Nuclear weapons and the ‘Letter of last resort’: what my students think

By Jez Littlewood

NPSIA’s disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation course began last week (INAF 5201). Once the administrative side of the first class was completed I began the class with the 2015 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists What would happen if an 800-kiloton nuclear warhead detonated above midtown Manhattan? However, to inject some additional reality into the subject each was tasked with deciding on how the UK would respond to a nuclear attack.

The scenario was simple: each was to assume they had been elected (or appointed) Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and each had to decide the nuclear response in the event of a surprise attack. Pre-reading included Richard Norton-Taylor’s story in The Guardian from July 2016 – Theresa May’s first job: decide on UK’s nuclear response. Thus, sixty minutes after arriving in class task one for my 21 students was the drafting of what is generally known as “the letter of last resort”.

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Starting the year with a bang: the DPRK’s nuclear test

By Jez Littlewood

North Korea – or more formally the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – has announced a fourth nuclear weapons test. It claims the test was of a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb (H-Bomb) which, if true, would represent a qualitative leap in its capabilities.

From the limited information leaking out so far from official and unofficial sources most analysts doubt the test was of a H-Bomb given seismic monitoring suggests a lower yield than that expected from a thermonuclear weapon. Indeed, the US is indicating the test has not altered its own assessment of the capabilities of the DPRK. However, no one knows at this stage. Nor is the test a “surprise”, out of the blue or unanticipated. Activity was detected in September 2015, and the possibility of a H-Bomb was explored by Jeffrey Lewis’ mid-December piece on 38 North: “a staged thermonuclear weapon is likely more than North Korea can, at the moment, achieve technically, [but] it is a mistake to rule out the aspiration by Pyongyang. An H-bomb might not conveniently fit our perception of North Korea, but perhaps that is Kim’s point.”

So what does the test mean? Put simply, we do not know although past practice from the DPRK on nuclear testing has usually been about signaling to adversaries and demonstrating prowess at home. There are both domestic and international aspects to nuclear testing.

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Canada and Terrorism: quick reflections on information, speculation, and intelligence

By Jeremy Littlewood

We learnt quite a bit yesterday (October 23) about the attack in Ottawa on Wednesday. Noting as I did yesterday some positive aspects, the Press Conference mid-afternoon with the Chief of Ottawa Police and the Commissioner of the RCMP was quite enlightening: like others I’ll give a nod of appreciation to Commissioner Paulson for his remarks and information provided. That level of transparency – number of people now under investigation by RCMP as high risk travellers, dynamic nature of that ‘list’, the fact that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was not on that list, etc. – as well as the walk through, with video, of the arrival of Zehaf-Bibeau on Parliament Hill was a very welcome clarification of what is actually known at this time. Hopefully it will dampen the speculation that inevitably fills any vacuum. He, of course, left some details unclear and quite a few things unsaid, but I am not going to complain about that now.

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Terrorism in Canada: how to respond

By Jeremy Littlewood

Events in Canada in the last few days will change our understanding of the security situation and how we all – Parliamentarians, officials, citizens – respond to and manage it. Statements such as those from testimony earlier this month – the threat of terrorism is diffuse, complex and able to change rapidly – now have salience and more prominent meaning. As the Prime Minister noted in his statement over the next few days and weeks much that is unknown will become clearer. There will, of course, be a reaction on numerous levels, and necessarily so. How we react will have important implications for managing the threat from terrorism in the coming months and years.

We should first reflect on some positive aspects of the response to the attack in Ottawa. Overall, the system worked: individuals, authorities, and the bureaucracy reacted with some skill and considerable flexibility in a very confusing situation. The numerous responses from professionals and people caught in the downtown core, from the Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers in Parliament and staff, passers-by who aided Corporal Cirillo, police and authorities who responded quickly, MPs and their staff who remained calm, and the media for doing a collective good job on reporting events on TV, in e-print, and via social media. Watching Canada from the safety of my office in Ottawa efficiency, effectiveness and calmness were evident and Ottawa got through the day without hyperbole and fear-mongering.

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Foreign Fighters: what to read to grasp the key issues

By Jez Littlewood

Back in March 2013 I wrote Syria, Western Foreign Fighters and Counterterrorismand concluded that ‘we would be wise to begin thinking about foreign fighters…and what happens to them after their ‘tour of duty’ in Syria and the risks that will emerge once the conflict is resolved and they return home.’ Since then the issue of foreign fighters has forced its way to the top of the intelligence and security agenda of many Western democracies, Canada included.

In the UK ‘more than half of MI5’s anti-terror investigations involve Britons who have traveled to Syria’ according to a March 14 piece in the Financial Times. Australia is rumoured to have over 150 individuals active in the Syrian conflict. And in mid-June Calgary Police Chief indicated that up to 30 individuals from the city are believed to be abroad and that number was likely ‘at the small end of the continuum’; if that is correct, then presumably figures provided in testimony in February 2014 by the Director of CSIS need an upward revision: ‘CSIS is aware of over 130 Canadians who are abroad in support of extremist activities, including approximately 30 in Syria alone.’

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CSEC and airport Wi-Fi

CBC certainly broke an interesting story this morning with the release of documentation from Edward Snowden’s collection. The story “CSEC used airport Wi-Fi to track Canadian travellers: Edward Snowden documents indicates ‘Canada’s electronic spy agency used information from the free internet service at a major Canadian airport to track the wireless devices of thousands of ordinary airline passengers for days after they left the terminal.’

Understandably this is causing a bit of a kerfuffle. CSEC has issued a statement that states that in order to fulfil CSEC’s foreign intelligence role ‘CSE is legally authorized to collect and analyze metadata. In simple terms, metadata is technical information used to route communications, and not the contents of a communication.’

While more is sure to break on this in the coming days I’ll stick my neck out here and suggest this may not have been against the law. If this was an exercise or trial or field test of a capability still in development then it wasn’t an intelligence gathering operation and, as such, might be considered permissible.

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The Peril of Soft Targets

Jeremy Littlewood wrote the following for the Ottawa Citizen.

Monday afternoon two explosions were reported close to the finish line of the Boston Marathon and initial reports suggest three dead and more than 100 injured. Authorities have ruled out electrical or gas faults, thus implying that the two explosions about 100 yards apart were deliberate acts.

The spectre of terrorism is likely to lead investigators and the public to suspect al-Qaida or a group or individual inspired by al-Qaida’s narrative. Caution, however, is necessary before jumping to such conclusions. Both the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995 and the attacks in Norway conducted by Anders Breivik in 2011 were initially assumed to be the work of foreign-based, and jihadist inspired, terrorist groups: they were domestic right-wing terrorism. It is therefore important to remember that terrorism comes in many guises — left-wing, right-wing, ethno-nationalist, religious, and what is known as single-issue terrorism that incorporates violent animal right extremists and violent anti-abortionist groups among others.

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