This month’s Threat Assessment includes:
- New claims about the use of chlorine bomb attacks by Daesh in Iraq
- The threat of terrorist exploitation of deadly pathogens, including Ebola
- Long-term health effects on the Iraqi population due to the use of DU munitions
- Renewed attention for humanitarian aspects of nuclear warfare as the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange increases
- By violating two UN Security Council resolutions the Assad regime continues the use of (chlorine) barrel bomb attacks on populated areas
The Threat Assessments are based on open sources. End date of collection: March 27, 2015
New claims about the use of chlorine bomb attacks by Daesh in Iraq
* In the past months new incidents of chlorine bomb attacks by Daesh against peshmerga and shi’ite militias have been reported.
* Positive test results of soil and clothing samples gained by a certified EU laboratory and video footage and photos of incidents make the claims plausible.
* Foreign fighters trained in Syria/Iraq may be sent back to their countries of origin, with the task to initiate chlorine bomb attacks to build on ongoing terrorist campaigns.
In early March Kurdish authorities provided new information on the use of chlorine bombs by Daesh. The information was related to three specific incidents that occurred on December 26, 2014, and January 18 and 23, 2015. The January 23 incident was a suicide chlorine truck bomb attack on a control post near Mosul. The peshmerga fired a rocket on the approaching truck and killed the attacker before he could reach his target. Via a country participating in the international coalition, soil and clothing samples were sent to a certified EU laboratory. The test results were positive and reportedly showed that the chlorine was used in a weaponized form.
During the recent military offensive against Daesh in Tikrit, Iraqi troops defused dozens of explosive devices containing chlorine. Iraqi troops showed international journalists a controlled explosion of a roadside chlorine bomb. Before the Iraqi troops entered Tikrit they found a storage with chlorine containers and bombs containing chlorine.
On March 24, Kurdish peshmerga dismantled nine explosive devices planted by Daesh in the town of al-Kwer. Two of the devices reportedly were filled with chlorine.
The current chemical warfare program of Daesh is believed to be a continuation of the program initiated by al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), the predecessor of Daesh. After the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the emir of AQI, the chemical project was continued by Abu Ayoub al-Masri and Abu Amman al-Baghdadi. They established Daesh in October 2006 and continued experiments resulting in a series of attacks in 2007. The attacks were poorly executed and did not have the intended effects. In 2008, the US succeeded in killing Abu Gazwan al-Hayali, who supervised and protected the engineers and specialists involved in the chemical project. The current supervisor reportedly is an Egyptian engineer with a Master of Science from Cairo. One of his assistants was killed in a US air raid on January 24, one day after the suicide truck bomb attack reported by the Kurds.
British chemical warfare expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon visited Iraq in March where he advised British security forces and the Iraqi government in dealing with chlorine attacks. After his return to the UK he warned that Daesh has intentions to step up its terrorist campaign in Europe using unconventional means, including chlorine. As likely targets he mentioned confined spaces including transportation targets and sports facilities. In the United Kingdom it is still possible to acquire large quantities of chlorine without a license.
On February 23, a chlorine bomb was found in the men’s toilet of a shopping mall in a suburb of Jakarta, Indonesia. The bomb failed to go off properly and no one was injured. The home-made device was made up of a cardbox containing wires, batteries, a timer and four bottles filled with chemicals. The chemicals in the device failed to fuse and release the gas. The Indonesian police believed that it was an experiment and held returnees from Syria responsible for the attack. The police expect that the next time a more advanced device might be used.
Car bombs and roadside bombs can easily be rigged with chlorine canisters. Supplies of chlorine are readily available at water treatment plants that Daesh would have access to in captured territory. Adding chlorine to the explosives does not make it a more effective weapon as it usually affects only a small number of people when used in open spaces. It is assumed that the chlorine is mainly added for its psychological effect. The chlorine bomb may cause panic among approaching units and may delay military operations giving a user a psychological edge. In case of encirclement escape routes may be created. With the ongoing military operations against Daesh more roadside bombs and truck bomb attacks can be expected. The events in Tikrit are a prelude to what might happen during the upcoming military offensive in Mosul.
Several states showed concern about the Kurdish claims on the use of chlorine bombs by Daesh. They have not been able to independently confirm the Kurdish claims. The footage of the attacks showing the effects of the chlorine bombs on the victims and the results of sample tests by a certified EU laboratory, make the claims of the Kurdish authorities plausible.
Creating chlorine filled explosives violates international law prohibiting chemical weapons. Following the Kurdish claims it is likely that one or more member states of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will submit a request for an independent investigation based on its own samples. The time delay complicates the acquisition of useful samples for such an investigation.
If the warning by British chemical warfare expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is indeed based on intelligence that Daesh will step up its terrorist campaign in Europe with unconventional means, European states should check their regulatory system for the acquisition of large quantities of chlorine, and step up monitoring the supply chain. Western intelligence services should also remain focused on European returnees and screen them for their possible involvement in attack planning. The recent incident in Indonesia illustrates that the problem of returnees from Syria is not limited to Europe. Foreign fighters from up to 90 countries are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The threat of terrorist exploitation of deadly pathogens, including Ebola
* Rumors and chatter about a ‘lone wolf’ using a bioweapon in a terrorist attack triggered an official British investigation into possible scenarios of a non-state actor exploiting the Ebola virus.
* Researchers of the British Porton Down research laboratory looked into three possible scenarios of which the details are withheld from the public for security reasons.
* Even when some possible terrorist scenarios with bioweapons are serious this should not prevent us from losing sight of the big picture. An effective response to an outbreak of an infectious disease is highly dependent on well functioning healthcare systems.
Over the years there has been a growing concern about non-state actors looking into the possibility of ‘weaponizing’ an infectious disease, e.g. Ebola. There are reports about terrorist organizations sending envoys to outbreak areas to collect infected blood. Following the most recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa rumors spread about organizations wanting to send infected operatives to target countries to spread the virus. In a protected jihadi chat room the possibility of a lone wolf using a bioweapon was discussed.
These developments triggered a request in October 2014 to the British chemical warfare research laboratory Porton Down, to look into the risk of a non-state actor using the Ebola virus in a terrorist attack. The scientists looked into three possible scenarios. A heavily redacted three-page research memorandum was made public last February. For security reasons details of the three scenarios were withheld from the public.
Current literature on the use of bioweapons for terrorist purposes indicates that Ebola is not a very suitable virus for terrorist purposes as it necessitates the transmission of bodily fluids. There are other viruses that could be much more attractive for terrorist purposes, e.g. anthrax. But if the purpose is not to kill as many people as possible but to instill fear and cause societal disruption the Ebola virus could be useful. Small-scale bioterrorism attacks are possible and likely. Until now the overall number of bioterrorist incidents is, however, extremely low.
The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the largest and most complex since the virus was first discovered in 1976. There have been more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined. This was largely due to the slow and failing response by the international community. There have been an estimated 25,000 cases and more than 10,000 people died. The outbreak triggered the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, the first international mission devoted to public health. Two potential candidates for a licensed vaccine are currently being investigated and tested. The slow and failing response triggered a debate on establishing a dedicated global warning and response mechanism. Essential elements of such a system are systematic disease surveillance, lists of trained personnel, military resources ready to respond, and research into drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests.
With their memorandum the Porton Down scientists have provided guidance on the feasibility and potential impact of non-state actors exploiting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. For security reasons the details were withheld from the public but the findings are expected to be useful for the relevant crisis response agencies and crisis managers. The request highlighted the concern that non-state actors have become increasingly inventive in their choice of weapons. Even when the use of some viruses may seem attractive for use in a terrorist attack scenario, the number of bioterrorism incidents remains very low. The way Western media reported on the recent Ebola outbreak should be a lesson that even an alleged use of a virus in a terrorist attack scenario could cause widespread fear and could force governments to measures that disrupt normal life.
The international response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was very slow and inefficient in the beginning. A call for action by Doctors without Borders was ignored by many governments and the World Health Organization (WHO). It was only when a US doctor and a Spanish nurse were diagnosed with Ebola that the world wake up to the threat and began mobilizing to counter the epidemic. The WHO did not set up a regional hub coordinating the response until July 2014, when the second wave of the epidemic struck the capitals of the affected countries. An effective response to an epidemic is highly dependent on well functioning healthcare systems. As the current Ebola outbreak has been largely brought to a halt, many suggestions have already been made to restructure the WHO and set up an international warning and response mechanism to deal with epidemics. In a trade off, investments in health care systems of poor countries may be more effective in countering outbreaks of infectious diseases than spending on new security measures for unlikely terrorist scenarios.
Long-term health effects on the Iraqi population due to the use of DU munitions
* By using a misleading counting method the US government has misrepresented the real human toll of the Iraq war.
* The use of munitions with depleted uranium (DU) during bombardments of targets in the Iraq war has caused long-lasting health and genetic effects on the Iraqi population.
* Researchers have difficulties finding funds for their projects due to a lack of interest to systematically investigate the long-term humanitarian effects of wars.
The US government has been misrepresenting the real human toll of the Iraq war on its own soldiers by introducing a change in the counting method. It reported a war death only if the soldier died with boots on the ground in a combat situation. All other deaths that happened en route or post evacuation were excluded from the total. That made it possible to come up with the low figure of 4267 US deaths. Statistics based on the Gulf War Veterans Information System show a completely different picture: The total number of US military Gulf war deaths is 73,847 (including 17,847 deployed and 55,999 non deployed). The statistics for non-lethal injuries are likewise staggering: the total for ‘ Undiagnosed Illnesses’ (UDX) claims is 14,874; the total number of disability claims filed is 1, 620,906 (including claims amongst deployed: 407,911; and claims amongst non-deployed: 1,212,995). A total of thirty-six percent of combat troops filed disability claims.
The US not only misrepresented its own losses but has also shown a lack of interest in the humanitarian consequences of the wars it has been fighting since 9/11. The Physicians for Social Responsibility issued a report this month with a detailed assessment of counting methodologies and came up with new death toll estimates based on a review of the available assessments by academic researchers. In the case of Iraq the new death toll is estimated at one million deaths or five percent of the Iraqi population. The researchers criticize the media that have been ignoring the humanitarian costs of US military policy. Academics complain that they have severe difficulty in finding funds from academic institutions or government organizations for their research.
It is estimated that an 1,820 tons of depleted uranium (DU) were exploded in Iraq in the form of armor piercing munitions. The aerosol or powder produced during impact and combustion of depleted uranium munitions can potentially contaminate wide areas around the impact sites leading to possible inhalation by human beings. The radioactive dust that was left behind is having significant health and genetic effects on the Iraqi population. Epidemiological studies have shown significant rises of birth defects that are typical of the kind produced by exposure to radioactive poisons. The people of the city of Fallujah are reportedly having the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied. The new report by the Physicians of Social Responsible provides new information on the level of contamination and the health effects on the Iraqi population caused by US military operations.
By introducing a questionable counting method the US government has been able to present the Iraq war as a relative success with a low death toll for its own military. Statistics provided by its own Department of Veterans Affairs show a different picture with a death toll that is higher than the death toll of the Vietnam War. Also the numbers for the injuries are staggering. If the death toll of mercenaries, contractors and members of private military companies (PMCs) are added the death toll would be even higher.
A long-term effect of the war that is systematically neglected is the effect of the use of munitions with depleted uranium (DU) that have caused an ecological disaster that will continue to kill people for may years to come. The use of DU in munitions is controversial because of questions about potential long-term health effects. Research institutes with strong links to the Military Industrial Complex admit that DU is a potential carcinogen but that the carcinogenic effects in humans are small or even negligible. Epidemiological studies of the Iraqi population in the most affected areas have shown otherwise and show significant long-term health effects. The offspring of persons exposed to DU show an increased risk of birth defects. The new report by the Physicians for Social Responsibility provides new information on these long-term effects and underlines that the number of indirect victims of recent wars is probably much higher than that of direct victims.
Renewed attention for humanitarian aspects of nuclear warfare as the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange increases
* As new warnings have been issued about the rising danger of an accidental nuclear exchange, new information has been presented on the possible consequences of nuclear warfare.
* Even a limited nuclear exchange would have severe climate effects resulting in a significant reduction of agricultural production for a decade causing starvation for up to a billion people and a period of food insecurity for another 1,3 billion Chinese.
* Several nuclear powers are currently involved in a process of rebuilding their nuclear weapon complexes, including the development of new types of weapons, the modernization of existing arsenals and the development of new platforms for delivery.
In December 2014, the danger of nuclear warfare was discussed during the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Aspects of Nuclear Weapons. The participating experts warned in a letter that the danger of a nuclear war was underestimated and insufficiently understood by current world leaders. In several hot spots in the world the danger of an accidental nuclear exchange may rise due to military miscalculation and escalation.
At another conference on ‘The dynamics of possible nuclear extinction’ held last February at the New York Academy of Medicine, new research findings were presented by Lili Xia and Alan Robock. In a computer modeling experiment the climate effects were simulated as a consequence of a limited nuclear exchange in which fifty Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons were exploded in airbursts over urban areas. The simulation indicated that the smoke of fire as a result of such an exchange would cause unprecedented climate change. As the smoke would prevent the absorption of sunlight at the surface of the earth, it would get dark, cold and dry. In addition, global-scale ozone depletion would be caused with enriched ultra-violet (UV) radiation. The models showed that agricultural production could be reduced by ten to forty percent for a decade causing starvation for an estimated one billion people. Another 1,3 billion people in China would be confronted with a period of severe food insecurity.
In February, Russia organized large-scale exercises for its nuclear missile forces. More than thirty regiments of the Strategic Missile Forces were involved in twelve regions. Russia’s stockpile of 8,400 warheads surpasses the 7,500 warheads of the United States. Late 2014, the Russian government announced that it would upgrade its nuclear weapon capabilities as part of a wider military modernization over the next decade. Russia plans to test-fire its new Sarmat ICBM in 2017. The Sarmat would replace the R-36 (‘Satan’) which is the largest ICBM ever made. In the US the Pentagon has submitted a budget proposal for an ambitious modernization program that includes a new nuclear-tipped cruise missile, the modernization of ballistic missiles, investment in a new ballistic missile submarine and a new nuclear capable stealth bomber.
The dangers of nuclear war, the ongoing nuclear modernization programs and other topics will be discussed by 800 experts at the 2015 Carnegie International Policy Conference that will he held in Washington on March 23 and 24th , 2015. In his opening speech William Burns mentioned the problems related to the situations in Ukraine and Iran and emphasized that the current nuclear landscape is everything but calm. The non-proliferation regime is fragile and it will take a lot of effort to remove a number of obstacles to keep it alive.
Since the December warning that political leaders do not fully understand the dangers of nuclear war, the number of frightening statements by state leaders in hot spot regions threatening with the activation of their nuclear forces or even threatening with launching nuclear missiles, has been rising. It is also troubling that representatives from think tanks and politicians in several countries are pledging for full and open warfare in crisis areas with nuclear facilities and suggesting that bombing these facilities from the air would be the best option.
For these researchers and politicians the Nuclear Famine report by Lili Xia and Alan Robock should be obligatory reading. Their updated report attempts to address new concerns and better define the full extent of the worldwide catastrophe that will result from even a limited regional nuclear war. The use of nuclear weapons would be irresponsible an unethical. But with the ongoing modernization programs of nuclear weapons in several countries there is a risk that the nuclear threshold will be lowered and governments will be tempted in the near future to use them in crisis situations, arguing in the mistaken belief that their effects would be comparable to the most powerful conventional bombs.
By violating two UN Security Council resolutions the Assad regime continues the use of (chlorine) barrel bomb attacks on populated areas
* During the past year the Syrian government continued the use of so-called barrel bombs in a systematic campaign killing more than 6,100 civilians.
These attacks violate UN Security Council resolution 2139 (adopted on February 22, 2014).
* An open source investigation of 1,450 impact sites showed that the damage signatures were consistent with the detonation of large airdropped munitions, including improvised barrel and conventional bombs dropped by helicopters.
* Since mid-March 2015 at least seven chlorine barrel bomb attacks have been reported in three different regions of Syria. These attacks violate UN Security Council resolution 2209 that explicitly prohibits the use of chlorine gas.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented repeated barrel bomb attacks in the year since the passage of UN Security Council resolution 2139 in February 2014. The bombs mainly struck near or on medical facilities, and in residential areas with schools, mosques, and markets, and without discernible military targets in the vicinity. By examining satellite imagery, the organization identified at least 1,450 distinct major damage sites. By matching video landmarks with satellite imagery and 3D models, the location, approximate time of day, and date of the attacks were determined. The investigation showed that the damage signatures were strongly consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions, including improvised barrel and conventional bombs dropped by helicopters.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that a total of 6,163 civilians, including 1,892 children and 1,720 women, were killed in government barrel bomb attacks in the year since the passage of UN Security Council resolution 2139.
Barrel bombs are unguided high explosive weapons that are cheaply made, locally produced, and typically constructed from large oil drums, gas cylinders, and water tanks, filled with high explosives and scrap metal to enhance fragmentation, and then dropped from helicopters usually flying at high altitude.
On March 16, a chlorine barrel bomb attack was reported on a residential area of the town of Sarmin, killing a family of six. Since then six other attacks with chlorine barrel bombs have been reported in three different regions of Syria. The latest attacks coincided with the advance of a new islamist alliance under the name Jaish el-Fateh (Army of Conquest) on the city of Idlib. The following organizations participate in this new coalition: Jabhat al-Nusra, Jund al-Aqsa, Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Haqq, Jaish al-Sunna, Ajnad al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham.
The latest chlorine barrel bomb attacks violate UN Security Council resolution 2209, that was adopted on March 6, 2015. The Syrian opposition called for an on-site investigation by the United Nations. The OPCW, which has a rolling mandate from the UN to investigate reports about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, has announced that it will send a fact-finding mission to investigate the most recent reports. Success of a mission will be highly dependent on security arrangements with the Syrian regime that is denying any involvement in the attacks.
The recent reports, on the consequences of the use of the barrel bomb tactic by the Assad regime, were clearly intended to play a role in the UN Security Council debate on the implementation of resolutions 2139 and 2209. The situation has dramatically worsened and is characterized by unprecedented levels of savagery. Even when the resolutions threaten with military action in case of violation, this is unlikely as the Security Council remains deeply divided.
Western reluctance to address the (chlorine) barrel bomb tactic is partly related to the fear of doing something that would increase the chances for Daesh to overthrow the Assad regime. Barrel bombs are of limited military significance and hardly have an effect on the power balance. They have been used almost exclusively for killing civilians. The silence about the atrocities may also be related to the fear that the next step would require a broader military effort, such as establishing a no-fly zone for the helicopters that deliver the barrel bombs. The US will be hesitant to deliver MANPADS to moderate opposition groups out of fear that they could end up in the hands of Islamist organizations and be used against coalition aircraft.
The US has shifted several times in its approach to the Assad regime. Currently it follows a three-pronged strategy: degrading Daesh through a bombing campaign, the training of the armed opposition and trying to get something going politically. The efforts by the UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to craft local ‘freezes’ have until now been unsuccessful. The international coalition is currently focused on Daesh and not on the Assad regime. As a consequence an undeterred Assad regime is likely to continue the use of (chlorine) barrel bombs. More attacks are to be expected in the coming months as Daesh and the new Islamist alliance under the name Jaysh al Feth threaten to expand the territory under their control.