This is the 32nd 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: February 26, 2018
Topics covered in this issue of the threat assessment:
* Intensifying international debate about the right punitive response to the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria
* Dutch poultry sector hit by new outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N6) in northern town
* New incident of theft of a density meter with a radiological source reported in Mexico
* New sanctions imposed on North Korean shipping aimed at reducing smuggling activities
* Small commercial drones are revolutionizing asymmetric warfare and expertise developed by Daesh in Iraq and Syria is likely to proliferate to terrorist/criminal groups in other countries
Intensifying international debate about the right punitive response to the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria
* In January and February there have been renewed reports on the use of chlorine attacks during military offensives in the Afrin enclave and East Ghouta in Syria.
* While the alleged chemical attacks are hard to verify there are indications that they are mainly used for propaganda purposes to trigger a Western military response.
* As new information has been spread about the involvement of the Assad regime in earlier chemical attacks, Western political leaders have expressed a greater willingness to punitive military action.
Military escalation in Syria, with new offensives in the Afrin enclave and East Ghouta, have been accompanied by renewed accusations of the use of chemical attacks, especially chlorine. While the alleged attacks in Saraqeb (Idlib), Aranda (Afrin enclave), Douma (East Ghouta) caused limited casualties, Syrian aid organizations initiated an intensive propaganda campaign with harrowing pictures of victimized children to persuade Western leaders to more forceful military intervention. It is suspicious that some of the alleged attacks were timed to influence decisions by the UN Security Council.
New information has been leaked about laboratory test results of investigations related to earlier chemical attacks in Syria. The test results reportedly confirm claims that the Assad regime was behind the August 21, 2013 attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. The laboratories working for the OPCW compared samples collected by the UN mission in Ghouta after the attack to chemicals handed over by Damascus for destruction in 2014. The tests found ‘markers’ in samples taken at Ghouta and at the sites of two other nerve agent attacks in the towns of Khan Sheikhoun (April 4, 2017) and Khan al-Assal (March 2013). The test results about the matching samples were the basis of the report by the OPCW-UN JIM in October 2017, which said that the Assad regime was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack. The test results related to the Ghouta attack were not released in the October 2017 report to the UN Security Council because they were not part of the mandate.
American officials claim that information gathered from recent alleged attacks suggests Assad retained a ‘continued production capacity’ banned under the 2013 deal. The Assad regime has not developed new chemicals but is using the same chemicals (chlorine and sarin) but in more sophisticated ways in order to evade international accountability by making the origins of the attacks harder to trace. Barrel bombs used earlier in the war to disperse chemicals indiscriminately, have been replaced by ground-launched munitions. It is alleged that in the recent reported attacks chlorine as well as the more sophisticated sarin were used. In early February, US defense secretary James Mattis stated that the US had no evidence to confirm reports that the Syrian regime used sarin against its civilians.
During the past month the US administration has emphasized that it was seeking a new way to hold chemical weapon users accountable and wanted cooperation from Russia in pressuring Assad to end the chemical attacks. In early February the US administration accused the Assad regime of producing and using ‘new kinds of weapons’ to deliver deadly chemicals. Also British and French political leaders have recently expressed a greater willingness to use military retaliation in response to new chemical attacks. During a meeting of the UN Security Council Russia and Syria denied the allegations about new chemical attacks. Russia spread intelligence about preparatory activities by rebel groups to stage provocative attacks and launch an information campaign via a foreign television channel.
Though Daesh no longer controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, the organization continues to use sulfer-mustard via artillery shells and chlorine delivered by IEDs. The US does not believe that Daesh has gotten a hold on military stockpile-either in Iraq or Syria.
Since the dismantling last October of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the United Nations there is currently no way to determine responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria. Efforts to provide the JIM with a new mandate were vetoed by Russia. A Russian proposal for establishing a new mechanism was rejected by the other members of the Security Council. By spreading information that the Assad regime is not only responsible for the Khan Sheikoun attack but also for the Ghouta attack, by making reference to laboratory results showing matches between samples taken after the attacks and samples provided by the Assad regime, the US tries to put more pressure on Russia to agree with a new mandate of the JIM.
As Russia remains a staunch supporter of the Assad regime it is not likely that it will agree to a new mandate that will show Assad’s involvement in attacks and obliging the international community to punitive measures. Russia considers the recent allegations about new chemical attacks as provocations and bogus stories. To a certain extent Russia has a point as several of the alleged attacks were timed to influence international decision-making processes and the intense information campaign using pictures of children is not very credible. Reports about new chemical attacks often do occur in situations in which the regime is making progress. The government has no real motive to use chemical weapons as they hardly have an impact on the battlefield. The rebels, on the other hand, may be able to persuade the West to intervene, to give them more breathing space.
In the mean time, the OPCW continues its follow-up on the remaining gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration to the chemical weapons watchdog about its chemical weapons program. If its fact-finding missions find proof of recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, the debate about a meaningful response can be expected to intensify.
Dutch poultry sector hit by new outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N6) in northern town
* A new outbreak of the HPAI (H5N6) hit a Dutch poultry farm in the northern town of Oldekerk.
* According to standard safety protocols a transport ban, an order to keep livestock indoors, and stepped up hygiene measures have been initiated to reduce the risk of a further spread of the virus.
* First analysis of the discovered virus in Oldekerk indicates that it is of the type H5N6, and may be related to the H5N8 type that was widely reported in Europe in 2016 and 2017. It is assumed that migrating wild birds from Siberia brought the virus to the Netherlands.
On February 25, a new outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was reported on a Dutch poultry farm in the northern town of Oldekerk. According to standard safety protocols a ban on the transport of birds, eggs and manure, was immediately installed within a radius of 10 kilometers, and farmers were ordered to keep their livestock indoors. Also hygiene measures were stepped up to prevent a further spread of the virus. Results of tests on two other farms in the neighborhood were not available yet at the time of writing.
On average 10-30 reports of low pathogenic avian influenza are reported annually in the Netherlands. LPAI usually results in mild symptoms of disease. The low pathogenic form may however mutate to the highly pathogenic form that can result in exponential death rates among birds. Poultry farms that are closely located near open water or canals have a higher risk of attracting LPAI. The LPAI virus of the subtypes H5 and H7 can mutate to HPAI types. In the period of November 2016 to April 2017 several farms were hit by HPAI and at 15 farms birds had to be culled. The most recent cases in 2017 were reported in Sint Philipsland and Biddinghuizen. The outbreak in Sint Philipsland was a LAPAI (H5N2) case and 42,000 chickens had to be culled. The farm in Biddinghuizen was hit by HPAI(H5N6) and resulted in the culling of 16,000 ducks.
First analysis of the virus discovered in Oldekerk indicates it is also a case of the H5N6 type. This type was found in 2017 in Greece and in Asia. In Asia this type is also said to be capable of infecting humans. The Dutch type, however, is said not to be related to the Asian H5N6 type and is said to be more related to the H5N8 type. This type was widely reported in 2016 and 2017 and killed many wild birds. While the H5N8 outbreaks in Europe dropped steeply over the spring and summer months in 2017, there were continued outbreaks in Italy. During the fall of 2017 almost 50 outbreaks were reported in the poultry sector in Europe. It is assumed that the new variant discovered in the Netherlands was brought to the country by migrating birds from Siberia.
It has become a regular phenomenon over the last years that winter and spring seasons will bring outbreaks of avian influenza in Europe and other regions as migrating birds spread the virus. The highly pathogenic form can have severe effects on the poultry sector. This is an important economic sector in the Netherlands and that is why experiences of the last years have resulted in detailed safety protocols to contain outbreaks and prevent huge economic losses. As the Netherlands is a country with large areas of open water and many canals, there is a significant risk that infected wild birds with low pathogenic viruses may transmit the virus. Their presence also increases the risk of mutations to highly pathogenic types that can be imported into the poultry sector. Constant monitoring and warning is therefore of utmost importance. Migration patterns of birds are important indicators how viruses may spread. As of now there are no indications that the discovered H5N6 virus in Oldekerk can infect humans. Developments in Asia where human infections by the H5N6 type have been discovered should be closely followed.
New incident of theft of a density meter with a radiological source reported in Mexico
* A density meter with a radiological source was stolen from the back of a truck of an engineering company in the Mexican city of Léon in the state of Guanajuata.
* Mexico has seen more of this type of incidents in recent years and most of them were crime related and the radiological materials recovered.
* Countries that have endorsed the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources should implement its principles as soon as possible and with a high level of rigor.
On February 8, a density meter was stolen from the back of a truck of the engineering company Geogrupa del Centro in the Mexican city Léon in the state of Juanajuata. The National Coordinator of Civil Protection has issued a warning and stated that the equipment should be handled with care. Taking the radioactive source out of the container can be dangerous. Nuclear density meters are devices used by engineers to measure soil density. They contain small amounts of the radioactive materials Americium-241, Beryllium, and Cesium-137, and are labeled as Category 4 dangerous.
Since 2013, Mexico has seen similar incidents. Most of them were crime related and the radioactive materials were in most cases recovered without harm. Most likely criminal groups tried to make a profit by attempting to sell the stolen materials to the highest bidder. The radiological material, however, can be used to build a so-called ‘dirty-bomb’. These types of bombs are expected to cause few radiation related deaths but can cause economic disaster due to the closure of an affected area and the costs of cleanup operations. It is for this reason that research institutes and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) maintain databases on missing radiological materials.
The recent reported case of a stolen radiological source in Mexico, and similar incidents reported in the past years, illustrate the possibilities for groups with terrorist motives to acquire radiological material necessary for the construction of ‘dirty bombs’. Until now the Mexican cases were mostly crime related and the missing materials were recovered without harm. Tracking missing radiological materials is of utmost importance to assess the terrorist risk. The IAEA has introduced a Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources. The revised version has been endorsed by many countries. The Mexican theft incidents and other incidents underline that countries should decide on a speedy implementation of its principles with a high level of rigor.
New sanctions imposed on North Korean shipping aimed at reducing smuggling activities
* Before the end of the Winter Olympics the US imposed a new package of sanctions on North Korea aimed at reducing its evasive maritime activities.
* In coordination with allies the US is discussing inspection methods and rules of engagement that would avoid armed confrontations at sea.
* As denuclearization of North Korea remains a fundamental US policy goal debates about the use of military force are likely to intensify in the coming months.
Before the end of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, the US unilaterally imposed its heaviest ever sanctions against North Korean shipping aimed at reducing the country’s illicit coal and fuel transports and erode the ability to ship goods through international waters. The announcement came two months after the UN Security Council imposed a tough sanctions regime on North Korea. China immediately demanded the US to reverse its decision to impose fresh sanctions as they may undermine cooperation between Being and Washington. The US is serious about the new sanctions and also wants effective implementation including stepped up inspections at sea. It has begun talks with allies about the most suitable Rules of Engagement to avoid armed confrontation at sea. In this context the use of Coast Guard cutters is discussed instead of warships.
Hardline American officials have indicated that the new sanctions represent what would be among the last diplomatic measures available to American policymakers. They emphasize that the US is approaching a ‘binary choice’ or ‘fork in the road’ of either allowing North Korea to become the world’s 10th nuclear power or use military force to prevent that very possibility. In this context attack scenarios and military operational plans are widely discussed.
In the past months the so-called ‘bloody nose’ scenario was widely debated. Such a scenario would entail the infliction of just enough damage to persuade Kim Jong-Un to yield to US demands, while avoiding a level of damage that he could perceive as regime threatening. The idea has met opposition given the risks of escalation and retaliation, especially against South Korea. American officials have denied that there is such a scenario. The Japanese and South Korean media have also leaked fragments of the classified US Operations Plan 5015. It appears that the new OPLAN 5015 has the goal to consolidate several older war plans, minimize casualties in war and prepare for the possibility that the North Korean regime might collapse. The plan allegedly includes limited war, the use of special forces and the use of precision weapons targeting key facilities. It is assumed that the plan also envisages the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.
This type of debates could trigger confusion in Pyongyang and potentially a backlash from the Kim-regime. What if Kim Jong-Un believes he has no choice but to act first because he feels Washington’s is threatening his regime’s survival. In the past North Korea has shown a willingness to raise the stakes during periods of tension and to take lethal action. North Korea could launch cyber attacks against commercial interests, terrorist attacks in major cities in South Korea or pre-emptively attack ports and airfields that the US military would rely on for its transport of military troops into South Korea. It is unlikely that a showdown will follow a local and predictable script. Uncertainty will increase the risk of miscalculation on both sides. While some experts argue that the nuclear program is meant as a deterrent to make sure that the country will not be attacked again, others argue that Kim Jong-Un has a desire for reunification under a single Communist regime. Understanding North Korea’s decision-making process and the various influences on Kim’s calculations is a major intelligence challenge.
As North Korea is currently subjected to the most severe sanctions regime in history it is unlikely that the regime will give up nuclear weapons since it views nuclear deterrence as a way to stay in power. However, draining the country of resources could have an effect on the stability of the regime and could slow down the nuclear program. North Korea has developed a sophisticated procurement system using foreign embassies. There are strong indications that it is still able to use this system to acquire new technologies and materials for its conventional and nuclear weapon program. For the time being the US will continue with its approach of deterrence and containment in coordination with regional allies.
While hardliners hold that the ultimate goal of the US should remain the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s existing nuclear arsenal and US officials emphasize that the country is only months away from the capability to strike the US with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the time pressure will increase to make a choice about the use of military force. In this context the debate about military options and operational plans will further intensify in the coming months. In a recent Senate hearing Henry Kissinger argued that the temptation to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea is strong and the argument rational. He depicted North Korea as the most immediate threat to global security and argued that the denuclearization of the regime was a fundamental American policy goal. He also warned that a nuclear armed North Korea is likely to trigger an arms race in the region. In this context the invitation to President Moon to visit Pyongyang for talks is seen as a ploy to play for time.
Small commercial drones are revolutionizing asymmetric warfare and expertise developed by Daesh in Iraq and Syria is likely to proliferate to terrorist/criminal groups in other countries
* During the year 2017 propaganda outlets distributed imagery of about 200 drone attacks in Iraq and Syria by Daesh providing important lessons about this new tactic in asymmetric warfare that can be used as a force multiplier.
* Due to innovation within the drone industry terrorist organizations can easily acquire drones that are more capable, easier to pilot and more resilient. As there is no equivalent commercial market driving innovation on the counter-side, terrorist organizations are likely to remain advantageous for the time being.
* The expertise gained by Daesh in Iraq and Syria in the past years is likely to proliferate to terrorist/criminal groups in other countries.
The war in Iraq and Syria was used by Daesh as a laboratory to experiment with new technologies, including small commercial drones. The organization succeeded in developing its own air force entirely comprised of drones and manufactured them on an industrial base. The organization also produced munitions in dedicated armament factories. Mosul, Deir ez Zor and Raqqa appear to have been the three main centers of Daesh drone activities. The bomblets used in these three locations even had their own identifiable features
Imagery distributed by its own propaganda outlets can be linked to more than 200 drone attacks during the year 2017. From this footage important lessons can be drawn on how the organization integrated this new technology in its operations and what impact it had on the nature of the conflict.
The distributed imagery showed that drones can be accurate enough to hit high value targets such as command groups, combat vehicles and communication masts. Due to their accuracy drones can be used to execute attacks with strategic impact, e.g. the large-scale destruction of an arms depot. Drones can also be used to conduct reconnaissance, adjust artillery and coordinate troops in battle. Daesh also succeeded in integrating drones in other types of operations, most notably suicide car bomb operations (SVBIED). The live imagery from drones can be used to direct a driver of a suicide car bomb to a target providing him with a greater situational awareness. The videos prepared by Daesh formed a core part of Daesh propaganda. They demonstrated the ability of the organization to cause destruction on a scale comparable to airstrikes.
Developments in de drone industry may result in new threat types. The advances in nanotechnology could lead to drones that mimic birds or insects allowing for stealthy ways of intelligence collection. More disruptively, these nano-drones could engage in highly targeted killings through the injection of poison or self-destruction. These new possibilities create serious challenges for counterterrorism experts.
The use of off-the-shelf and improvised drones by Daesh and other organizations is likely to revolutionize asymmetric warfare and may change the face of conflict. In combination with other weapons drones can be a force multiplier, providing capabilities to small groups that until recently were mostly limited to state-level actors. This will create new challenges for counterinsurgency forces. The proliferation of drone technology will have potentially serious implications for international stability.
The use of drones in combat zones is growing at a substantial rate and the cost of the technology is dropping dramatically. The technology that underpins drone systems is expected to become more sophisticated. The world will become saturated with drones and they will be used in many different sectors of society for different purposes.
Many countries are becoming more vulnerable to this new terrorist threat as they have been slow in updating their regulations and the development of countermeasures. Constant innovation within the drone industry allows for more capable, easier to pilot and more resilient drones. As there is no equivalent commercial market on the counter-side, the current situation is advantageous for terrorist organizations. As of now, C-IED organizations are unlikely to soon develop an effective and cheap countermeasure by integrating existing or new technologies.