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Video Found in Belgium of Nuclear Official May Point to Bigger Plot
A suspect linked to the Nov. 13 Paris attackers was found with surveillance footage of a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official, the Belgian authorities acknowledged on Thursday, raising fears that the Islamic State is trying to obtain radioactive material for a terrorist attack.
The existence of the footage, which the police in Belgium seized on Nov. 30, was confirmed by Thierry Werts, a spokesman for Belgium's federal prosecutor, after being reported in the Belgian daily newspaper La Dernière Heure.
The news set off an immediate outcry among Belgian lawmakers, who charged that they and the country had been misled about the extent of the potential threats to the country's nuclear facilities, as well as about the ambitions of the terrorist network linked to the Islamic State that used Belgium to plot the Paris attacks, which killed 130 people.
The International Atomic Energy Agency and the State Department also confirmed on Thursday a report by Reuters that radioactive material had disappeared since November in Iraq, where the Islamic State controls broad areas of territory, adding to fears that the group may be able to acquire material for an attack with newly disconcerting dimensions.
The Belgian news media, citing sources close to the investigation, said that the surveillance footage of the Belgian nuclear official had been retrieved from the home of Mohamed Bakkali, who was arrested after the attacks and is in detention on charges of terrorist activity and murder.
Belgian officials have asserted privately that Mr. Bakkali may have been involved in planning several attacks, not only those in Paris. There are currently eight people in detention in Belgium who are charged with involvement in the November attacks in Paris.
The purpose of the footage retrieved by the Belgian police was not clear. But experts and officials speculated that it could have been part of a plot to abduct the nuclear official, who was not identified but had access to secure areas of a nuclear research facility in Mol, and force him to turn over radioactive material, possibly for use in a dirty bomb.
Sébastien Berg, a spokesman for Belgium's Federal Agency for Nuclear Control, said that the agency had been informed right away of the existence of the footage and that employees had been told to increase their vigilance on the work floor. But he acknowledged that no additional guards had been hired or other measures taken to secure the perimeters of Belgium's nuclear sites.
Mr. Berg said that the authorities had "concrete indications that showed that the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks had the intention to do something involving one of our four nuclear sites."
Those sites include two power plants and a private company that produces medical isotopes, in addition to the facility in Mol, where scientists conduct research and experiments on radioactive waste to try to find safer ways to store it and reduce damage to the environment, Mr. Berg said.
He said that, if acquired, the material at the site in Mol could also be used to make a dirty bomb, which would spread radioactive material over the whole impact zone.
"If they find a way to spread such material among the population, they could do a lot of damage," he said of the terrorist network.
While a number of experts who study dirty bombs, which are known technically as radiological dispersal devices, agree that it is likely that the Islamic State and possibly other extremist groups have obtained radioactive material, they tend to play down the physical risk.
"The world is flooded with highly radioactive material," said Jim Walsh, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Security Studies Program. "A dirty bomb is not a nuclear weapon; it is a conventional weapon with radiological material strapped to it. Most experts agree that if a dirty bomb goes off, people are much more likely to be killed by the TNT than by the radiological material."
The main worry is the panic and fear that would spread if a dirty bomb were detonated, Mr. Walsh and other Western officials familiar with the topic said. There is also the risk of significant costs, because radioactive material is expensive to clean up.
Members of Belgium's Parliament expressed outrage in a regular session on Thursday, saying that the interior minister, Jan Jambon, had told them in January that there was no specific threat to nuclear facilities.
"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, Belgium's green party. "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.'"
"I agree we shouldn't give in to panic, but between giving in to panic and denying the magnitude of the risks, there is a big difference," Mr. Nollet said.
Mr. Jambon responded that after viewing the tapes, the ministry had determined that there was a threat "to the person in question, but not the nuclear facilities."
The International Atomic Energy Agency identified the material missing in Iraq as iridium-192, a highly radioactive isotope that is sometimes sought for use in dirty bombs.
[Source: By Milan Schreuer and Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times, Paris, 18Feb16]
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|This document has been published on 22Feb16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.|