This is the 28th 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. The TA’s are based on open sources.
End date of collection: July 4, 2017
Topics covered in this issue:
- US government threatens with severe consequences if Syrian regime conducts a new chemical attack
- Andreyeva Bay nuclear waste clean-up operation has begun
- New North Korean ICBM test likely to trigger new punitive measures raising the risk of war
- DHS replaces laptop ban by new step-by-step enhanced security measures to raise global security baseline at international airports
US government threatens with severe consequences if Syrian regime conducts a new chemical attack.
- If Syria conducts another chemical attack it, and also its supporters Russia and Iran, may face severe consequences, supported by several major Western powers raising the risk of war.
- A detailed breakdown of events of the April 4 Khan Sheikhoun attack, presented by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, is more in line with the Syrian and Russian explanations than with Western official accounts.
- Despite the fact that the OPCW-FFM has not been able to visit the attack site in Khan Sheikhoun it has been able to conclude that the victims were exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance.
On June 26, the US government issued a warning to the Syrian government and threatened with severe consequences if the Syrian regime would conduct another chemical attack. It claimed that its intelligence services had identified preparatory activities for a chemical attack at the Syrian Shayrat airfield that allegedly was involved in a previous chemical attack. Senior personnel from Branch 450 of the Syrian Scientific Studies & Research (SSSR) allegedly visited known and suspected chemical weapon production facilities. Satellite imagery indicated that a Syrian plane was pushed near a building associated with chemical weapons at the Shayrat airfield.
It was assumed that the regime could conduct a chemical attack in the east or south where Syrian government forces and their proxies had faced setbacks. The Syrian government dismissed the claims by saying that the US warning foreshowed a renewed diplomatic campaign against Syria at the United Nations. Also Russia disputed the American claims and reiterated the fact that there had been no independent investigation into the April 4 Khan Sheikhoun attack. Russia went even further stating that it had intelligence of planned Western provocations in Syria and even identified the towns of Saraqib and Ariha where these provocations might take place. Russia also expects a new massive information campaign in mainstream media. French and British government spokesmen expressed support for a joint common approach in response to a possible new Syrian chemical attack.
The American warning was timed to follow immediately after an article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh rebutting the White House charges related to the April 4 gas attack claiming that it was a Sarin attack by the Syrian regime. Hersh also claims that President Trump ordered a cruise missile attack on the Shayrat airbase despite the fact that his administration knew that the Syrian military didn’t possess or use a chemical weapon in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. The breakdown of events as presented by Hersh closely follows Syrian and Russian explanations. Hersh claims that the April 4 airstrike on a meeting site of jihadist leaders in Khan Sheikoun was not a chemical weapon strike.
A battle damage assessment (BDA) indicated that the heat and the force of a 500-pound conventional bomb triggered a series of secondary explosions that could have generated a toxic cloud formed by the release of fertilizers, disinfectants and other goods stored in the basement of the meeting site. Weather conditions trapped the fumes close to the ground. The symptoms shown by the victims reportedly are consistent with the release of a mixture of chemicals including chlorine and organophosphates used in fertilizers. These can cause neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin.
The timing of the American warning also coincided with significant advances by the Syrian Arab Army against Daesh and other terrorist groups. In the mean time the US has directed more military assets to the region. American spy planes were sent to Israel and have been spotted operating not far from the Shayrat airbase. The aircraft carrier USS George G.W. Bush is scheduled to spend the 4th of July weekend in Israel.
On June 29, an OPCW Fact Finding Mission report was issued confirming that sarin or a sarin-like chemical weapon was used during the April 4 Khan Sheikhoun attack. The report is based on interviews of victims and eyewitnesses in neighboring countries and the analysis of samples of several laboratories collected by Syrian organizations. The report will be handed over to the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). The JIM is expected to determine the party responsible for the use of the chemical weapon. It already has collected a lot of information about the chain of command for this type of operations during previous occasions. The OPCW-FFM was unable to visit the site in Khan Sheikhoun due to security concerns. On July 5, the Executive Council of the OPCW is scheduled to discuss the latest report.
The way the recent American warning was issued has raised questions. Usually these kind of warnings are transferred by diplomatic channels and not via social media. While some have pointed at the timing of the warning, claiming that it may have been an indirect way to counter the claims made by Seymour Hersh, others have pointed at the possibility that the US is preparing for the greater use of military force in Syria. A claim about a chemical attack may help in justifying a forceful military response. As President Trump’s strategy in Syria remains murky, the Pentagon is engaged in shooting down planes and drones. Until now the US has only said that it is fighting Daesh and not the Syrian regime. More forceful military action in Syria could put the US on the path to a war. The direction of more military assets to the region are an ominous signal.
In the absence of an independent investigation there is still no decisive physical evidence to settle yet what happened on April 4 in Khan Sheikhoun, one way or the other. Russia still regrets that the OPCW did not send a formal mission to Khan Sheikhoun. While Russia had given guarantees the OPCW decided not to send a mission based on security concerns. Scheduled discussions of the latest FFM-report by the Executive Council of the OPWC and the JIM are likely to increase international pressure on the Syrian regime or even more forceful punitive action. The international community may decide on actions against higher ranking military officials or even the regime leadership.
Andreyeva Bay nuclear waste clean-up operation has begun.
- Several Western countries contributed to an international initiative to deal with the nuclear legacy of the former Soviet Northern Fleet in Andreyeva Bay.
- Spent fuel from 100 nuclear reactors have to be retrieved, repackaged and transported by ship and rail to a Russian reprocessing plant in the Ural mountains. .
- The Andreyeva Project is a good example of international cooperation to deal with matters of global environmental importance.
Last month the first shipment of used nuclear fuel assemblies from Russian submarines has left the former base of the Russian Northern Fleet at Andreyeva Bay. Under an international initiative financed by the Nuclear Window of the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership (NDEP), which is administered by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), a total of 20,000 used fuel assemblies are to be retrieved, packed and removed from the site. The spent fuel from 100 reactors has been stored at the support base in Andreyeva Bay, and pose a serious environmental danger.
The naval base was closed in 1992 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was transferred to civilian authorities in 1993 and is now managed by the Russian state atomic energy corporation (ROSATOM). In 1992, Norway and Russia signed a bilateral agreement to address the nuclear legacy issues and the decommissioning of the nuclear submarines. In 2003, the Nuclear Window was set up to provide funding for projects to mitigate the legacy of the operation of the nuclear-powered ships and submarines of the Northern Fleet. The fuel removal process is being carried out by SevRAO, a branch of ResRAO, the radioactive waste and decommissioning subsidiary of ROSATOM.
The retrieved spent fuel will be repackaged and put in casks that will be shipped by a specially built transport ship to Murmansk. From there the casks will be transported by rail to their final destination, the Mayak reprocessing plant in Chelyabinsk. Russia will be responsible for the transportation and treatment of the used nuclear fuel at the Mayak facility.
The Nuclear Window of the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership (NDEP) is a good example of an international initiative to deal with the nuclear legacy of the Cold War and deal with matters of global environmental importance. The project that has been funded by the EU, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom, has received €165 million in contributions. Italy built and financed the Rossita, a transport ship for radioactive waste. The participating countries have financed different parts of the project.
New North Korean ICBM test likely to trigger new punitive measures raising the risk of war.
- The July 3rd ICBM test may be a game changer for more forceful international action against North Korea raising the risk of war.
- While the US has expressed its willingness to act alone Russia and China still want to return to the negotiation table and solve the crisis peacefully.
- The outcome of high-level diplomatic talks at the UN Security Council and the G20 summit in Hamburg will make clear which next punitive steps will be taken against North Korea to make it change its current calculus.
Over the past months the Trump administration has been working on a series of measures to protect the region from North Korea. These include diplomatic, economic and security measures. The Trump administration assumes that by inflicting high enough costs for North Korea it could change its calculus and to force the country to denuclearize without fighting a devastating war.
The US is frustrated about China’s approach to North Korea. By issuing new sanctions against a Chinese bank and Chinese individuals it tries to persuade the Chinese government to full implementation of UN resolutions against North Korea. On June 29, The US introduced new sanctions against a Chinese bank accused of laundering North Korean cash. The Bank of Dandong reportedly facilitated millions of dollars of transactions for companies involved in North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. It will now be prevented from having accounts or doing business with US financial institutions. Sanctions were also issued against two Chinese individuals that reportedly established front companies to facilitate transactions for North Korea and a Chinese shipping company. The new sanctions are an attempt to stop the flow of money that is used to help the North Korean nuclear program.
On June 30, South Korean President Moon Jae-In and President Donald Trump had their first meeting. It was hoped that the summit meeting would result in a better understanding of each other’s positions with respect to North Korea and will avoid antagonizing each other. One important antagonizing issue is the deployment of THAAD. President Moon suspended the deployment of four THAAD interceptor launchers that would have completed two launchers and radar already deployed in South Korea.
On July 3, North Korea executed a new test of a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (the Hwasong-14), the 11th test in 2017. The North Korean government claimed that it was now capable of hitting the ‘heart’ of the US with large ‘heavy nuclear warheads.’ Experts have cautioned that the flight time itself did not suggest that North Korea had mastered the complex technologies needed to build a reliable nuclear-tipped ICBM. This would include the know-how to separate the nuclear warhead and guide it to its target. North Korea claimed that it had tested its re-entry technology, which can protect a nuclear warhead from intense heat and vibrations as it crashes through the atmosphere.
The US and South Korea reacted to the test with a joint military exercise in which they fired ballistic missiles in waters along the Korean Peninsula’s east coast. South Korea expects that North Korea will soon conduct its sixth nuclear test.
On July 5, a closed-door session was held of the UN Security Council to discuss the latest North Korean missile test.
On July 6-7, President Trump will meet President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, where the North Korea crisis will be high on the agenda. Russia and China have agreed to settle the crisis by advancing a joint proposal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and the joint military drills by the US and South Korea. Russia and China want to return to diplomatic talks instead of more forceful action as the US has proposed. In a telephone call President Trump has told President XI that the US was prepared to act alone.
North Korea has threatened with ‘summary punishment without advance warning’ for South Korea’s former President Park Geun-hye, and the South Korean former head of the intelligence agency, Lee Byung-ho. Kim Jung-Un accused both of them of being involved in a plot to assassinate him with a bio-chemical substance. In May, the North Korean government had claimed to have foiled a CIA plot. A North Korean allegedly had been ‘ideologically corrupted and bribed’ to assassinate the North Korean leader. South Korea has denied the accusations. The treat undermines Seoul’s recent efforts to improve relations.
Recent developments indicate that sanctions and shows of military force do not change North Korea’s calculus as Kim Jung-Un equates a nuclear arsenal with regime survival. It can be expected that it will stick to its program of further development of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. It has advanced its nuclear program too far and concealed too much to allow for commando-style airstrikes like those that eliminated Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactors in 1981 and 2007. Statements by American officials have become stronger in the past month and indicate that the US will not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. If necessary it is willing to act alone and high government officials have stated that the US would use ‘the full range of capabilities at their disposal against the growing threat.’
The history of the nuclear age, however, shows that a containment policy could have positive effects. An effective containment policy consists usually of three important elements: 1) Deterrence with the deployment of offshore nuclear weapons; 2) Confidence-building measures to reduce the risk of war; and 3) Critical crisis management to stop escalation. The US could enlist former US officials experienced in Track II diplomacy or even unofficially ‘allow’ someone like a former president to reach out to their own North Korean contacts. It could also send a senior official to the capital of the opponent to seek resolutions.
The developments of the past months have made clear that the belief that a nuclear North Korea can be made away is an illusion. It is time for planning to deal with the situation of a nuclear power in the region. Statements by US officials, however, have raised the stakes. They emphasized that global action will be necessary to stop a global threat. The outcome of the UN Security Council meeting and the G20 summit will tell which next steps will be taken against North Korea.
DHS replaces laptop ban by new step-by-step enhanced security measures to raise global security baseline at international airports.
- To prevent an expansion of an earlier introduced laptop ban for 10 airports to about 280 airports that have direct international flights to the US, the DHS has now introduced a step-by-step approach of short, medium and longer term enhanced security measures with a challenging implementation timeline.
- Cyber and/or HUMINT penetration of a Daesh explosives making cell indicates that the organization is capable of using explosives that look identical to laptop batteries and would evade standard screening equipment at airports.
- The future introduction of more effective explosive traces screening machines based on CT scan technology are dependent on additional test results and government budget decisions.
Intelligence on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) bomb-making capabilities and intelligence on Daesh heightened interest in civil aviation bombings triggered a selective laptop ban on international flights from several Middle Eastern and North African countries in March. Daesh is known to have had access to several university laboratories in Mosul and Raqqa to develop and test new types of explosives. The organization may also have had access to airport screening equipment for their tests and experiments. Cyber and/or HUMINT penetration of a Daesh explosives making cell in Syria indicated that the organization was capable of using explosives that look identical to laptop batteries and would evade standard screening equipment at airports. The intelligence reportedly also found clues on the detonation method.
The US has been discussing plans to extend the laptop ban from its present ten to many more international airports. An industry group calculated that an expansion of the laptop ban could ultimately could cost carriers and passengers up to $ 3.3 billion annually. Given the secretive nature of the intelligence warnings it is almost impossible to determine the efficacy of a laptop ban.
On June 28, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced enhanced security measures for foreign flights arriving in the US to avoid an expansion of an in-cabin ban on laptops and other large electronic devices. The enhanced measures include explosive trace detection screening, increased vetting at airports staff and additional use of detection dogs. Airlines that fail to satisfy the new security requirements could still face future in-cabin electronic restrictions. The DHA plans a step-by-step security enhancement plan that included short, medium and longer-term improvements that would take at least a year to implement completely. The involved airlines have 21 days to put in place enhanced explosive trace detection screening and they have 120 days to add other security measures. More security improvements are expected to be rolled out over the next year. The airlines have to pay for the expanded screening costs themselves, leaving some industry groups concerned. The DHS expects that more than 99% of airlines would comply. The new plans would effectively end the controversial laptop ban.
Several companies are developing screening devices that are much better at detecting explosives than existing X-ray machines. These new devices borrow computed tomography (CT-scan) technology from the medical world. This technology allows for high-definition three-dimensional views and the automatic calculation of the density of materials. The devices could simplify airport security as passengers can leave their laptops and other electronics and even liquids in their bags. The new machines cost several hundred thousands dollars each. No funds have been appropriated yet for the large purchase of these new machines for US airports. Currently two devices are tested at airports. More testing is needed before they can be rolled out nationwide.
Until now four approaches have been used to bypass airport screening technologies and protocols: explosives in checked baggage (or parcel cargo), explosives close to the body, explosives internal to the body, explosives in carry-on item devices. The carry-on items to hide the bomb is the predominant method which has been used in five incidents in the past. A liquid ban and new liquid explosive detection capabilities has neutralized the threat of liquid explosives. A laptop ban could neutralize the threat of bombs hidden in electronic devices that evade current screening equipment. A laptop ban would be very costly and its efficacy would be difficult to determine. Storing large numbers of laptop batteries in the cargo hold also raises the risk of fire.
The decision not to impose new laptop restrictions eases US and European airlines concern that expanding the ban to Europe or other locations could cause major logistical problems and deter travel. The new measures do, however, put airlines under additional pressure to find the staff, time and space to conduct additional screenings without fresh disruptions or delays. The challenging implementation time-line for the new security measures will require a continued team effort of government and industry stakeholders. With the newly announced plans DHS hopes that the global baseline of aviation security can be raised to make the world safer and to make it harder for terrorists to succeed. Only if sufficient nations cooperate it can be prevented that terrorists find weak links. The industry now has to show how the new measures can be introduced without unduly inconvenience the flying public.