This is the 35th 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 threats for several CBRNe categories. The TA’s are based on open sources.
- Special OPCW meeting is expected to vote on mechanism for attributing blame for recent chemical weapon attacks
- Foiled ricin plot in Cologne may trigger new debate on the expansion of authorities for German intelligence agencies to monitor the Internet
- Uncertainty about possible game-wreckers of the agreement on denuclearization following historic summit in Singapore by leaders of US and DPRK
- The use of swimming pool cleaner as the basic ingredient for the production of the explosive TATP for the suicide belts used in 2015 Paris attacks
Over the last decade the global system of restraint against the use of chemical weapons has become less effective. The rules-based treaty system that supports it is at risk of dying a slow death if it is not adapted to the challenges of the 21st century. Since 2012 there have been more than 200 incidents of the use of chemical weapons against civilians, military targets and political enemies. These incidents fall in five broad categories:
- A CWC-party using CW in its own territory;
- A non-state actor (NSA) using a CW in CWC-party territory during an armed internal conflict
- A NSA using a CW in the territory of a CWC-party in good standing
- Non-CWC-party using a CW in another state’s territory
- A CWC party using a CW in another state’s territory.
Different perpetrators have used Novichok, VX, sulfur mustard, Sarin and chlorine in recent chemical attacks. Based on research by various organizations, a total of 85 confirmed chemical attacks were recorded since August 21, 2013 in Syria alone. The most recent chemical attacks took place in the February-April period this year during the large-scale offensive against East Ghouta, that took the lives of 1,700 civilians and injured more than 5,000 people. The eight registered chemical attacks reportedly caused the deaths of 45 people and injured 700 others.
In a recent report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) the responses to the five different categories of incidents were analyzed and evaluated. Based on this analysis the CSIS researchers present a full spectrum of tools that can be used by leaders to restore the system of restraint. They list a total of 26 different measures that can be taken. Leaders can choose from a menu of potential actions for building more diverse, flexible, scalable and implementable options to improve accountability for those involved in the use of chemical weapons. Civil society can play an important role. On June 19, a coalition of 21 human rights and humanitarian groups signed a document calling on governments to strengthen the tools to reverse the unprecedented threat to the global ban on chemical weapons.
On June 26, the OPCW began a special meeting, on request of the United Kingdom, to vote on a British proposal to empower the OPCW with the authority to identify those behind recent chemical attacks.
Western countries like the United Kingdom, France and the United States have been involved in an intense diplomatic effort to collect sufficient support for the British proposal. They view the current situation of impunity as unsustainable and want to introduce a mechanism to identify perpetrators of chemical weapon attacks. A two-thirds majority is needed for the British proposal to pass. A total of 143 countries have registered to attend the meeting. Russia and Indonesia are expected to present their own proposals, but it is uncertain how much political support they have.
With the Russian veto in the UN Security Council last year, on an extension and change of the mandate for the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), it was clear that another solution had to be sought. The British proposal, supported by a number of Western countries, to be voted on later in June, during a special meeting of the OPCW, is likely to offer a solution to the attribution problem. At the time of writing it is not certain in what way the proposal will be watered down to gain sufficient support and whether it will be limited to the situation in Syria. If the British proposal will not get sufficient support and if it is watered down, there will be another chance in November during the full review conference of the CWC to establish a permanent OPCW unit tasked with attributing blame for chemical attacks anywhere and anytime. If the OPCW fails to come to a decision UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has the power to appoint a team of experts to identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria. But as the CSIS researchers have indicated in their recent report, there is a much broader menu for measures to be taken to end the current situation of impunity and restore the system of restraint for the use of chemical weapons by state and non-state parties. A culture of impunity cannot be allowed to develop around the use of chemical weapons. But the fueling of the cycle of impunity will continue as long as perpetrators are not identified and held accountable.
Tipped off by US intelligence about the acquisition of castor seeds that can be used for the production of ricin, German intelligence launched a surveillance operation of a Tunisian suspect who was detained in mid-June following search operations in several apartments in Cologne. During the searches investigators reportedly discovered 3,150 castor seeds, 250 metal ball-bearings, 2 bottles of nail polish remover (aceton), 950 aluminum powder and electrical wires. Sief Allah H. (29) reportedly ordered 1,000 castor seeds and a coffee grinder via Amazon in May. In early June, he successfully produced the toxin based on the castor seeds. The Tunisian suspect was known to authorities for his attempt to travel to Syria, but he was not considered dangerous. He had lived in Germany since 2016 and was married to a convert. On the basis of the US intelligence tip, he was put under surveillance by the BfV, and the case was handed over to the BKA in early June. As the Ramadan period was ending and the World Soccer Championship was to begin, authorities were under pressure to take action. During the search operations in Cologne a quantity of 84,3 mg ricin was found, reportedly sufficient for 250 to 1,000 lethal doses, and Sief Allah H. was detained.
Prosecutors stated that they had no evidence of a connection with any extremist organization. There were also no indications for an attack with a specific place and time. Nevertheless, the BfV stated that it was ‘very likely’ that a terrorist plot had been thwarted. Ricin can be made from waste left over from processing castor beans of the tropical plant Ricinus communis. It can take the form of powder, a mist or a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid. Tiny doses can be fatal if administered by injection or inhaled as a powder. Death can result within three days after painful internal bleeding and organ failure. The toxic effect can occur orally, through the skin, the stomach or inhalation. Injected, inhaled or swallowed, the colorless and odorless poison prevents the body from producing vital proteins. The incubation period depends on the dose and the way in which one comes into contact with the poison.
In the past years, Germany has been highly dependent on US intelligence for leads on terrorist plots, as German intelligence agencies are not allowed to filter the internet for telephone numbers and IP-addresses. Germany has developed a tool for the identification of radicalized Muslims but this tool is less useful to identify lone wolves that are actively involved in preparatory activities. German intelligence agencies are not allowed to identify the IP-addresses of people watching execution videos and match them with persons in their database of radicalized Muslims. The recent ricin case is likely to renew the debate in Germany to give intelligence agencies more authorities to monitor Internet activity.
The recent ricin plot in Germany again illustrates how lone wolves with no ties to an extremist organization can use the internet not only to acquire instructions but also the basic ingredients for lethal weapons that can be used for terrorist purposes. Also in France and the United Kingdom persons have been identified and arrested using the same method. Because of the toxicity of ricin, the media have a tendency to exaggerate the threat and depict it as a weapon of mass destruction. In this respect it has similarities with anthrax, that is also very often used to scare people. Powder letters with harmless powders are used on a regular basis to frighten people, and sometimes force authorities to evacuate buildings. As of now there have not been terrorist attacks involving ricin, that have resulted in mass casualties. The most reported case was a targeted killing of an individual by a foreign intelligence agency.
Even very small doses of ricin can have a lethal effect, the effect is highly dependent on the method of dissemination and how people get in contact with the toxin. In the German case the authorities indicate that a quantity of 84,3 milligrams (theoretically sufficient 250 to 1,000 lethal doses) for had been produced. There is, however, no information on how the suspect was going to disseminate the toxin. Prosecutors indicated that there was no evidence for a specific time or place for an attack. Ricin is subject to the global biological and chemical weapons conventions. Trade and handling of the pure substance have been restricted since 1997. It can be expected that the recent ricin case in Germany will be used by the government to trigger a new debate on the authority of intelligence agencies to monitor the Internet more effectively. Even if the exchange of information between US and German intelligence agencies continues under the Trump administration, the German government would like to reduce this dependency, and create more possibilities to identify lone wolves by themselves. Exaggerated threats by the media are likely to make politicians more willing to extend the authorities of intelligence agencies.
During their historic summit on June 12 in Singapore, President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un committed to a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Commentators say that the agreements are too vague and mean little despite the trust building measures both countries are taking. Experts point at the relationship between China and North Korea. Kim Jong Un initiated the three meetings in China which can be considered a strategic U-turn to put economics first and to facilitate acceptance by the international community as a normal state. By giving up his nuclear program, Jong Un hopes to improve the economics of his country.
The details of the denuclearization process still have to be fleshed out. Any such process is extremely difficult as it is unprecedented in history. It will be a painstaking process and one of the critical questions is whether the time-tables of the two countries can be reconciled. Experts of the Center for International Security and Cooperation of Stanford University, have presented a detailed roadmap for the denuclearization process, identifying a halt stage (1st year), a roll-back stage (2-5 years) and an elimination stage (6-10 years). In their report they present the priorities and measures for each stage. Trump wants the process effectively completed by the end of his term in early 2021. Experts have indicated that critical components of the program can be dismantled in 2.5 years, but the complete process is likely to take at least 10-15 years. The US has promised it will soon present a time-line to North Korea with ‘specific asks.’
To illustrate its willingness in the negotiation process and to build trust North Korea has taken a series of measures, including freezing nuclear and missile tests as well as fissile material enrichment programs, destroying parts of an underground nuclear test site, and committing to higher information sharing. Additional, the country also committed to more political deliverables, such as the release of three US prisoners and cancel the annual mass rally marking the end of the Korean War. Also South Korea took measures to keep the process going, including its willingness to suspend military exercises with the US, but indicated that will take unspecified additional measures if North Korea is continuously engaged in ‘productive’ negotiations.
Trump also decided to keep a number of sanctions against North Korea in force and he also extended for one year the national emergency status. The White House is likely to face domestic opposition as the national security elite sees a successful deal about the denuclearization process in North Korea as a complication for the strengthening of the US military posture vis-à-vis China. The Pentagon’s aim is to keep at least 100,000 troops in Northeast Asia. De-emphasizing the military alliance with South Korea would mean that troop levels would fall below the threshold if no alternatives can be found. A troop withdrawal from South Korea may result in a strong push back domestically.
The full impact of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is still uncertain as estimates of the total amount of radiation dispersed into the environment vary. New estimates indicate the Fukushima disaster can now be called the worst radiological disaster in history. As the Japanese government is faced with almost insurmountable clean-up problems, it has to be innovative. The road construction experiment is an attempt to reduce the huge amount of contaminated soil that has to be disposed of. It should be closely monitored as the fear of local residents is justified. Any further roll out of this road construction program should be closely scrutinized and the government will have to do more to convince residents that it will be a safe way to reduce the total amount of irradiated soil.
The historic summit in Singapore between the leaders of the US and North Korea was followed by measures to build trust to keep the negotiating process going. The details of the denuclearization still have to be fleshed out. A timeline with specific tasks for North Korea is expected soon. A detailed roadmap with three specific stages was published by Stanford University. As no details are available yet from the US administration it is difficult to predict whether differences in expectations about time-tables will become a game wrecker. While Donald Trump has indicated that he wants the process to be successfully finished before the end of his term in early 2012, experts are very clear that a complete denuclearization will take at least 10 to 15 years. The US-Chinese relations form another major obstacle. The Pentagon has defined specific goals related to its military posture with respect to China. If defined goals can’t be reached as a result of a deal with North Korea and no alternatives can be found to maintain a defined military presence in the region, the Trump administration may face significant resistance domestically.
In a reconstruction based on information from legal files it turns out that the Belgian police could have picked up indications that a radicalized terrorist network was in the process of producing the explosive tri-aceton tri-peroxide (TATP) for a terrorist plot. A month before the November 2015 Paris attacks a car theft resulted in a house search in Molenbeek, where a handwritten note was found with the text ‘Bayroshock without chlorine’ followed by two addresses of two shops for swimming pool equipment in the north of France. Both were branches of Irri Jardin, a chain for swimming pool, irrigation and spa equipment. The investigation shows evidence that members of the terrorist network visited one of the shops and were able to buy three jerrycans with five liters of Bayroshock. The buyers paid with cash and claimed that they did the maintenance of several swimming pools in the Paris area. That was the reason that they wanted all three available jerrycans. Reportedly, they spent no more than seven minutes in the shop and did not raise suspicion.
The Bayroshock was used to produce the TATP for the eight suicide belts that were used in the November 2015 Paris attacks. Two of the belts failed to detonate and it is estimated that each belt contained between one and two kg of TATP. According to explosive experts the quantity of 15 liters of Bayroshock is sufficient to make about 10 kg of TATP. This type of explosive is attractive to terrorists because it is easily prepared from readily available retail ingredients such as hair bleach and nail polish remover.
This was the first case in which a swimming pool cleaner was used. TATP does not contain nitrogen. That is the reason that it cannot be detected by traditional explosive detection scanners designed to detect nitrogenous explosives. Several detection devices for TATP have however now been developed. A key disadvantage of TATP is its high susceptibility to accidental detonation. This has resulted in accidents in bomb-making shops. In a more recent case, the TATP prematurely exploded in a bomb-making facility that was planned to be used in the 2017 Barcelona plot.
As TATP has become an attractive explosive for jihadist terrorists legislative measures were introduced in the EU and Canada to limit the sale of concentrated hydrogen peroxide (above 12% concentration). The case of the Paris attacks illustrates how a terrorist network was able to circumvent regulatory measures. In Belgium, the EU directive banning the sale of hydrogen peroxide in concentrations above 12% was passed into law in July 2016. But in France, a softened version entered into force in 2017, just requiring registration for private purposes.
The investigation into the Paris attacks illustrates that the jihadist network was able to circumvent regulatory efforts concerning the sale of hydrogen peroxide of concentrations above 12%. In hindsight police investigators could have known that the network was in the process of acquiring basic ingredients for a destructive explosive that had been used in other terrorist plots. However the dots were not put together, and the police was not able to prevent the attack. The more recent Barcelona plot illustrates that TATP remains an explosive favored by jihadists despite its susceptibility to accidental detonation. In the case of Barcelona the attack network had been able to acquire even a higher quantity of hydrogen peroxide to be used in more destructive car bombs.