"Dirty Bomb" Fears Rise As Belgian Nuclear Facilities Seen As Vulnerable To ISIS Attacks

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Update: Electrabel says none of its staff or subcontractors were killed, but did say Belgian nuclear sites are under "special protection." 

“Electrabel deplores that its sites are being used regularly this week to illustrate articles without any link to the company or its 5,000 workers," a statement reads.

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Hours after brothers Khalid and Ibrahim El-Bakraoui and two other men (one of whom may or may not have been bombmaker Najim Laachraoui) detonated explosives-laden vests and luggage at the Brussels airport and metro murdering nearly two dozen people and wounding scores more, we were alarmed but not entirely surprised to see Belgium evacuate the Tihange nuclear power plant.

We say we weren’t entirely surprised because way back on November 30, a raid on an Auvelais home rented by Mohamed Bakkali - who was arrested four days earlier and may have used the residence to shelter the Paris attackers including the supposed leader of the Brussels cell Abdelhamid Abaaoud - turned up an hours-long (some reports had suggested it was a mere 10 minutes long, an apparently incorrect assessment) surveillance tape that appeared to show a top Belgian nuclear official (see here).

“A small video camera stashed in a row of bushes silently recorded the comings and goings of the family of a Brussels-area man with an important scientific pedigree last year, producing a detailed chronology of the family’s movements,” Foreign Policy wrote, late last month. “At one point, two men came under cover of darkness to retrieve the camera, before driving away with their headlamps off, a separate surveillance camera in the area revealed later.”

If, as some suspect, those two men were the Bakraoui brothers, it would suggest that the Brussels cell which is now well on its way to going down in jihadist lore as the most “successful” sleeper cell in the history of radical Islam, was in the advanced stages of trying to procure the materials needed to build a dirty bomb.

Belgian lawmakers were beside themselves when they learned of the video, as it was apparently kept secret for months. “Your services possessed this videotape since Nov. 30, and the nuclear control agency was informed immediately,” said Jean-Marc Nollet, a Parliament member from Ecolo, told interior minister, Jan Jambon. “So I don’t understand how you could have been in possession of this video since Nov. 30, but on Jan. 13, when I questioned you on this, you answered, ‘There is no specific threat to the nuclear facilities.’”

We don’t really understand that either, but we imagine Belgian authorities will be discussing the issue quite a bit in the weeks and months ahead because it’s now emerged that on Thursday, Didier Prospero was shot and killed while walking his dog in Charleroi (about an hour drive from Brussels). Why should you care about Didier? Well, because he is (or “was”) a security guard at Tihange. His security pass was stolen as he lay dying.

“The murder was completely ignored and was committed on Thursday night in the judicial district of Charleroi,” Derniere Heure reported. “A security guard, accompanied by his dog, was shot in the early evening. His badge was stolen.” Electrabel has since denied that any of its staff were killed and is urging the media to avoid "creating confusion" with what it says are "false reports."

The badge itself was immediately deactivated. It’s as yet unclear whether this is connected to Belgian jihadists, but it would certainly be difficult to write it off as a coincidence. Well, it would be difficult to write it off as a coincidence unless you are a Belgian prosecutor. In that case it would be easy. ""A terrorist track is not considered in the case," the Charleroi prosecutor's office told TASS on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media is beginning to sound the alarm bells on the threat to Belgium’s nuclear infrastructure. Here, for instance, is The New York Times:

The investigation into this week’s deadly attacks in Brussels has prompted worries that the Islamic State is seeking to attack, infiltrate or sabotage nuclear installations or obtain nuclear or radioactive material. This is especially worrying in a country with a history of security lapses at its nuclear facilities, a weak intelligence apparatus and a deeply rooted terrorist network.

 

On Friday, the authorities stripped security badges from several workers at one of two plants where all nonessential employees had been sent home hours after the attacks at the Brussels airport and one of the city’s busiest subway stations three days earlier. Video footage of a top official at another Belgian nuclear facility was discovered last year in the apartment of a suspected militant linked to the extremists who unleashed the horror in Paris in November.

 

Asked on Thursday at a London think tank whether there was a danger of the Islamic State’s obtaining a nuclear weapon, the British defense secretary, Michael Fallon, said that “was a new and emerging threat.”

 

While the prospect that terrorists can obtain enough highly enriched uranium and then turn it into a nuclear fission bomb seems far-fetched to many experts, they say the fabrication of some kind of dirty bomb from radioactive waste or byproducts is more conceivable. There are a variety of other risks involving Belgium’s facilities, including that terrorists somehow shut down the privately operated plants, which provide nearly half of Belgium’s power.

 

The fears at the nuclear power plants are of “an accident in which someone explodes a bomb inside the plant,” said Sébastien Berg, the spokesman for Belgium’s federal agency for nuclear control. “The other danger is that they fly something into the plant from outside.” That could stop the cooling process of the used fuel, Mr. Berg explained, and in turn shut down the plant.

 

The revelation of the video surveillance footage was the first evidence that the Islamic State has a focused interest in nuclear material. But Belgium’s nuclear facilities have long had a worrying track record of breaches, prompting warnings from Washington and other foreign capitals.

 

Some of these are relatively minor: The Belgian nuclear agency’s computer system was hacked this year and shut down briefly. In 2013, two individuals managed to scale the fence at Belgium’s research reactor in the city of Mol, break into a laboratory and steal equipment.

 

Others are far more disconcerting. In 2012, two employees at the nuclear plant in Doel quit to join jihadists in Syria, and eventually transferred their allegiances to the Islamic State. Both men fought in a brigade that included dozens of Belgians, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, considered the on-the-ground leader of the Paris attacks.

 

One of these men is believed to have died fighting in Syria, but the other was convicted of terror-related offenses in Belgium in 2014, and released from prison last year, according to Pieter Van Oestaeyen, a researcher who tracks Belgium’s jihadist networks. It is not known whether they communicated information about their former workplace to their Islamic State comrades.

The reference there is to Ilyass Boughalab, a 26-year old Moroccan man who worked at Doel before travelling to Syria. After passing a background check in 2009 he was given a job inspecting welds. He had access to highly secure areas of the reactor. He was, according to employer AIB-Vincotte, an efficient employee whose work was “flawless.”

One can only assume that Boughalab discussed his time workinig at Doel with other members of Islamic State and it seems entirely likely that someone in the organization would have conveyed his specialized experience up the chain of command. It's easy to imagine that he may very well have met with more senitor members of the group if they indeed learned about his employment history.

Whatever the case, it's fairly clear that there are any number of ways for jihadists to exploit Belgium's notoriously lax nuclear security apparatus and although one would think that the more straightforward approach would be to simply bomb the facilities or have an insider sabotage something, the threat of a dirty bomb is quite real. We'll close with a short quote from Laura Holgate, the National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction: "I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet."

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As an aside, Belgian authorities have identified the third suspect in the airport bombings. The man is one Faycal Cheffou, a freelance journalist. He was reportedly detained outside the prosecutor's office with two other men on Thursday in the sweeping raids that led to 6 arrests.