This month’s Threat Assessment includes:
- UN Security Council resolution in the making on attribution mechanism for chlorine barrel bomb attacks in Syria
- Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak in US reaches historical record
- Four years after the meltdown of three of the six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant the full extent of the disaster is still unknown
- As NPT RevCon makes little progress, new pragmatic Global Zero grassroots movement is only hope to eliminate nuclear weapons by 2030
- Death of BIFF explosives expert Abdul Basit Usman allegedly used to influence the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to end armed conflict
The Threat Assessments are based on open sources. End date of collection: May 25, 2015
UN Security Council resolution in the making on attribution mechanism for chlorine barrel bomb attacks in Syria
* Syrian Civil Defense volunteers have documented 35 chlorine barrel bomb attacks in the province of Idlib over the last three months.
* The UN Security Council has discussed an attribution mechanism to determine the perpetrator of the reported attacks and open the way for possible UN Security Council action.
* A further weakening of the Assad regime may intensify the debate on the possibilities of a transition government that would be willing to stop the use of barrel bomb attacks and be more transparent about its chemical weapon capabilities.
During their fact-finding mission in Syria in the past months, inspectors of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have found traces of precursor chemicals for sarin, VX and ricin at three military locations. Traces of sarin were found in drainage pipes and in artillery shells in two places, and traces of ricin were found at a third location. There was no clear evidence of new use or production of the forbidden chemicals. A new OPCW mission will begin on May 17 with the aim to seek an explanation from Syrian officials.
Until now the Syrian authorities did not give a satisfying answer about the presence of the precursor chemicals. It is widely believed that the Syrian regime may have failed to fully account for its chemical stockpile. According to some experts it may have hidden about 10 to 15 percent of the total, and these hidden amounts of sarin and VX could be used by the regime in situations of severe danger. The Declaration Assessment Team (DAT) of the OPCW seeks to clarify gaps in the government’s required official declarations about the locations and amounts of its toxic stockpiles and the nature and scope of activities at weapons sites.
In the past months the US has been pushing to establish a UN mission to determine who is responsible for the alleged chlorine barrel bomb attacks in Syria. The proposed attribution mechanism would likely answer to the UN Security Council and would allow experts access to look into attacks. The proposal was discussed during a closed door meeting of the UN Security Council on May 8 at which the OPCW presented the results of its fact-finding mission. It is not yet clear how the OPCW will be involved in the new mechanism. The US has drafted a resolution that is expected to get a majority in the UN Security Council. It is not known yet when a vote will be held on the resolution.
Syrian opposition groups have documented 35 chlorine barrel bomb attacks in a government air campaign after the loss of the province to the Jaish al-Fatah rebel coalition. They have collected remains of the barrel bombs, soil samples with traces of chlorine and blood and urine samples from victims. The evidence is used to build a case against the regime.
Both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the OPCW have presented strong evidence that chlorine has been delivered from helicopters. The only combatant in the conflict that has helicopters is the Syrian government. The regime may view the use of chlorine as a loophole as it is not listed as a chemical weapon and it is difficult to document on the battlefield. It dissipates quickly. Verification of its use can only come from firsthand accounts of eyewitnesses and the symptoms shown by the people exposed to the gas.
Already in 2014 it was clear that the Syrian government had not declared all its capabilities and probably kept a certain percentage hidden. At that moment it was decided not to endanger the destruction of the declared stockpile and to put the regime pressure to be more transparent. As the declared stockpile has been successfully destroyed the way is open for more pressure on the regime.
Recent situation reports about developments in Syria mention growing pressures on the Assad regime and the possibility of a sudden dramatic collapse. Key foreign players in the conflict may shift their position in the conflict and may open the way for a removal of Assad and a transition to another regime. In this context UN diplomats have begun to leak information about the OPCW fact-finding mission to put the regime under even more pressure. The UN special envoy for Syria will report back by the end of June about low-key negotiations that have been held in Geneva. Without a political breakthrough to change the course of events continued attrition is the most likely prospect making more chlorine barrel bomb attacks likely. In that situation a vote on the resolution on the attribution mechanism will be held opening the way for retaliatory action against the Syrian regime. With the Assad regime retaining some of its chemical warfare capabilities it still has an opportunity to use chemical weapons in a last stand in the event of a catastrophic regime collapse.
Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak in US reaches historical record
* The outbreak of highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the US has become the worst crisis for the American poultry industry on record with new cases of infection reported almost every day.
* The 177 confirmed cases (as of May 22) are spread over twenty states. The number of birds to be culled has passed the 40 million. The four most affected states have declared an emergency to deal with the disaster.
* Currently, the H5 and H7 types of HPAI have affected a total of 35 countries and the number is likely to grow. Although the dangerous H5N1 strain for humans has not been identified in the US, it is still active in several other countries.
The outbreak of highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the US has become the worst crisis for the US poultry industry on record. As of May 22 a total of 177 cases have been confirmed spread over twenty states. The governors in Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa declared states of emergency and have made resources available to stem the spread of the disaster. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has authorized 330 million dollar for assistance to affected farmers. More than 40 million birds have to be culled and the number is expected to grow further. In most cases carbon-dioxide gas is used to kill the birds after which the carcasses are buried or incinerated. Several landfills refused the dead birds out of fear of contamination. The outbreak severely hits the country’s top turkey producing state Minnesota and the top egg producing state Iowa. Economists have estimated the economic losses for these two states at more than one billion dollar.
The expanding crisis will have a severe impact on the 48 billion dollar American poultry industry. Three billion dollar of poultry products is exported every year. Several countries have already announced import bans for American products to protect their own poultry industry, including China, Russia, South Korea, Vietnam, Ecuador and Mexico. Food prices are expected to rise later this year. Economic ripple effects are being felt across numerous sectors, from food companies seeing a squeeze on egg supplies, to meat processors flooded with excess poultry products amid export market bans. Preparations are being made to open ways to import eggs and egg products from Europe.
Scientists are puzzled by the spread of the H5N2 virus -even amid stepped-up biosecurity measures and apparent lack of widespread deaths in largely unprotected back yard flocks. Only sixteen cases of outbreaks in backyard flocks (about 10 percent of total infections) have been identified. It is unknown how the virus spreads laterally from farm to farm. The biosecurity measures that were believed to be good have not been able to stop the virus from spreading. It is assumed that larger operations have more workers, equipment and vehicles moving around the operation, increasing the chance of an accidental spread. Another possible causal factor could be ventilation fans that are used to keep the birds cool. They could be pulling in contaminated dirt, feathers and other things with the virus. The significant spread across short distances also leaves open the possibility of airborne transmission that is currently being investigated.
Three strains of the virus have been identified: H5N2, H5N8, H5N1 (one case in British Colombia, Canada). The H5N8 strain was discovered in early 2014 in Korea and China and reached Japan soon afterwards. From there the strain probably spread with migratory birds to India, Europe, Canada and later the US. The total number of affected countries has gradually grown to 35 countries.
So far no infections with the H5N1 strain of the virus that is dangerous for humans, have been found in the US. One case was reported in Canada. Outbreaks of H5N1 have recently been reported in Turkey, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The Egyptian Health Ministry has requested a joint expert mission from several international organizations (including the WHO, UNICEF and the US Naval Medical Research Unit 3) to evaluate the current situation in Egypt. The Egyptian government has not been able to bring the outbreak under control due to a lack of coordination between the public and the private sector. Seventy percent of the reported human cases in Egypt were a result of exposure to infected backyard poultry. The British Animal and Plant Health Agency in Weybridge is currently investigating the relationships between the different strains of the avian influenza virus.
With the spreading of the virus egg and turkey meat prices are expected to rise due to shortages. The current crisis is already affecting the supply of eggs and meat and is expected to trickle down in the food industry and restaurant business. The crisis may also have negative effects on related sectors, like transport and meat processing. Increased public awareness about avian influenza could temporarily curtail consumer appetite for chicken and turkey products and lower demand. Import bans by other countries may cause dumping of products on the local market.
In general the poultry industry can replenish the supply of chickens more quickly than beef or pork industries can rebound, but it still takes time to rebuild a flock. Reproductive flocks of chickens and turkeys are closely watched. They have not been hit yet to the same extend as layer hens. If that would happen shortages are to be expected in the second half of the year as farmers struggle to repopulate their flocks.
A reduction in the number of reported infections in the US is likely as the virus is expected to die as temperatures warm up in the affected states and ultraviolet light increases. The virus may, however, return in autumn with cooler temperatures and wild birds migrating south spreading the virus along all four major flyways. The virus may then hit Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Georgia, large poultry producing states that have not been affected yet.
If the trend continues the number of affected countries by the H5 and H7 strains of HPAI may increase further from the current total of 35 countries. A strengthening of animal disease surveillance worldwide, in addition to better application of biosecurity measures in farms, live bird markets and in trade, could help to prevent this from happening. Coordination between the public and the private sector is also seen as an essential factor to bring an outbreak under control.
No human cases of the avian influenza virus have been detected in the US and federal officials continue to say the virus in its current state poses little risk to human health. The USDA maintains the avian influenza has not made its way into the food supply. The dangerous H5N1 strain for humans is, however, active in several other countries. Especially the endemic situation in Egypt is under international investigation on request of the Egyptian Health Ministry.
Four years after the meltdown of three of the six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant the full extent of the disaster is still unknown
* In March The Fukushima Project of SimplyInfo.org issued a detailed assessment of the current situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and provided more details about the human and social impact of the disaster.
* The disaster itself still is a massive challenge that has impacted every facet of life and the global impact is not being well understood.
* The Japanese government can no longer afford the import of more expensive fossil fuels after the closure of its 48 undamaged nuclear plants. Despite popular resistance the first reactors are likely to reopen this year after positive compliance tests of new safety regulations.
In March The Fukushima Project of SimplyInfo.org issued a detailed report in which it revisited the situation over the last year and provided new details on the human and social impact of the disaster. A few summarized highlights of the report are the following:
– The true state of the melted down reactors at Fukushima Daiichi is still not clearly understood.
– Japan lacks enough ongoing investigative inspections of the facility to compel the Tokyo Energy Production Company (TEPCO) to admit what they know.
– The levels of projected contamination and duration of incoming contamination would both need to be changed to reflect the new understanding that the releases were higher and much longer lived than the initial disaster.
-People still struggle to find reliable information about the disaster and how it impacted the environment and people.
– With many players who benefit from downplaying the impacts, finding information that is useful and easily understood has been difficult even four years later.
– Studies and reports attempting to downplay the impact of the disaster have been an ongoing problem.
– Most of the environmental and human outcomes need longer ongoing monitoring or data collection to really understand the impact.
– A total of 120,000 people remain evacuees, with 79,000 of them from the evacuating zones. The risk of returning to areas close to the disaster zone is rarely discussed.
– While real challenges to help people re-establish their lives exist much of the official effort has been in superficial activities that do little to actually help people.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will make a third visit to Fukushima from May 18-25. The experts are expected to take soil and sea samples for analysis.
After the Fukushima disaster Japan temporarily closed all its 48 undamaged nuclear reactors. Before the disaster Japan produced roughly 30 percent of its electricity by using nuclear power. There were plans to increase that number to at least 40 percent by 2017. Since the disaster Japan had to rely on importing fossil fuels to support its power production. Some twenty reactors are currently being tested to see if they comply with new safety regulations. In October 2014 the authorities approved the reopening of the Sendai plant. The two reactors are expected to resume their work this year.
The report issued by SimplyInfo.org is a worrisome assessment of the current situation. The consequences of the disaster are largely ignored by main stream media. The Japanese government and TEPCO are still underestimating the seriousness of the situation and downplaying the effects on humans and the environment. None of the plans to stem the flow of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean have been successful. This has devastating consequences for marine life. A growing number of studies conclude that food chains are collapsing and that the Pacific Ocean may slowly die.
As the extent and the consequences of the disaster are not fully understood estimates of the decontamination and the cleanup operation have constantly been scaled upwards. TEPCO has been plagued with failures and missteps. The entire decommissioning process is currently expected to last at least 40 years. An estimated $ 18 billion will be needed for decontamination and other mitigation of the water problem. Altogether, the decommissioning process at the plant is expected to cost more than $ 90 billion. A complicating factor is that the technology for the unprecedented cleanup operations has not been developed yet. The radiation levels are too high for humans to enter the areas near the melted cores. First experiments have been done with very expensive robots.
Despite popular resistance the Japanese government is currently under severe pressure to reopen undamaged nuclear plants that comply with new safety regulations, as it can hardly afford the import of the more expensive fossil fuels.
As NPT RevCon makes little progress, new pragmatic Global Zero grassroots movement is only hope to eliminate nuclear weapons by 2030
* All existing nuclear countries are investing heavily, or planning to do so, in modernizing their forces and for expanding their arsenals.
* UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon called on world leaders to abandon short-sighted posturing and warned that the NPT could become irrelevant if not more progress is being made on agreed upon practical steps and action items at the 9th RevCon of the NPT.
* A further mobilization and development of the pragmatic Global Zero grass roots movement appears to be the only hope for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons by 2030
In our previous April IBC Threat Assessment we discussed the Cartwright/Dvorkin proposal to enlist the major nuclear powers to adopt de-alerting measures and to step down from a launch-on-warning posture to provide political decision-makers with a safer time buffer. Since then the Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction of the Global Zero organization has published a report with more specifics and details about this proposal.
At the ongoing 9th review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), US ambassador Adam Scheinman denied that the US nuclear forces are on ‘hair-trigger’ alert and that the US does not have a launch-on-warning policy. In a backup document for his presentation it is said that strict, rigorous and redundant procedures and technical safeguards are in place to guard against an unacceptable or unauthorized launching of a nuclear weapon. Cartwright gave an immediate response stating that the claims made by Scheinman were inaccurate, incomplete and misleading. Based on the report by the Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction, Cartwright maintains that keeping 800 US nuclear weapons (and a comparable number of Russian weapons) ready to fly upon their receipt of a short sequence of simple computer signals is extremely risky. Measures to increase warning and decision time would greatly reduce the risks of accidental, unauthorized or mistaken launch. In addition, according to Cartwright, de-alerting measures would strengthen safeguards against terrorist and cyber exploitation.
As the 9th review conference of the NPT is currently being held, new proposals are being discussed to make steps in the direction of the elimination of the estimated 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. The spread of nuclear weapons and the risk of their use, is still seen as an existential threat. Many observers are not very hopeful about the conference and expect that it will be business as usual with the major nuclear powers maintaining their strategic exclusivity. A proposal for a nuclear free Middle East was rejected.
Observers have criticized the lack of transparency in reporting by the nuclear weapon states that is obscuring the slowing pace of reductions and the destruction of nuclear warheads and provides hardly any information about future reductions. An enhanced reporting process with requirements for substantive and comparable data could contribute to more transparency about reductions of nuclear weapons.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon expressed his deep concern that hardly any progress had been made on the implementation on the action plan that was agreed upon five years ago and included 22 action items. He called on world leaders to abandon their shortsighted political posturing.
Informed observers have warned that we are at a cross-roads and the decisions we make over the next ten years will set us on a course either toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons or toward expanding arsenals and proliferation. There are at least three disturbing trends that can be summarized as follows:
-All of the nuclear countries are investing heavily, or planning to do so, in modernizing their forces and for expanding their arsenals.
-More nuclear countries are choosing higher-alert postures shortening the decision-time for launch and increasing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used in conflict, by accident or through unauthorized launch.
-Terrorist organizations are working to get their hands on the bomb. In the latest issue of Dabiq, the magazine of Daesh, it is stated that the organization has sufficient financial means to bribe Pakistani officials to acquire a nuclear bomb, and transport it to the US by cooperating with international drug cartels and using their transport routes.
Over the years a more pragmatic movement has developed questioning the utility of nuclear weapons in war. Nowadays nuclear weapons have become too dangerous and clumsy to still be useful as there is an evolutionary trend toward smaller, smarter and more accurate weapons. A representative of this movement is Global Zero. The Global Zero Action Plan calls for the US and Russia to negotiate cuts in arsenals, followed by international negotiations to eliminate all nuclear weapons by 2030. A new and stronger security paradigm among nations has to be built. This will not happen overnight and the organization has formulated four phases with specific and successive steps to be taken to reach the ultimate goal. To mobilize support for the Action Plan the Global Zero Action Lab has been established in New York. Action Corps leaders are trained to spread the ideas around the world by exploiting new means of communication. Only by creating a new grassroots movement political decision-making on nuclear issues may change.
It can only be hoped that the Global Zero report by its Nuclear Risk Reduction Commission will contribute to a greater awareness of the dangerous situation we live in today. And hopefully it will convince politicians to take measures to create a safer time buffer for warning and decision-making in order to reduce the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launching of a nuclear weapon.
We still live in a world in which powerful governments ignore the will of their populations and continue to rely on nuclear forces. Most of these nuclear weapon states are investing heavily in modernizing and expanding their arsenals. We are at an important cross-roads and in a few weeks it will become clear whether there will be a deal with Iran about its nuclear program. If no accord will be reached, the chances for further nuclear proliferation in the region will increase and nuclear powers will be less willing to reduce their arsenals. The rejection of the proposal for a nuclear free zone in the Middle East at the recent NPT review conference is symptomatic of the nuclear weapon states unwilling to admit that nuclear weapons have no utility in future warfare.
The further mobilization of a grassroots movement like Global Zero, is therefore of utmost importance and a pragmatic way to deal with the issue. It is expected that building such a movement with the power to push political leaders towards zero, will take years of dedicated and painstaking organizing work. In many countries grassroots movements that existed in the past decades did collapse and have to be rebuild and revitalized. The Global Zero Action Plan is a workable agenda with clear ideas about the successive steps to be taken in the coming fifteen years to introduce a new security paradigm without nuclear weapons.
Death of BIFF explosives expert Abdul Basit Usman allegedly used to influence the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to end armed conflict
* Initially, the killing of BIFF explosives expert Abdul Basit Usman was claimed by the army but it soon retracted the claim and attributed the killing to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
* On the island of Basilan the hunt continues for at least four foreign terrorist operatives, possibly involved in the transfer of explosives expertise.
* A Daesh terrorist manual may have an impact on IED techniques and designs of terrorist organizations active in the Philippines.
Explosives expert Abdul Basit Usman (real name Ahmad Ahmad Patabol Usman) was killed on May 3 in Guindalungan, Maguindanao. Initially, the army claimed his death but retracted the story and attributed the killing to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Usman was a captive of the MILF. When he was transported to the central MILF camp, he reportedly tried to resist his captors and was shot dead in the attempt. Five of his bodyguards were also killed. His remains were buried within 24 hours in accordance with Islamic traditions. The armed forces thanked the MILF for its collaboration in the forensic investigation. The MILF provided a specimen of skin tissue, fingerprints and bloodstains and members testified as witnesses.
The contradictory stories being told about Usman’s death led to allegations of scripting and deal-making. According to one view his death was based on a deal between the military and the MILF to show the public that the rebels were sincere in pursuing peace. This sincerity could have a positive influence on the ongoing negotiations about the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that will result in the termination of a long lasting armed conflict. According to another view Usman’s death was linked to the prosecution of suspects related to the Mamapasano incident in January. According to this view MILF-commander Wahid Tundok was put under pressure by other commanders to produce Usman dead or alive, to free him from legal liability in the Mamapasano incident and other cases.
Usman was said to be the head of the special operations group (SOG) of the BIFF, and had ties with the Jemaah Islamiya (JI) and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The BIFF broke away from the MILF in 2011 and vowed to continue the fight for independence and build an Islamic state. Usman had been one of the high-value targets of the botched Mamapasano operation in January. [see IBC Threat Assessment of January, 2015]. He succeeded to escape and had been on the run since then. There had been reports that he went to Basilan to evade the large scale offensive against the BIFF by the military in Maguindanao following January 25. Usman knew Basilan well as he had spent a few years there before he went to central Mindanao. During this period he had preached radical Islam and tried to persuade young Muslims to join the armed struggle.
According to one assessment already 22 terrorist organizations in South-east Asia have pledged allegiance to Daesh and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, including the BIFF and the ASG. Propaganda material is disseminated in the region in local languages, largely online. An estimated total of 300 jihadists have travelled from South-east Asia to Syria/Iraq. It is feared that the return of battle-hardened jihadists from the Middle East may contribute to a rising terrorist threat level in South-east Asia.
In March, a new terrorist handbook had been distributed via Twitter with the title ‘How to survive in the West – a mujahid guide’. The e-book contains detailed instructions for jihadists to avoid capture. Chapter eight deals with home-made bomb-making and contains detailed instructions for six types of bombs: the Molotov cocktail, the nail bomb, the micro-wave airbag bomb, the gas canister bomb, the remote control bomb and the car bomb.
In mid-May, the Philippine army conducted operations on Basilan against the ASG in a hunt for a Malaysian trio, including explosives expert Mohammed Najib (alias Anas), Mohammed Joraimi bin Awang Raimee (alias Jandal) and Dr. Mahmud bin Ahmud (alias Hamzalahdoc). The hunt also included a Singapore national, Muhamda Ali (alias Muawiyah) who is a designated international terrorist by the US. The Malaysians reportedly were members of the Darul Islam Sabah, a terrorist group with links to Daesh.
Mohammed Najib reportedly helped a local ASG leader in new bomb-making techniques and recruiting young persons. After the attack on the camp the army showed bomb-making materials, including ammonium nitrate, rolls of wire, electrical components, iron pipes rigged with explosives and nails. During the operations also a new type of IED was discovered. It consisted of paint cans containing explosive components that were fitted with mobile phones powered by small solar panels as their detonator.
The January Mamapasano incident had a huge impact on public opinion about the sincerity of the MILF in its wish to make the transition from a revolutionary organization to a regular political party. The population shifted from a general favorable attitude to a more negative attitude towards the peace agreement. A special team of prosecutors and the National Bureau of Investigation had recommended filing charges against 90 persons, including MILF members. The turnover of the MILF suspects is still under discussion. MILF officials indicated that they will protect their own men from prosecution and will instead impose their own sanctions against them. The Justice Ministry has announced that Usman’s death will have no effect on the filing of charges against suspects involved in the Mamapasano incident.
The handover of the MILF suspects could possibly affect the voting behavior on the BBL in a positive way. It is, however, hard to tell whether Usman’s death will have a positive influence on the passage of the BBL as the exact circumstances of his death are still unclear. Parliament is under severe time pressure. The Philippine Congress hopes to pass the BBL before president Aquino’s last State of the Nation address in July. If the BBL is not passed before the deadline in June it is generally assumed that it would become much harder to get it passed in a later stage. As there is no alternative a re-escalation of the armed conflict could become more likely.
With an expanding footprint of Daesh in the region and a growing number of returning battle-hardened jihadists from the Middle East, new mass casualty-attacks in South-east Asia are likely. Several countries in the region, including Malaysia, are in the process of adapting anti-terrorism legislation to give authorities more possibilities to counter this development. The Philippine government stepped up its cooperation with Western countries in the fields of law enforcement and counterterrorism. Canada will provide several trainers for the Philippine police to improve their IED detection skills.