Veil of secrecy may soon be lifted on Novichok nerve agent used to attack Skripal

Sergei SkripalThe chemical structure and action mechanism of a top-secret family of nerve agents known as novichoks may soon be available to a wider pool of researchers through its inclusion into the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) list of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The term novichok (meaning ‘newbie’ in Russian) was given by Western scientists to a class of rarely used nerve agents that were developed in the Soviet Union and Russia between 1971 and the early 1990s.

The first public discussion about the existence of these agents took place in the early 1990s, when Vil Mirzayanov, a chemical warfare expert working for the Soviet military, revealed their existence. However, Western intelligence agencies have discouraged public scientific research on these nerve agents, fearing that such activities could reveal their chemical structure and mechanism of action. That could in turn facilitate the proliferation of novichok nerve agents worldwide.

But this attitude shifted drastically after March 2018, when —according to British intelligence— Russian spies used novichok in an attempt to kill Sergei Skripal, a Russian defector to Britain. The British government claims that Russians spies smuggled novichok into Britain by hiding it inside an imitation perfume bottle.

The attempt on Skripal’s life failed, but it prompted the United States, Canada and the Netherlands to propose that two categories of novichoks be chemically identified and added to the CWC list of Schedule 1 chemical weapons. If that were to happen, members of the OPCW —including Russia— would be required to declare and promptly destroy any stockpiles of novichoks in their possession.

Russia’s initial reaction was to oppose the proposal by the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. The Russian OPCW delegation questioned the proposal’s scientific validity and dismissed it as politically motivated. However, according to a report published yesterday in the leading scientific journal Science, Moscow has now agreed with the proposal to list two classes of novichoks in the CWC list, and even proposed adding a third class of the obscure nerve agent to the list. Russia also proposed the inclusion into the CWC list of two families of carbamates —organic compounds with insecticide properties, which the United States is reputed to have included in its chemical weapons arsenal during the Cold War.

According to the Science report, the OPCW Executive Council has already approved Russia’s proposal, which means that the organization is now close to classifying novichoks as Schedule 1 nerve agents. If this happens, academic researchers in the West and elsewhere will be able for the first time to collaborate with defense laboratories in order to research the chemical structure, as well as the mechanism of action, of novichoks. This is likely to produce computer models that will shed unprecedented light on the symptoms of novichoks and the various methods of treating them. But they will also provide information about the chemical structure of the nerve agent, which may eventually lead to proliferation concerns.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 October 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: West should prepare for chemical attacks by the Islamic State

Biochemical terrorismA German newspaper reported last week that at least one European intelligence agency has already warned that the Islamic State is exploring the use of chemicals for attacks in Europe. Such an eventuality would be a radical departure from prior attacks by the Islamic State in the West. In the past, the militant group has shown a strong preference for low-tech means of dispensing violence, such as firearms, vehicles and knives. But it has utilized chemical substances in Iraq and Syria, and its technical experts have amassed significant knowledge about weaponized chemicals.

Last week, several European and American counter-terrorism experts participated in a bioterrorism preparedness exercise in Berlin. Codenamed WUNDERBAUM, the exercise was one of several anti-terrorism drills that have taken place in the German capital this year alone. But last week’s drill was the first with an exclusive focus on preparing for a bioterrorist attack. German authorities insisted that the drill was not sparked by concrete intelligence of a pending biological or chemical attack. But the Berlin-based national newspaper Die Welt claimed on Friday that it had information about at least one such warning by a European intelligence agency. The paper did not name the agency, but said that “a foreign intelligence agency” had warned European security authorities of a possible terrorist attack by the Islamic State using chemical weapons. According to Die Welt, the warning was “explicit” and cautioned that the Sunni militant group may be preparing to use improvised bombs utilizing chemicals, including toxic gasses. The warning was communicated to European intelligence agencies, including Germany’s said Die Welt.

How likely is such a scenario? Terrorist groups tend to be conservative in their use of lethal technologies. They typically opt for time-tested methods using explosives or firearms, because these have a higher of success in comparison to more sophisticated, hi-tech weapons. The latter are also more expensive to build and require scientific and technical capabilities that are not typically available to terrorist organizations. Militants are usually strapped for cash, and are not science-savvy, so exceptions to this general trend are rare. But the Islamic State is different. Read more of this post

French spy agencies conclude Assad government was behind Syria gas attack

Khan SheikhunA comprehensive report released yesterday by the French Intelligence Community concludes with certainty that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the April 4 sarin gas attack in northwestern Syria. The report, a “national evaluation” based on France’s own intelligence sources and scientific analysis of samples collected from the site of the attack, indicates that the poison gas used in the attack came from stockpiles that belong to the Syrian government.

The sarin gas attack targeted Khan Sheikhun, a town of approximately 50,000 people in the southern region of Syria’s Idlib Governorate. The city is located on the main highway that connects the Syrian capital Damascus with the city of Aleppo in the north of the country. The surprise attack killed nearly 100 people and drew near-universal condemnation from the international community. It also sparked a military attack by the United States, which launched a missile attack at a Syrian military base from where the sarin gas attack allegedly originated.

On Wednesday, France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault, announced the publication of a report, which, he said, proves conclusively that the Syrian government perpetrated the attack. The six-page declassified version of the report concludes that “the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians”. It alleges that the conclusion rests on “intelligence collected by our services”, which includes “samples from the scene of the attack”. The latter are reportedly identical with samples collected from sites of previous chemical attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government. Additionally, the French report concludes that the attack was conducted with the use of airplanes, which the Syrian rebel forces do not have.

The French intelligence report comes after a similar report from the United States concluded that Assad’s government was behind the attack on Khan Sheikhun. A few days after the attack, medical tests conducted on victims of the attack by Turkish experts showed that sarin gas had been used, but did not implicate a specific culprit. The Syrian and Russian governments deny all involvement in the attack and claim that it was carried out by al-Qaeda-linked rebels.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 April 2017 | Permalink

Monitoring continues as Libya’s chemical weapons are shipped to Germany

ISIS LibyaAs United States air strikes and special-forces operations continue in Libya, Libya’s Government of National Accord deputy prime minister, Mussa al-Koni, confirmed on Tuesday that their remaining chemical weapons left over from the Gaddafi era has been shipped to Germany for safekeeping. The process was supervised by the United Nations, based on UN Security Council Resolution 2298 (2016) adopted on July 22. The concern was the Islamic State getting their hands on the chemical stockpile that was stored in the central Jafa area, about 140 miles south of Sirte, where pro-government forces are currently fighting Islamic State militants.

Islamic State forces acquiring CBRN from Africa or producing it while in the region has been a continuous concern. Islamic State and other militant organizations are expanding throughout Africa’s 11.67 million mi². These groups can be very innovative and resourceful. As the Egyptian delegation highlighted in a UN Security Council debate on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction last week, the Islamic State and other groups have already caused destruction in Iraq, and possibly also in Syria by using chemical weapons. The Egyptians and other African countries see a real possibility of these weapons spreading further in Libya and from there to the Horn of Africa or elsewhere on the continent. The final departure of Gaddafi’s stockpile is welcome news, but Islamist militants know how to acquire such weapons, are trying to produce them and know how to cross borders.

African intelligence and law enforcement agencies are alert to these and other new threats. Intelligence reports have indicated groups such as al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) have made multiple attempts to manufacture poison, gas, biological and radioactive agents. Training camps, particularly in the Sahel area, specialized in biological and chemical weapons are known to exist. Many African nations have put their national interests aside to counter cross border Islamist or criminal threats. In late September 2010, Algeria set up a regional intelligence center in Algiers, bringing together the countries of the region to fight against militant groups, including CBRN trafficking. Similar centers around the continent exist like Kenya’s common intelligence centre in Nairobi used for joint training on investigation skills and on ways to protect borders. The center also is used to monitor and address threats posed by militant groups in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. A more recent regional intelligence center, similar to Kenya’s, was established in Kampla, Uganda, which is supported by the African Union and seeks to prevent possible attacks by militant groups.

Another concern the Centers and domestic African intelligence agencies are investigating is the recruitment of African youth by Islamist groups.  “[The Islamic State] has attracted about 5,000 Africans to join them in Iraq and Syria. Some of them are from the East Africa Community and IGAD regions”, proclaimed the African Union Commissioner for Peace Security Smail Chergui in July 2015.

Author: Scott Firsing is an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington

Marcus Klingberg, highest-ranking Soviet spy ever caught in Israel, dies

Marcus KlingbergMarcus Klingberg, who is believed to be the highest-ranking Soviet spy ever caught in Israel, and whose arrest in 1983 prompted one of the largest espionage scandals in the Jewish state’s history, has died in Paris. Born Avraham Marek Klingberg in 1918, Klingberg left his native Poland following the joint German-Soviet invasion of 1939. Fearing persecution by the Germans due to his Jewish background, and being a committed communist, he joined the Soviet Red Army and served in the eastern front until 1941, when he was injured. He then received a degree in epidemiology from the Belarusian State University in Minsk, before returning to Poland at the end of World War II, where he met and married Adjia Eisman, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Together they moved to Sweden, from where they emigrated to Israeli in 1948. It is believed that Klingberg was recruited by the Soviet KGB while in Sweden, and that he moved to Israel after being asked to do so by his Soviet handlers –though he himself always denied it.

Soon after arriving to Israel, Klingberg joined the Israel Defense Force, where he advanced to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1957, he joined the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR), a government outfit that conducted classified research for Israel’s biological and chemical weapons program. Klingberg worked at Ness Ziona, a top-secret government facility that conducted research on some of the most advanced chemical and biological weapons in the world. Eventually, he rose to the position deputy scientific director at IIBR, a post that he held until 1972. Additionally, Klingberg enhanced his international profile as a leading epidemiologist and conducted research in universities in Europe and the United States. Throughout that time, he was regularly passing classified information to the KGB at meetings with his handlers in Europe.

The Soviets had painstakingly trained Klingberg in espionage tradecraft, a set of skills that came in handy in the early 1960s, when the Shin Bet, Israel’s counterintelligence agency, began suspecting him of spying for a foreign intelligence service. The Shin Bet began systematically monitoring Klingberg. After failing to get results, the agency gave Klingberg a lie detector test, which he passed on the first try. Meanwhile, the Soviet government secretly awarded Klingberg the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, in recognition of the quality of the information he had passed on to the KGB. In 1982, a Soviet defector to Israel confirmed that Klingberg was indeed a KGB spy. Shortly afterwards, the Shin Bet approached Klingberg and asked him to accompany a top-secret team of Israeli technical experts to Malaysia, where a chemical plant had exploded. But instead of taking the scientist to the airport en route to Malaysia, the government car that picked him up from his house drove him to a Shin Bet safe house. After being interrogated there for nearly two weeks, Klingberg confessed to being a Soviet spy, saying he had decided to join the KGB for ideological reasons. However, in a 2014 interview with British newspaper The Observer, Klingberg claimed that he felt morally indebted to the USSR “for saving the world from the Nazis”.

Klingberg was tried in secret and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He then disappeared inside Israel’s prison system, having been given a false name and occupation by the Israeli authorities. He spent the first 10 years of his prison sentence in solitary confinement. In 1998, following pressure from human-rights groups, the Israeli government agreed to place Klingberg under house arrest, providing he was able to cover the financial cost of his detention. In 2003, having served his 20-year sentence, Klingberg was allowed to leave Israel and settle in France, where his daughter and son-in-law were living. He spent the last years of his life in Paris, where he died on November 30. He was 97.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 3 October 2015 | Permalink

Islamic State forces are engaging in chemical warfare, says German intelligence

Mustard gas chemical warfareGermany’s foreign intelligence agency says it has evidence that the Islamic State is making use of chemical weapons in northern Iraq, according to media reports. The German Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND, says its operatives in the Middle East were able to collect biological samples from Kurdish fighters engaged in battles against the Islamic State forces. The samples pointed to chemical poisoning that most likely came from sulfur mustards, more commonly known as mustard gas. The chemical, which is banned from use in warfare by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, causes skin irritation that gets progressively worse until sufferers develop debilitating blisters filled with yellow fluid.

Earlier this month there were unconfirmed reports that the Islamic State had used a type of poisonous gas against fighters in the Syrian town of Marea, a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army that is located just north of Aleppo. But no evidence was provided at that time to show that the poisonous substances were indeed chemical weapons. On Monday, however, the Director of the BND, Gerhard Schindler, was quoted in the German press as saying that his officers had gathered credible “information that the Islamic State used mustard gas in northern Iraq”. Schindler said that the information was derived from blood samples that were voluntarily provided by Kurdish fighters that suffered blisters during battles against Islamic State forces.

The BND has not yet answered the question of where the Islamic State managed to acquire its mustard gas supplies. Some allegedly believe that they came from old stockpiles produced during the regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, for use by the Iraqi armed forces. Others claim that Islamic State scientists produced the mustard gas from scratch using laboratories in the University of Mosul, a largely Kurdish city that has been occupied by Islamic State forces since the summer of 2014. Asked to comment on the BND report, a spokeswoman for the United States Department of Defense refused to “comment on intelligence or operational matters”, but added that, if confirmed, the use of chemical weapons “by any party […] is an abhorrent [and] reprehensible act”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 September 2015 | Permalink

News you may have missed #888 (CIA edition)

YemenBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►CIA said to have bought Iraqi chemical weapons. The CIA, working with US troops during the occupation of Iraq, repeatedly purchased nerve-agent rockets from a secretive Iraqi seller, part of a previously undisclosed effort to ensure that old chemical weapons remaining in Iraq did not fall into the hands of terrorists or militant groups, according to current and former US officials. The extraordinary arms purchase plan, known as Operation AVARICE, began in 2005 and continued into 2006, and the US military deemed it a nonproliferation success.
►►CIA fears enemy will gain control of the weather. The CIA is worried that a foreign power may develop the ability to manipulate the global climate in a way that cannot be detected, according to Professor Alan Robock, a leading climatologist. Robock claimed that consultants working for the CIA asked him whether it would be possible for a nation to meddle with the climate without being discovered. “At the same time, I thought they were probably also interested in if we could control somebody else’s climate, could they detect it”, he said.
►►CIA scales back presence and operations in Yemen. The closure of the US Embassy in Yemen has forced the CIA to significantly scale back its counterterrorism presence in the country, according to US officials, who said the evacuation represents a major setback in operations against al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate. The spy agency has pulled dozens of operatives, analysts and other staffers from Yemen as part of a broader extraction of roughly 200 Americans who had been based at the embassy in Sana’a, officials said. The departures were triggered by mounting concerns over security in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, where Houthi rebels have effectively toppled the government.

Israel spy agency has presence in Syria, says senior rebel general

Regional map of SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Israel is one of several countries that maintain a significant intelligence presence inside Syria, according to the top commander of the Syrian rebel forces. General Salim Idriss, Chief of Staff for the Free Syrian Army, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the Jewish state has “many, many” intelligence officers in various parts of Syria. The Arab country has been rocked since 2011 by a violent civil war, which has cost the lives of at least 60,000 people. Idriss was responding to comments made earlier this week by Brigadier General Itai Brun, senior intelligence analyst for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Brun, who heads the Division for Research and Analysis of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, was speaking at a conference hosted in Tel Aviv, Israel, by the Institute for National Security Studies. He told an audience of intelligence experts that the IDF was “quite certain” that the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad had resorted to the use of chemical weapons against rebel forces on at least one instance. According to Brun, footage obtained by the IDF of rebel casualties from a March 19 attack by Syrian government forces, pointed to the use of sarin nerve gas. He referred to evidence such as the victims’ dilated pupils and “the foam coming out of their mouths” as strong proof of the use of weaponized sarin nerve gas in the battlefield. Responding to Brun’s allegations, General Idriss suggested that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons repeatedly in a variety of locations, including Aleppo, Homs, and the outskirts of capital Damascus. Read more of this post

How did the US know that Syria was about to use chemical weapons?

Regional map of SyriaBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Early last December, United States President Barack Obama issued a surprise warning to the government of Syria, saying that if it made “the tragic mistake” of using chemical weapons against rebel forces, there would be “immediate consequences”. Most observers took this as a clear indication that the US was prepared to intervene militarily in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Today, a month after Obama’s December ultimatum, one question is still in need of an official answer: namely, how did the United States come to suspect that the Syrians were contemplating using chemical weapons? An article by The New York Times‘ Eric Schmitt and Dave Sanger suggests that Washington was alarmed in late November by a tip-off from Israeli intelligence. According to The Times, the Israelis shared with officials at the US Department of Defense a series of satellite images showing Syrian government troops transporting tank-loads of chemicals to at least two storage sites along the country’s border with Jordan. The paper, which says it confirmed this information by speaking to “half a dozen military, intelligence and diplomatic officials”, claims that Syrian troops were ordered to load sarin nerve gas onto dozens of 500-pound bombs. The plan was for the bombs to be secretly transported by land to military air bases and from there onto planes, pending final approval by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to the Israelis, the bombs could be airborne less than two hours after Assad’s order. By the time the information from the Israelis reached President Obama, American military commanders realized they had been caught by surprise, as there was no time to act in the two hours that it would take the Syrians to deploy the bombs. Read more of this post

Israel special forces conducting cross-border operations in Syria

Regional map of SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Teams of Israeli special forces are currently operating inside Syria in an effort to detect and sabotage the Syrian military’s chemical and biological arsenal. Citing an unnamed “Israeli source”, the London-based Sunday Times newspaper said yesterday that the operation is part of a wider “secret war” to track Damascus’ non-conventional weapons stockpiles and “sabotage their development”. The Israeli government refused comment on the paper’s allegation. However, Israel’s covert activities against the Syrian government’s chemical and biological arsenal go back almost 30 years. Reputedly, some of the more recent such activities may have involved the targeting of Russian scientists. Although Russia routinely denies it, it is believed that Syria’s non-conventional arsenal was significantly augmented in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the help of Russian retired general Anatoliy Kuntsevich. Kuntsevich, one of the Soviet Red Army’s top scientists, is said to have helped Damascus build its XV nerve agent stockpiles, which are still believed to be in existence today. Interestingly, Kuntsevich died suddenly in 2003 onboard a flight from the Syrian capital to Moscow. It was widely speculated at the time that the Mossad, Israel’s covert-action agency, may have played a role in the Russian general’s sudden death. In 2010, another retired Russian general, Yuri Ivanov, who had served as Deputy Director of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, died in unclear circumstances. The body of 52-year-old Ivanov was found in Turkey on August 16, 2010, several days after he had disappeared close to a Russian naval facility in Syria. Russian media did not report Ivanov’s death until several days later, when he was quietly buried in Moscow. According to reports in the Israeli press, the former GRU official was on his way to a meeting with Syrian intelligence officers when he went missing. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #762

Danni YatomBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Italy postpones court decision on wanted CIA operatives. The Washington Post has published a useful update on Sabrina De Sousa, one of nearly two-dozen CIA operatives who were convicted in Italy in 2007 for the kidnapping four years earlier of Egyptian cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr. The Americans kidnapped Nasr, known as Abu Omar, from the streets of Milan without the consent of Italian authorities. The Italians, who were themselves carefully monitoring Nasr, responded by convicting all members of the CIA team in absentia, and notifying INTERPOL. But last Friday, the Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome postponed its verdict after a two-day hearing aimed at deciding whether to uphold or overturn the Americans’ convictions.
►►Ex-Mossad chief urges Israel to prepare for military action in Syria. In an interview with British news network Sky News, former Mossad Chief Danni Yatom said last week that Israel must be prepared for the possibility of military attacks on Syria, which may deteriorate into war.  He said his warning stems from the fear that Syria’s hundreds of tons of chemical weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists. “We would have to pre-empt in order to prevent it. We need to be prepared to launch even military attacks […] and military attacks mean maybe a deterioration to war”, said the former Mossad Director.
►►British spy agencies failed to predict Arab Spring. The Intelligence and Security Committee of the British Houses of Parliament has said in its annual report that British spy agencies had been surprised by the spread of unrest during the Arab Spring and failed to predict the dramatic uprisings that swept the region. The report also noted that the Arab Spring had exposed Britain’s decision to scale back intelligence assets in much of the Arab world, in favor of monitoring Iran and al-Qaeda. We at intelNews wrote about this in 2011.

Al-Qaeda unconventional weapons experiment goes awry

By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
An anonymous senior US intelligence official has confirmed rumors in the British press that a biological or chemical weapons experiment by an al-Qaeda affiliated group in Algeria has gone wrong, forcing the group to abandon one of its camps in the country. The official said that an urgent message from the Algerian group to the al-Qaeda leadership in the Pakistan-Afghan border, which referred to the base closure, was intercepted by Western intelligence agencies in early January. However, he dismissed as unfounded earlier reports in the British press that 40 militants had died after being infected when the experiment went awry. Read more of this post