A field report from Uzbekistan by Nannette Cazaubon
In November 2019, together with Editor-in-Chief Hartmut Bühl, I took a flight to the capital of Uzbekistan in Central Asia. We were invited to participate as observers – me as a journalist, Hartmut as an expert – in the CBRN counter-terrorism field exercise “Jeyran”. Curious to learn how such a large international exercise with 200 participants from Uzbekistan and partner countries, as well as international observers, would be organised and what its outcome would be, we accepted the invitation. The three-day exercise was mounted within the framework of the dynamic European CBRN Risk Mitigation Centres of Excellence Initiative (EU CBRN CoE), established ten years ago with the aim of fostering national, regional and interregional cooperation worldwide to better prevent CBRN incidents or disasters.
(Tashkent, November 2019) During the flight to Tashkent we have time to study the programme in more detail. It sounds promising: the participants will play a variety of roles – active players, observers and evaluators – in four realistic scenarios simulating the release of biological and chemical agents by terrorists.
We learn that almost a year of preparation has gone into combining the different scenarios of the “Jeyran” exercise organised by the European Commission’s DG DEVCO and the Government of Uzbekistan. There is no doubt that terrorists today have the knowledge and willingness to use chemical and biological agents. A large joint field exercise such as “Jeyran”, with international participants and observers, is timely!
First day – Opening session
On the morning of the exercise’s first day, we are taken by bus, together with the other international participants and observ- ers, from the city of Tashkent to the premises of the Institute of Civil Protection of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Uzbekistan, near the capital. We are warmly welcomed by Bakhtiyor Gulyamov, acting Chairman of the State Committee of Industrial Safety of the Republic of Uzbekistan and Head of the Regional Secretariat for Central Asia of the EU CBRN CoE Initiative. Mr Gulyamov, who has coordinated the preparation and implementation of the field exercise, states that terror- ism has become a global issue and that the organisation of joint exercises “effectively promotes discipline, efficient time management and development of the necessary professional skills that will later help to correctly and efficiently respond to various CBRN threats”.
The overall goal of planning for emergency preparedness and response is to ensure that adequate capabilities are in place and emergency response teams are sufficiently equipped and trained. This is highlighted by Shavkat Samatov, representative of the Cabinet of Ministers, who welcomes us in the name of the Government of the Republic of Uzbekistan. The Chargé d’Af- faires of the EU Delegation to Uzbekistan, Jussi Narvi, says that “holding the Jeyran field exercise in Uzbekistan is very timely and relevant”, while the United Nations Resident Coordinator Helena Fraser, in her speech, underlines the importance of working together at a national, regional and international level to prevent CBRN incidents or attacks. She expresses her convic- tion that Jeyran “will point us in the direction where we should further streamline our efforts.”
SCENARIO 1 – detection of CBRN material
The Commander of the exercise – Colonel H. Botyrov, Dep-
uty Commander of the National Guard – introduces us to the operational aspects of the exercise and the different sce- narios. The first scenario is presented right away, by a video that is commented live: The Uzbek authorities have received intelligence that a terror group is trying to bring chemical and biological substances into Uzbekistan; dangerous goods have been discovered at the airport. State Customs Committee units have followed a suspicious truck, which eventually leads them to a clandestine biological-chemical laboratory operated by ter- rorists. In the meantime, an operational headquarters has been set up, involving all relevant agencies and a joint task force is preparing to intervene.
Just as I am wondering what such a joint headquarters might look like, we are invited to visit it next door, in the Institute of Civil Protection! The headquarters is equipped with computers, screens, phone lines and maps. This is where all the informa- tion on the terrorists is collected and where the decisions are taken.
Demonstration of equipment
In the afternoon, we witness an impressive open-air demon- stration of the resources and equipment used during the ex- ercise: weapons, special equipment, protective suits, medical care equipment, robots, specially trained dogs to detect the explosives, etc. are shown. Everything is explained in Russian and English, and Hartmut and I can ask a lot of questions.
We appreciate the lively mixture of presentations, videos, and visits. I am amazed to hear that after we have seen all the material, we will even be able to attend the simulation of an earthquake with a magnitude of nearly 7!
The simulation takes place in the Institute of Civil Protection’s earthquake simulation centre, which is the first of its kind in Central Asia. The state-of-the-art equipment, financed with the support of the European Commission, is available otherwise only in Japan. It serves as a platform to build public awareness of Uzbekistan’s vulnerability to seismic events and educate the public in the best ways of preparing for and behaving during an earthquake.
Now the simulation starts! We are shown into a space with a living room-like scene installed on a mobile platform. They ask
The chemical-biological counter-terrorism field exercise Jeyran took place from 13th to 15th November 2019. It was organised in the framework of the European Union CBRN Risk Mitigation Centres of Excellence Initiative (EU CBRN CoE) that is funded by the European Union and is jointly implemented by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) and the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC). The European External Action Service (EEAS) is also supporting the initiative that involves 61 countries in 8 regions of the world. Uzbekistan is part of the Central Asia region together with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. Jeyran was approved by the authorities of the Republic of Uzbekistan and imple- mented by the relevant national ministries and agencies: the National Guard; the Ministry of Emergency Situations; the Ministry of Interior; the Ministry of Health; the State Customs Committee; the Ministry of Defence; and the State Security Service. Participants and observers of the exercise included the Heads of the Regional Secretariats of the EU CBRN CoE Initiative, the National Focal Points of the partner countries of Central Asia, as well as representatives of international organisations, diplomatic missions and independent experts.
for volunteers to sit down in the living room. Hartmut cannot resist the temptation to do so, while I prefer to observe the scene. Good decision, the demonstration is impressive! Books fall off the shelves and the furniture trembles violently. Luckily, the volunteers have been told how to react by hiding under the table or squatting in a corner and protecting their heads with a pillow. Nobody is injured!
At the end of this intense first day, we enjoy the generous Uz- bek hospitality during dinner with the other participants.
SCENARIO 2 – seizure of a clandestine laboratory
Scenario 2 takes place on the second day at the same location. It’s cold this morning, and we are wearing our warm coats and scarves as we arrive at an extensive outdoor area, in front of
a scruffy building – the terrorists’ “clandestine laboratory”, according to the scenario.
We take our seats opposite the building. I am observing some snipers on the roof while the Commander is explaining the situation to us: he reminds us that the day before (Scenario 1) the location of the terrorists’ clandestine laboratory was identified. He tells us that we will now be able to observe how the different specialised teams will proceed to neutralise and capture the terrorists.
Neutralisation of the terrorists
As a first step, the area is cordoned off to prevent the terrorists escaping. A medical team is on stand-by in case people get injured. A CBRN decontamination team is on-hold nearby.
Then it starts! Suddenly, several people with rock-climbing equipment go abseiling from the roof with amazing speed. They remain stuck in the middle of the wall, motionless and head down. At that moment, the intervention team arrives from the right along the wall. They duck under the windows of the building, and I wonder what the parcel is they have with them. I understand it right away, when the parcel is thrown against one of the windows: a loud bang fills the air, together with the sound of gunfire – the parcel was obviously a bomb allowing the special team to enter the building.
Like me, the other observers are impressed, but some are a little critical. The specialists from Afghanistan next to me are discussing among themselves and I ask them for their impres- sions. They say that there may be alternative and less risky methods than explosives to enter a building where terrorists are hiding with chemical agents and explosives. A point that
I find interesting, and that will be discussed later during the debriefing. This brings home to me that the open exchange of experience is key in this exercise.
The action moves on: the intervention team enters the building together with a negotiator who will try to convince the terrorists to give themselves up. Lieutenant-Colonel R. Yunuskhodjayev is updating us on the situation: three terrorists have been killed and four captured. With a black hood over their heads, they are taken outside the building.
The operation of the special teams
Now it’s the turn of the heavily equipped anti-explosive team to enter the building. The way the scenario plays out is really grip- ping, and I appreciate being able to follow, via two big screens, how the team is proceeding inside the building.
Once the area has been declared free of explosives, the CBRN team starts its work inside the “laboratory” to collect samples. I leave my seat and join Tristan Simonart, DG DEVCO’s dynamic coordinator for the CBRN CoE Initiative, who invested consid- erable time and effort in preparing the exercise together with the Uzbek authorities. He tells me that participants from other countries of the Central Asia region, from Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan, are part of the specialised CBRN team.
The members of all the different teams leaving the building
must go through the decontamination station that has been set up outside. Finally, the investigation team arrives. Their work will last several hours, sometimes days, to collect further information on the terrorist group.
After three hours of observation outdoors, we are happy to go back inside for a cup of coffee and to discuss the morning’s events with the other participants.
SCENARIO 3 – tracking terrorists to prevent an attack
The afternoon is no less gripping. Scenario 3 is presented to us: Thanks to the information obtained from the captured terrorists and a map found, the authorities become aware that accomplices of the terrorists are planning an attack in Tashkent and its region. The terrorists’ car is detected and tracked by the deployed special groups. In order to protect the population, ar- tificial traffic jams are created, and the terrorists are guided to an empty road outside Tashkent. When the car is blocked from both sides of the road, the terrorists start shooting and snipers from the special groups respond. A box with a clock mechanism is found in the car, possibly a bomb which is destroyed by bomb disposal experts.
SCENARIO 4 – neutralisation of a bomb in a cinema
A bomb will also be involved in the last scenario of the exercise, and the same goes for the observers! We are told that we are supposed to be moviegoers in a cinema located in a shopping mall in Tashkent. According to the scenario, in five hours, the concert of a famous singer will take place in a concert hall of the big mall with 1000 spectators expected. The authorities receive the information that a bomb is hidden somewhere in the mall, and they decide to evacuate everybody inside, including us.
We leave the “cinema” quietly and the way we are told. Then we can observe how the special task force proceeds in the search for the bomb. They arrive in impressive protective suits with their special equipment and trained dogs. A suspicious parcel found under a seat is checked with an X-Ray scanner. We are told that the parcel contains a clock mechanism, a detona- tor and an energy source – so it’s a “dirty bomb” made by the terrorist group. The commander of the operation decides to destroy the bomb outside. This is where a tracked robot comes in. I remember that I saw it at the demonstration of material on the first day, and it’s interesting to see how it now works! The bomb is cordoned off with a protection ring, and the small, remote-controlled robot clanks over to it. A few seconds later the parcel explodes with a loud bang!
During the debriefing, Tristan Simonart takes the floor to congratulate the Uzbek organisers and all the players “for this extremely well-performed exercise”. He highlights the good coordination between the different agencies and teams and says that in the future it would be interesting to organise a re- gional cross-border exercise, involving neighbouring countries. “We from the European Union will certainly be interested to participate within the frame of the EU CBRN CoE programme”, he concludes.
As we wait for the bus to take us back to Tashkent city, Hartmut and I ask a few of the participants about their impressions.
The experienced observers from Afghanistan have appreciated the well performed exercise, focused on the prevention of a terrorist attack. A follow-up exercise, they say, might cover
the response in case an attack with biological-chemical agents actually occurs. They underline that the Uzbek organisers have shown with this exercise that terrorism should be managed like a natural disaster, demanding a multisectoral response with well-defined roles responsibilities of the different actors.
We also ask Emmanuel Gravier, who is the counter-terrorism and security advisor to the European Delegation to Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek, for his view. He makes an interesting point regard- ing the support of the EU for counter-terrorism exercises like Jeyran: “the purpose of incorporating security issues into the European Union’s new strategy for Central Asia is ultimately to prevent terrorist attacks on the territory of the Member States of the European Union. As the threat is global, the response has to be global too”.
Evaluation of the exercise
The morning of the third day is dedicated to the debriefing and evaluation of the exercise. The overall feedback from the
observers is very positive. They are impressed by the perfect organisation of the Jeyran exercise. Indeed, a lot of effort has been deployed to make the scenarios easily comprehensible for the observers. It was highlighted that the strong point of the exercise was the professionalism and the cooperation of the different agencies.
Jeyran raised awareness among observers and strengthened interregional networking, which is an objective of the EU CBRN CoE Initiative. Several observers suggest that in the future, an interregional exercise involving several countries would be a good idea, even if everybody is aware that the preparation of such an exercise involving several countries is complex and would need time.
Dr Faheem Tahir, Chief of the Public Health Laboratories Division at the National Institute of Health in Pakistan and the National Focal Point for the EU CBRN CoE Initiative, hits the nail on the head: “the name of the exercise – Jeyran – was well chosen”, he says, “because a Jeyran is a well-known animal in Pakistan and also in Afghanistan, that eats snakes. And terror- ists are the snakes.”
Hartmut and I had an extremely interesting time in Uzbekistan, learning a lot about international and regional cooperation in CBRN risk and threat mitigation. We also learned a lot about the way the European Union, and in particular DG DEVCO, is supporting CBRN cooperation and risk prevention around the world. Both of us were deeply impressed by the spirit of coop- eration among the participating countries and the openness of their discussions. And we felt that the EU CBRN CoE Initiative is really on the right track!