This issue of the NCT/CBNW Newsletter introduces a new feature: the IBC Threat Update. It flags ongoing and emerging CRBNe threats that require 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 Threat Update will cover a threat for each CBRNe category.
American soldiers exposed to chemical weapons during the war in Iraq
Following a two-year investigation, the New York Times (NYT) revealed in October that American soldiers have been exposed to chemical warfare agents during the Iraq war. During the eight year war a total of 5,000 chemical weapons were recovered, either found in abandoned storages or used in roadside bombs. The article details several incidents in which soldiers were exposed to mustard gas and nerve agents. All of these incidents were kept secret by the US military. The investigation clarified that the military did not follow its own healthcare guidelines. Since this publication, more veterans and active-duty service members have come forward with their own accounts of exposure and inadequate treatment. In response to the NYT-investigation, the Pentagon has admitted that more than 600 soldiers may have been affected. It does not want to present more information about the incidents arguing that it does not want to provide information to insurgents that Iraq’s old chemical munitions ‘could be effective’. The government secrecy had a negative effect on the treatment of the victims within the Veterans Affairs system which requires documentation that was not available. Following the NYT-publication Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense, has ordered all troops exposed to chemical weapons to undergo testing and long-term monitoring. He also ordered a review on how the issue could be kept from the public view for so long.
The painstaking and time-consuming investigative work of journalists in cooperation with veterans brought to the surface an important issue that was known by the government and was kept secret for its own soldiers and the public. This secrecy had detrimental health effects for those who were exposed to the harmful chemicals and did not get the proper treatment. This may have a negative effect on troop morale. Promises have been made to set the record straight to assure that those exposed do get the right documentation they need in order to be serviced within the Veterans Affairs system. The government has a point in keeping a certain level of secrecy about the exposure incidents. However, experienced explosives experts of insurgent organizations probably do already have their own knowledge base on the effects of chemical munitions and their use in IEDs. With the ongoing instability in the Middle East, it can be expected that more incidents with chemical weapons will occur in the future. During the destruction of abandoned storages or the defusing of IEDs in roadside bombs military personnel should be properly instructed about the lessons learned of past incidents with chemical weapons.
New outbreaks of aviation influenza in Europe
In October and November new outbreaks of aviation influenza have been identified in Germany (at a turkey farm), the Netherlands (at a chicken farm) and the United Kingdom (at a duck farm). In all three countries, the virus has been identified as the highly pathogenic H5N8 strain that can be transmitted from animal to human. Aviation influenza strains are given a combination of letters and numbers depending on the different HA and NA proteins found on its surface. The H5, H7 and H9 are the subtypes that can cause illnesses in people. The H5N1 has been the most lethal strain for humans so far. The H5N8 strain was first identified among water birds in China in 2010 after which outbreaks occurred in South Korea and Japan. That is why it is widely assumed that the migration of wild birds may have brought the virus to Europe.
The European governments involved took swift action based on protocols written after a previous outbreak in 2003. The animals on the affected farms were immediately culled to prevent mutation of the virus to even more dangerous strains. The Netherlands announced a total standstill for the poultry industry. In addition further preventive measures were taken including a national transport ban, a hunting ban and an exhibition ban. The Dutch food security authority launched an investigation into the source of the outbreak and checked the complete supply chain. After tests at sixteen farms in the immediate surrounding area of the affected farm turned out negative, the national transport ban was lifted. Disruptions of the poultry industry have an immediate effect on the Dutch economy as the Netherlands is a major exporter of eggs and poultry. A transport ban can cause financial damages to the poultry industry of up to 10 million euros a day. Following the outbreaks in the Netherlands and the UK, the European Commission met and adopted two emergency safeguard decisions.
In all three countries the authorities followed existing protocols and took swift action that prevented the virus from spreading to other farms. Within a few days tests were done at neighboring farms in an exclusion zone and the supply chain was checked. The risk for humans is considered low if sanitation protocols are being followed. The risk for farmers and veterinarians can be minimized by using appropriate protection equipment.
New outbreaks can be expected and may also affect other European countries if there is a causal link to wild bird migration. A key factor is the individual farmer who has to be alert to identify sick or dying animals and take immediate action. If bird migration is the likely cause also wild birds and animals in natural parks could be affected. Sick and dead birds and animals found in the wild can be tested for the presence of virus strains. This may result in further clues about the spreading of the different virus strains.
The culling of animals is often the only option to prevent the virus from spreading. Vaccination of animals does occur in Asia but is not considered an option in Europe. For the harmful H5N1 strain to humans a vaccine is already available. Further testing can be done to find out whether the existing vaccine can be effective against the H5N8 strain.
Life-threatening situation in and around Fukushima continues
The problems with the clean-up operation in and around the nuclear reactors in Fukushima are so many and so immense that Tokyo Electric Power CO (TEPCO) can hardly keep up with them. The Japanese authorities also underreport the consequences of the contamination. Japan has introduced strict regulations for public servants and journalists to reveal information related to the government and security.
Criminal groups have infiltrated the clean-up operation. Workers are not getting hazard pay and skilled workers are leaving. Only a fraction of the workers are focused on key tasks such as preparing for the dismantling of the broken reactors and removing radioactive fuel rods. Most of the workers try to deal with the still-growing amount of contaminated water used to keep the damaged reactors from overheating. A massive amount of radioactive water is leaking via groundwater channels into the Pacific Ocean. Repair operations aimed at preventing radioactive water discharges into the ocean seem to have failed until now. Scientific modeling systems indicate that the radioactive plume is likely to remain a massive clump of radioactivity that will reach the West coast of the US in the coming years.
Environmental organizations active in the region have reported that the authorities are consistently underestimating the amount of contamination and the health risks involved. Radiation hot spots have been found as far as 60 km from the site of the disaster. Currently two petitions are circulating on the Internet calling for more international pressure on Japan and for the mobilization of international aid and support in dealing with the ongoing problems.
The international community is still in denial of the real consequences of the Fukushima disaster. This is mainly due to the lack of attention by main stream media and deliberate efforts of the Japanese government to control information. The leakage of radioactive water into the ocean is likely to continue and to worsen the environmental impact. The radioactivity in the ocean not only has a local impact, but is expected to reach other continents in the coming years. The removal of the radioactive fuel rods is only slowly proceeding under very difficult circumstances. Accidents may result in new releases of radioactivity. International activism to put the Japanese government under pressure to invest more in the clean-up operation and to be more transparent about its activities have so far only had limited effects.
Nuclear sabotage with Stuxnet worm underlines vulnerability of critical infrastructures
In her latest book ‘Countdown to Zero Day’ journalist Kim Zetter reveals new information about the Stuxnet worm that was used in Operation Olympic Games, a joint US-Israeli effort to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. Until now, it was widely assumed that an USB-stick was used to introduce the worm into the Iranian nuclear facility. New research by Symantec and Kaspersky computer security companies revealed that the technique of ‘attack-a-trusted-user’ was used. They were able to identify five Iranian supplier companies that were key to the Iranian nuclear program, including one that was making the centrifuges Stuxnet was targeting. These companies were used to sneak the malicious code into the place with no direct internet connection. Due to errors or flaws, the attackers lost control of the worm which infected hundreds of thousands of computers in addition to the designated targets and illustrates the dangers of zero day exploitation. Governments and intelligence agencies use so-called zero day exploits to hack into computer systems for surveillance purposes and for sabotage. They keep information on these exploits secret so that they can attack the systems of adversaries. By doing so, they leave government computers and other systems that control the electric grid and the financial system, vulnerable to attack. It is a model that relies on keeping everyone vulnerable so that a targeted few can be attacked. It also led to a booming and unregulated market for zero day exploits, which are sold from anywhere between $ 100 to $ 1 million. There is a dangerous imbalance between the need to defend against digital assaults and the need to attack others. Currently, too much emphasis is put on the offensive capabilities. As a result critical infrastructures, particularly the electric grid and the financial system, have become vulnerable to attack. Cyber security monitoring agencies not only report a rising number of attacks, they also have become more advanced.
The new revelations about the Stuxnet cyber weapon used to sabotage an Iranian nuclear facility, has made clear that the current cyber security policy that leaves critical infrastructures deliberately vulnerable, is no longer tenable. A critical debate should be held about the balance between defense and offense. If safer critical infrastructures are wanted, more emphasis should be put on defense.
Al-Qa’ida group in Syria continues attack planning against the ‘far enemy’
Since the summer of 2014, warnings have been issued about a terrorist threat to the West by a group of international jihadis operating from Syria. The group of key al-Qa’ ida operatives left Pakistan and traveled to Syria to focus their attack planning on the ‘far enemy’. It consists of experienced trainers, facilitators and planners. The so-called Khorasan group which is closely tied to the Jabhat al-Nusra organization, has a French explosives expert, David Drugeon, who is said to have contacts with Ibrahim al-Asiri, the explosives expert of al-Qa’ ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The latter is known for his advanced and creative bomb designs. It is feared that the new advanced explosives that are being developed could be used to evade detection equipment at international airports. One of the designs reportedly is based on clothing dipped in an explosive solution and another design is based on concealment of explosives in personal electronic equipment. The latter was the reason for a new security measure at airports. Passengers can be asked to switch on electronic equipment when they check in. The group plans to use European foreign fighters to execute attacks. Already three times the US launched air raids on Khorasan targets in Syria in the hope of disrupting existing attack planning. The death of key operatives has not been publicly confirmed yet.
The information on the detected attack plans illustrates the persistent interest of al-Qa’ ida for aviation targets. The contacts with AQAP justify the fear as this organization has in the past proven to be capable to execute advanced and innovative attacks. The recent US air raids on Khorasan targets may have disrupted ongoing attack planning. However, the resilience of the organization may result in a quick replacement of key operatives, probably by students of Ibrahim al-Asiri. The pool of Western fighters from which the group wants to recruit the attackers is still present. The killing of key operatives may have strengthened the motivation for a retaliatory attack. It is therefore likely that the attack planning continues. Interfactional struggles with other jihadist groups and coalition activities may have a negative influence on the safe haven from which the group operates.
End of reporting date 21 November