Fighting weapons of terror

  • 04 Sep. 2015 -
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  • Last updated: 04 Sep. 2015 08:28

Recent terrorist attacks across Europe have shown that terrorism remains a real threat to Alliance populations. So does the risk that terrorist groups consider the use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials as weapons. This year, NATO’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Non-Proliferation Centre (WMDC) is celebrating its 15th anniversary and stepping up its activities to respond to these threats.

CBRN experts from Germany and the United States are practising decontamination procedures during the 2014 Golden Mask exercise using high mobile decontamination systems.

To date, no terrorist group is known to have acquired nuclear weapons and the probability of a nuclear terrorist attack remains low, due to the difficulty in successfully developing and delivering a nuclear weapon. However, toxic biological and chemical materials are relatively inexpensive with components widely available on the market and thus potentially to terrorists.

“The current threats to western societies but also to Muslim countries range from Syria’s chemical weapons programme to terrorist groups such as ISIL and Al-Qaida and “lone wolf” actors,” said Ambassador Sorin Ducaru, Assistant Secretary General for  Emerging Security Challenges at NATO.

An evolving threat

The historic agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme in Vienna on 14 July 2015, with the strong involvement of four key NATO Allies, seems to have reduced the risk that Iran will acquire a nuclear weapon. But there are still other serious risks and challenges to the Alliance and to international security.

North Korea has shown with its nuclear and ballistic missiles tests in December 2012 and February 2013, condemned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), that it could potentially reach Allied or NATO partners’ territory with its WMD and ballistic missiles. It continues with its nuclear and ballistic missile activities in defiance of several UNSC sanction resolutions.

Syria had a large chemical weapons programme with more than 1,300 tons of deadly chemicals, such as sarin and mustard gas. While most of the chemical weapons from Syria have been removed and destroyed by the international community¹ and in particular with the assistance of Allied countries’ companies and military, less toxic but still highly dangerous chemical materials are still available and used in the country.

According to a report2 from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), sarin was used in an attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August 2013 against civilians, including children, and there is a “high degree of confidence” that chlorine3 - a chemical product often usedfor bleaching and water treatment  was used in the villages of Talmenes, Al Tamanah, and Kafr Zita from April to August 2014.

“Horrible pictures of wounded children and women from cases reported to the members of the UN Security Council are testimony to the real threat,” says Wolfgang Rudischhauser, Director of the NATO WMDC. “Doubts also still remain whether all chemical weapons and nuclear materials in Syria have been declared. Materials could still be falling into the hands of ISIL, a group that has shown by its atrocities committed, including the live burning of a Jordanian pilot, beheadings of men and recently of women, that it is ready to commit the most horrible crimes against humanity,” he continues.

ISIL is also reportedly interested in acquiring chemical weapons from old Iraqi sites - two bunkers that still contain a stockpile of old weapons - which were once Saddam Hussein's premier chemical weapons production facility. In Libya, chemical warfare agent stockpiles of sulphur mustard were destroyed in 2014. However, more than 800 tons of mostly chemical weapons precursors remain in a storage depot in Libya whose destruction is planned to be completed by December 20164 .

In 2015, terrorist attacks on foreigners in Tunisia and the terrorist attack on a gas-producing factory in France have shown how close our populations can come to these threats. They are by no means confined to the Middle East region. “Attackers could potentially use easily available CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] material, such as chlorine, radioactive sources from x-ray machines in hospitals, or highly transmittable viruses such as Ebola and MERS,” says Wolfgang Rudischhauser.

“Even if they would not lead to a high number of casualties, such types of attacks, due to their unknown consequences and necessary decontamination could lead to panic or significant economic consequences. Attacks on low-protected industrial facilities working with hazardous chemical or biological materials also present a real risk,” he adds.

NATO’s response

NATO has not remained idle in the wake of these emerging threats.  The decision taken by Allied leaders back in April 1999 in Washington to create a WMDC remains as valid as ever. Launched in May 2000 and located at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, the Centre is celebrating 15 years of existence this year and is adapting its response in line with the evolution of these new threats.

“The Centre was central to very extensive information-sharing that took place with Russia in the context of the NATO Russia Council during the timeframe 2000-2005,” says Ted Whiteside, NATO’s Acting Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy and the first head of the WMDC. “The subjects covered all aspects of proliferation, with focus on missile technologies.  The Centre also conducted discussions with partners.  It was an exciting time, we can look back on all of this work with considerable pride,” he adds.

Since then, many measures have been taken and results achieved in improving NATO’s resilience against WMD and CBRN threats, showcasing that the Alliance is prepared to counter the threat.

NATO tools include the build-up of a NATO Ballistic Missile Defence capability with interceptors and sensors on NATO territory and at sea, which achieved its interim operational capability by 2012.

The Combined Joint CBRN Defence Task Force is a NATO military body specifically trained and equipped to deal with CBRN events and/or attacks against NATO populations, territory or forces. This high readiness force is part of the NATO Response Force (NRF) and can also be deployed to assist Allies in coping with crisis situations such as natural disasters and industrial incidents.

“The task force promotes new capabilities and new ideas in order to respond to new challenges,” says Colonel Henry Neumann, Commander Bundeswehr CBRN Defence Command. “It provides all required capabilities, starting from CBRN reconnaissance, including sampling and identification of CBRN warfare agents, as well as industrial toxic material and CBRN Decontamination,” he explains.

A deployable analytical NBC laboratory as part of the Task Force can be transported rapidly and easily into theatre to investigate, collect and analyse samples for identification of nuclear, biological or chemical agents. The Alliance also relies on national nuclear, biological and chemical defence capacities of Allies that can be moved quickly into theatre.

NATO also has a disease-surveillance system to facilitate the collection of information on any outbreak of disease, fuse data and other information sources and alert NATO commanders of unusual biological outbreaks.

Information and intelligence sharing on weapons of mass destruction and terrorism are important in order to identify potential threats and sources of financing, as well as to track potential attackers, their support networks, weapons-manufacturing sites, and intended transport routes for chemical or biological agents. The NATO Intelligence Fusion Centre (NIFC) in the United Kingdom plays an important role in this area. It is a multinational intelligence organisation in which 26 NATO nations are represented. Under the authority of SACEUR, it provides intelligence to warn of potential crises and to support the planning and execution of NATO operations. The WMDC also regularly analyses and reports on WMD threats and issues based on information provided by Allies.

The Alliance’s Joint CBRN Defence Centre of Excellence (COE) in the Czech Republic provides training and expertise to military personnel in Allied and partner countries and integrates a “Reach Back facility”, operating 24/7 to react and provide scientific and operational advice in the event of an attack on military forces and to help protect civilian populations against the consequences of a terrorist attack.

The Defence against Terrorism Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Ankara, Turkey, provides advice, training and education on the terrorist threat including on the role of strategic communications in the fight against terrorism and the issue of home-grown terrorists.

Defence against terrorist threats is a key priority area under NATO’s Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme. It is involved in a wide range of CBRN related projects, workshops and training courses. As an example, in line with the decision to intensify relations with Ukraine and eastern partners, two training courses to enhance regional preparedness to respond to CBRN incidents took place in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria with the participation of experts from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Ukraine.

NATO is currently planning a ‘CBRN Incident Commanders Course’ in Kuwait based on a fictitious scenario of a public event threatened by the explosion of an improvised device containing CBRN material.

Other CoEs, NATO agencies and individual Allies are continuously investing resources in warning and preparedness, individual protection and CBRN hazard management capabilities to be ready to respond in the event of an attack.

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