by Stephen Bryen
by Stephen Bryen
By Stephen Bryen
The big story this week is the work of sophisticated thieves who were able to take cash from ATM machines in the United States and in at least 23 other countries. The amount stolen is estimated at $46 million. While about a dozen have been arrested for the crimes, there are no doubt plenty of others who so far have eluded the police, and the amount stolen could be much higher than so-far reported.
How was it done? Two Middle East banks were hacked by professionals. One of the banks, Rakbank is located in the UAE, the other, the Bank of Muscat, is in Oman. In addition, an as yet unnamed Indian credit card processing company was also hacked. The scam was to create “pre-paid” money cards (VISA, MasterCard) ostensibly issued by the banks. The scammers created the pre-paid accounts and they removed the fail-safe dollar ceiling on withdrawals, so that one card could potentially empty an ATM. The cards themselves are typical magnetic strip cards commonly used in ATM machines.
Looking at the crime itself, there are two striking facts.
The first is that the hacking must have been an inside job, because the hackers understood the banks’ set up, how the accounts were organized, and had the know how to manipulate the supervisory software. They were able to create the accounts within the bank and credit processing facility, including authentication, disable the cash limits normally applied on accounts, and operate the scam on a global basis through a network of associates. So far there have not been arrests of any insiders, but it is only a matter of time before they are apprehended.
Years ago a huge bank heist was pulled off through cyber attacks on Citibank accounts. It was also a multinational operation, and it required insiders to help in the theft. Essentially that scam involved moving money from one account to another. Like the ATM case, it was a multinational operation affecting accounts and transactions in many countries. Once money was transferred, the owner of the now cash-rich account would go to the bank and withdraw the cash or transfer the cash elsewhere or convert it to another instrument, such as bonds.
There were some arrests and convictions, but the hidden hand in the Citibank case were Russians in an organization the FBI called “The Russian Business Network.” It is well to keep in mind that the Citibank case also involved stealing ATM pins.
We don’t yet know the masterminds behind the $46 million ATM crime, and it remains for law enforcement to try and ferret out the real source of the scheme. It would have to be an organization with global connections and with strong organizational capabilities and links to an underground of criminals willing to rob individual ATMs for a share of the loot. A Russian Mafia linked organization cannot be ruled out.
Another potential source for the operation are terrorist groups with the capability to carry out such operations, perhaps linked to Iran. This needs to be explored. The targets, after all, were Middle Eastern Banks that represent the establishment in the UAE and Oman. While $46 million is not an especially large hit on these banks, given the resources of these banks, we need to keep in mind that the amount so far reported may only be part of the actual crime. An insider group may also have taken very large sums from these banks, and used the ATM scam to draw attention away from pilfering large accounts at the banks.
The other striking issue about these theft operations targeting banks is how poor the banking security system actually is, and how the system lacks simple protection such as strong authentication and encrypted accounts. One of the reasons is, of course, a desire by banks to exploit modern electronic transactions to the fullest, because they require very little labor or overhead, making it easy for banks to load them with transaction fees and credit charges. Small losses are covered by the Bank’s and credit card company’s insurance. In fact, as we move rapidly to a cashless society, or one that accepts electronic tokens instead of paper dollars or checks, banking security issues loom large. Bitcoin, for example, has already been hacked and is proving utterly unreliable and suspect. In fact, the entire banking and credit system is vulnerable and poses a considerable economic and security danger to modern nations.
NBC has published an important article (http://openchannel.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/26/17932143-exclusive-government-doc-shows-how-closely-boston-marathon-bombers-followed-al-qaeda-plans?lite) that says the Boston terrorists followed the bomb making advice of the al-Qaeda online magazine, ironically called Inspire.
The article, called “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” outlines a scheme using pressure cookers, igniters, and shrapnel just as done by the Boston Marathon bombers.
But here is a question.
Since 2001 at least, the U.S. government has been doing everything it can to destroy al-Qaeda. It is an open question whether the billions we have spent so far has done the job. It is true we got rid of Bin Laden and a bunch of his henchmen and operatives. But al-Qaeda remains a force in many places, including the Arabian Peninsula and north Africa, and in the Middle East as we now see (again) in Iraq and Syria.
There are many reasons why al-Qaeda persists –it appeals to a significant segment of Islamic radicals and so seems to have little problem recruiting replacements for the terrorists we have managed to kill or capture. Another reason is that some governments are protecting the al-Qaeda operation –you can guess who they are by remembering who was behind 9/11.
So we have a self-regenerating, government(s) protected organization wreaking havoc. And they publish a magazine on the web that tells their potential and actual recruits how to kill innocent people.
Why, then, does the United States with all its cyber fighting capability, and the billions we are spending on both defensive and “offensive” operations, not take down the al-Qaeda (and affiliates) web sites?
There is no reason for Inspire to be allowed to stay online. You can listen to all the excuses you want –such as they will just put up another site, we learn who goes to the site and it gives us counter terrorism leads, etc. Don’t believe any of the muck. If it was at all true, the guys in Boston would long ago have been in jail. Even the Russians, with countless pleas to the FBI and CIA, could not get anything done.
The fact is we have really poor leadership in Washington, who don’t act when they should, and can’t get off their rear ends to come up with a strategy that gets much beyond sending in the drones.
Well you can’t use drones in Boston, and you should not let al-Qaeda dominate in the public communications space. Surely someone in Washington can figure this out.
By Stephen Bryen
What are we learning from Boston? What don’t we know?
Here in brief are some important things to keep in mind.
(1) We don’t yet know the scope of the Boston threat. There are reports that the FBI is pursuing a terror cell that supported the two bombers. So far the size and location of the cell is not known, but speculation says it can involve a dozen persons. We do know there have been other arrests that may be connected with the bombing (see http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130420/NEWS/130429995) , but who they are and what the connections are, remains unclear. See http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/boston-bombers-fbi-hunting-12-strong-1844844#.UXM54Yqm6hA.twitter
(2) We do not know how the bombs were set off. Parts of the mechanism appear to have been found. Photographs show what looks like the circuit board of an older type cellular phone. There are also pictures of the battery that was used to set off the explosive primer, and the connecting wires.
Probably the police have already collected pristine examples, because at least one pressure cooker bomb was thrown at the police when the two men were cornered by them, and another one or two were found unexploded. So both the mechanisms and the explosive material types are known to the police, but the information has not been made public. In addition, other bomb material was also found.
(3) The design of the bomb suggests it was set off by a cell phone. If this is the case, it is fairly certain that a third party had the trigger cell phone. It may be that person is the fuzzy image seen on the roof of a building overlooking the bomb scene. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/16/mystery-man-on-roof-boston-bombings-photo-_n_3091189.html It should be pointed out that the large scale purchase of cellular phones under false names has been going on for some years. These are pre-paid phones and can be bought for cash, meaning that they are not traceable. http://www.google.com/imgres?sa=X&biw=1280&bih=890&tbm=isch&tbnid=fTx4Tf1z7-8W7M:&imgrefurl=http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-04-17/news/38616656_1_tenergy-brand-battery-twisted-metal-lid-broken-plastic-cap&docid=tnSsRFixfzI8sM&imgurl=http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/photo/19591257.cms&w=640&h=427&ei=fyV1UbeELNXH4APntIGwCQ&zoom=1&ved=1t:3588,r:10,s:0,i:127&iact=rc&dur=200&page=1&tbnh=178&tbnw=275&start=0&ndsp=16&tx=53&ty=80
(4) The debate on “professional” versus “amateur” is pretty well settled as far as the bomb mechanism is concerned –they were professionally designed even if crudely assembled. The collection of the materials, especially the explosive materials, is one of the critical elements in the investigation. One assumes the lack of information coming out about this means that the investigation is focusing on where the bomb materials came from.
(5) From news reports it appears the FBI was asked by the Russians on more than one occasion to please check out Tamarlan Tsarnaev. See http://www.sodahead.com/united-states/russia-warned-fbi-of-tamarlan-tsarnaevs-possible-terrorist-connections-in-2011/question-3648223/ One credible report says they were again asked six months ago to interview Tamarlan Tsarnaev after he reportedly had six meetings with a leading Chechen terrorist in Chechnya. See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2312496/Tamerlan-Tsarnaev-Russia-asked-FBI-investigate-Boston-bomber-just-6-MONTHS-ago.html The mother also reports that the FBI was asking the family questions some five years ago. See http://www.euronews.com/2013/04/20/mother-of-boston-bombers-says-sons-were-set-up-by-fbi/ How credible the mother is cannot be determined. In regard to the last request to the FBI, there is no information it was followed up. All of this raises questions about the relationship between Russian intelligence and U.S. law enforcement and intelligence on counter-terrorism. There are clearly sharply different political agendas, as the U.S. has not been Russia’s supporter or friend in regard to terror attacks in Chechnya. How this may, or may not, have influenced the behavior of the U.S. government and the FBI is not clear.
(6) The effort by the police, the FBI, and others to catch the bombers needs to be applauded. While there are clearly plenty of mistakes leading up to the bombing, the response, the determination and the courage of the law enforcement people involved in ending the immediate threat was superb. What we cannot yet say is whether law enforcement investigators will be successful in tracking down those connected with the bombers. If the effort to do this turns up empty or incomplete, the threat will still be there. In this connection there have been statements coming from Washington and Boston (see the Mayor’s statement at http://nation.time.com/2013/04/21/boston-mayor-bombing-suspects-acted-alone/) suggesting the bombers “acted alone.” Most experts disagree.
(7) The motivation for the bombing still seems hard to grasp. It is known that Chechen fighters have been connected to extremist Islamic causes and have participated in terrorist activities outside of Russia. A lot of attention is also focused on the radicalization of the older of the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamarlan. At the same time, both brothers seem to have been well financed. One was in school full time, and the other seems to have been unemployed, but living what can be described as a middle class life with a wife, child and car. The money trail is very important, and it may be that following the money trail will help us understand the motive better, since someone investing in these guys could have been expecting a return on investment in the form of terror activity. There is also an unsolved triple murder that connects the brothers in some manner, and could be linked to the money supply. (See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2312814/Tamerlan-Tsarnaev-Friends-suspect-Boston-bomber-murdering-American-friend-2011.html) One is still struck by the apparently casual way the two brothers left the crime scene (which is part of the video record and also backed by still photos), and the fact that the younger brother attended a party after the bombing, suggesting at minimum they did not fear discovery or arrest. All of this is still a mystery.
Today the official Federal complaint against Dzhokahr Tsarnaev charging him with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction (namely an Improvised Explosive Device) against persons and property in the U.S. resulting in death. The complaint appears to confirm the device was set off by a cell phone, or at least a cell phone was used to alert someone to set off the device. The complaint also confirms that in tact explosives and an un-exploded pressure cooker bomb were found in the trunk of the vehicle hijacked by the brothers. See http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2013/04/22/Surviving-bombing-suspect-charged and http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/united-states-america-v-dzhokhar-tsarnaev_718200.html
by Stephen Bryen
[Update: there are various reports that a suspect may have been identified based on video evidence. In addition, it is reported that "The pieces [of] recovered parts include part of a circuit board, which might have been used to detonate a device.”]
As this is written Federal agents supported by local and state police are trying to find out who placed the two bombs that exploded at the Boston Marathon. So far the “who” question is unanswered. (see http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/04/17/fbi-boston-police-say-range-suspects-motives-remains-wide-open/)
There is a lot of confusion. There are claims that it was a professional job, and equally strong arguments that it was done by some amateur, that it looks like a “low tech” bomb and the perpetrators are amateurs.
What are we supposed to believe?
The pressure cooker bomb is something developed by al-Qaeda and even put out in publications by them. Isn’t it logical to believe that any “wanna-be” terrorist was certainly reading al-Qaeda’s literature? (see http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-57580016-504083/boston-marathon-bombings-fbi-releases-pictures-of-bomb-parts-used-in-explosion/)Part of Pressure Cooker Bomb
But there are linked questions. Setting off two bombs at different locations either means both bombs had timers and were placed by one or more bombers, or they were set off remotely, perhaps by a cellphone.
There are two implications.
One is that if there was a single bomber he would have been carrying two backpacks, and they together would be fairly heavy and noticeable. It follows, given all the pictures being taken and surveillance cameras in the area, that someone with two backpacks should be decidedly visible to the cameras.
If no one is looking for someone with two backpacks, then either the bombs were carried in a different way, maybe in a baby stroller, by a single person, or (as is more likely the case) there was more than one bomber.
What bothers me so far is the lack of (at least) public attention to such detail.
The second issue is that bombs of this sort require careful assembly with some trial and error. Knowing whether the bombs were professional or amateur matters less than the fact that any terrorist or terrorist group would want to test the design and make sure it worked. One clue is to see if multiple pressure cooker purchases can be identified.
I fancy myself a cook. And buying a pressure cooker takes some effort -you don’t find them everywhere. So one line of investigation is to try and see who sells the model pressure cooker used, and see if there were any multiple sales. Pressure cookers are not a fast moving item, and there are not many brands and outlets. This could yield clues, since if they were bought online (how I got mine) or in a store, maybe there is some traceable information (video cams in stores, internet transactions). (see http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1318981.1366197804!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/boston-marathon-bomb-photos.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/boston-marathon-bomb-devices-made-pressure-cookers-filled-nails-ball-bearings-report-article-1.1318278&h=419&w=635&sz=29&tbnid=0LLNjg1f273K3M:&tbnh=90&tbnw=136&zoom=1&usg=__wrORkwhuGybJld4DMN7hh5Ya9VM=&docid=WAsrJaSeTsGYcM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=MLNuUfqnO8H90gHTsIDoBQ&ved=0CFcQ9QEwBg&dur=520)
The same is true of ball bearings. You can buy lots of them in an auto parts store, for example, but you have to smash them apart to get the ball bearings. That offers another place to look for evidence.
The detonation system remains a mystery. It surprises me that so far none of the detonation system appears to have been found. In many IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, which normally feature much larger explosives than used in Boston, parts of the detonation system have been found –something really important if your job is to try and neutralize IED devices.
It would seems very possible that the device and explosive materials would have been tested by the terrorists. It is hard to hide tests like this, and a wider net, looking for explosions that may have been heard elsewhere and which seemed strange, could help trace back to the source. I would guess it is extremely unlikely that the Boston explosions were put together with no testing and worked flawlessly. Either there was a professional bomb maker with lots of experience, or prototypes of the device had to be tested.
Similarly we still know nothing about the explosive material itself. By now the FBI probably knows, but it is being kept quiet.
Another issue is video and faces. This remains a hugely important forensic tool but there remains a lot of work to be done to improve technology.
Surveillance cameras are everywhere, and increasingly they are digital instead of analog cameras and provide high quality images. And people everywhere are walking around with powerful digital cameras embedded in their mobile phones. Certainly in the case of the Boston Marathon there has to be terabytes of video that can be surveyed.
But here lies the problem –looking for what and how? To go through all the video manually assumes that the auditor knows what he or she is looking for, has some sort of a template, and can remember one video from the next and relate them appropriately. This is definitely hard to do, eats up a lot of time, and delays the hunt for the terrorists.
Hitachi, the Japanese mega-company, has come up with a solution that is “out of the box” and unique. They have devised a way to scan through millions of images and find needles in the haystack, and do it in a few seconds.
Here is a concrete example. The police have at the hospital a possible “person of interest” who was wounded in the blast. He denies any involvement in the bombing, and so do his friends. How would Hitachi help that?
By reviewing video imaging with the face of the person of interest as the key data, anytime on any video the face appears it will be tracked. This means the movements of the person of interest, so far as he appears on one video or another, will be identified -including what he is doing in sequence and with whom he was associated, if anyone.
The Hitachi technology is very important and it has been presented to the Department of Homeland Security. As of now it has not been adopted. It would greatly help the Boston investigation.
While everyone prefers preventing a terrorist attack than having to try and pick up the pieces afterward, the search for evidence and the location of the individual or individuals responsible is not only very important, but it is essential. Let’s pray our law enforcement authorities are successful.
by Stephen Bryen
North Korea is a deeply impoverished country where it is said that things are getting so bad that the Korean regime is having trouble even feeding the army.
The country also lacks energy supplies and, aside from some few arms sales and probable transfers of nuclear technology to Iran, there is no real other source of revenue.
The short term and long term prospects for the regime have reached the crisis stage.
In this light, why is North Korea threatening nuclear annihilation of South Korea, Japan and the United States?
One rather obvious explanation, but not necessarily the definitive one, is that such circuses help to keep the population totally focused on a dire, external threat, reducing pressure on the regime to deliver anything more than fighting the enemy. You may be starving, but it is their fault, not ours.
Even a captive people, half starved, sitting in the dark, and freezing, hardly will buy this kind of nonsense for very long. Either the enemy is “there” and you have to fight, or the whole thing is a ruse. All of this means that this policy has only a brief half life –either back off with the result of an inevitable and bloody revolution at home, or go to war and get bombed into a wasteland. Each result is more or less the same.
Another explanation is that this is the negotiating style of the regime. What do they want?
It is unlikely they want some oil, food and money because there is little chance they will get it, or get enough of it to matter and solve their problem. In fact, they are rather late, probably too late, if this is the objective.
Another, more plausible, explanation is that there is underway a Kabuki-like negotiation with South Korea. What could it be?
Basically it is a negotiation for unification in which North Korea brings two assets: people to provide cheap labor for South Korean factories which will make Korean factories even more commercially formidable; and nuclear weapons that will turn the peninsula into a nuclear nation with both the bombs and the delivery systems needed to challenge their neighbors and become something more than just another Asian sweat shop: a united Korea becomes a major power capable of taking on its rivals, that could include Japan, even China.
There is no doubt that South Korea covets reunification. This would buy a much larger nation with a big labor force; the cultural reuniting of a divided people (as happened in Germany); free Korea from dependence on the United States, a kind of dependence that is not well trusted and, as American reliability elsewhere has made clear, is a big risk for a dependent nation, even a democratic one. Becoming a real independent nation, unified and dynamic, with nuclear power capability, is a tectonic shift in the region and globally. From such a vantage point Korea could properly define itself, create a truly integrated national identity, and exploit even more the resources it has, challenging a declining Japan and even challenging China, if China fractures or stumbles because of internal upheaval.
So one can suspect that sub rosa such negotiations could be going on. What deal would work? Probably the Kim dynasty would need to be liquidated because sustaining it is a deal breaker. The remaining elites could either be sent into retirement (many of them are quite old), paid off, or given prestigious (if meaningless) jobs.
What should we look for in this prospect? We should pay attention to any sign that Kim is faltering, or that there is some dissatisfaction with him or some part of his family, such as his pregnant wife. Any evidence that there is real pressure on the ruling dynasty will tell us that a deal is on the table, if not settled.
On the whole to pull something like this off must be done in a matter of weeks. When you light a short candle, it burns down fast. When it goes out, the game is over.
by Stephen Bryen
by Stephen Bryen***
[Editor's Note: This article was prepared on March 8th, 2013. On March 19, 2013 the first reports on the use of chemical weapons is being reported in Syria. Here is the information from Debka, which echoes other filings: "Extensive preparations by Syrian army units for launching chemical weapons against rebel forces have been sighted in the northern town of Homs, Western intelligence agencies told DEBKAfile’s military sources Tuesday, March 19. Damascus paved the way for resorting to unconventional weaponry with an accusation run by the state news agency SANA Tuesday that Syrian rebels had fired a rocket containing chemical substances in the Khan al-Assad area of rural Aleppo, allegedly killing 15 people, mostly civilians. Rebels quickly denied the report and accused regime forces of 'firing a chemical weapon on a long-range SCUD, after which 20 people died of asphyxia and poisoning.' Neither of the accusations could immediately verified." ]
According to reports coming out of the Middle East, the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons has already been compromised and some of their supplies have fallen into rebel hands, including among the rebels the most radical al-Qaeda backed extremists. These extremists are said to operate in the Yarmouk valley area and in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights that borders Israel. The occasionally reliable Debka Report says that “the Islamist Martyrs of the Yarmouk, is now seen as tying in closely with the next plans of the Islamist militias of the Syrian rebel force, headed by Jabhat al-Nusra, which are to cement their grip on the Syrian Golan, eastern Syria and the Upper Euphrates, where the important towns of Deir Azor and Abu Kemal are situated.” This group is reported to have in hand Syrian chemical and biological agents.
Syria is known to have stocks of mustard gas, Tabun and Sarin, which are nerve gas, and according to some reports the even more lethal nerve agent called VX. Syria also is reported to have biological weapons. Syria has worked on: “anthrax, plague, tularemia, botulinium, smallpox, aflotoxin, cholera, ricin and camelpox, and has used Russian help in installing anthrax in missile warheads.”
Biological weapons of one sort or another have been used throughout history, everything from throwing infected animals over the walls of towns under siege, to fouling water, to the use of mycotoxins on innocent populations, as happened in Laos and Afghanistan. According to Global Security “Between 1974 and 1981, evidence suggested that the Soviet Union developed complex delivery systems for trichothecene mycotoxins including aircraft spray tanks, aircraft-launched rockets, bombs (exploding cylinder), canisters, a Soviet hand-held weapon (DH-10), and booby traps. Aircrafts used to deliver the toxin included L-19s, AN-2s, T-28s, T-41s, MiG-21s and Soviet MI-24 helicopters. Soviet client states also reportedly used these sophisticated delivery systems.” Given that both Syria and Iran are clients of Russia, and the fact that much of the weapons know-how came from Russia (although the manufacturing equipment was supplied mostly by Europe), the Syrians and, perhaps, the rebels also have mycotoxins.
The full extent of the damage that can be caused by the spread of biological agents was shown when a secret Soviet-era anthrax production facility in Sverdlovsk leaked a deadly gas on April 2. 1979. There are different versions of the story and a lot of official lies, but probably more than 600 people died and thousands of animals, mainly sheep, were killed as the poison cloud went downwind some 75 miles. We now know, based on exploitation of cadaver tissues** that were preserved and were analyzed in recent years, that the Soviet-made Anthrax was actually a “cocktail” of different Anthrax seed stocks, one of which, at least, came from the United States. It is why, after 9/11 when Anthrax showed up in attacks in the U.S. (in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Washington D.C.), the type was American and the belief was it came from Ft. Dietrich, where the Army has biological weapons labs. But, in fact, the Soviet-Russian Anthrax was made to look like it came from the U.S. by using American feedstock, and Saddam Hussein was getting the same feedstock from the same place, namely from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nerve gas and mustard gas were used extensively by Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, especially in the fighting in the Al-Faw peninsula. Again these agents were “cocktails” –making self-defense very difficult.
The last major attack of nerve gas, mustard gas and probably some toxins, was against the Kurdish village of Halabja on March 16th, 1988. Around 3,500 villagers were killed outright, another 10,000 were casualties and there were many subsequent deaths, among them cancers, particularly colon cancer. The attack, carried out by the Iraqi Air Force and Army, ranks as the world’s most lethal use of chemical weapons and toxins. It also was an attack purely against a civilian population.
The problem with the spread of Syrian WMD in the form of its chemical and biological arsenal is that there is very little defense against them, and the only country that presently has a fighting chance to survive such an attack is Israel, because it has a chemical defense program.
In Israel there are a combination of defense strategies which include early warning, the use of “sealed rooms” during an attack, gas masks, Atropine injections and training and instruction on what to do ahead of an attack. Israel may also be providing antibiotics to deal with Anthrax.
Typically, Israeli preparations are based on relatively long range threats, primarily by missiles like the SCUD. This provides some warning time. The Israelis also have know how to clean up after an attack.
For Jordan and Lebanon there is no such program that amounts to a coherent and well organized effort to thwart any such attack through population defense. Ditto for Syria. So in case there is the use of these kinds of weapons, whether by the Syrian army, the rebels, or both, the victims will be largely in population centers, which could be devastated. The chance for more Halabjas is great.
As things now stand, there is no good answer to the coming war threat.****
** PCR analysis of tissue samples from the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax victims: The presence of multiple Bacillus anthracis strains in different victims in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States, February 3, 1998.
***I want to dedicate this article to my uncle, Lou Bryen, the brother of my grandfather Jacob Bryen. Lou Bryen, a private in the U.S. Army, was gassed in World War I on the western front, probably a victim of mustard gas and phosgene. He lived into his 70′s, but long suffered because of damage to his lungs. When I was a boy, Lou told me stories of the Great War. He remembered they were ordered to put gas masks on the mules, before they put their own gas masks on. Lou, a real American Patriot who came from Czarist Russia as an immigrant, followed orders.
****AN ADDED NOTE
In 2002 I wrote an article on Iraq’s chemical weapons called Iraq’s Threat. It was published by the National Review Online. It is reproduced below. The URL for the article is http://old.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-byren010302.shtml
What we know about their biological and chemical weapons.By Stephen Bryen. Mr. Bryen previously headed the Department of Defense’s technology-security program .
January 3, 2002 9:20 a.m.
|hen U.S. forces overpowered the Iraqi Army in the Gulf War in 1991 they found many valuable documents about Iraqi chemical and biological weapons. These captured documents, plus interviews with POWs, made it clear that Iraqi forces were well trained in the use of chemical agents such as Sarin, a nerve gas. But they had almost no guidance on how to handle or use biological weapons, although the documents support that such weapons were available.According to declassified Gulf War intelligence reports, Iraq had trained teams of chemical-weapons NCOs (non commissioned officers) on how to manage a chemical-warfare operation and how to decontaminate their own troops and equipment after their use against allied forces. But Iraqi Army NCOs were not given concrete guidance on biological-weapons use or safety precautions. Unlike U.S. troops in the Gulf, Iraqi troops were never vaccinated against biological agents like anthrax. Yet, had Iraq used its chemical weapons it may have found its own troops affected by biological agents which, no doubt, would have killed as many Iraqi soldiers as alliance forces.After being hit by Iraqi chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran learned the dirty secret of Iraqi weapons: they tend to mix together various types of chemical agents with biological-warfare agents. An early choice was a Soviet-developed form of mycotoxins (sometimes called “yellow rain”). Mycotoxins were used by the Soviet Union in Laos against Hmong tribesmen and, later in Afghanistan. Intelligence sources believe there was considerable cooperation, particularly in the 1980s and perhaps since, between Iraq and Russia’s biological-warfare units. Some reports single out the Russian organization Biopreparat as being linked to Iraq.One of the “fingerprints” of Russian weapons is to mix many substances together. Adding mycotoxins to a chemical-weapons “cocktail” is a trademark of the Soviet/Russian-weapons program which Iraq copied. Iraq’s use of mycotoxins combined with chemical agents was confirmed by Belgian scientists working on behalf of the United Nations.While Iraqi soldiers did not know what was in their bombs, NCO war prisoners told allied interviewers that they feared that if they used such weapons many of them would die just from contamination. Indeed, the fact that the Iranians found it very hard to get rid of the persistent CBW agents used by Iraq against them is a harbinger of what we are now experiencing trying to clean up a relatively small anthrax attack.The truth is nobody knows how to use biological weapons, or even the best way to protect themselves from them.
Russia, the U.S., and Britain have worked on vaccines to protect soldiers exposed to biological agents. During the Gulf War over 150,000 American soldiers were inoculated against anthrax. In the U.S., with the failure to adequately decontaminate post offices, America’s homeland-defense agency has offered anthrax vaccine to U.S. Senate workers and U.S. Postal Service employees for post-anthrax exposure protection. It is not known if it really works — the offer is strictly an experiment and the vast majority of postal workers have turned down inoculation.
It is far from clear that anthrax inoculation works reliably, even to protect against initial infection. The success of the inoculation depends on the type of anthrax and how the anthrax was “engineered.” The anthrax manufactured in the Soviet Union, for instance, was no simple germ agent. The stuff that leaked into the air at Sverdlovsk in 1979 contained at least four, and perhaps five, different strains of anthrax mixed together (including the Ames strain, the strain that was used by terrorists in the United States). At least one of the Russians killed by the Sverdlovsk anthrax leak, probably an employee of the Soviet weapons lab there, had received anthrax vaccine before exposure.
Recently, the Russians have said they have made progress on new vaccines and have offered them to the United States to combat the anthrax attack.
Dr. Philip Brachman, a pioneer in anthrax research, told theLos Angeles Times that the anthrax spores found in the U.S. were so small that they could get in someone’s lungs and, perhaps years later, fester into the anthrax disease. U.S. Government officials concur with this assessment.
During the Gulf War there was concern about so-called “dusty agents.” Dusty agents are very fine types of chemical or biological dust that can penetrate protective clothing and gas masks. In the Gulf War U.S. intelligence was sure that Iraq had dusty chemical agents and may have had dusty biological agents.
Dusty agents remain a major problem, as the recent U.S. terrorist attacks make clear. The U.S. Army is searching for better gas-mask seals and improved protective clothing to protect troops against chem-bio attacks. (During the Gulf War troops were advised to put rain gear over their chem-bio protective suits to try and block dusty agents.)
Engineered anthrax in dusty form is an indiscriminate terror weapon. It has no sensible military use, and how it operates on a complex society is not well understood. When the Sverdlovsk leak occurred, the Soviet government ordered surface soil removed, buildings decontaminated on the outside as well as the inside, roads paved over, and dead bodies buried in coffins filled with caustic chemicals to kill remaining anthrax spores. That is how they dealt with a dusty agent.
Over the next few years the United States will be searching for ways to handle the anthrax threat, and threats from other biological weapons. But is that enough?
Countries that build biological weapons whose effects can’t be controlled or even predicted are engaged in global terrorism. That is one reason why the U.S. ended its offensive biological-warfare program years ago.
Countries with a demonstrated capability and willingness to use chem-bio weapons, and who continue to develop nastier forms of biological-terror weapons, are a potential threat to global survival. Iraq, from all the evidence available including recent defectors, is the world’s leading threat.
by Stephen Bryen
[Author's Note 3 Feb. 2013: Since this article was written there have been many news stories on the air strikes against Syrian assets. The Syrians say there was no attack on any SA-17 missile convoy; instead they say that Israel hit the "research" facility and "killed civilians." Syrian rebel sources say that the Israelis blanked out the Syrian air defenses. Meanwhile the U.S. has only confirmed the Israeli strike on the convoy and not on the research facility, and Israel has put out vague hints that it carried out actions threatening Israel's security. Syria has also put out a video of the strike on the compound. The video shows the destruction of a number of vehicles, trucks, an SA-17 launcher vehicle, and many cars. The video also shows the interior of a lab and an office. All the images either are the result of anti-personnel bombs or machine gun fire. None of these are the types of weapons Israel would use --if it wanted to destroy the facility it would have done so. Consequently, the thesis of the article below seems even stronger than when it was written, namely that Israel took out a convoy of SA-17's. The attack on the so-called research facility was probably done by the rebels and, not wanting to give them any credit, Syria blamed it on Israel when Israel conveniently destroyed the SA-17 convoy. This stand by Syria also deflects the argument that Syria was in direct violation of UN Resolutions in providing missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon.]
By Stephen Bryen
News reports from Algeria tell us that the hostage siege at the Ain Amenas Gas Plant in the Sahara is now over, but the final list of casualties remains uncertain. So far we know that the operation resulted in the escape or release of some 685 Algerian workers and 107 foreigners. Current information says that 23 hostages are confirmed dead; another 25 bodies, presumed to be hostages, have so far been found in buildings. There are probably more deaths as a number of vehicles were struck by Algerian Air Force helicopters and destroyed, and these vehicles are said to have been carrying both hostages and terrorists. The Algerians report that “all” 32 terrorists were killed.
There has been serious criticism of the Algerian Army and Special Forces raid and claims they did a poor job resulting in an excess of civilian deaths. From information so far that is available, about 6% (six percent) of the hostages died during the operation. Possibly the number will rise, but it is unlikely to exceed 10%.
Is this a bad result or a good result?
In October, 2002, Chechen terrorists took over the Dubrovka theater in Moscow. There were some 850 hostages trapped in the theater and around 40 to 50 Chechen terrorists. The Russians tried to negotiate, over the course of a number of days, with the Chechens but no solution was found. Meanwhile the Chechens had executed a few of the hostages for various reasons.
On October 26 Russian Special Forces flooded the theater with a chemical agent, pumping it in through the ventilation system. Following this the Russian forces poured into the building and killed all the terrorists. Of the hostages 117 died as a result of the gas.
The incapacitating agent has never been officially identified but it is something called by the Russians Kolokol-1. Kolokol-1 is likely a morphine derivative that is aerosolized and based on fentanyl. The actual compound is 3-methylfentanyl.
In evaluating the Russian operation it can be seen that the number of civilian casualties was particularly high –roughly 15%. Many of the hostages, when freed, required urgent medical treatment. There is an antidote for Kolokol-1, but it must be administered quickly to work.
Poison gases intended to maim or kill are regarded as chemical agents and are banned under the Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Kolokol-1 straddles the fence of legality, because while it is not intended to kill, it is a potent substance (1,000 times stronger than morphine) and, as the Moscow theater case shows, can be quite lethal.
Physically, the Moscow theater episode occurred in a closed building that was barricaded and filled with 40 or 50 heavily armed killers equipped with explosives, automatic weapons, grenades and RPG’s. If the Russian Special Forces had operated in the same way as the Algerian forces, and attacked with conventional arms, it is likely that the death count may have been higher than it was because of the lack of space to pick out targets. Perhaps other weapons, such as stun grenades, may have helped; but it is unlikely to have been effective given the mass of people and the determination of the Chechens.
If comparisons are used, the Algerians did “better”(6% to 10% versus 15%) than the Russians. Of course, the physical space of operations was markedly different.
Just last month the U.S. Consul in Turkey reported in a “secret” cable (which was leaked) that the Syrians used chemical weapons in Homs on December 23rd. The chemical weapon identified is called by the Syrians Agent 15 and, in fact, it is a CX-level incapacitating agent that causes some temporary sickness and disorientation. The agent is probably 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate, which is a compound related to atropine (which itself is an antidote for nerve gas). This compound is “controlled” under the Chemical Weapons Convention although Syria is not a signatory to the convention. States who signed the convention should have destroyed chemical weapons and weapons manufacturing by last year, but Level 2 materials are not actually required to be destroyed. (Level 2 or Schedule 2 chemicals supposedly have legitimate small-scale applications. Manufacture must be declared and there are restrictions on export to countries which are not CWC signatories.)
The issue of incapacitating agents is not resolved under the Convention and most countries have them, including the U.S. Probably for this reason the State Department was encouraged to not denounce the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons in Homs.
Would a more effective incapacitating agent have been better than the military assault carried out by the Algerians? It is far from clear, but it may be that more research into less lethal, but more effective, incapacitating agents that can work in open areas rapidly and effectively would make sense (especially if the lethal characteristics of such materials can be mitigated). Of course this means that chemically based incapacitating agents can be an important element in future counter terror operations. While there is no public discussion as yet, research in this area seems warranted and urgent.
No one should fault either the Russians or the Algerians for standing up to a terrorist attack and doing their best under extremely difficult circumstances. Perhaps in future they will have even better tools and such incidents will result in fewer casualties.