This is the 25th issue of the 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: March 29, 2017
Topics covered in this threat assessment:
- New reports about alleged use of chemical weapons in the city of Mosul in Iraq
- Epidemiologists raise the alarm about health budget cuts by new US government
- Doomsday Clock set at two and a half minutes to midnight
- Upcoming US-China summit early April key for the de-escalation of the North Korean nuclear crisis
- Newly gathered intelligence triggers laptop ban for US & UK bound flights from airports in the Middle East and North Africa
New reports about alleged use of chemical weapons in the city of Mosul in Iraq
- No definite proof has been found yet for an alleged Daesh chemical attack in east Mosul early March.
- Daesh operational capabilities to use chemical weapons were significantly reduced in special operations and airstrikes in advance of the ongoing military offensive in Mosul.
- As the military offensive proceeds in the western part of the city remnants of the chemical program of Daesh may be discovered.
Following a Daesh mortar attack on east Mosul on March 1, a total of twelve persons were brought in to the Rozhawa hospital in Erbil with symptoms that are consistent with a chemical attack. The twelve victims included five children, three women and four men. The World Health Organization (WHO) activated an emergency response plan to treat the
victims. The attack was condemned by several international organizations. Russia
complained about the lax response by the OPCW and wondered why the organization had not sent an investigative team. While the Iraqi investigation had not been completed, the Iraqi ambassador to the UN reported that no evidence of the use of chemical weapons had been found. The UN Security Council is waiting for the final report of the Iraqi investigation.
In mid-February, Abu Yahya al-Iraqi, a Daesh commander involved in the chlorine program of the organization, was allegedly assassinated near his home in Mosul.
While capturing the eastern part of Mosul, special counterterrorism forces combed buildings and facilities that were suspected of being storages of chemical substances or production facilities. Especially the university of Mosul was believed to be used as a location for experiments and production of chemical weapons.
In late 2016, there were repeated reports that Daesh had stored large quantities of chemical substances in densely populated areas of the city in advance of the offensive. These reports were accompanied by warnings from the United Nations to act carefully while executing the military offensive and not endangering civilians unnecessary.
There is still no definite proof of the use of a chemical weapon early March in Mosul. Daesh has, however, used chemical weapons on several occasions before. According to the IHS conflict monitor the organization has used chemical weapons at least 19 times around Mosul since it took the city in 2014. IB Consultancy has reported several times on these incidents in previous threat assessments and warned of the possible use of chemical weapons to slow down approaching military forces or to create escape routes. The likelihood of these tactics was significantly reduced by raids of US and Iraqi special forces killing major Daesh operatives involved in the coordination of the chemical program and airstrikes destroying major production facilities in advance of the military offensive. Iraqi and Kurdish counterterrorism units are expected to discover remnants of this chemical program of Daesh as they proceed with the ongoing offensive in the western part of the city of Mosul.
Epidemiologists raise the alarm about health budget cuts by new US government
- The announced budget cuts by the new US government in the field of health, State Department and international aid are a bad omen for the struggle against infectious diseases and antibiotic resistant microbes.
- This struggle can only be effective if sufficient investments are made in the development of new vaccines, new antibiotics and the establishment of functioning healthcare systems with knowledgeable personnel able to respond in a timely manner.
- Governments should be more aware of the dangers of infectious diseases and prioritize their investment priorities accordingly.
President Trump’s budget would cut funding for the National Institutes of Health by 18 percent. It would cut the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a key vehicle for preventing and responding to outbreaks before they reach the US, by 28 percent. And the repeal of the Affordable Care Act would kill the billion-dollar Prevention and Public Health Fund which provides funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fight outbreaks of infectious diseases.
These budget cuts will diminish the ability to respond to the growing threats of antibiotic resistance and new infectious diseases. The presence of 7.4 billion people, 20 billion chickens and 400 million pigs is an ideal scenario for the creation and spreading of dangerous microbes. Today, an influenza pandemic could be more devastating than a nuclear bomb. We are already witnessing an outbreak of influenza in birds – the H7N9 strain in China could be the source for the next human pandemic. Since October, more than 500 people have been infected; more than 34 percent have died. The question is whether this strain will mutate to become easily transmitted between humans. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for a close monitoring of the situation. Almost each day new outbreaks of avian influenza are reported resulting in the culling of birds and having a significant impact on the poultry sector. If a mutation occurs that allows for human transmission a pandemic can not be stopped if no effective vaccine is available in substantive quantities.
The spread of antibiotic resistant microbes also continues at an ever faster rate.
The threat causes at least two million infections and 23,000 deaths each year in the US. Last year a comprehensive review predicted that, if left unchecked, drug-resistant infections will kill more people worldwide by 2050 than cancer and diabetes combined. If we do not want to return to a pre-biotic world a substantial effort has to be made to develop new antibiotics. In the framework of the Nation Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria a competition has been organized to develop new diagnostic tests. The first ten semi-finalists have been selected and awarded $50,000 each to develop their concept into a prototype.
Other infectious diseases like yellow fever, MERS or Ebola can not be fought effectively without the development of vaccines. The only way we can win inevitable microbe wars is to have new vaccines and antibiotics and trained personnel ready before the crisis hits. Currently, only about a dozen African countries exceed the 50 percent mark of their national immunization programs. This has exacerbated Africa’s vaccine deficit. One out of every five children go without basic vaccines necessary for healthy living.
In the February edition of the IBC treat assessment attention was paid to the call by Bill Gates at the Munich Security Conference for an investment fund to develop new vaccines, new antibiotics and preventive measures. With the announcement of the budget cuts by the US government less money will be available for these purposes which probably will result in a higher degree of health insecurity and adverse effects on current healthcare systems that will become less effective in the response to outbreaks of infectious diseases. To reverse this trend stakeholders could put their government under more severe pressure to change budget priorities. Another option could be to mobilize private actors to raise money.
Doomsday Clock set at two and a half minutes to midnight
- During 2016 world leaders failed to show sufficient leadership to reduce current and emergent dangers, necessitating an adjustment of the hand of the clock and move it 30 seconds closer to midnight.
- A multi-polar security landscape with high levels of uncertainty and a nationalist wave affecting many countries, is likely to result in even lower degrees of cooperation, and complicating international decision-making.
- A reduction of the overall threat of nuclear war has been illusive and the SSB concludes that the process has gone in many ways in reverse.
Each year the Science and Security Board (SSB) of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists adjusts the so-called Doomsday Clock as a symbol of the changes in the global security landscape. Since 1947, when the first Clock was made public it has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change and new technologies emerging in other domains.
Last January the new Doomsday Clock was made public. Based on the negative developments in the year 2016, it was decided to move the hand of the clock 30 seconds closer to catastrophe. It is now two minutes and 30 seconds to midnight. In a statement justifying the change the SSB argues that world leaders failed to act with the speed and the scale required to protect citizens from the extreme danger posed by climate change and nuclear power.
The statement describes a number of negative developments related to current nuclear arsenals and alert levels, the need for climate action, the safety concerns related to nuclear power plants, the potential threats from emerging technologies and finally the role of expert advice and citizen action in the reduction of risk.
The SSB also provides a number of recommendations to stimulate debate and set the agenda for important goals to reduce risks. These recommendations are related to the reduction of nuclear arsenals and alert levels, the avoidance of provocative military exercises, the reduction of greenhouse emissions in order to stick to the Paris Accords, the acknowledgement of climate change as a science-based reality, the engagement of North Korea in an attempt to reduce nuclear risk, safety issues related to nuclear plants and nuclear waste disposal, addressing the potentially malign or catastrophic uses of technologies and finally addressing the consequences of emergent technologies. The SSB states that technological innovation is occurring at a speed that challenges society’s ability to keep pace. Some of the technologies it mentions are self-driving cars, autonomous weapon systems and CRSPR gene-editing.
By adjusting the hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to midnight the SSB wants to make us aware of the fact that more effective leadership is needed in order to reduce current risks. Over the course of 2016 the global security landscape has darkened and the international community failed to come to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change. If the first steps taken by the new US government are a signal of how the security landscape may evolve during 2017, it can be expected that next year’s clock will be even closer to midnight. It will take a lot of action by citizens to put pressure on their leaders and hold them responsible for delivering a safer and healthier planet.
Upcoming US-China summit early April key for the de-escalation of the North Korean nuclear crisis
- The North Korean nuclear crisis is the first major foreign policy crisis the new US Trump administration has to deal with.
- The new Trump administration has indicated that the time of ‘strategic patience’ is over and that all options are on the table, including military options.
- As the road of military conflict will be very costly, a more beneficiary road would be the initiation of a grand bargain ushering a next stage of economic development for North Korea.
During the past months North Korea continued to execute tests to improve its nuclear capabilities. If left unchallenged the country is expected to cross the threshold of developing the capability to hit the continental United States with a nuclear missile in the coming years. On February 12, North Korea claimed it successfully tested a medium long-range ballistic missile. On March 6, it fired four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. Monitoring of activities at the Punggye-ri nuclear site indicates the country may be ready for a sixth nuclear test. Activities at the Yongbyon nuclear site indicate that the country may be planning to resume the reprocessing of spent fuel rods to produce plutonium for bomb fuel. Critical tests are usually timed around important events. In this respect there will be three important events in April: early in the month an important US-China summit will be held to discuss measures against North Korea; April 15 is the birthday of Kim Il-Sung and April 25 is the anniversary of the Korean’s People’s Army.
In response to North Korean tests, the US in January deployed a high-tech ocean radar meant to detect any long-range missile launch from North Korea. On March 13, the US announced the controversial deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. During the whole month of March the US and South Korea held their annual joint military exercises Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, testing military scenarios in case the crisis with North Korea further escalates. This year’s exercises will be the largest ever held. Over the years the focus of the exercises have shifted from training to stop a North Korean offensive to having plans in place for a comprehensive invasion across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
The new American administration has publicly announced that the time of ‘strategic patience’ is over and that all options, including military, are on the table. An important key for the elimination of the North Korean threat is the role of China, a nation responsible for 90 percent of North Korean trade. An important US-China summit has been scheduled for early April, to discuss the possible options to reach a new bargain with North Korea in an attempt to break the logjam of its nuclear program.
As economic sanctions and cyber attacks have proven to be ineffective, the US is now showing a greater willingness to openly debate military options, including first strike options and regime decapitation. The recent large-scale military exercises in which different military scenarios were practiced also point in the direction of a greater preparedness to put words into deeds. Military experts have, however, emphasized the difficulties of executing various military options and outlined the possible consequences of retaliatory attacks. For most of them there are no good military options and the time for preemption has passed long ago. Even before North Korea got the nuclear bomb, it was estimated that a war with the South would cost a million lives and would cause $1 trillion worth of damage to the South Korean economy.
The effectiveness of the THAAD missile defense system is doubted by South Korean critics as the US has never revealed data on tests. These critics maintain that the system is ineffective at missile ranges of under 1,000 kilometers and that the deployment is mainly aimed at protecting against Chinese and Russian missiles. The upcoming US-China summit early April will be key in solving this and other issues. Both countries will have to decide whether they are willing to let North Korea expand its nuclear capabilities or whether they can agree on effective measures and cooperation to stop this expansion.
US President Donald Trump has presented himself as a dealmaker. Many experts have indicated that it is time for a new strategy to get out of the logjam. The steps to be taken for a new bargain with North Korea could include a number of economic incentives and economic reforms that are set out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. These programs could usher the next stage of North Korea’s economic development. The coming month will show whether Trump lives up to his reputation as dealmaker or whether hardline generals will force him to engage in a disastrous and costly military conflict.
J. Delury. Trump and North Korea. Reviving the art of the deal. Foreign Affairs, March/April 2017, pp. 46-51.
Newly gathered intelligence triggers laptop ban for US & UK bound flights from airports in the Middle East and North Africa
- The US and UK introduced a laptop ban on direct flights to the US & UK from the Middle East and Northern Africa related to new intelligence about terrorist advances in the development of explosives.
- Security experts have criticized the new measures for their selectiveness and the easy ways to circumvent them.
- For strategic reasons al-Qa’ida has until now refrained from ordering new ‘external’ attacks against the West, although it is assumed that attack planning continues.
Newly gathered intelligence during a US Special Forces raid in Yemen in January triggered a new security measure by the US and the UK. According to some sources there may have been a specific plot of which the details are kept secret.
On March 21, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) introduced a laptop ban affecting planes leaving from ten airports in the following eight countries: Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE. Passengers on direct flight to the US will no longer be able to carry laptops or similar electronics with them into the cabin of the plane. The measure does not affect mobile phones or smaller electronics. The measure affects 19 different airlines, especially Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.
On March 25, the UK Department of Transport followed suit with a similar measure, although with a slightly different list of countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey. The British measure affects six British airlines and eight foreign carriers. Other Western countries or Western-allied countries did not follow the American and British steps.
The newly gathered intelligence may be linked to the experiments of Ibrahim al-Asiri, one of the most senior explosives experts of al-Qa’ida on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He has survived multiple attempts on his life and is believed to have transferred his expertise to several other experts. It is assumed that he has been successful in developing a compact battery bomb that fits inside a laptop or another computer device. The new type of explosive is believed to be strong enough to bring down an aircraft. According to some sources it concerns a military grade explosive, probably PETN, with a manual trigger mechanism.
It is believed that al-Qa’ida has nodes in several countries and is dedicating resources to planning so-called ‘external’ attacks. It is also believed that al-Qa’ida operatives have been experimenting with sophisticated explosives that can be smuggled onto planes. US drone strikes during the past years have focused on the planners of ‘external’ attacks. For strategic reasons Ayman al-Zawahiri, the emir of al-Qa’ida, until now has refrained from ordering new ‘external’ attacks against the West.
Security experts have rightly stated that the new ban introduced by the US and the UK defies logic. Why do they use different lists of countries, airports and carriers? This raises questions whether other reasons may have played a role. Why can the laptops still be carried in the checked luggage? This is probably related to the trigger mechanism of the newly developed device. Although it is assumed that it has to be triggered manually, several experts have pointed at the possibility of other trigger mechanisms. Why can’t the newly developed device not be detected by the current X-ray machines at international airports? If a small quantity of powerful explosives can be hidden in a laptop, it probably can also be hidden in other ways. Why have the US and the UK not been more successful in persuading other countries to follow suit with the ban? If they do have serious intelligence this should have been convincing for other countries as well to introduce a ban. The way the new ban has been introduced and its selective implementation has resulted in a further loss of trust in airport security that may have a negative impact on air travel.