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Terrorism

Terrorists potentially target millions in makeshift biological weapons ‘laboratories’

MD Staff

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Rapid advances in gene editing and so-called “DIY biological laboratories”which could be used by extremists, threaten to derail efforts to prevent biological weapons from being used against civilians, the world’s only international forum on the issue has heard.

At meetings taking place at the United Nations in Geneva which ended on Thursday, representatives from more than 100 Member States which have signed up to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) – together with civilian experts and academics – also discussed how they could ensure that science is used to positive ends, in line with the disarmament blueprint set out by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Although the potential impact of a biological weapons attack could be huge, the likelihood is not currently believed to be high. The last attack dates back to 2001, when letters containing toxic anthrax spores, killed five people in the US, just days after Al Qaeda terrorists perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Nonetheless, the rise of extremist groups and the potential risk of research programmes being misused, has focused attention on the work of the BWC.

“There’s interest from terror groups and we’re also seeing the erosion of norms on chemical weapons,” said Daniel Feakes, head of the BWC Implementation Support Unit at the UN in Geneva.

“That could spread to biological weapons as well,” he said, adding that “at the worst, you could be talking of epidemics on the scale of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, or even a global pandemic that could result in millions of deaths.”

In a bid to stay on top of the latest biological developments and threats, the BWC’s 181 Member States hold a series of meetings with experts every year, traditionally in the summer. The reports that are discussed during these sessions are then formerly appraised in December.

At the eight-day session just ended, science and technology issues were debated for two days – a measure of their importance.

Among the developments discussed was the groundbreaking gene-editing technique CRISPR. It can be applied – in theory – to any organism. Outside the Geneva body, CRISPR’s use has raised ethical questions, Mr. Feakes said, but among Member States, security ramifications dominated discussions.

“Potentially, it could be used to develop more effective biological weapons,” he said, noting that the meetings addressed the growing trend of “DIY biological labs”. However, the meetings also focused on the promotion of “responsible science” so that “scientists are part of the solution, not the problem”.

In addition to concerns that the Biological Weapons Convention lacks full international backing, the body has also faced criticism that its Members are not obliged to allow external checks on any illegal stockpiles they might have.

The issue highlights the fact that the BWC lacks a strong institution, its handful of administrators dwarfed by larger sister organizations including the OPCW – the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The OPCW’s 500-strong staff – based in the Hague – have weapons inspectors training facilities, Feakes notes, explaining that the BWC’s focus is therefore much more “about what States do at a national level”.

Concern for the future

Looking ahead, and aside from the rapid pace of scientific change, the biggest challenge is keeping the Biological Weapons Convention relevant – which appears to still be the case today.

“There are no States that say they need biological weapons,” Mr. Feakes says. “That norm needs to be maintained and properly managed. You can’t ban CRISPR or gene editing, because they can do so much good, like finding cures for diseases or combating climate change. But we still need to manage these techniques and technologies to ensure they are used responsibly.” Gene editing, in simple terms, involves the copying of exact strands of DNA, similar to cutting and pasting text on a computer.

The latest BWC session in the Swiss city also involved key intergovernmental organizations, scientific and professional associations, academic institutions, think tanks and other non-governmental entities.

Formally known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, the BWC was the first multilateral disarmament treaty to ban an entire category of weapons.

It opened for signature in 1972 and entered into force in 1975. It currently has 181 States Parties, and six States that have signed but not yet ratified it.

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Terrorism

New technologies, artificial intelligence aid fight against global terrorism

MD Staff

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Although terrorists have become skilled at manipulating the Internet and other new technologies, artificial intelligence or AI, is a powerful tool in the fight against them, a top UN counter-terrorism official said this week at a high-level conference on strengthening international cooperation against the scourge.

Co-organized by Belarus and the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), “Countering terrorism through innovative approaches and the use of new and emerging technologies” concluded on Wednesday in Minsk.

The internet “expands technological boundaries literally every day” and AI, 3D printing biotechnology innovations, can help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said Vladimir Voronkov, the first-ever Under Secretary-General for the UN Counter-Terrorism Office.

But it also provides “live video broadcasting of brutal killings”, he continued, citing the recent attack in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, where dozens of Muslim worshippers were killed by a self-avowed white supremacist. 

“This is done in order to spread fear and split society”, maintained the UNOCT chief, warning of more serious developments, such as attempts by terrorists to create home-made biological weapons. 

He pointed out that terrorists have the capacity to use drones to deliver chemical, biological or radiological materials, which Mr. Voronkov said, “are even hard to imagine.”

But the international community is “not sitting idly by”, he stressed, noting that developments in this area allow the processing and identification of key information, which can counter terrorist operations with lightning speed.

“The Internet content of terrorists is detected and deleted faster than ever”, elaborated the UNOCT chief. “Fifteen to twenty minutes is enough to detect and remove such content thanks to machine algorithms”.

Crediting quantum computing coupled with the use of AI, he explained that accelerated information processing enables terrorist tracing. 

Mr. Voronkov added that the use of blockchain registration – a growing list of records, or blocks, that are linked using cryptography – is also being explored to identify companies and individuals responsible for financing terrorism.

“It is necessary to increase the exchange of expert knowledge on technologies such as 3D printing, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, robotics, the synthesis of the human face and autonomous weapons”, he underscored. “This will help to better identify and respond to risks before it is too late”.

The two-day conference was divided into three themed sessions that focused at global, regional and national levels on the misuse of new technologies and AI by terrorists; approaches and strategies to counteract terrorist propaganda; and the misuse of scientific innovations.

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Terrorism

Afghanistan bloodshed mars 100 years of independence

MD Staff

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The scene at the Shahr-e-Dubai Wedding Hall in West Kabul on 18 August 2019, where approximately 1,000 people were gathered the night before for a wedding ceremony, when a suicide attacker detonated explosives, killing and injuring scores of civilians. UNAMA/Fardin Waezi

Afghanistan is at a “crucial moment” in its history as it marks 100 years of independence, the head of the UN Mission there said on Monday, following a series of terror attacks in recent days.

In a statement on Monday, Tadamichi Yamamoto, who heads the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said that despite decades of conflict, Afghans remain committed to a nation that is stable, peaceful and prosperous, and that upholds the human rights of women and men alike. 

Mr. Yamamoto also expressed hope that elections due to take place next month would give voice to the people, while also maintaining that there was “a real possibility for breakthroughs in peace” after so many years of war – a reference to on-going negotiations between Taliban leaders and the United States, that it is hoped will lead to a lasting ceasefire and talks involving the Afghan Government.

The UNAMA chief’s comments come amid numerous recent terror attacks on civilians, including a suicide bombing towards the end of a large wedding party on Saturday, that claimed the lives of 63 people and injured over 180.

In a statement released on Sunday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres “strongly condemned” the “horrific” attack, and expressed his “deepest sympathies to the families of the victims, and the Government and people of Afghanistan.”

The attack took place in the Shahr-e-Dubai Wedding Hall in West Kabul where approximately 1,000 people were gathered for a Shia wedding ceremony, said UNAMA in a statement, adding that the mission’s human rights team would investigate the incident.

According to news reports, a local affiliate of the ISIL terrorist group claimed responsibility for the suicide attack.

“An attack deliberately targeting civilians is an outrage, and deeply troubling, as it can only be described as a cowardly act of terror,” said Mr. Yamamoto. “I condemn these deliberate attacks on civilians that signal a deliberate intent to spread fear among the population, which has already suffered too much.”

The wedding hall where the attack took place is situated in an area of the city heavily populated by Afghanistan’s Shia Muslim minority. UNAMA has documented several previous attacks deliberately carried out against this community.

“The pace of such atrocious attacks indicates that current measures in place to protect must be strengthened, and that those who have organized and enabled such attacks must be brought to justice and held to account,” said the UNAMA chief. “The United Nations stands with all Afghans in solidarity and remains committed to an Afghan-led peace process that will end the war and bring about a lasting peace.”

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Terrorism

Does Kenya Really Want To End Terrorism?

Abukar Arman

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New dangerous dynamics are emerging at the Horn of Africa. Political tension emanating from maritime territory that Somalia and Kenya, both claim it as part of their legitimate border is getting more volatile. As the International Court of Justice gets ready to hold public hearings on “Maritime Delimitation in the Indian Ocean (Somalia v. Kenya)” September 9-13, Kenya continues to intensify its efforts to lobby the U.N, and key allies to help add al-Shabab to UNSC Resolution 1267.

If you are wondering what does al-Shabab have to do with this matter, you apparently are not part of the Kenyan political pundits, law-makers, and credulous Somalis who have been cheerleading for this unjustifiable initiative.

It Is What It Is

Let us imagine that it is late September, the time when leaders representing 195 member states would be attending the 74th UN General Assembly. Let us imagine during one of the debate sessions, this multiple choice question was raised: 

What is al-Shabab?

  • A law-abiding neighborhood watch group
  • A self-less patriots fighting for self-determination
  • A ruthless terrorist group

How many do you think will stutter with the answer, or not know that al-Shabab is a terrorist organization? By all legal and moral standards, al-Shabab is a terrorist organization.

If al-Shabab was not already considered a terrorist organization by the UN, why would the Security Council mandate AMISOM to fight them along the Somali National Army and periodically capture territories from them? So, since al-Shabab is already considered a terrorist organization, why spend such energy and political capital on redundancy?  Or rather bluntly: who is Kenya’s real target? 

Widening The Net

While fingers were frantically pointing at o all directions as to who was behind the Kismayo terrorist attack that killed 26 people including a beloved Somali-Canadian journalist, HodanNalayeh, Kenya’s top diplomat—Monica Juma—went on politicking on twitter. Before offering any condolences, she wrote:  “This attack is another reminder to the international community of the imperative to list the al-Shabaab, like all other terrorist groups, under the UNSC resolution 1267.” 

On the surface this may seem ordinary attempt to tighten the screws on al-Shabab, but it is far from that.

Said resolution, also known as the ISIS/al-Qaida resolution, mandates the harshest international sanctions on assets freeze and travel ban measures on individuals, entities and groups who are suspected of being remotely associated with those terrorist groups. And that blanket condemnation increases the chance of innocents in the periphery getting caught in the net or communities suffering as a result.  

Though this could get some Kenya Defense Force officials who operate an illicit business with al-Shabab that the Kenyatta government has been turning a blind eye in serious trouble, Kenya is eager to advance the initiative in order to use it as an insurance against any unfavorable decision from ICJ.

If Kenya’s endeavor succeeds, it will give Kenya the freehand to pressure and coerce top politicians and influential business leaders who have various investments and retain residential statuses in Kenya to assist her in achieving its objective of annexing the maritime territory- blocks that it already marketed for oil exploration. It is also an insurance policy against some of her Somali allies such as Ahmed Islam (Madobe)—president of Jubbaland federal state—who is currently much closer to Kenya than to the Federal Government of Somalia. Kenya is not oblivious to the fluidity of clan politics and the unpredictability of how Madobe, with his shady past, may act once it becomes clear to him that he was exploited as the game-changing pawn.

Feeling The Weight

A few months back as Kenya’s hostile diplomacy grew more aggressive, Somalia’s diplomacy grew more diffident and passive. As Kenya suspended diplomatic ties with Somalia, invited a delegation from Somaliland, humiliated Somali Ministers by denying them to transit through Kenya, FGS opted to respond passively.

This was consistent with FGS’ ill-advised decision to turn a blind eye to Kenya’s unilateral decision to build a border wall that would divide Somali families, undermine businesses, and deprive them essential services such as health care, and allow Kenya to establish new facts of the ground that will in due course make a case for annexation of territories that belong to Somalia.

Lately, Kenya has been under intense U.S. diplomatic pressure to drop its bid and not make the Horn of Africa more volatile than it already is. This pressure is likely to increase now that 16 senior national security and humanitarian officials have written an open letter urging the U.S. to stop Kenya from creating a grave humanitarian disaster as the resolution at hand does not allow any type of exemption for humanitarian delivery. Against that backdrop, Kenya resorted to strengthen its Plan B- legislative support to annex the maritime territory by any means necessary.

In attempt to lend Kenyatta’s government the legislative support to declare war against Somalia should ICJ rules its favor, the Kenya National Assembly, led by Hon. Aden Duale, is set to pass a perfectly tailored bill that makes the disputed maritime territory as part and parcel of Kenya’s territorial integrity. The impetus motion cites Article 241 (3) of the country’s constitution that the Kenya Defense Forces are responsible for protecting Kenya’s ‘territorial integrity’. “Unless the People of Kenya resolve by way of referendum to alter the territory of Kenya,” said Duale.

Make no mistake, terrorism poses a threat to international peace and security and Kenya did suffer its share of terrorist attacks, therefore it is in our best interest to collectively address that threat. However, that would be extremely difficult now that we know that Kenya’s real objective is not “to annihilate the extremist group (al-Shabab).”

Political rhetoric aside,   Kenya, like a number of other foreign actors in Somalia, would’ve been eager to invent al-Shabab had it not already existed. To some, al-Shabab as a manageable threat is strategically convenient. After all, it was Kenya’s pretext for 2011 invasion of today’s Jubbaland, also for the 2012 integration of KDF into AMISOM, also for the 2017 unilaterally initiated border-altering wall.

Five years after Somalia filed the boundary delimitation dispute with the ICJ and millions of dollars were spent by both sides, no one is sure how the end result might be. The only sure thing is that any attempt to solve this matter militarily will only make the current crisis a catastrophe.       

If Kenya decides to go with the military option as some intellectuals have openly been advocating, it is likely to prove both positive and negative:

Positive as it is likely to unite the now divided Somalis to rally against a single common threat. Negative as it would ignite domestic disharmony and, in due course, make Nairobi the epicenter of terrorism and compel foreign investors such as China flee with their fat wallets.  

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