IBC Threat Assessment May 2017
This is the 27th 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: May 31, 2017
Topics covered in this issue:
- Due to ineffective UN Security Council the Assad regime and Daesh still have capabilities for renewed chemical attacks.
- Green light for use of experimental rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine to counter new Ebola outbreak in DR Congo
- US and North Korea locked in conflict spiral while US officials provide mixed signals about a possible solution
- Draft text of a convention prohibiting nuclear weapons made public after first round of negotiations
- New statistics about the harm caused to civilians by explosive weapons in populated areas
Due to ineffective UN Security Council the Assad regime and Daesh still have capabilities for renewed chemical attacks.
- Daesh is reportedly involved in securing its chemical weapon arsenal to boast its ability to defend remaining strongholds.
- Daesh experiments at Mosul University have raised concerns about possible food poisoning with easily dissolvable compounds.
- Under the current UN Security Council system it is impossible to take decisive action against state and non-state actors and prevent new chemical attacks.
On May 23, the preliminary results of an OPCW fact-finding mission into the April 4 Khan Sheikoun chemical attack in Syria were presented to the UN Security Council. An OPCW-team visited a neighboring country to interview witnesses and to collect samples. The analysis of the samples reportedly showed exposure to sarin or a sarin-like substance. The OPCW did not visit the town for an investigation on site yet but reportedly is planning to do so. The organization has raised security issues to postpone the visit despite claims by Russia that all prerequisites in terms of security requirements have been met. Final conclusions in the investigation cannot be be made until an OPCW visit to the site has been made. In the eyes of Russia further delay would discredit the OPCW’s investigative mechanism. Russia considers remote investigations into chemical weapon incidents as unacceptable.
Russian has criticized the OPCW reports about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It has stated that they are becoming an information weapon for political expediency. Russia has proposed the formation of a balanced multilateral commission focused on ascertaining the truth. Russia is focusing more on the terrorist use of chemical weapons in Syria and claims to know which terrorists possess chemical weapons and where they are being kept.
Following the counterterrorism offensive in Mosul that destroyed its chemical weapon factory at Mosul University, Daesh reportedly formed a chemical weapons cell that is situated along the Euphrates River Valley. This new cell is said to have brought together chemical weapon specialists from Iraq and Syria. At Mosul University Daesh reportedly conducted experiments with compounds used in pesticides (incl. thallium sulphate) on humans. The information about these experiments has raised concerns that the organization may plot attack on Western food supplies using easily dissolvable substances. Since April the organization reportedly has been involved in 15 chemical attacks in and around Mosul. The chemical weapons that were used were not very efficient and hardly caused any casualties.
While the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) continues its work on Syria it has postponed consultations on unresolved issues. The OPCW has verified the destruction of 24 of the 27 declared government facilities involved in chemical weapon production. The prevailing security situation has precluded safe access to the three remaining sites. Intelligence information has been leaked that the Assad regime is still manufacturing chemical weapons at facilities in Dummar, Barzeh and Masyaf. The Masyaf and Barzeh facilities are said to specialize in installing weaponized payloads for missiles and artillery. It is assumed that the Syrian government may have attempted to hide the nature of the work at these three sites. All three facilities are branches of the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC). The US imposed economic sanctions on 271 SSRC employees three weeks after the Khan Sheikoun incident. While the Syrian government claimed that the SSRC was a civilian research agency, the US accused SSRC of focusing on the development of non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.
The investigation of the incidents of chemical attacks in Syria and Iraq is a slow process with intense disputes about investigative methodology and use of possible hidden political agendas. Russian vetoes in the UN Security Council have prevented decisive action against the Syrian regime. While Western governments focus on the Assad regime Russia focuses on terrorist organizations. Recent information indicates that the Syrian regime as well as Daesh may still have capabilities to execute new attacks with chemical weapons. As long as Assad remains in power it is assumed that his military may use chemical weapons internally to suppress uprisings as it still may possess several tonnes of chemical weapons that were not destroyed. While Daesh reportedly is trying to re-establish its chemical capabilities by recruiting chemical scientists, the organization may have difficulty to putting them to work due to the lack of proper precursors and equipment as it lost its main experimental laboratory last January. Information about its experiments have raised concerns about the possibility of food poisoning with easily dissolvable compounds.
Green light for use of experimental rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine to counter new Ebola outbreak in DR Congo
- A new outbreak of Ebola has been brought under control in de remote Bas Uele province of DR Congo.
- Congolese health and regulatory authorities have given the green light for the use of the experimental 2VSV-ZEBOV vaccine.
- An evaluation of public health models indicates that strong public health messaging is key to preventing transmission of the Ebola virus.
On April 22 a new Ebola outbreak was detected in the Bas Uele province of DR Congo. The World Health Organization (WHO) initiated an investigation to assess the full extent of the outbreak. The index case was a 39-year-old man who deceased on arrival at a health facility. A motorcycle taxi driver who drove the man to the hospital as well as another passenger also died. In the following weeks about 50 suspected and confirmed cases were identified. Several hundred contacts of the suspected and confirmed cases are being traced. The WHO has declared the situation under control and determined that there were no cases of Ebola outside of DR Congo. As of May 18, seven countries have enforced entry screening at airports and ports of entry. These include Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The WHO has developed an Ebola vaccine for use in case of new outbreaks. The vaccine is developed by Merck. Clinical trials reportedly have proven to be highly successful. The new 2VSV-ZOB vaccine is still awaiting formal license clearance by the American and European authorities. There are 300,000 doses of the vaccine available if needed to stop a new outbreak becoming a pandemic. On May 30, Congolese authorities gave the green light for the use of the new vaccine in the country to combat the spread of the Ebola virus. An MSF team arrived in the country to validate the protocol with the technical teams. They face logistical challenges as the vaccines need to be transported and stored in custom-built containers that have to be kept at temperatures of minimum 80 degrees Celsius prior to their use.
An evaluation of 37 existing public health models for managing future Ebola outbreaks was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The evaluation indicated that strong public health messaging is key to preventing transmissions. The most effective protocols involve educating people on how to reduce disease transmission in the community and at funerals.
Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever, marked by spontaneous bleeding from internal organs and, in most cases death. The virus has between a 20 and 90 percent fatality rate based on public health response. The quick response by the WHO to the latest outbreak in DR Congo may have contributed to its containment. The outbreak was limited to a remote dense forest area. This poses serious challenges to the containment efforts. While the use of a new experimental vaccine may help in containing a further spread of the virus, strong public health messaging also remains key in preventing transmission of the virus.
US and North Korea locked in conflict spiral while US officials provide mixed signals about a possible solution
- Military deployments, military exercises, weapon tests, the establishment of a new Taskforce are strategic moves that point in the direction of military conflict.
- War games indicate that military conflict would be catastrophic if the crisis can not be resolved through diplomatic means.
- A better analysis of intra-elite conflict in North Korea may offer opportunities to persuade North Korea to change its behavior and denuclearize in exchange for a substantial economic package deal.
In the past month the conflict spiral related to the North Korean nuclear crisis further escalated with North Korea executing new missile tests and a test of an anti-aircraft guided weapon system. It announced that it would develop more powerful weapons in multiple phases. The US brought more military assets to the region raising the risk of a military conflict. Joint ongoing military exercises by the US, South Korea and Japan are interpreted by North Korea as preparations for war. The US currently has two aircraft carrier strike groups in the region and a third reportedly may be on its way. The CIA established a special Taskforce dedicated to North Korea. The US reportedly brought more launchers than agreed for the controversial THAAD anti-missile defense system to South Korea. These strategic moves are pointing in the direction of a military conflict and experts openly discuss attack options (offshore, aerial, high-tech) and the various target categories. Experts also have indicated that a US attack won’t eliminate the nuclear weapons program. At best it will be set back several years.
In the mean time international diplomacy has intensified. The US and China are negotiating about the best time to seek new UN Security Council sanctions resolution on North Korea. Following a recent missile test the UN Security Council condemned North Korea’s ‘highly destabilizing behavior and flagrant and provocative defiance’ of the UN. US rhetoric has given Beijing heightened concerns that Washington might be thinking more seriously about a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. China has also intensified dialogue with Russia focused on de-escalation measures including a halt to US and South Korean military exercises and a halt to the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea.
Western media emphasize the image of Kim Jung Un as a crazy leader that might engage in irrational behavior. The focus on Kim Jung Un as supreme leader is misplaced and dangerous as it obscures discussion where real power lies in North Korea. Analysis has shown that state power lies with a number of key individuals who are engaged in savage intra-elite political competition, and who exercise power via control of security institutions. They use these institutions to fight for political and physical survival. They also compete for control over the new foreign-trading companies (‘chaebols’) and for access to personal wealth and enhanced power offered by such economic leverage. The trio that has been identified as indispensible for North Korea weapons program consists of Ri Pyong Chol, Kim Jong Sik and Jang Chang Ha.
It is assumed that economic incentives may propel North Korea to respond more positive to overtures from South Korean President Moon Jae-in to reopen negotiations on denuclearization – with the hope of a substantial package deal involving eradicating sanctions, gaining public capital inflows, and encouraging private international investment.
The North Korea crisis is also exploited by the Military Industrial Complex in the US to speed up programs on new weapon technologies, including the Multi Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV) and the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). The Pentagon is moving fast to develop an interceptor missile that can simultaneously take down multiple incoming warheads.
The US Congressional EMP Commission is exploiting the North Korean crisis to get attention for its work. In public appearances Vincent Pry, who is leading the commission, has repeatedly described the devastating effects of an electro magnetic pulse (EMP) attack. He stated that North Korea does have the capability to cause irreparable damage to the US and that politicians are naïve about the EMP threat.
The US and North Korea appear to be locked into a conflict spiral. Such a situation is likely when two offensive theories collide and when the parties involved both conceive of an array of fearsome military capabilities. War games and simulations indicate that any military conflict involving North Korea will result in catastrophic effects, independent of attack option or target selection.
US officials have given mixed signals about how they want to resolve the crisis. While one group of officials has indicated that military action has to be taken before it is too late, another group has indicated that military conflict would be devastating and that the crisis should be solved through diplomatic means. The first groups wants to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons while the second group sees opportunities to influence North Korea’s behavior. Continued military deployments and preparations for military conflict raise the stakes and as of now no diplomatic solution is in sight.
Draft text of a convention prohibiting nuclear weapons made public after first round of negotiations.
- A first round of negotiations has resulted in a draft text of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons that may be finalized in a second round of negotiations to be concluded in early July.
- In an open letter 30 Nobel laureates and 3,000 scientists support the ongoing negotiations emphasizing the destructive environmental effects (Nuclear Winter) of a possible use of nuclear weapons.
- The draft text if retained may have consequences for the stationing of US nuclear weapons in five European countries.
After decades of deadlocks over disarmament the United Nations is currently developing a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. On May 22, the first draft text of a nuclear weapons ban was made public reflecting the discussions and input received during the first round of negotiations held in New York in March. A second round of negotiations will resume on June 15. It is expected that final agreement can be reached by July 7, the final date set aside for negotiations under the mandate given by the UN General Assembly in October 2016. The negotiations are conducted entirely outside the NPT and NPT Review Process.
The draft text expressly forbids states party from using, testing, developing, producing, manufacturing, otherwise acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, transferring or seizing control over nuclear weapons. It also bars them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any of these activities.
Under the draft, the states party would also undertake to prohibit and prevent the stationing, installation or deployment of nuclear weapons in their territory or at any place under their jurisdiction or control. If this provision is retained it may have consequences for the American nuclear weapons stationed in five European countries.
The new convention will become binding international law as soon as 40 states sign and ratify it. The current draft text fills significant gaps in the existing legal architecture governing nuclear weapons and also offers a strong foundation from which to conduct deliberations to modify provisions.
The current negotiations are supported by 30 Nobel laureates and 3,000 scientists. In an open letter they argue that the use of nuclear weapons will amount to self-destruction by pointing at the destructive environmental nuclear winter effects. They suggest to replace the current doctrine of Mutual Assured destruction (MAD) by Self-Assured Destruction (SAD). Even if a nuclear super power were able to launch its full nuclear arsenal against another nuclear state without any retaliation whatsoever, nuclear winter might still assure the attacking country’s self-destruction. Research has indicated that even a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could cause enough cooling and agricultural disruption to endanger up to two billion people, mostly outside the warring countries.
Even when the negotiations were boycotted by the states currently possessing nuclear weapons it is hoped that the new convention will advance disarmament by stigmatizing nuclear weapons and establishing the foundation for their abolishment. A clear and unambiguous prohibition will be the cornerstone of their eventual elimination as experiences with conventions related to other weapon categories have shown. Nuclear weapons threaten irreversible harm to the environment and future generations. The open letter of the Nobel laureates and scientists underlines how nuclear weapons threaten the very survival of humanity and that their use could be self-destructive.
The United States was strongly opposed to the negotiations, arguing that it distracts from other potential avenues through which to make progress towards disarmament. These were hollow words as the country is involved in a modernization process of its nuclear weapons and is taking measures to lower the threshold for their use. It also put other NATO countries under severe pressure to vote against the negotiations. The Netherlands was a NATO-member that decided to abstain from the voting. If the provision on the stationing of nuclear weapons is retained in the final treaty text this may have consequences for the American nuclear weapons stationed in Europe.
New statistics about the harm caused to civilians by explosive weapons in populated areas
- AOAV statistics on the year 2016 show that on average 32 civilians die every day due to the use of explosive weapons.
- AOAV statistics underline the need for the development of an international political instrument to address the harm to civilians caused by explosive weapons in populated areas.
- The International C-IED Leaders’ Forum is an example of how a more holistic approach to C-IED could be developed with the involvement of a wide range of agencies involved in C-IED activities.
- The Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has published a new report with statistics on the use of explosive weapons during the year 2016. AOAV recorded the highest number of civilian deaths since it began its Global Explosive Violence Monitor in 2011. It recorded on average 32 civilian deaths from explosive weapons every day.
Some of the key findings in the new report are the following:
- A total of 2300 incidents were recorded in 2016. These incidents resulted in 45,625 deaths and injuries by explosive weapons. Of these 32,088 were civilians (70%).
- When explosive weapons were used in populated areas 92% of those killed and injured were civilians.
- Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Turkey saw the highest number of civilian deaths and injuries in 2016.
- Incidents were recorded in 70 countries and territories around the world, compared to 63 countries in 2015.
- A total of 256 suicide bombings were recorded in 2016, resulting in 12,673 deaths and injuries, of which 76 % were civilians. On average 38 civilians were killed or injured by each suicide bombing.
Over the last few years there have been repeated calls on states to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. The development of an international instrument to address this humanitarian problem has been on the agenda for public debate. More than 70 states have already spoken out on the issue.
The AOAV is one of the key organizations to provide useful information to support and stimulate this debate. It does not only provide essential information about the problem but also tries to coordinate. The C-IED Map report includes information about 327 groups, organizations and projects involved in C-IED activities. It mentions the Initiative of the C-IED Leaders’ Forum as an example, where new efforts so seek to provide a holistic approach to C-IED. This effort includes a range of actors involved in all strands of C-IED.
The number of fatalities from armed violence is estimated to be over 500,000 killed every year. Around two thirds of these violent deaths are estimated to occur outside of conflict situations. Year in year out, over 90% of those reported harmed in populated areas have been civilians. The AOAV Global Explosive Violence Monitor provides detailed statistics of the latest trends and developments related to this humanitarian problem. The findings of AOAV reports underline the need for the development of an international political instrument to reduce the harm of explosive weapons to civilians. A wide distribution of the AOAV reports may contribute to a more forceful collective commitment.