EU leaders silent on growing risk of an ISIS chemical attack

The Parliament report comes against the backdrop of numerous warnings by analysts in recent months that there is a “genuine risk” of the ISIS using chemical, biological, radiological or even nuclear materials in future attacks on European targets. [Quapan]

Plans to address the risk of a terrorist attack with non-conventional weapons are not part of the EU summit on 17-18 December, despite the growing risk of a such an attack by ISIS on European soil, according to analysts and EU institutions.

Heads of state and government were expected to stress the importance of deeper cooperation between the national security services, “notably by structuring further their information exchange so that interested member states can engage in enhanced joint threat analysis”, a draft text of the conclusions said.

EU sources explained that the debate on non-conventional weapons could be too specific to be discussed at the summit level. However, EU leaders are ready to urge the Council of Ministers to examine the European Commission’s proposals on banning high-powered semi-automatic weapons, and to “fully implement” the regulation on explosives precursors.

But analysts, the Commission, the European Parliament and the French government warned of a more dangerous threat: a terrorist attack with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) material. Analysts believe that the next ISIS-led attack could involve the use of CBRN material.

>>Read: EU’s new ‘Directive on Terrorism’ aims to criminalise preparatory acts

This risk has been ignored not only by the EU leaders, but also by the EU counter-terrorism czar, Gilles de Kerchove. He did not include any mention to a CBRN threat in his last report published on 30 November, and has not made any reference to it in recent months.

First steps

As the responsibility to address CBRN threats remains primarily in the member states’ hands, some capitals have decided to redouble their efforts.

Following the Paris attacks on 13 November, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls did not  “exclude the risk” of a chemical or biological attack.

>>Read: EURACTIV’s coverage of Paris terrorist attacks

French Secret services fear that ISIS could use non-conventional weapons like sarin, even though a complicated laboratory is needed. Sarin gas was responsible for the death of 12 people in Tokyo subway in 1990.

In light of this risk, the French government provided antidote to emergency services to treat gas attacks. Moreover, the security of nuclear plants has been strengthened since mid-November, including more strict controls of the workers accessing the facilities.

Meanwhile, Germany has no specific information about the planning of a CBRN attack on its territory.

The Joint Counter-Terrorism Centre (GTAZ), consisting of representatives of all Germany’s federal security agencies, are monitoring the potential evidence on the Internet, although the information remains confidential.

The Federal Police Union’s Andy Neumann said that in case of such an attack, Germany is prepared to deal with scenarios involving CBRN weapons. The Central Support Unit, in cooperation with all relevant authorities in federal and state governments, regularly holds training exercises, he told EURACTIV Germany.

A real threat

A recent European Parliament report assessed the likelihood of CBRN attack by ISIS, on European soil.

The terrorist organization “has very important financial resources, proven success in recruiting skilled university graduates, and access to CBRN material, at least in Iraq and Syria, and possibly in Libya. It also has an unknown number of sympathisers in Europe. This increases the probability that the group could carry out a CBRN attack on European soil”, concluded the report. However, the study reminded that such an attack still represents “a significant technical and logistical challenge”.

But, as Europeans “are not seriously contemplating this possibility”, the impact of a potential CBRN attack “would be even more destabilising”, warned the document.

>>Read: From 9/11 to Charlie Hebdo: The EU’s response to terrorism

The Parliament report comes against the backdrop of numerous warnings by analysts in recent months that there is a “genuine risk” of the ISIS using chemical, biological, radiological or even nuclear materials in future attacks on European targets.

The terrorist group has allegedly used chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria. Over the past few years, ISIS is reported to have had several opportunities to gain access to CBRN material in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Moreover, some of the fighters that have joined the group not only have chemical and engineering training but have also prepared documents on how to weaponise a plague, such as the bubonic plague.

Calls for a more proactive approach

The European Commission sounded the alarm last year, and is working on a new action plan to be published in 2016 on how to address such a threat, with input from the member states.

In a 2014 communication on the detection and mitigation of CBRN and explosives, the executive said that intelligence information gives “good reasons to believe that the threat from CBRN materials and explosives remains high and is evolving”. The Commission specifically mentioned that thefts and loss of these materials occur on hundreds of occasions each year.

The executive recommended adopting “a more proactive approach” to address the risk of non-conventional weapons.

The Parliament report emphasied that, despite the efforts made so far by the institutions, some gaps remain, in particular with regard to information-sharing among the member states.

As part of the mitigation strategy, the European Commission prioritised the need to examine new threat substances and new methods to circumvent the security controls, and the possibility of attacks to new targets, such as critical infrastructure, public areas and means of transport besides aviation.

In November 2010, the Council of Ministers adopted a plan to strengthen chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear security in the European Union over a five-year period (EU CBRN Action Plan). 

Under the action plan, member states have:

  • Established three lists of high-risk CBRN materials
  • Identified good practices in security training and education
  • Developed EU guidelines for minimum security training requirements
  • Developed scenarios in the CBRN detection field
  • Improved emergency response plans

In December 2012, the Council stressed the need to identify areas with insufficient security arrangements and step up common efforts to enhance the security of production, storage, handling and transport of high-risk CBRN and explosive materials. However, no new legislation has been proposed to date.

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