been made more effective over time, are very inaccurate, but used in densely populated areas they kill many civilians. It is estimated that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed. Although some organizations consider the use of barrel bombs a war crime, the Assad regime continues to use them because it doesn’t fear any strong international reaction.
The recent media reports about Daesh using mortars filled with chlorine in its operations in Iraq, underline that it probably still has skilled operatives capable of adapting conventional mortars using chemicals looted from captured storages.
The increased risk of infectious diseases in situations of civil war
Situations of a civil war often result in a deteriorating health situation or even a complete breakdown of a healthcare system causing an increased risk of infectious diseases. In the case of Syria/Iraq health officials have reported that an outbreak of leishmanianis (a disfiguring disease spread by sand flies) is ‘out of control’ and have warned for an outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). In Iraq there have been reports of foreign fighters arriving in a hospital showing symptoms of Ebola. The recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa occurred after a period of intense civil war. In Pakistan terrorist organizations have targeted healthcare workers involved in a vaccination campaign against polio. As a result of these attacks vaccination has become almost impossible in large areas of Pakistan. While polio was almost eradicated it is now spreading again.
The four years of civil war in Syria has destroyed its healthcare system. More than half of the public hospitals have been closed or are only partially functioning. Also in Iraq the healthcare system is suffering in Daesh controlled areas. There has been an exodus of healthcare workers and Daesh has even executed doctors unwilling to cooperate. The supply of medicines has become dependent on the work of aid agencies. As Daesh prohibits UN workers from entering territory under its control, it has become difficult to monitor the health situation or investigate outbreaks of diseases.
On a captured laptop computer in Syria that belonged to a Tunisian foreign fighter who studied chemistry and physics at two universities in Tunisia, a document was found that indicated that he had an interest in developing biological weapons. Information was collected with the purpose of developing a weaponized biological weapon to spread bubonic plague. The document reportedly contained details on testing it before using it in a terrorist attack.
It is not only civil war but also population expansion, huge mobility and more intense contact between animals and people that result in a more vulnerable world. Nowadays infectious diseases can easily spread from one continent to another. Infectious diseases are one of the 28 global risks that will be discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos this month. Health specialists are emphasizing that more investment is needed in the development of vaccines and capacities for treatment. As the latest Ebola outbreak has illustrated there is now a commercial incentive to develop vaccines for diseases that in the past had only a limited number of deaths and a local impact. The recent outbreak showed how quickly the disease can spread if there is no properly functioning healthcare system. Suggestions have been made to establish a European force that can be deployed to countries beyond its own borders when infectious diseases spread.
The emerging diseases in the Middle East also underline the need for political solutions instead of military escalation that would result in a further deterioration of the already deplorable health situation and the spreading of diseases to other regions.
An additional risk is the deliberate spreading of a disease by a terrorist organization. Warning signals about development programs as discovered on a laptop computer in Syria should be an important focus of intelligence agencies. Only by picking up the signals in an early stage the right measures can be taken to neutralize this kind of programs before they may reach their full peak.
The possible terrorist use of a ‘dirty bomb’ in the West
The chaotic situation in Syria and Iraq has resulted in reports about theft of nuclear or radiological material from facilities captured by insurgents or terrorists. An example is the report of the theft of 40 kg of uranium from the University on Mosul in July 2014. Media reports of the theft are usually followed by propaganda messages of terrorist organizations that they intend to use the captured materials in their terrorist campaigns. Usually these are very general an unsubstantiated threats.
It is also very common that significant attacks in Europe are followed by a series of general or more specific threats. The recent attack on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris was followed by such a series of threats on internet and social media by representatives of jihadist organizations. They continued calls for more lone wolf attacks in Europe, US, Canada, Russia and Australia. Some of them were more specific mentioning the names of specific cities or the name of a specific material to be used in a dirty bomb. An example is the British jihadi Hamayun Tariq (aka Muslim al-Britani) who reported on his Twitter account that Daesh had smuggled a dirty bomb into Europe and could cause severe damage in London. Another Daesh propaganda message referred to the possible use of Cesium 131 in a bomb in the streets and train stations of Russia, Boston, Dallas, Virginia and Amsterdam.
The terrorist propaganda messages threatening with the use of a dirty bomb, using nuclear or radiological material, are mainly intended to instill fear. The claims are hard to verify and the messages are usually spread in a situation with a high level of fear following a significant terrorist attack or following media reports about the theft or smuggling of nuclear or radiological material. Currently there is a greater willingness by providers to remove terrorist propaganda and inciting material, once flagged by readers or their own monitors or on the instigation of intelligence services. But once identified the messages are often hyped by sensationalist media without providing any context.
The level of expertise of terrorist explosives experts has been rising in recent years due to their experiences in ongoing theaters of war. It can’t be excluded that some terrorist organizations may have succeeded in obtaining nuclear or radiological material that could be used for the construction of a dirty bomb. Especially in war torn chaotic countries like Libya, Syria and Iraq, terrorist groups may loot military, industrial or medical facilities. From time to time there are also incidents of illegal smuggling from former Soviet countries and attempts to sell small quantities on the black market. The risk of the terrorist use of a dirty bomb may therefore have increased. There are on the other hand several operational and logistical obstacles that make the use of this type of bomb less likely. Terrorist organizations usually want a media spectacle. In this respect conventional explosives serve their purpose better.
Did Syria continue its nuclear program in another location?
In June 2007, the Syrian Kibar nuclear facility was destroyed in an Israeli air strike and commando raid in what was called Operation Orchard. In 2008, IAEA inspectors were allowed into the country to inspect the location of the facility and concluded that it had been an almost finished nuclear reactor. The inspectors requested access to three other facilities that may have been connected to the Kibar facility, including a suspected enrichment facility in Marj as Sultan, south of Damascus. The request was denied.
The civil war that emerged since 2011 forced the Syrian regime with the help of Hezbollah, to move everything of value in Marj as Sultan to another location. This new location has been identified as a Hezbollah underground weapons depot west of the town of Qusayr close to the border of Lebanon. There are a number of indications (construction activities, a connection to Zaita Lake, intercepted radio traffic, presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel, continued cooperation with a North Korean engineer) that point in the direction of the fact that the Syrian regime may have continued its atomic program and is secretly trying to built a nuclear bomb. Syria reportedly has a stock of up to 50 tons of natural uranium. If it succeeds in completing an enrichment procedure this would be sufficient to building several nuclear bombs.
Since the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons and materials the international community believed that the Syrian regime no longer had the ability to wage unconventional warfare. If it can be confirmed that Syria is indeed involved in developing a nuclear weapon, a new assessment of the situation is needed.
The new information on the secretive nuclear program is creating difficult dilemmas for the United States, Israel and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and may force them to adapt their policies. Until now the Assad regime did not respond to an IAEA request to cooperate fully with the agency. More pressure on the Assad regime under current circumstances could complicate counterterrorism operations against Daesh. Israeli decision-makers are faced with the choice of ignoring the program or deciding on another secret operation to destroy the facility. As the program has moved underground another secret operation to destroy it would necessitate the use of powerful bunker buster bombs that could create severe environmental problems.
Aviation plot against the West still active
A previous IBC TA covered the threat posed by the Khorasan group in Syria. This group of al-Qa’ida operatives with links to core -AQ and AQAP reportedly has the intention to attack the West with sophisticated explosives directed against civilian airplanes. A predicted ‘Christmas offensive’ did not occur but that doesn’t mean that the threat has disappeared. One of the explosives experts reportedly is still alive. During Christmas al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al-Qa’ida affiliate in Yemen, issued the 13th edition of its magazine Inspire. The front page shows an exploding airliner and the magazine contains a section in which it provides more details about an advanced bomb design. It indicates that it considers Britain a higher priority target than France, only second after the United States. It also mentions the names of several airline companies that could be targeted and states that high profile airlines should be targeted to gain the headlines in the media and have a significant impact on the economy of the target country. The magazine also suggests methods to defeat airport defenses saying that any security system be it human or mechanized, has weak points through which it can be breached as long as you know its details and mechanisms. The term ‘neurotmesis’ on the front page refers to a new strategy aimed at cutting the nerves and isolating the head from the body. AQAP considers the nerves of the American war its economy. New attacks will therefore be aimed at the economy.
As the magazine specifically mentions the United Kingdom as a target country, British intelligence officials have recently warned for new attacks. Referring to the Khorasan group. Andrew Parker (director of MI5) stated in a speech that seasoned al-Qa’ida militants in Syria aimed to cause large-scale loss of life often by attacking transport systems or iconic targets in the West. In his speech he also indicated that British intelligence had been able to thwart three potentially deadly terrorist plots against the UK in recent months without giving further details.
While a mass casualty attack was expected in the United Kingdom two operatives launched a shooting attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing twelve persons. One of the victims, the main editor of Charlie Hebdo, was on a death list published in an earlier edition of Inspire. This could mean that the organization sticks to its plans even when it can take several years to execute them. The renewed attention for civilian airliners in the latest issue of Inspire is therefore a strong indicator of a future aviation attack. The details provided on the bomb design and its test results also may indicate progress of the plot. On the day the offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked, AQAP was also capable of executing a devastating suicide attack against the police academy in Sana’a. The far and the near enemy were struck at the same time on one day. This underlines AQAP’s capabilities and is a major reason why intelligence services currently consider AQAP as the most dangerous al-Qa’ida affiliate.
End date of collection: January 20, 2015