Threat Analysis

Berto Jongman,

CBRNe Consultant

This is the 37th issue of the feature called the IBC Threat Analysis (IBC-TA). 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 the general population. On account of the ever-changing threat environment, existing regulations, crisis plans, and 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.


End date of collection: September 5, 2018.

Topics covered

  • Britain charged two Russian GRU officials for the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia
  • Ebola outbreak in North Kivu (DR Congo) not yet under control
  • Security of nuclear weapons systems threatened by sophisticated hacking and cyber attacks
  • Handful of countries blocks the drafting of a new international treaty banning the development anduse of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) or "Killer Robots"



Chemical

Britain charged two Russian GRU officials for the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.


On September 5, a day after the OPCW had established that Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess had been poisoned with the nerve agent novichok, the British Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced criminal charges against two Russian suspects, who were identified as Russian GRU spies. Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov entered Britain via a flight from Russia to Gatwick, a day before the Skripals were poisoned and left the country via Heathrow airport on the day of the incident. By combining airline passenger information and CCTV footage the police was able to reconstruct their stay in the country and link them to the poisoning incident in Salesbury. According to the CPS the nerve agent used in the poisoning was smuggled in a counterfeit Nina Ricci perfume bottle and sprayed on the front door of Sergei Skripal’s home. Three months later, the perfume bottle was found by Charlie Rowley. He gave the perfume bottle to his girlfriend Dawn Sturgess. She died after being exposed to the contents. Rowley is still in hospital.


The novichok nerve agent is considered more dangerous and sophisticated than sarin or VX, and is harder to identify. It works by overriding neurotransmitters in the body and shutting down the way it normally works. It causes the slowing of the heart, leading to death by asphyxiation. It’s component parts are not on the banned list of the CWC. The nerve agent is made out of different precursors, which are relatively safe until they are mixed for use as a weapon. It was designed so that it could be relatively easily transported.


British investigators immediately pointed in the direction of Russia as they assumed that that the novichok used in Salesbury must have come from the country where it was developed. They argued that the government had used the agent itself or had lost control of it. In the past months, several European media reported that novichok ended up in several European research institutes in the 1990s, as a Russian defector had brought a small quantity to Sweden. This quantity was analyzed and the results were shared with several institutes in Europe. It was also discovered that Iranian scientists published the synthesis routes and mass spectrograms of several novichoks in scientific journals. It is assumed that small laboratories may have been involved in what is called micro-synthesis, production of small quantities for research purposes. But if you can produce novichoks via micro-synthesis you can also produce them on a macro-scale. For at least two decades several research institutes in Europe and the US must have been working on novichoks.


These so-called next generation poisons have been a concern as they were not banned according to the CWC. In early May, the OPCW decided to do something about it and requested its scientific advisory council to produce an overview of all new poisons that should be banned according to the stipulations of the CWC.

Any accusation that a member country is producing one of these new agents could trigger a challenge inspection. Earlier this year, the US has issued sanctions against Russia for its violation of the CWC. These sanctions will possible be intensified if Russia refuses to provide guarantees that it is not violating the convention. Such guarantees entail on-site inspections by UN observers or other independent observers. It cannot be excluded that the evidence presented by the British government in the UN Security Council may trigger decision-making on renewed sanctions against Russia.


Assessment

With the British charges brought against two alleged GRU officials the conflict between Britain and Russia is likely to escalate further. Russia has denied the British accusations and rejects the insinuations. It accuses Britain of ignoring repeated offers of joint inquiry and complained that Britain violated Russia’s lawful right to communicate with its citizens. There are still many unanswered questions and contradictions in the evidence presented by the CPS. Experts doubt whether the collected would hold up in court. While Theresa May stated in parliament that it could not have been a rogue operation and was probably approved at the highest level of government, others hold the view that it could have been a rogue operation. While the government speaks of a sophisticated operation others speak of a very amateurish way of executing the operating.


In the media there is almost no debate on a possible motive. To date no reasonable or logical motive has been presented. That it may have been a lesson for other traitors doesn’t sound credible. The British accusations coincided with critical developments in Syria where Russia is involved in large scale military exercises and an offensive against several terrorist organizations in the province of Idlib. During the past weeks Western countries warned Russia not to go ahead with this offensive. The planned UN Security Council meeting of September 6, takes place just before important summits with the involvement of Russia about further decision-making about the ongoing military operations in Idlib. The debate in the UN Security Council could be a way to criticize and delegitimize Russia and create a public climate justifying retaliatory action by a Western alliance.


Biological

Ebola outbreak in North Kivu (DR Congo) not yet under control.


In our previous assessment we covered the new Ebola outbreak in DR Congo that was first reported in early August. The outbreak occurred in a conflict zone creating difficult challenges for the health authorities in their attempt to bring the outbreak under control. The latest outbreak occurred after the unsafe burial of a 65 year-old female Ebola sufferer. After her burial family members began to show symptoms of the virus, and seven of them reportedly died. Since then the number of infections has increased to 112 confirmed cases and 75 deaths. This means that the case fatality ratio is 67.6 percent. A total of 15 healthcare workers were also affected and one has died. In all, new cases were reported in five health zones in North Kivu and one health zone in Ituri province. New cases were reported in the towns of Beni, Butembo, Oicha and Musienene. The outbreak shows no sign of abating and a worrying development is that new cases were discovered outside of known transmission chains. In order to control the virus officials have to track exactly where the virus is spreading.


A swift response was organized and a series of measures were taken to contain the spreading of the Ebola virus in North Kivu. These include among others, the deployment of 172 multidisciplinary specialists and the establishment of an Early Warning Alert & response System (EWARS). This system allows for real-time information sharing on alerts & rapid alert verification. Staff members of local health facilities were trained to recognize the symptoms, to safely triage and transfer patients to Ebola treatment centers, in helping to teach prevention, to isolate and treat the sick and to vaccinate those exposed to the virus. Five experimental medicines have been approved by a national ethics committee. These are: mAb114, ZMapp, Remdesivir, Favipiravir and Regn3450-3471-347. The mAb114 was the first treatment to be used. Genetic analysis confirmed the virus in this outbreak is the Zaire strain. In late August, more than 4,500 health workers and contacts of Ebola cases have been vaccinated and at least 17 patients have received treatments.

Assessment


The current outbreak is the 10th to strike the Congo since 1976 when the virus was first identified and named after the Ebola River in the north of the country. Ebola can be fatal in up to 90 percent of the cases depending on the strain. The virus spreads quickly between people through contact with infected bodily fluids.


In the most recent assessment the World Health Organization(WHO) established that the public health risk is considered high at the national and regional levels and low globally. It is expected that the containment measures that were taken during the month of August should be able to prevent further exposures to infections and break the chain of transmission. However, the emergence of new cases outside known transmission chains is a serious matter of concern. If the origin of these cases cannot be tracked it is feared that this outbreak could become the worst outbreak the East African region has seen.


Gaining access to affected people in so-called ‘red zones’ will remain a priority and an appeal has been made to countries, religious leaders and local chiefs to assist in negotiations. Aid workers have to work among 50 to 100 armed groups that are active in the region. While the WHO has called for an end to the fighting dozens of people are still killed every month. Resistance and/or reluctance to public health actions by some communities is complicating containment efforts. For the coming period the consolidation of all components of the response structures on the ground will remain a priority.


Nuclear

Security of nuclear weapons systems threatened by sophisticated hacking and cyber attacks.


A recent report of the Oxford Research Group deals with the increasing vulnerabilities of the nuclear weapon infrastructure to computer network operations (CNO). There is a real and growing possibility that a sophisticated hacker could break into a nuclear weapon system and its associated infrastructure, and the report identifies several options attackers have. Hackers may even ‘jump the air gap’ as the Stuxnet attack illustrated. Computer breaches may involve humans as well as sophisticated malware. The author describes the emergence of a new norm in which interfering in sensitive systems and critical national infrastructure ‘to prepare the battlefield’ and prevent systems from working has become an acceptable part of military strategy. But as these new electronic and digital methods of attack are more intangible, they may increase suspicion and tensions, undermine stability and perhaps increase nuclear risks.


The study describes how these new uncertainties about nuclear surety and security may drive countries to renewed arms racing in both nuclear and non-clear weaponry. There is also a new potential for non-state actors to use digital means as a mechanism for attacking nuclear systems or exacerbating a nuclear crisis. The study expects terrorist groups to be less capable in this realm and experts them to chose more indirect attack options, like clouding the information space, spoofing or spreading ‘fake news’.

Assessment

In order to reduce vulnerabilities the Oxford Research Group identifies two pathways that can be followed. The first is the development of new constraints in the use of CNO against nuclear systems by negotiating new forms of arms control or by new forms of declaratory policy. The study rightly concludes that this will create new verifiability issues and will not stop non-state actors.


The second pathway is better security, policy and cooperation in this space. The study mentions at least five possible measures, e.g. the separation of nuclear and non-nuclear weaponry and command and control apparatus, confidence building measures and the sharing of good practices. While the suggestions made are worth discussing, it should be realized that in many countries national cyber security agencies have just emerged and are only just beginning to realize the scope of the problems and often lack the budget to do something about it.


Explosives

Handful of countries blocks the drafting of a new international treaty banning the development and use of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) or ‘Killer Robots’.


The issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), or killer robots, has been on the UN agenda since 2013, the year that The Campaign Stop the Killer Robots began. Each year since then, talks were organized in the framework of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). During the April meeting earlier this year, a majority of 120 states had emphasized the importance of retaining human control over weapon systems. They want to ensure that humans remain at the core of critical functions of weapon systems.


During the last week of August, the 6th round of talks were held at the UN in Geneva, by government experts on LAWS. A total of 88 countries participated in the debate on the options for addressing human rights, humanitarian ethical and security challenges posed by killer robots. On the 1st of September they agreed on their negotiated report. A final decision on future work will be taken at the CCW’s annual meeting on November 23 later this year, also at the UN in Geneva.


The Campaign Stop the Killer Robots has pledged for compliance to the so-called Martens-clause of international humanitarian law. This clause calls on countries not to use weapons that depart from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience. The principle of humanity requires humane treatment of others and respect for human life and dignity. Killer robots do not meet these requirements. Human rights organizations, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, argue that in order to comply with the Martens-clause, countries should adopt a treaty banning the development, production and use of these weapons. To date a total of 26 countries have expressed support for a ban of killer robots.


Over the years, the debates have resulted in three general options: 1) drafting a legally binding instrument which has the support of the majority of participating countries; 2) drafting a political declaration or code of conduct which has some support; and 3) continue discussions while a handful of states get on with developing killer robots, an option supported by a handful of states. Australia, Israel, Russia, South Korea and the US belong to this group and have expressed their desire to explore potential ‘advantages’ and ‘benefits’ to developing and using killer robots. They use the argument of the lack of a shared definition of LAWS as a pretext to block the beginning of drafting a legally binding treaty.

As the convention rules determine that decisions have to be reached by consensus, a small group of countries can sabotage the process. During the meeting in August the countries were not able to reach a consensus on a proposal to begin negotiations on a legally binding treaty to prevent the development and use of LAWS. The states simply pledged to continue to explore options for future work.


Assessment

A clear ban on killer robots would reinforce the longstanding moral and legal foundations of international humanitarian law articulated in the Martens-clause. A small group of countries that is involved in the development of killer robots is, however, obstructing the beginning of the drafting process, by using the lack of a shared definition as a pretext. During the planned meeting in November a final decision will be made how to proceed next year.

If the situation remains stalemated without much progress in the direction of drafting a new international treaty, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has a few other options to reach its goal. It could threaten to take the process ‘outside’ to another forum, like the UN Human Rights Council, or it could decide to write an opt-in treaty elsewhere. Banning a specific weapon category is a slow and gradual process. Killer robots are no longer the stuff of science fiction. If the negotiations on an international treaty to ban the development and the use of killer robots will not be initiated in November, we will soon be faced with the consequences of a situation in which technological advances outpace international law.

Berto Jongman began his academic career at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden. From 1982 to 1987 he worked as a researcher at the Polemological Institute of the University of Groningen where he participated in a project on early warning of armed conflict and political violence. In 1987 he moved to the University of Leiden where he acted as data-manager of the Project on Interdisciplinary Research on the Root Causes of Gross Human Rights Violations (PIOOM). In 2002 he moved from academia to government. From early 2002 to late 2012 he worked as a senior terrorism analyst for the Dutch Ministry of Defence. During this period he participated in a number of Advanced Research Working Groups of NATO, e.g. on radicalization, cyber crime/terrorism and the use of Internet by terrorist organizations. A large part of his work at the Ministry involved terrorist threat assessments, including the quarterly assessment of the terrorist threat to the Netherlands for the NCTV. He left the Ministry of Defense in late 2012 and is currently active as a consultant in the area of CBRNe.