Pandora Report 3.10.2017

Looking for a great podcast on CRISPR? Check out RadioLab – they also have a captivating one on patient zeroes throughout history!

Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika 
If you’re looking to learn more about global health security, synethic biology, biosecurity, and what exactly “biodefense” entails, you’ll want to mark your calendar for the GMU Biodefense three-day, non-credit summer workshop on July 17-19, 2017! Participants will look at the challenges facing the world at the intersection of national security, public health, and the life sciences. Instructors for the workshop range from FBI special agents to biodefense professors and USAMRIID commanders. The workshop will look at the spectrum of biological threats – including naturally occurring disease outbreaks such as SARS, Zika, and Ebola, lapses in biosafety, dual-use research of concern, and the threat of bioterrorism. From now until May 1st, you can take advantage of the early bird registration discount!

Glaring Gaps: America Needs A Biodefense Upgrade
GMU biodefense PhD alum Daniel M. Gerstein is emphasizing the need to strengthen American biodefense capabilities. “Recent legislation has called for a comprehensive biodefense strategy. If carried out in a thorough and systematic way, and properly funded, this will be a great improvement for the country and the world.” Gerstein notes that while the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 called for a joint biodefense effort, there is still a desperate need for a structured and systematic approach. Perhaps one of the biggest issues Gerstein found is the current view of biodefense as a series of programs. Approaching global health security threat requires us to view biodefense as a complex system, not a series of programs. To fix the glaring gaps in U.S. biodefense efforts, he notes that any remedy will have to accept the complexity of the problem and that there is no single panacea. Internal coordination, improvement of diagnostics and treatment, and technology management are all things that must be addressed to strengthen American biodefense. “Export controls in the United States, for example, actually hinder international collaboration. Exchanging pathogen strains used in the development of medical countermeasures, diagnostics, and bio-surveillance remains difficult – even, at times, for close international partners. In one case, the United States was attempting to share a strain of the Ebola-Reston pathogen with the government of Australia, but export laws prevented this sharing, so the strain was instead acquired from the Philippines, where the strain originated.” While we’ve made great strides since the Amerithrax attacks, there is much to be done to create a systematic and resilient biodefense strategy.

Chemical Weapons Reportedly Used in Mosul
The WHO has recently activated an emergency response plan with several partners to help treat twelve people for potential exposure to chemical weapons in Iraq. “Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, called for an investigation. ‘This is horrible. If the alleged use of chemical weapons is confirmed, this is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime, regardless of who the targets or the victims of the attacks are,’ she said in a statement.” Many are pointing to ISIL as the likely culprit since they hold the majority of west Mosul and have a history of rudimentary use of chemical weapons.

China’s Growing Bird Flu Worries  
Despite a recent surge in human A(H7N9) cases, the WHO has stated that the risk of an epidemic remains low. Even with this release, the development of two distinct strains in a disease that has a mortality rate hovering around 30%, has many worried. “That will probably force development of a second small stockpile of emergency vaccine to be rolled out if the virus becomes more transmissible and threatens to turn into a pandemic, a scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Flu specialists from around the world gathered in Geneva this week to assess the global influenza situation and discuss with vaccine companies which viral strains should be in next winter’s flu shots. China has had 460 lab-confirmed human cases of H7N9 bird flu this winter, said Dr. Wenqing Zhang, head of the W.H.O.’s global influenza program. That is the most in any flu season since the first human case was found in 2013.” Interestingly, around 7% of the new H7N9 cases were resistant to drugs like Tamiflu, which has many researchers working to make a H7N9 seed vaccine, including a secondary one due to the split strains. Coming on the heels of this outbreak, US officials have announced that highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was found in a commercial poultry farm in Tennessee. 700 birds died from infection and almost 73,000 were destroyed. The farm is a contracted supplier of chicken meat for the U.S.’s biggest supplier, Tyson, which released an announcement on March 5th regarding testing of local birds, etc.

Global Health Security Index Development
Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently received a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project and the Robertson Foundation to coordinate with the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) to develop a Global Health Security Index. “The mission of the index is to encourage progress towards a world that is capable of preventing epidemics of international impact (either natural, accidental or deliberate) from arising, or, should, prevention fail, respond quickly to contain them.” The first phase of the project will aim at developing framework that can measure a country’s level of health security. While the GHSA and JEE are processes to increase transparency, preparedness, and country capabilities, the goal of this index is to fill the gaps in motivation and also the factors that are not in the hands of the health sector.

Antimicrobial Resistance in Pets: Are We Ignoring A Looming Threat? 
GMU biodefense PhD student Saskia Popescu is looking at the threat of antibiotic resistance, but from a somewhat forgotten patient population – our pets. The recent WHO list of worrisome antimicrobial resistant bugs has drawn a lot of attention to the growing threat of an antibiotic apocalypse however, sometimes it takes a personal experience to look outside the box. Pulling from experiences of dealing with drug resistance in her dog to the loss of SeaWorld’s controversial orca, Tilikum, Popescu notes the rising threat of AMR brewing in domesticated animals. Sadly, it seems that many veterinarians and infectious diseases researchers have been drawing attention to the role of household animals in antimicrobial resistance and yet, just like the human issue, it’s not getting the attention it deserves. In her article, Popescu points to the need to start addressing the full circle of microbial resistance, starting with our furry friends.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Constraining Norms for Cyber Warfare Are Unlikely – GMU Biodefense PhD alum, Brian M. Mazanec, is talking to the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs about the realities of norms for cyber warfare. The question of whether constraining international norms for cyber warfare will emerge and thrive is of paramount importance to the unfolding age of cyber conflict. Some scholars think that great powers will inevitably cooperate and establish rules, norms, and standards for cyberspace. While it is true that increased competition may create incentives for cooperation on constraining norms, Mazanec argues that norm evolution theory for emerging-technology weapons leads one to conclude that constraining norms for cyber warfare will face many challenges and may never successfully emerge.
  • ABSA International Webinar- Behaving Safely in the Laboratory: Understanding Complexities of Building and Sustaining a Culture of Safety–  ABSA is hosting a 2-hour webinar session for three days. “The webinar will be offered Monday, April 3; Wednesday, April 5 and Friday, April 7, 2017.  Millions of dollars on engineering.  Thousands of dollars on PPE.  Hundreds of hours spent writing SOPs – and in one instant all of these controls can be negated with one inappropriate behavior.  Behavior is the bridge between written plans and desired outcomes.  But what does it take to behave safely?  Day 1 will focus on what it takes for an individual to behave safely – as behavior requires five critical items – and without these items – sustained behavior cannot occur. Day 2 will focus on motivating behavior – the differences between leadership and management – and the motivating factors which are extrinsic, systemic, and intrinsic. Day 3 will focus on building and sustaining a ONE SAFE culture – blending the efforts of the workforce, leadership, and safety officials.”
  • High Flu Activity Throughout the U.S. – The CDC has warned that the U.S. is still experiencing high flu activity in all regions. This flu season has seen elevated pediatric mortality, with six reported last week, bringing the total to forty pediatric deaths. “The CDC said there have been more hospitalizations and clinical visits for influenza-like illness (ILI) at this point in the flu season than in 2012-13, another season when H3N2 strain predominated. The CDC said the cumulative overall rate is 39.4 hospitalizations per 100,000 people. During the 2012-13 flu season, the rate was (38.2 per 100,000).”

 

Retaking Ramadi and the “Afghan Model”: Stephen Biddle, Air Power, and Maneuver Warfare

By Greg Mercer
On December 29, 2015, Iraqi forces recaptured the city of Ramadi, which was controlled by ISIS. While there remains resistance (in up to 25% of Ramadi), the victory is being hailed by some as a sign that ISIS is in retreat and losing momentum. An editorial in the New York Times lays out the situation and addresses where the US stands in the fight.

Many questions remain about the conflict- where it will go, how it will resolve, the political effort it will require from intervening forces, and ultimately what kind of conflict this is.

Twitter speculation is prescient, as always:

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 9.07.17 PM

 

 

 

 

 

That’s NPR’s defense writer Phil Ewing.

To assess this question of COIN-or-conventional, consider the theories of security studies hero and frequent commentator Stephen Biddle.

I have no interest in (mis)representing Biddle’s own opinions on ISIS, which have appeared in the Washington Post’s excellent Monkey Cage blogthe Atlantic, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Instead, I’m interested in two of his works addressing recent US conflicts- his seminal Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle and his paper, Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy, wherein he spent a great deal of effort arguing against the idea of a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA in Pentagonese).[1]

Military Power sees Biddle arguing that war hasn’t really changed all that much since artillery-aided maneuver warfare (Biddle calls this the “Modern System”) emerged in the First World War. This style of combat sees offenses where entrenched enemies are softened up with artillery barrages[2] and then overrun by infantry, using fire-and-maneuver tactics. Biddle supports this claim with a combination of case studies, statistical analysis of conflicts, and computer simulations. It’s something of a methodological cornerstone.

Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare takes on the dueling ideas that early American involvement in Northern Afghanistan, characterized by a Special Forces-Air Power-local allies triumvirate, is either so revolutionary as to herald a new “Afghan Model” of warfare or that it’s a complete topographical fluke unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. Biddle argues it was neither of these, but rather a fairly conventional war between two land forces characterized by its use of Special Forces to target precision guided munitions.

The Afghan Model, if it existed, would allow American air power dominance to “make conquerors” of local allies. Biddle’s test for whether Afghanistan represents a new model (the way some have said that it does) consists of three features:

  • Special Operations Forces and standoff sensors must have been able to find key targets for precision engagement;
  • PGMs must have been able to kill the targets found, at standoff ranges; and,
  • The indigenous allies’ role must have been undemanding.[3]

Basically, the aggregate of these features is a war wherein the US can take care of all of the actual finding and killing of targets with precision munitions targeted from the air, from orbit, or by small Special Forces teams, causing the enemy force structure to collapse, thus allowing local allies to take care of a few remnants and capture the territory. Biddle finds that initial operations in Afghanistan didn’t meet this standard.

These features are also a useful test for the war against ISIS. Again, the best-case-scenario is one where the 630 air strikes conducted by the US and its allies pave the way for local forces (in this case, the Iraqi Army[4]) to retake ISIS-held territory. This has been partially successful, and the Iraqis probably wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if not for friendly skies. But by Biddle’s conditions above, it would be premature to call this a new way of war. The US certainly hasn’t been able to conduct an entirely removed air war, opting to place forces on the ground. Identifying targets hasn’t been easy—ISIS occupies cities and villages populated by the civilians that the US and Iraqis seek to protect. Further complications arise from the proliferation of independent groups and actors on the ground (just look at the debate over what constitutes a Western-friendly moderate worth arming). The role of the allies on the ground has been anything but undemanding. So when we apply Biddle’s reasoning on the 2003 Iraq War and the 2002 Afghanistan War, the war against ISIS begins to look much more like a technologically advanced shade of good old maneuver warfare than a new type of conflict.

The idea of conducting an entire war from the air is compelling, though. What would it take to identify every enemy target and deliver precise munitions? The US already possesses some of the best[5] remote sensing equipment and military hardware out there, but it still requires targeting from allies on the ground or American Special Forces (as we saw in the case of the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan, this is not a perfect system). To advance the art of air power to the point where it displaces land war requires near-omniscience and the ability to strike targets anywhere in the world in real time. Technologically or doctrinally, this just doesn’t exist.

Russia is simultaneously conducting airstrikes against ISIS and providing military assistance to allies on the ground. We’ve seen Russian airstrikes kill US-backed rebels and more recently, the leader of an insurgent group resisting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s control in Damascus. This begs the question of whether the Russian military sees itself following a conventional model of warfare, an Afghan Model, or some other model entirely. Following this, what happens when two powers try to “make conquerors” of their own local forces?

Finally, what of political solutions? The Times editorial notes that defeating ISIS militarily can’t alone solve the power vacuum and sense of Sunni disenfranchisement in Iraq that ISIS uses to build power. It’s widely understood that this requires a stable political solution, whether from within or without. Carl von Clausewitz tells us that war is an extension of politics, and in this case too we’ll have to see a military resolution and a political one.

[1] More explicitly in the former, but the latter certainly has shades of this.

[2] Biddle says that in WWI, this could mean firepower in the magnitude of nuclear weapons, dispelling the notion of boring-old-conventional-weapons.

[3] Biddle, Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare, 24

[4] And with regards to Ramadi, just the Iraqi Army. The Kurds and Iran-backed Shiites were excluded in favor of US-trained local Sunnis.

[5] Ok, the best.

 

Pandora Report 10.2

All this rain and grey weather (at least in DC) makes us want to curl up with a good book and luckily, we’ve got just the reading list! This week we’re sharing some top-notch work by our phenomenal faculty and alumni for you to enjoy. Earlier this week, straight out of a James Bond movie, Elon Musk presented Tesla’s Model X and its Bioweapon Defense Mode. Google had its 2015 Science Fair and a pretty amazing high school student took home top honors for her work on Ebola. Did I mention Kansas is prepping for the zombie apocalypse? Needless to say, there was a lot going on this week in the world of biodefense, so let’s venture down the rabbit hole….

 Zombie Preparedness Month Starts for Kansas 
I’m thinking we may need to take a class trip to Kansas since Governor, Sam Brownback, will be signing a proclamation to officially designate October as “Zombie Preparedness Month”! Brownback’s rationale is to emphasize preparedness in any form, stating, “If you’re prepared for zombies, you’re prepared for anything. Although an actual zombie apocalypse will never happen, the preparation for such an event is the same as for any disaster: make a disaster kit, have a plan, and practice it.” During Zombie Preparedness Month, state emergency management services will have activities and information for residents to help get their preparedness on. They’ll also be using social media to engage people people on these topics. The one thing we’ve learned in biodefense, Gov. Brownback, is to never say never!

Connecticut Teen Wins Google Science Award By Developing Affordable Ebola Test
High school junior, Olivia Hallisey, just took home the Google Science Fair top prize for developing an affordable and easy Ebola test in her project, “Ebola Assay Card”, which quickly (we’re talking 30 minutes quick!) detects the virus and doesn’t require refrigeration. Each test only costs $25 and picks up antigens on photo paper. Hallisey summarizes, “In this new device, that is stable and stored at room temperature, 30µl drops of water were used to dissolve silk-embedded reagents, initiating a timed-flow towards a center detection zone, where a positive (colored) result confirmed the presence of 500pg/ml Ebola(+)control antigens in 30min, at a cost of $25,” Hallisey hopes this project will encourage other girls to pursue their passions in science. Hallisey is truly an inspiration and we tip our hats to her passion for solving world problems while encouraging her peers!

Let’s Talk Dual-Use!
Come listen and chat with Dr. David R. Franz, former commander of USAMRIID, about balancing research and regulations when it comes to dual-use!
Date & Time: Monday, October 5, 2015, 4:30-6pm
Location: Hanover Hall, L-003 George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, see map

​Dr. Franz was the Chief Inspector on three United Nations Special Commission biological warfare inspection missions to Iraq and served as technical advisor on long-term monitoring.  He also served as a member of the first two US-UK teams that visited Russia in support of the Trilateral Joint Statement on Biological Weapons and as a member of the Trilateral Experts’ Committee for biological weapons negotiations.  He previously served as member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). Dr. Franz currently serves on several committees including the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control and the National Research Council Board on Life Sciences. Dr. Franz is a leader in the areas of cooperative threat reduction and health security and an expert in the development of U.S. regulations for biological threat reduction and biological security.  Dr. Franz will discuss the history and current debates related to U.S. and international regulations for select agents, dual use research of concern, and gain-of-function experiments.

1977 H1N1 Influenza Reemergence Reveals Gain-of-Function Hazards
Dr. Martin Furmanski discusses the gain-of-function (GoF) research hazards in relation to the 1977 H1N1 strain and it’s laboratory origins. Highlighting a previous article on the GoF debate, Dr. Furmanski notes that “separating the risks of vaccine development from those of basic GoF research is inappropriate, because GoF research seeks to discover antigenic and genomic changes that facilitate human-to-human transmission and/or augment virulence, with the aim of preemptively producing vaccines.” He also notes that while the 1977 H1N1 epidemic originated in a lab and it’s release was unintentional, the culprit laboratory matters little in the GoF debate.

Define Acceptable Cyberspace Behavior
GMU Biodefense alum, Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein, discusses the US-China cybersecurity agreement and the Friday announcement between Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama. The agreement highlights the mutual desire to prevent cybertheft of business secrets. Dr. Gerstein emphasizes that while this agreement is a step in the right direction, it points to larger preparedness and response capability gaps. He notes, “So while a U.S.-China agreement is a welcome step, it also underscores the greater issues facing the United States, and indeed the international community, in this largely ungoverned space.” Dr. Gerstein highlights the necessity to define cyberspace boundaries, especially as there are delays in DHS security system deployments while US vulnerabilities continue to develop.

Implementation for the US Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern
As of September 24, 2015, all institutions and USG funded agencies are now required to comply with the policies. Agencies now must have “a mechanisms in place to evaluate research that is potentially Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC).” Institutions must also organize an Institutional Review Entity (IRE) to review and manage compliance with these requirements.

Dr. Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley’s  new book, Barriers to Bioweapons, received glowing reviews in the latest issue of Perspective on Politics. Her work, which is a staple for biodefense courses, and particularly this text, focusses on the perception of risk and lethality of bioweapons while addressing the realities of these assumptions. Ouagrham-Gormley discusses the key role of tacit versus explicit knowledge in the development and dissemination barriers for bioweapons. “The author identifies important factors internal to a weapons-development program- talented individuals and cohesive groups, corporate culture, communities of practice, organization structure- as critical nodes or ‘reservoirs’ of knowledge that must be configured to optimize the sharing of ideas and information.” The case studies of Iraqi and South African programs, as well as Aum Shinrikyo, lay the foundation for her points on the role of internal and external variables that can hinder or help a bioweapons program. Whether you’re reading  it for class (GMU Biodefense folks, I’m looking at you!) or you’re looking to brush up on nonproliferation, this book is a well-written and captivating necessity to understand bioweapon development. Did I mention how awesome the cover is?
Our very own GMU Biodefense PhD alum, Dr. Denise N. Baken, has a wonderful new book being released – let’s check it out! Al Qaeda : The Transformation of Terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa examines violence and the way it is marketed by the global terrorism industry.  Authors Denise Baken and Ioannis Mantzikos frame the violence discussion through the prism of its use by Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).Baken and Mantzikos look at the business parameters of violence –its cost, return on investment, efficiency, and effectiveness; They propose a new approach to that violence. One that looks at violence as a controlled commodity that evolved from Al Qaeda’s initial presentation of future possibilities, AQAP exploited those possibilities and ISIS pushed the boundaries of usability.
Stories You May Have Missed:

Pandora Report 9.18.2015

What an interesting week! Ongoing salmonella cases, imported plague in Michigan, ISIS was found to be using chemical weapons, and a new prion disease was discovered. Pretty busy in the world of biodefense, I’d say. The Pandora Report is also fortunate to share with you a great piece by one of our graduate students, Greg Mercer, who tapped into Google Trends to look at ISIS nomenclature, and an upcoming book written by Dr. Brian Mazanec, regarding cyber warfare. So sit back and relax while we catch up on the week’s biodefense news.

US Confirmation of Islamic State Chemical Weapons

Operational_Readiness_Exercise_121014-F-LP903-827Sulfur mustard traces were found on fragments of ordnance used by the Islamic State, as well as on scraps of clothing from victims in Syria and Iraq. There have been several accounts by Kurdish officials that have claimed chemicals, like chlorine, were dispersed this summer, which is concerning for the ongoing use of these internationally banned substances. Testing done in the US was reported by officials on Friday, September 11, 2015, stating that, “there’s no doubt ISIS has used this,”. Officials have also said that the chemical residue recently found does not match known chemical ordinance that was used in the former Iraqi inventory. Overall, the use of chemical weapons is highly distressing and the method of acquisition, either manufacturing or from undeclared stocks, is under investigation.

Michigan Experiences Imported Plague Case

 A Michigan woman is the second case of bubonic plague that was traced back to the Little Rainbow area of Colorado. The Michigan resident was visiting family in Salida, CO during a music festival in late August. While her exact exposure hasn’t been established, she became ill after returning home and was hospitalized shortly thereafter. Lucky for the diagnosticians, she displayed textbook plague symptoms, leading to CDC involvement and antimicrobial treatment. Fortunately, she was released from the hospital and is beginning the long road to recovery, although it’s probably the last time she’ll attend that particular music festival or go hiking around it….

The So-Called Islamic State 2
By Greg Mercer

In February, I wrote about a topic that had been puzzling me- the contentious nomenclature of the Islamic State, or ISIS, or ISIL, or Daesh.  I decided to revisit this question now that the issue is a staple in the news, and that we’re probably saying it more frequently while thinking less about what we call it.  So I fired up my good friend Google Trends[1] again to take a look.  Google is a decent measure of public interest in a subject.  It’s the most popular search engine[2] in the world, with 66.78% of search volume worldwide as of August 2015.

Last time, I found that ISIS was the most popular term by a fair amount.[3]  This seems to be true this time around too, which isn’t terribly surprising.  Here’s what I got:
Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 6.24.26 PM

 

 

 

 

 

This time around, ISIS is still the most popular, but Google’s added a feature that tells us a little more.  While I suspected that the terrorist organization was driving most of the searches for ISIS before, it’s true that ISIS is the only of the names that has other popular uses, notably an Egyptian goddess, a think tank, and of course a fictional intelligence organization.  The new “topics” option in Google Trends lets us identify search volume for an entire subject.  The dotted purple line indicates all searches for the organization, regardless of naming specifics.  Since the searches for “ISIS” specifically and all of the searches for the organization are strongly correlated, it’s safe to say that mythology enthusiasts, nuclear scholars, and Archer fans aren’t skewing the trends.

It’s also still the case that search volumes for all of the names spike with major news events- no surprise there.

I also found the search trends by country interesting, here’s a look at the different terms and how they show up globally:

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 7.33.14 PM
Click on image to see Google Trend analysis and additional graphs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A couple of takeaways:  Looking at the organization as a whole, the two most interested parties (by Google search) are Iraq and Iran.  That’s not too surprising.  Iran is also #1 for “Daesh”, which is used in both Arabic and Farsi and is considered more a disparaging name.  In fact, the Iranian foreign minister told Iranian state media in January (fair warning, this links to Iran Daily) that he hates the term “Islamic State” and prefers “Daesh.”  In my earlier article, I noted that other foreign policy practitioners share this sentiment, and prefer a name that doesn’t recognize the organization as a state or representative of Islam.  This is also definitely the least popular name in mainstream American media.[4]  Ethiopia and Peru are the highest by volume for ISIS and ISIL, respectively, neither of which I would have expected offhand.

It’s interesting to see how these trends break down, and to look at a single massive political issue and international crisis with such a proliferation of terms.  I think the name that finally sticks remains to be seen.

[1] This links to the search parameters I used for this article, so you can play around with the data.
[2] This site is really cool if you’re into this sort of thing- you can see what site users choose based on browser, operating system, and device type.
[3] Personally, I tried ISIL in the name of accurate translation, but I tended to use ISIS when being flippant, and then it ended up sticking.
[4] To get anecdotal, the only person I’ve heard use it is my buddy who does Arabic translation and Middle East studies for a living.

The Evolution of Cyber War

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 6.39.11 AMGMU’s very own, Dr. Brian Mazanec, delves into the world of cyber warfare and the reality of this threat. “Already, major cyber attacks have affected countries around the world: Estonia in 2007, Georgia in 2008, Iran in 2010, and most recently the United States. As with other methods of war, cyber technology can be used not only against military forces and facilities but also against civilian targets. Information technology has enabled a new method of warfare that is proving extremely difficult to combat, let alone defeat.” Available on November 1, 2015, we’re excited to share Brian’s phenomenal work!

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Flu vaccination rates went up a bit for the 2014/2015 season, however, the efficacy was only 18% due to an antigenic drift. Fortunately, vaccination compliance for healthcare workers increased and overall rates showed that women were more likely than men to get vaccinated.
  • The Australian government will pass a new law, the “No Jab, No Pay Bill“, that will penalize parents who don’t vaccinate their children by withholding child care and other payments.
  • An additional 77 cases of Salmonella Poona were reported since September 9, 2015, related to the multi-state cucumber outbreak. The total infected is now 418 people across 31 states, with 91 hospitalizations.
  • A new prion disease has been identified by a team of scientists led by Stanley Prusiner. Their report outlines the discovery and the potentially infectious nature of this new prion.

Pandora Report 7.19.15

An out of town visitor and a newly rescued pet have kept me very busy this week. Luckily, the news was very straightforward—the nuclear deal with Iran and ISIS with their chemical weapons. We’ve even got a few stories you may have missed.

Have a great week!

A Historic Deal to Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon

After two years in the making, the P5+1 settled negotiations to reach a comprehensive, long-term nuclear deal with Iran this week. Despite satisfaction with the outcome, many say that the deal will not end Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and will not change Iranian policy towards the USDick Cheney responded that the deal makes use of nuclear weapons use more likely and former Senator Jim Webb said the deal weighs in Iran’s favor. Nevertheless, the Obama administration seems pleased with the deal and will work on its passage.

DipNote—“President Obama said “I am confident that this deal will meet the national security interests of the United States and our allies. So I will veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal. We do not have to accept an inevitable spiral into conflict. And we certainly shouldn’t seek it.’”

ISIS Has Fired Chemical Mortar Shells, Evidence Indicates

It seems like déjà vu all over again as reports this week said that the Islamic State appears to have manufactured rudimentary chemical weapons and attacked Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria, evidently multiple times in multiple weeks. Investigators reported that the incidents seemed to involve toxic industrial or agricultural chemicals repurposed as weapons. This could signal “a potential escalation of the group’s capabilities” though, is not without precedent.

The New York Times—“In the clearest recent incident, a 120-millimeter chemical mortar shell struck sandbag fortifications at a Kurdish military position near Mosul Dam on June 21 or 22, the investigators said, and caused several Kurdish fighters near where it landed to become ill.”

Stories You May Have Missed

 Image Credit: U.S. Department of State

Pandora Report 6.14.15

I’ve got brunch reservations this morning so the big story about the coming egg shortage is hitting close to home. We’ve also got a story about ISIS’ WMD and a bunch of stories you may have missed.

As a final reminder, the Early Registration Deadline for the Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and International Security is tomorrow, Monday, June 15. For more information and registration, please click here.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Egg Shortage Scrambles U.S. Food Industries

The unprecedented outbreak of avian influenza in the U.S. has meant massive losses in the domestic poultry industry which has left experts warning that U.S. consumers are very likely to see an increase in egg prices. Cases of avian flu have been reported in 15 states, with Iowa and Minnesota being some of the hardest hit. “In Minnesota, the number of lost turkeys represent about 11 percent of our total turkey production…of the chickens we’ve lost that are laying eggs, 32 percent… have been affected by this” In Iowa, about 40 percent of the state’s egg-laying chickens and 11 percent of its turkeys have been affected. All these losses will mean a shortage of whole eggs and other egg-based products.

U.S. News and World Report—“Consumers haven’t felt the pinch too much just yet, but they are unlikely to emerge with their pocketbooks unscathed, [Rick] Brown [Senior VP at Urner Barry, a food commodity research and analysis firm]. He says two-thirds of all eggs produced in the U.S. remain in a shell, many of which are placed in cartons and sold in grocery stores. This stock of eggs has been hit significantly less by the avian flu outbreak than those used in the egg products industry, which Brown says encompasses “everything from mayonnaise to salad dressings to cake mixes to pasta to bread.”

Australian Official Warns of Islamic State Weapons of Mass Destruction

You may have already seen this, since this story was everywhere this week. Julie Bishop, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said the Islamic State (ISIS) already has and is already using chemical weapons. Bishop made these comments in an address to the Australia Group—a coalition of 40 countries seeking to limit the spread of biological and chemical weapons. In a follow-up interview, Bishop also said that NATO was concerned about the theft of radioactive material and what that could mean for nuclear weapons proliferation.

The Washington Post—“‘The use of chlorine by Da’ish, and its recruitment of highly technically trained professionals, including from the West, have revealed far more seriou­s efforts in chemical weapons development,” Bishop said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State in a speech reported by the Australian. She did not specify the source of her information.  “… Da’ish is likely to have amongst its tens of thousands of recruits the technical expertise necessary to further refine precursor materials and build chemical weapons.’”

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Yemen: A Snapshot from the Global War on Terror

By Erik Goepner

The remaining cadre of American military personnel pulled out of Yemen last week following the evacuation of U.S. Embassy staff in February. Six months earlier, President Obama hailed the U.S.-Yemen partnership as a model worthy of emulation in the fight against the Islamic State. For a decade and a half, America has expended substantial effort in the war on terror, yet the results which followed were often unanticipated and problematic.

In 2013, President Obama hosted President Hadi at the White House and thanked him for Yemen’s strong cooperation in countering terror, specifically mentioning the success enjoyed in pushing al Qaeda back in the Arabian Peninsula. If the Sunni-comprised AQAP was pushed back, it now looks like that vacuum has been filled by a different terrorist organization, this one Shia dominated. These Houthi rebels, predominately from Yemen’s north, have been in conflict with the Yemeni government for the past 11 years.

Iran appears responsible for at least part of their success. Reports indicate Iran has provided some level of assistance to the Houthi rebels—possibly arms, funds, and training. A senior Houthi advisor denied any arms support, but agreed they were otherwise working with Iran as “part of a shared vision in ‘confronting the American project’” in the region.

By some analysts count, the fall of Sana’a into the hands of Houthi rebels represents yet another victory in the making for Iran. They point to Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and now Sana’a as the fourth Arab capital to politically ally itself with the Persian state.

No doubt there is much history yet to unfold, but to date, America’s war on terror has delivered a number of unanticipated outcomes: a five-fold increase in global terror attacks, two on-going civil wars in the nations America invaded, and an ever-increasing Iranian influence in the region.

Image Credit: Ibrahem Qasim

Readings on the Islamic State

By Erik Goepner

What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood, The Atlantic

A provocative and interesting article, Wood suggests that while much of what the Islamic State does makes no sense to a Western mind, their actions are, largely, sensible “in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.”

Wood goes on to assert that the Islamic State is, as they claim, Islamic. He yields the point that IS has attracted some psychopaths, but that the preaching of IS results from “coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Of particular interest to policy makers, Wood argues that ignoring IS’ “intellectual genealogy” will promote U.S. responses that inadvertently strengthen the group. Similarly, he cautions against assuming that if religious ideology does not matter much in Washington, it must not matter in Iraq and Syria.

What is the State of Islamic Extremism: Key Trends, Challenges and Implications for U.S. Policy?

Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, 13 February, by Lt Gen (ret) Flynn, Dr. Lynch, professor at George Washington, and William Braniff, Executive Director National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

Of note, Mr. Braniff referenced scholarly research that suggests one of the critical predictors of increased terrorist group lethality is competition among terrorist groups. Each group attempts to “outbid” the others in terms of attacks.

Image Credit: Mo Riza

The So-Called Islamic State

By Greg Mercer

Ever since al Qaeda in Iraq rebranded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in 2013 and split from al Qaeda at large, there has been some confusion as to how exactly to refer to the entity. The extremist group’s growing paramilitary force is attempting to create an independent state governed by a Wahhabist ideology. It has been referred to as the Islamic State, IS, ISIS, and ISIL, with no convention appearing to have emerged, and there has been just as much coverage about the debate surrounding this nomenclature vacuum.

The Associated Press, writing in June of 2014, notes that the Arabic name Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham translates to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and that al-Sham, which encompasses the Middle East from southern Turkey to Egypt, and is also referred to as “the Levant.” Based on this interpretation, the AP argues that “ISIL” is both the most accurate translation and a clear indication of the group’s aims, as “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” implies that the group is interested in only two countries. Finally, they note that ISIL is the abbreviation used by the United Nations.

Ishaan Tharoor, writing for the Washington Post in June of 2014, notes that ISIL is used by the State Department and President Obama. However, he points out that the translation leading to ISIL might not be infallible. Citing Hassan Hassan, he notes that “the Levant” might be considered an outdated term, and that “Greater Syria” can be used to refer to the area in question, in which case the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, and thus ISIS, could be appropriate. He also notes that ISIS is attractive for the way it rolls off the tongue. Tharoor says that the difference between ISIS and ISIL is not as politically charged as, for example, the difference between “Burma” and “Myanmar.”

In September of 2014, Ian Black, writing for The Guardian (which uses ISIS as its in-house standard), noted the sordid history of Islamic State names, and explained that the French government had offered up the term “Daesh,” the Arabic acronym for Al Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham, and which is disliked by Islamic State supporters for notably leaving out the “Islamic” signifier. CNN covered this policy as well.

”You have to name things correctly,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Christiane Amanpour. “They are not a state… they are not representative of Muslims.”

Fabius noted that using the term, which is disliked by extremists for its pronunciation similar to Arabic words for “trample,” or “crush,” is an appropriate response to the group’s brutality. Daesh, then, is a much more politically charged name than IS, ISIS, or ISIL, chosen not just for accuracy, but also for the connotation that it carries for the enemy. It also, notably, leaves out “Islamic,” an attractive option for those who desire to make it clear that these extremists are not representative of Islam or Muslims.

Among this debate though, there is an underlying solidarity. The news of France’s refusal to use Islam-based names came alongside their addition to the forces conducting strikes against targets in Iraq. President Obama might have used a different term than France, but he did so in praising France’s military actions.

Referring to the term Daesh, Army Lt. Gen. James Terry said, “Our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use ISIL, that you legitimize a self-declared caliphate. … They feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that.”

A Google Trends search for ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, and Daesh reveals the overwhelming popularity for ISIS among Google searches:

ISIS GoogleGoogle

While some of the searches for ISIS can be attributed to it being a word with other connotations (an Egyptian goddess, for instance), the search volumes for all of the terms appear to spike at the same times, indicating major news events, with a much higher volume of searches containing ISIS than the other names. While this might not indicate which is the most popular among governments or news outlets, it shows that ISIS seems to be the name of choice for Google users, and the general public.

Regardless of the naming conventions that they adopt, many countries see a common threat in Iraq and Syria.

 

(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Is the Islamic State the Biggest Threat Facing the U.S.?

By Erik Goepner

While the situation on the ground today remains largely unchanged to that of October last year, Americans assessing the IS threat as extremely important or critical has jumped from 36% to 84%. Might their grotesque killings and the free media advertising they receive in response explain much of the difference in threat perceptions?

Looking at the numbers, since September 10, 2001 three thousand forty-eight people have been killed by terrorists in America’s borders. If you exclude 9/11, that number drops to 51. In the 14 years before 9/11, 223 lost their lives at the hands of terrorists in the homeland.[1]

Though precisely determining the threat posed by the Islamic State is impossible, we can be more precise in defining why the threat concerns us. For many, the concern is death, more specifically a horrific death that comes as a surprise and leaves its victim feeling powerless. There is, however, no concern that the Islamic State could one day invade the U.S. or otherwise pretend to have a military force even remotely comparable to ours. They will always be Pop Warner to America’s Super Bowl winner. In the end, the concern is death.

One way, then, to compare the threat posed by the Islamic State with other threats is to look at what kills Americans. Including 9/11 and all terrorist attacks within the homeland since, an average of 234 lives have been lost per year. During the same time period, approximately 16,000 Americans have been murdered each year, 34,000 took their own lives, and more than 500,000 died annually from cancer. If you lengthen the timeframe to fifty years, the likelihood of being killed by terrorists in America roughly equates to the likelihood of being killed by a lightning strike or an allergic reaction to peanuts.[2]

Looking at the broader geo-political landscape provides another way to help place the threat of IS within the range of threats facing America. Perhaps Iran sits atop that list. On the Department of State’s list as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984, their latest report, from 2013, notes Iran has “increased its presence in Africa and attempted to smuggle arms to Houthi separatists in Yemen.” These are the same separatists who recently overthrew the Yemeni government. Additionally, Iran is pursuing a nuclear program, peaceful or otherwise. Russia presents another potential threat.  In 2008, they invaded Georgia and in 2014 they annexed portions of Ukraine. Might a NATO country be next, such as Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania? Other potential threats include China as it asserts its presence in the South China Sea and elsewhere, North Korea, or even America’s rising debt which may increasingly constrain future U.S. options.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


[1] See UMD’s Global Terrorism Database.
[2] John Mueller, Overblown, see “The Limited Destructiveness of Terrorism” chapter.