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October 30, 2007

The “Next” Step in Bird Flu Mutations

Since its isolation in humans in 1997, Avian flu has "percolated." A few experts think that it bird flu will never make the jump to humans. On the other hand, the mainstream scientific community tends toward a cautionary position, noting that viruses have a tendency to constantly mutate.

Just a year ago, many scientists were saying that the likelihood of the bird to human jump was unlikely. But even if the current H5N1 never makes the jump to humans, there are variations and existing mutations that could.

They include H7N7, which infected 89 chicken industry workers in the Netherlands in 2003 but killed only one veterinarian; H9N2, which he says is in “every poultry house in Eurasia” and causes no symptoms but every once in a while jumps into immuno-suppressed people; and H2N2, which is in the wild bird population in the United States.

Based on the “Not if but when,” point of view, David Nabarro, a senior United Nations official in charge of the bird flu prevention effort warns that the world is not ready to deal with a potential Avian, or “bird” flu pandemic that could kill millions of people world-wide. The concern is that once the H5N1 or a variant mutates to the point where is can be transmitted from human to human, the spread around the globe will be quick, maybe outstripping the ability to develop and distribute a vaccine countermeasure.

Further, he concludes, that while some have actually been able to stockpile anti-viral vaccines, they have yet to plan for the enormous societal and economic impact a pandemic would bring. "Unfortunately, only a relatively small number are adequately prepared to keep going in the event that the pandemic has massive absenteeism associated with it, Nabarro said. We need hard work for at least two or three years more to make sure that the whole world is properly pandemic ready.”

How real is the threat of the Avian Flu making the jump to humans, and then mutating to a point where it can be spread from human to human? Back in February, I noted in a post, Preparing for a Natural Disaster of Pandemic Proportions that “the potential threat is that the difference between a flu virus that kills millions, and one that kills only a few comes down to just two amino acid changes, researchers say. In very technically medical terms:

Haemagglutinin, the main surface protein on flu viruses, binds to sugars on cells in the nose and lungs; the virus then enters the cells and replicates. Bird flu prefers a sugar called 2,3-sialic acid. Flu adapted to mammals attaches better to 2,6-sialic acid. Mammals have the 2,3 sugar deep in their lungs, but 2,6 in the nose and throat. H5N1 prefers 2,3. It had been thought that that was why it causes a devastating deep-lung infection in humans, but does not spread between people, because it does not bind and replicate in the nose.

H5N1 bird flu virus has mutated to infect people more easily and is circulating in birds in Africa and Europe. The mutation allows the virus to live and thrive in the human nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract, which are much cooler than avian body temperatures. According to researchers, more mutations are needed for H5N1 to become a pandemic strain.

Still, not too much of a concern, right? Think again. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison recently identified the key step bird flu virus takes to spread readily in humans.

A team of researchers led by virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine has identified a single change in a viral protein that facilitates the virus' ability to infect the cells of the upper respiratory system in mammals. By adapting to the upper respiratory system, the virus is capable of infecting a wider range of cell types and is more easily spread, potentially setting the stage for a flu pandemic.

"The viruses that are in circulation now are much more mammalian-like than the ones circulating in 1997," says Kawaoka, an internationally recognized authority on influenza. "The viruses that are circulating in Africa and Europe are the ones closest to becoming a human virus."

"This change is needed, but not sufficient," Kawaoka explains. "There are other viral factors needed to cause a viral pandemic" strain of bird flu.

Finally, in what shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has children who then bring a respiratory infection home from school and then give it to the whole family, it is reported in Science Daily that Children May Be Especially Prone to Bird Flu: Study - that the H5N1 virus may be especially good at binding to children's cells in the lower respiratory tract, as well as the upper respiratory tract of adults. The findings may explain why bird flu infects children more readily than it does adults and why it can infect the upper respiratory tract, even though tissues there were believed to lack receptors for such viruses.

Apparently, the two mutations required could be down to one. Vaccine preparation continues, with the first vaccine having been approved six months ago by the FDA (but on first reports, this vaccine didn't work all of the time, and it required high dosages). However, without any way to predict the mutation and its countermeasure, the solutions may not be that readily evident. According to the Center for Infectious Disease and Research Policy, dealing with H5N1 and its derivatives will be challenging. One path to combat this problem could be the development and use of enhanced disinfection and decontamination techniques.

Without intended self-promotion, one of my consulting clients happens to have a new technique that we are in the process of rolling out to the commercial market that could have an impact. In theory, this approach could decontaminate and sanitize the poultry population, housing and processing faciltities. And yet, this alone will not prevent an outbreak. Now if you want to get into the subject of MRSA, the technique can clearly deal with it, but that's an entirely separate topic.

Hands-Free Laptops For Wounded Soldiers

Have you ever tried to write an email or browse the Web without full use of your hands? Now imagine you are hundreds or thousands of miles from home, largely isolated from friends and family, recovering in the confines of a hospital room. Just when you need the support of contact more than ever, achieving the once-simple tasks of e-mail or instant messaging proves proves difficult or even nearly impossible.

This is the frustrating and isolating challenge faced by soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines recovering from wounds to their arms and hands.

Enter Soldiers' Angels and Project Valour-IT, providing specially configured laptops to allow them the ability to e-mail and chat and re-opening lines of communication with family and friends when they need them most. We hope you will consider donating to this worthy cause that is important to so many by clicking the Donate button below.

It was the first time I felt whole since I’d woken up wounded in Landstuhl.
–Chuck Ziegenfuss, on using a voice-controlled laptop

October 25, 2007

Progress on AFRICOM

As a new contributing member of ThreatsWatch, I participated Wednesday in a Bloggers' Roundtable discussion with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Theresa Whelan on the initiation of United States Africa Command and developments on the African continent with major implications for US national security. The roundtable was part of a series held to facilitate "source material for stories in the blogosphere concerning the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Global War on Terrorism by bloggers and online journalists."

Primarily, Secretary Whelan focused on the distinct nature of AFRICOM in relation to the other Unified Combatant Commands such as CENTCOM or PACOM with their focus on war-fighting. Instead, AFRICOM is intended to build local security capacity through military-to-military relations. This capacity is to include peacekeeping capabilities and also, a previously lacking focus on maritime security.

As an example of the type of mission's AFRICOM can be expected to undertake in the future, Secretary Whelan offered 2002's Operation Focus Relief which saw US Special Forces units train members of the Nigerian armed forces, a process that facilitated the transformation of several "Bad Boy Battalions" into "C" or "B-" students.

From this discussion, it appears that the main goal of AFRICOM is to assist in the formulation of effective and professional indigenous armed forces on the African continent, so that when security issues emerge, they do not require outside intervention. As such, the American public should not expect a greatly increased military presence in Africa as the creation of AFRICOM is meant to streamline the implementation of previously existing policies and not to significantly increase American involvement on the continent as a means to secure natural resources or react to an increased Chinese presence. Secretary Whelan plainly stated that there will be no new bases or troops in Africa, but there will be a presence in the form of staff personnel, which is likely to be scattered in various countries, and not in one primary location.

Additional Resources:

Africa Command Home

Whalen-AFRICOM Discussion Audio (MP3)

Whalen-AFRICOM Discussion Transcript (PDF)

October 21, 2007

Special Forces Ops in Iran

Britain's Sunday Times reports that British SAS and American and Australian Special Forces have been engaged in operations inside the Iranian border to interdict weapons shipments.
There have been at least half a dozen intense firefights between the SAS and arms smugglers, a mixture of Iranians and Shi’ite militiamen.

The unreported fighting straddles the border between Iran and Iraq and has also involved the Iranian military firing mortars into Iraq. UK commanders are concerned that Iran is using a militia ceasefire to step up arms supplies in preparation for an offensive against their base at Basra airport.

An SAS squadron is carrying out operations along the Iranian border in Maysan and Basra provinces with other special forces, the Australian SAS and American special-operations troops.

They are patrolling the border, ambushing arms smugglers bringing in surface-to-air missiles and components for roadside bombs. “Last month, they were involved in six significant contacts, which killed 17 smugglers and recovered weapons, explosives and missiles,” a source said. It was not clear if any of the dead were Iranian.
That this is happening is less surprising than its reporting. Of course the US and allied forces would want to keep this quiet. But, considering the apparently nasty engagements, Iran's silence on it is more telling than might otherwise meet the eye.

October 18, 2007

Pakistan Offers AQ Safe Passage to Afghanistan?

In his latest report, a "senior Pakistani security official" told Syed Saleem Shahzad that Pakistan offered al-Qaeda and the Taliban safe passage into Afghanistan in exchange for vacating their North and South Waziristan lairs. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance rejected the offer, and why wouldn't they? Pakistan is not negotiating from a position of strength. Al-Qaeda is.

Lining up against the Pakistani Army will be the Shura (council) of Mujahideen comprising senior al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders, local clerics, and leaders of the fighting clans Wazir and Mehsud (known as the Pakistani Taliban). The shura has long been calling the shots in the Waziristans, imposing sharia law and turning the area into a strategic command and control hub of global Muslim resistance movements, including those operating in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"All previous operations had a different perspective," the security official told ATol. "In the past Pakistan commenced an operation when the Western coalition informed Pakistan about any particular hide-out or a sanctuary, or Pakistan traced any armed infiltration from or into Pakistan.

"However, the present battle aims to pacify Waziristan once and for all. The Pakistani Army has sent a clear message to the militants that Pakistan would deploy its forces in the towns of Mir Ali, Miranshah, Dand-i-Darpa Kheil, Shawal, Razmak, Magaroti, Kalosha, Angor Ada. The Pakistani Army is aiming to establish permanent bases which would be manned by thousands of military and paramilitary troops."

According to the security official, an ultimatum had been delivered to the militants recently during a temporary ceasefire. The army would set a deadline and give safe passage into Afghanistan to all al-Qaeda members and Taliban commanders who had gathered in Waziristan to launch a large-scale post-Ramadan operation in Afghanistan. They, along with wanted tribal warrior leaders, would all leave Pakistan, and never return.

More thoughts on this at The Tank on National Review Online.

Meanwhile, Bhutto's back in Pakistan and the Pakistani Supreme Court has yet to rule on Musharraf's election and its opposition. It had previously promised to decide the merits of the opposition by October 17 (yesterday), an now promises to decide in another 10-12 days.

October 16, 2007

Assessing China's Developing Air Defense

With Tale of the Tape, Johns Hopkins's Stuart Koehl takes a quick look at China's growing Air Defense capabilities without lacking a fair amount of necessary detail. In his latest, he draws appropriate attention to the fact that without full systems integration, any nation's air defense 'whole' is is much less than the often perceived sum of its parts.
Of these, the last [the FT-2000 system] is the most interesting and presents the most serious threat. The first known ground-to-air anti-radiation missile (ARM), it is apparently designed to counter U.S. airborne early warning (AEW) systems such as the E-2C Hawkeye and E-3 AWACS, upon which U.S. air forces rely for "situational awareness." So integral have these AEW systems become to U.S. air warfare that it is difficult to imagine how our forces would operate in their absence. Given the range of the basic SA-10, at the very least the existence of such weapons would force an increase of the "stand-off" range at which we would deploy such aircraft, thereby reducing proportionally the distance they could look into Chinese airspace. The FT-2000 would also be extremely effective against the E-8 JSTARS ground surveillance aircraft, which provides critical targeting data for U.S. long-range precision strike systems.

In addition to these, the Chinese People's Liberation Army is liberally provided with shoulder-fired short-range missiles similar to Stinger, as well as 14.5mm, 23mm and 57mm anti-aircraft guns, which are still deadly to low-flying aircraft.

At face value, then, the Chinese forces have acquired some very formidable air defense systems, but a deeper looks shows that there is much less here than meets the eye. An air defense system is more than a mere aggregation of radars, missile launchers and control stations. To be effective, they must be netted together in an integrated system, so that all the elements can be coordinated, so that potential gaps are covered, and so that the strengths of one system compensate for the weaknesses of another. In such integrated air defense systems, the command, control, communication and intelligence (C3I) system has always proven to be the weakest link. By jamming or destroying area surveillance radars, knocking out command centers, or neutralizing communications links, the system devolves into a collection of independent batteries and battalions, each of which is much less effective than when acting as part of an integrated system.
Give a look today, as China continues to gain from the complications and distractions America faces as a result of full engagement in the conflict at hand.

Related: MissileThreat's 2007 Report: Missile Defense, the Space Relationship, and the Twenty-First Century

October 15, 2007

Iraq Symposium: If We Fail

Regarding the consequences of failure in Iraq, along with Ralph Peters, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Kimberly Kagan and Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, ThreatsWatch recently participated in a FrontPage Magazine Symposium: If We Fail. Much was discussed and the general conclusion that the consequences of failure in Iraq would be most severe, there was some disagreement among the group regarding particulars.

As were others, Kimberly Kagan was particularly spot on.
If U.S. troops withdraw before the ISF is ready, terrorists and militias will slaughter those Iraqis who are now working so hard to defend their country. The Iraqi Security Forces, though improving dramatically, are unlikely to survive such a crisis – as their leadership is destroyed. The Iraqi Government, likewise, would not survive without an army. And the sectarian war that follows these collapses of government institutions and civil order will likely be far bloodier and more vigorous than the sectarian killings of 2006, because Iraqis will know that the U.S. will not defend them.

Should the Iraqi Security Forces collapse or sectarian violence escalate again, Iraq’s neighbors are likely to become involved in the struggle to stabilize Iraq: for security reasons as well as sectarian reasons. Iraq’s neighbors – Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait - do not share a common vision of what Iraq should be, and they have military capabilities that they can use to settle the issue in the absence of American troops. Broad sectarian conflict in Iraq is likely to have second-order effects in neighboring countries, where Sunni and Shia live tensely, and where many Iraqi refugees have settled. These are not worst-case scenarios; these are likely consequences of an American withdrawal based on the involvement of these states in the present conflict. The consequences of Iraq’s collapse after a premature withdrawal of U.S. troops will ripple throughout the region for years to come.

The U.S. has a chance to stabilize Iraq, develop the nascent Iraqi security forces, and improve the capacity of Iraq’s government. If the U.S. withdraws troops from Iraq before establishing these preconditions, it is likely to face a conflict in Iraq and the Middle East far larger and wider than we have yet seen – requiring a level of U.S. military involvement far beyond what Iraq now requires.

Considering developments and reports of decreased Iraqi civilian deaths and US troop casualties to their lowest levels in some time, the success on the ground continues to be undeniable. As such, readers may be interested to note that the FrontPage Magazine Symposium: If We Fail actually took place in the weeks prior to General Petraeus' September report to Congress, even though only now published by Dr. Glazov in October.

October 10, 2007

ThreatsWatch on The John Batchelor Show

ThreatsWatch's Steve Schippert was a guest on The John Batchelor Show as it returned to the New York City airwaves Sunday evening on WABC Radio AM 770. We discussed Waziristan, the tribal areas and al-Qaeda's ongoing insurgency there as they continue their quest for total control of Pakistan.

In addition to 7-10PM EST in New York City on WABC Radio AM 770, The John Batchelor Show then continues for three more hours from 7-10PM EST in Los Angeles on KFI AM 640 each Sunday evening.

If you are concerned about National Security and the threats facing America, The John Batchelor Show is 'must listen' radio. It always was, and we welcome it back to the airwaves with enthusiasm.

October 8, 2007

Musharraf's Escort Chopper Crashes in Kashmir

An escort helicopter accompanying newly re-elected President Pervez Musharraf crashed in Kashmir, killing 4 of the twelve aboard.

The president's spokesman, retired Major-General Rashid Qureshi, was among eight injured in the crash, Arshad said.

The four killed included a brigadier, the two commandos, and a cameraman from state-run television.

"The engine backed up and because of that it immediately went down," Arshad said. "The pilot made a crash landing. Once he did that the rear portion of the helicopter caught fire."

Arshad said there would be an inquiry, but he doubted whether the helicopter had been sabotaged or attacked, as it would have been more likely to have exploded in the air.

That's the early report. It could well have been a mechanical failure or an accident, but all failures and accidents around and near Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan are suspect until proved otherwise, especially in the skies over Kashmir, a territory packed with well armed al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists.

If it turns out to be an actual attack on the helicopter, it would follow recent suit in attempts on Musharraf's life. In a recent July 2007 assassination attempt during the Lal Masjid standoff, Musharraf's plane took anti-aircraft machine gun fire from a rooftop near Islamabad shortly after takeoff.

Musharraf Re-Elected: What's Next

Amid significant protest, Musharraf won Parliamentary re-election on October 6 to a new 5-year term as Pakistan's president. Only 252 votes were cast among the National Parliament and the four provincial assemblies in the provinces of Punjab (Lahore), Balochistan (Quetta), Sindh (Kirachi), and the North West Frontier Province (Peshawar). Most of the missing votes were due to opposition mass resignations. These resignations were symbolic, as they would not have had enough votes to defeat a Musharraf candidacy. Also missing were the votes from former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistani Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) after they abstained from voting rather than resign along with other opposition parties.

The opposition parties are expected to gain a parliamentary majority as a result of the upcoming national elections in January. It is for this reason that Musharraf asked for and received an early presidential election ahead of the January national vote from a still-friendly parliament. Had he waited, he most likely would have had no chance at winning another presidential term.

Going forward, there are several key dates within the next 45 days to keep an eye on as they approach.
  • October 13-17 - While several legal petitions challenging the legality Musharraf's candidacy (due to his concurrent service in the military as the Army Chief of Staff) have been dismissed, several still remain on the Pakistani Supreme Court's docket. They have promised to rule by October 17. They are expected to rule in favor of Musharraf, and can also likely be expected to rule as late as possible.
  • October 18 - Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto announced that she will return to Pakistan from exile on this date. In self-exile to avoid prosecution on charges of corruption, Pervez Musharraf granted her immunity several days ago in as part of efforts to reach a power-sharing agreement.
  • November 15 - This is the day that Musharraf said that he will retire from the military and cede his post as Army Chief of Staff if he is re-elected and confirmed as Pakistan's president. The election was won in parliament. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will dismiss the challenges to his candidacy.
  • January ?? - The national elections for selecting a new parliament were announced by Musharraf to take place in January. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also announced that there will be no Pakistani Army troop deployments in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) by January as well. These duties in the area largely controlled by the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance will be handled exclusively by the Interior Ministry's Frontier Corps and constabularies' less-capable and less professional paramilitaries.
There are clearly significant known events expected between now and January inside Pakistan. What remains expectedly unknown are the actions, attacks and maneuvers of the ongoing al-Qaeda insurgency now expanding beyond the FATA and creeping ever closer to Islamabad.

Regardless of unforeseen events unfolding between now and January, Musharraf's decision to disengage his most professional forces from increasingly more dangerous and capable al-Qaeda and Taliban within their FATA havens looks to accelerate direct US action against them in one form or another - be it via airstrikes, covert actions including the use of potential proxies, or (not at all likely in the near to mid-term) overt US military ground operations.

In a nutshell, even with Musharraf remaining Pakistan's president, the al-Qaeda problem inside Pakistan grows and must be dealt with one way or the other. One of the only things that remains clear is that the defeat of al-Qaeda inside Pakistan will not come at the hands of the Pakistani military. It certainly will not come at the hands of paramilitary Interior Ministry forces who are out-manned, out-gunned and out-classed by a fighting force of terrorists who maintain superior motivation.

October 6, 2007

Security and Researching High-Consequence Biological Threats

For most of the country, the process of selecting a replacement for the Plum Island Animal Disease Center has been off radar. The chances are that unless you are involved in homeland security activities, or are veterinarian or a cattle rancher, you wouldn't know (or maybe even care) what Plum Island did, or why it needed to be replaced.

Perhaps you remember that following September 11th there were concerns about the threat of crop-dusters being flown by terrorists to poison our food supply. Our food supply continues to be one of the "soft" targets of concern. In the same way, animal diseases that can transfer to humans represents a serious potential problem. Its not just any concern about H5N1 Avian Flu because these diseases include such as Salmonella and plague that can be spread by wild rodents in Southwestern U.S (a recent outbreak of Yersinia Pestis in Northern Arizona is an example).

In January 2006, the Department of Homeland Security began looking for a replacement for Plum Island - the site would be called the National Bio and Agro Defense Lab, and would be designated as a Level 4 Biohazard facility. Plum Island had been transferred from Department of Agriculture to the DHS in 2004 under Homeland Security President Directive 9 - Defense of United States Agriculture and Food.

Twenty-nine locations submitted Expressions of Interest (EOI) and 18 sites were selected for review under the Selection Process. After conducting site visits in the Second Quarter 2007, the list was narrowed to five locations.

* Flora Industrial Park, Madison County, Miss.
* Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan.
* Texas Research Park, San Antonio, Texas
* Umstead Research Farm, Granville County, N.C.
* University of Georgia/South Milledge Ave., Athens, Ga.

This new lab facility will research high-consequence biological threats involving zoonotic (i.e., transmitted from animals to humans) and foreign animal diseases. It will also allow basic research; diagnostic development, testing, and validation; advanced countermeasure development; and training for high-consequence livestock diseases.

The new and unique government biocontainment infrastructure will:

* integrate those aspects of public and animal health research that have been determined to be central to national security;
* assess and research evolving bioterrorism threats over the next five decades; and
* enable the Departments of Homeland Security and Agriculture (USDA) to fulfill their related homeland defense research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDT&E) responsibilities.

Starting in August, the DHS visited these five sites and held Public Forums as part of developing the Environmental Impact Statements. I attended the one in Texas and had an opportunity to speak in favor of the facility being located here. From what I've read, the Public Forums in North Carolina and Georgia didn't "go very well."

All of this is backdrop to a recent report about U.S. labs mishandling deadly germs. According to this article, there have been more than 100 accidents and missing shipments since 2003. Even though there were no deaths or risk to the public as a result of these incidents, the question of procedures and oversight at these high-security facilities has been raised.

According to a review by The Associated Press of confidential reports submitted to federal regulators. They describe accidents involving anthrax, bird flu virus, monkeypox and plague-causing bacteria at 44 labs in 24 states. More than two-dozen incidents were still under investigation. The number of accidents has risen steadily. Through August, the most recent period covered in the reports obtained by the AP, labs reported 36 accidents and lost shipments during 2007 — nearly double the number reported during all of 2004.

This is not intended to overstate the risk to public safety from the new NBAF. No one involved would be so oblivious to the hazard and to previous accidents and breaches to not recognize them in the security plans for the new facility. And yet, the concern is a valid one, especially considering how many incidents have actually gone unreported. One "watchdog" organization, The Sunshine Project provides frequent, if not highly critical coverage on issues relating to biologicla weapons and biotechnology. Some of the more recent ones are quite startling actually.

Ebola Error in Wisconsin Shows Lax Federal Biodefense Oversight ( 19 September 2007)

Anthrax and Tularemia Bioweapons Bungling in Texas (18 Sep 2007)

Texas A&M More the Norm than the Exception (26 Jun 2007)

The Bird Flu Lab Accident that Officially Didn't Happen (26 Jan 2007)

As always, it is the cover-up that makes an incident worse. It is possible that the unreported accident at Texas A&M contributed to its being dropped from the short list. Additional "unreported incidents" are listed in the first article.

All of this having been said, a GAO Report released last week, "HIGH-CONTAINMENT BIOSAFETY LABORATORIES - Preliminary Observations on the Oversight of the Proliferation of BSL-3 and BSL-4 Laboratories in the United States" identified six lessons from three recent incidents: failure to report to CDC exposures to select agents by Texas A&M University (TAMU); power outage at CDC’s new BSL-4 lab in Atlanta, Georgia; and a release of foot-and-mouth disease virus at Pirbright in the United Kingdom (U.K.). These lessons highlight the importance of:

(1) identifying and overcoming barriers to reporting in order to enhance biosafety through shared learning from mistakes and to assure the public that accidents are examined and contained; (2) training lab staff in general biosafety, as well as in specific agents being used in the labs to ensure maximum protection; (3) developing mechanisms for informing medical providers about all the agents that lab staff work with to ensure quick diagnosis and effective treatment; (4) addressing confusion over the definition of exposure to aid in the consistency of reporting; (5) ensuring that BSL-4 labs’ safety and security measures are commensurate with the level of risk these labs present; and (6) maintenance of high-containment labs to ensure integrity of physical infrastructure over time.

Against this backdrop, is the outbreak of Hoof and Mouth Disease in the United Kingdom that was discovered in August. As far as I know, the suspicions that the outbreak spurred from a break at private testing lab have not been totally discounted.

Even though Hoof and Mouth Disease was eradicated in the United States in 1929, the British outbreak raises concerns. In fact, Ross Wilson, CEO of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, said his group has been rethinking its support since the British outbreaks.

"The recent situation at Pirbright does give us some concerns," Wilson said. His group represents 5,000 cattle feeders in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, an area that the group says is the largest cattle feeding region in America. The region markets more than 7 million cattle who eat at feedlots each year, about a third of the nation's fed cattle population. Texas ranks first in the country in fed cattle population.

That, in itself, is interesting considering that the Hoof and Mouth outbreak was made public more than a month before the Texas Public Forum for comments on September 11, 2007. No one from the Texas Cattle Feeders Association appeared that night to voice objection. And maybe even more "odd" is that San Antonio already has a Level 4 and Level 3 bio-hazard facilities at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR). SFBR was just awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security to study Marburg virus, a hemorrhagic fever virus.

All of this is a matter of National and Homeland Security. Its important work and frankly, San Antonio is a perfect place. Then again, I'm a "little biased."

October 4, 2007

Iraq: A Mission Already Focused On Counterterrorism

The United States military forces in Iraq announced that an Iraqi MP was arrested at an al-Qaeda meeting in northwestern Iraq, a sudden hotbed of successful counter al-Qaeda operations. Though the US declined to name the apprehended Iraqi minister of parliament, it is believed to be Naif Mohammed Jasim.

A member of Iraq's parliament is in U.S. custody and being questioned after an Iraqi special forces raid on a suspected al Qaeda meeting, the U.S. military said on Thursday.

A spokesman for the Iraqi parliament said the lawmaker was from the assembly's main Sunni Arab bloc.

The man was held after a raid in the Sunni Arab town of Sharqat, 260 km (160 miles) northwest of Baghdad, in volatile Salahuddin province on Sept. 29, the U.S. military said in an email in response to queries from Reuters.

"The man being held is one of the 275 members of the Iraqi Council of Representatives," the military said.

"Officially, he is not considered a 'detainee' at this time. He is being held for questioning after being found at a suspected al Qaeda in Iraq meeting during a combined Iraqi Security Forces/Coalition operation," it said.

The military said it would not release the man's name. It is believed to be the first time a member of Iraq's parliament has been detained by Iraqi or U.S. forces.

The Iraqi parliament spokesman said Accordance Front member Naif Mohammed Jasim had been taken into custody while he was attending a funeral in Sharqat on Wednesday.

It was announced yesterday that al-Qaeda's Emir of the Iraq/Syria Border, 'Muthanna,' was killed in a September 11 operation in northwest Iraq and a treasure trove of intelligence gathered from the scene. Today, it was announced that the al-Qaeda terrorist responsible for funneling over $100,000,000 into Iraq this summer alone was apprehended alive in Baghdad. That development and the above are most likely gains netted in large part from the al-Qaeda intelligence gained in September.

It can hardly be debated. This Is Counterterrorism in Iraq. Any proposed transition of forces to the periphery and out of the heart of Iraq in order to supposedly "change our mission and focus it more narrowly on counterterrorism" in reality makes it less so.

October 2, 2007

Insider Threat

As a follow-up to our earlier assessment on counterintelligence problems, it is worth noting that:

Six years after arresting turncoat Robert Hanssen, the FBI remains vulnerable to espionage from within, the parent Justice Department said in a report Monday.

The reason for this, said the Justice's Office of Inspector General, is that the bureau has failed to fully adopt security measures to track suspicious behavior involving its own employees.

The danger posed by insiders cannot be over-stressed. It is one thing to keep out fairly obvious foreign agents, to trail ostensible “attachés” and fend off standard solicitations, but a talented turn-coat such as Hanssen, or more recently Montes, is a much tougher nut to crack.

By their very nature insiders have legitimate access to a wide variety of information. Their actions may seem to be entirely benign because accessing sensitive information is what they do for a living. Absent a more robust counterintelligence capability, an insider executing their mission slowly, discretely, methodically, has little worry of detection.

October 1, 2007

Security Lacking at the Canadian-U.S. Border

The U.S. and Canada spans 2.5 times more miles and yet has less than 10% of the Border Patrol force. When you consider the attention paid to security on the Northern border leading up to Y2K, that's pretty amazing. Just in December 1999 alone:

suspected Islamic terrorists were captured at the Canadian border in both Washington and Vermont as they tried to drive into the U.S. with bomb-making materials in their cars

there was the arrest of Ahmed Ressam, a 32-year-old Algerian national suspected of being an agent of exiled Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden, as he tried to enter Port Angeles, Wash., from Vancouver, B.C., with 150 pounds of bomb-making chemicals and detonators

and the arrest of a couple linked to the Algerian Islamic League in Vermont.

However, according to a recent GAO report, a terrorist attempting to enter the United States with radioactive material would have an easier time at the Northern border. I've already read counterarguments saying things like "the Canadian border is too long to defend" or "let's build a wall." There has also been a question of why the Border Patrol officers couldn't find the GAO investigators (I don't know why the GAO people should have been identifiable if they were undercover).

In one location on the northern border, the U.S. Border Patrol was alerted to GAO activities through the tip of an alert citizen. However, the responding U.S. Border Patrol agents were not able to locate GAO investigators (that actually cuts both ways). Also on the northern border, GAO investigators located several ports of entry that had posted daytime hours and were unmanned overnight.

It shouldn't surprise anyone if I say that those "blurbs" don't really answer the question, or address the vulnerability. According to the report, Government investigators crossed into the U.S. from Canada three times in 2006, along with a duffle bag containing "mock" radioactive material. Not one law enforcement or Border Patrol officer stopped them. The report also indicated that a number of "state highways" close to the border that were not monitored by the Border Patrol. The same report took a look at border vulnerabilities on the Mexican border. The GAO's limited security assessment also identified potential security vulnerabilities on federally managed lands adjacent to the U.S.–Mexico border. These areas did not appear to be monitored or have a noticeable law enforcement presence during the time our investigators visited the sites.

In truth, neither border is secure. Probably the benefit of the GAO Report is to renew attention to the Canadian-U.S. border, but its going to take a combination of manpower, technology and policy to result in a real improvement in security, especially across such a long and rugged border up North.

African Union Balks After Darfur Attack

An African Union peacekeeper forces camp in Darfur came under attack and was overrun by 'rebels,' who stormed the camp with "30 heavily armed trucks." An AU spokesman said, “Our camp was totally destroyed and they looted everything: guns, trucks, even an armored personnel carrier.”

As a result, rather than redoubling committed defenses, some are reportedly (and rightly) concerned that African Union members may reconsider any further commitment to Darfur at all. From the New York Times, "Darfur Rebels Kill 10 in Peace Force".

The raid, which began late Saturday and appeared to be highly organized, was the deadliest and boldest attack on African Union peacekeepers since they arrived in Darfur three years ago.

It came just as the United Nations has been trying to persuade member countries to commit troops and support to a greatly expanded Darfur peacekeeping force. Aid officials now fear that some of those countries may have second thoughts about participating.

And such is the nature of reluctance among some when it comes to actually confronting a deadly enemy who shares little such reluctance to engage and attack. The (in)actions in reaction by the African Union is little different than similar reluctance among some NATO allies in Afghanistan.

The enemy in Sudan is not fundamentally different from the enemy faced elsewhere in the conflict at hand. He is capable, bold and, importantly, often much more motivated than those fielded to oppose them.

To that end, it is worth noting here that Hizballah is considered by many the most capable Arab armed force in the region not for its arms and assets, but simply because it fields a supremely motivated fighter to the field than other regional Arab state forces.

Recognizing The Two Fronts of al-Qaeda Rhetoric

In The Two Faces of al-Qaeda, Raymond Ibrahim makes a successful attempt to succinctly identify and describe the two profoundly different messages al-Qaeda transmits.

One message is for Western consumption and part of a wildly successful propaganda campaign intended to cloak al-Qaeda's true motivations in words that have a greater chance of resonating with a Western audience largely inclined toward critical self-reflection at times of crisis. That message seeks to position al-Qaeda in the minds of Westerners as simply a reactive force that is itself a victim of US foreign policy and aggression. While this is unlikely to cause overwhelming sympathy for the terrorist group, it does fuel often debilitating Western self-criticism over its own policies.

Ibrahim writes:

After the events of 9/11, my increased interest in Arabic language and history led me to enroll in Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Before and during my studies at Georgetown, I avidly read any and all posted Al Qaeda messages. The group's motivation seemed clear enough: retaliation. According to its widely disseminated statements, the West in general, and the United States in particular, had been — overtly and covertly — oppressing and exploiting the Islamic world. The accusations included: unqualified U.S. support for Israel at the expense of Palestinians; deaths of Iraqi children due to U.N. sanctions; U.S. support for dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world; and, most recently, Western occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Every single message directed to the West by Al Qaeda includes most of these core grievances, culminating with the statement that it is the Islamic world's duty to defend itself. "After all this, does the prey not have the right, when bound and dragged to its slaughter, to escape? Does it not have the right, while being slaughtered, to lash out with its paw?" bin Laden asks. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Even the 9/11 strikes are explained as acts of reprisal. After describing the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, where several high-rise apartment buildings were leveled, reportedly leaving some 18,000 Arabs dead, bin Laden, in a 2004 message directed at Americans, said: "As I looked upon those crumpling towers in Lebanon, I was struck by the idea of punishing the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America — giving them a taste of their own medicine and deterring them from murdering our women and children."

But those policies - and al-Qaeda's claims of being the vanguard of Muslim self-defense against them - have little to do with al-Qaeda's true motivating factors and, in fact, rarely are evident in al-Qaeda's other message, the one it communicates to fellow Muslims. Rarely conveyed is s sense of victimhood or "reciprocity." In that message, it is a sense of religious duty that is appealed to and - as bin Laden has clearly stated - the belief that God has determined that there will never be, can never be, shall never be peace between Islam and the "kufr," chiefly Christians and Jews.

Again, Ibrahim makes this point well.

It soon became clear why these particular documents had not been directed to the West. They were theological treatises, revolving around what Islam commands Muslims to do vis-à-vis non-Muslims. The documents rarely made mention of all those things — Zionism, Bush's "Crusade," malnourished Iraqi children — that formed the core of Al Qaeda's messages to the West. Instead, they were filled with countless Koranic verses, hadiths (traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), and the consensus and verdicts of Islam's most authoritative voices. The temporal and emotive language directed at the West was exchanged for the eternal language of Islam when directed at Muslims. Or, put another way, the language of "reciprocity" was exchanged for that of intolerant religious fanaticism. There was, in fact, scant mention of the words "West," "U.S.," or "Israel." All of those were encompassed by that one Arabic-Islamic word, "kufr" — "infidelity" — the regrettable state of being non-Muslim that must always be fought through "tongue and teeth."

He goes on to quote bin Laden's own message in response to an open letter from a group of Saudis that stated, "The heart of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is justice, kindness, and charity." Bin Laden's response to this, as Ibrahim astutely quoted, is impossible to misinterpret.

As to the relationship between Muslims and infidels, this is summarized by the Most High's Word: "We renounce you. Enmity and hate shall forever reign between us — till you believe in Allah alone." So there is an enmity, evidenced by fierce hostility from the heart. And this fierce hostility — that is, battle — ceases only if the infidel submits to the authority of Islam, or if his blood is forbidden from being shed, or if Muslims are at that point in time weak and incapable. But if the hate at any time extinguishes from the heart, this is great apostasy!

Ibrahim references Hassan Butt, who in July wrote a column for the Daily Mail after the failed London and semi-successful Glasgow attacks. In that column, his words are true to the title, "I was a fanatic...I know their thinking." Hassan Butt notes how the radicals he associated laughed when the West would convulse in self-criticism while they continued on their path which had little at all, in reality, to do with the issues debated in the West.

When I was still a member of what is probably best termed the British Jihadi Network - a series of British Muslim terrorist groups linked by a single ideology - I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy.

By blaming the Government for our actions, those who pushed this "Blair's bombs" line did our propaganda work for us.

More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.

Butt goes on to describe how, in the British Muslim community, a reluctance to engage in internal theological debate over the religious sanctity - if any - of acts of terrorism in the name of Islam "has left the territory open for radicals to claim as their own." As he describes it - and as can be seen from afar - the radicals own the debate, as they engage it largely unopposed.

And thus, the two fronts of al-Qaeda's rhetoric, one engaging a reliably over-self-critical Western audience, and the other engaging the faithful, largely unopposed.

One could - and should - argue that al-Qaeda's message to the West goes largely unopposed, as well. For if you ask the American to your left and the American to your right why al-Qaeda attacked us on September 11, 2001, the response will overwhelmingly and reliably follow the notion of "revenge." Yes, al-Qaeda has been quite successful at dictating the debate, as Raymond Ibrahim - with an assist from Hassan Butt - clearly illustrates.

The articles linked here should be read in full if they have not yet been by ThreatsWatch readers.

Raymond Ibrahim - The Two Faces of al-Qaeda
Hassan Butt - I was a fanatic...I know their thinking

Al-Qaeda, Taliban Recreating Afghanistan Inside Pakistan

It's part of what is called the 'Talibanization of Pakistan.' The Taliban-al-Qaeda attacks on non-Muslims inside Pakistan continue unabated. Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported this weekend the bombing of two girls schools in the Swat district of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Witnesses told Dawn that militants, who have been targeting women’s educational institutions for a couple of weeks, had planted an explosive device in the Government Girls’ High School, near the Kabal police station, which went off, damaging part of the two-story building and the wall of the adjacent Government Girls’ Primary School. According to local people, the wall of the Tehsil Mosque was also damaged.

The watchman of the high school had gone for Sehri when the blast took place. He said the blast shattered windowpanes of the buildings.

In different areas of Swat, there has been a surge in recent days in attacks on video and CD shops, hair-cutting salons, internet cafes and girls’ schools. On Sept 9, a missionary institution for women, the Sangota Public School, was closed for a week after it received threats from an organization called Janesaran-i-Islam, accusing the school administration of propagating Christianity and obscenity.

The same organization also issued letters to a number of other schools asking students to wear burqa. It said that the English education system was against Islamic teachings and schools should abandon the system.

More background on the previous persistent threats to the Catholic-run girls school in Sangota from Compass Direct News

Extremists in Swat have conducted a campaign of Islamization in the district against all things deemed un-Islamic since early July, when a government crackdown on militants at the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad triggered violent reactions nationwide. “Due to continuous threatening letters from the Taliban directing female staff and students to wear burqas … the Executive District Officer has instructed [them] to comply with the orders,” the Daily Mashriq article stated. The order may affect Christians at the Catholic-run Public High School in Sangota. The all-girls school had already closed down for a week this month after being threatened with suicide attacks for supposedly converting students to Christianity.

It's not simply Chritianity and Christians under attack. Just as they did in Afghanistan in May 2001, the Taliban are now trying to blow up a Buddha statue in Pakistan, their relocated home. More here.

But in yet another attack with a Christian victim, late last week in Lahore, Pakistan, the Territorial Commander of the Salvation Army in Pakistan was murdered.

Colonel Bo Brekke (50), Territorial Commander of The Salvation Army's Pakistan Territory, was shot and killed on September 27 at the territorial headquarters compound in Lahore. The incident occurred shortly after the Norwegian born colonel had presided a meeting and returned alone in his office.

Information to date points to an individual act of criminality. There is nothing to suggest that this is related in any way to terrorism. Lahore police reported that a man has been arrested on possibly related charges.

The information suggests that he was killed alone inside his office, which could prove eventually to be a robbery-attempt that ended with murder. But until such information is known, it would not fall outside a clear Islamist effort - at least within Pakistan's FATA and North West Frontier Province - to attack, intimidate and kill non-Islamic persons and institutions.

If the Salvation Army commander's murder proves instead to be a targeted killing based on religious difference, the fact that it occurred in relatively distant Lahore and not in Pakistan's western tribal areas would demonstrate another measure of the expanded reach of al-Qaeda's insurgency within Pakistan.

At the very least, the Talibanizaiton of Pakistan continues wherever, however and whenever the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance can exert their plans of recreating the character and form of their lost Afghanistan haven.

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