Doel nuclear power plant. Image: Wwuyts/CC-BY-3.0
Ilyass Boughalab, who was killed in Syria, worked for three years as a technician at the Doel breakdown nuclear power plant
Bankruptcies, misfortunes and breakdowns have long been the order of the day at Belgium’s Doel and Tihange breakdown reactors. Again and again the reactors have to be shut down. Even the very nuclear-friendly Atomic Energy Commission (AFCN) threatened already because of a missing “Security culture” with the shutdown. It filed a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office because technicians and engineers did not take their work in the nuclear control room of the ancient power plant very seriously (New Emergency Shutdown at Tihange, Belgium). But even more worrying is the fact that Ilyass Boughalab, a radical Islamist known to the authorities, worked for three years in the high-security area of the Doel nuclear power plant.
And this explains why after the new attacks in Brussels on Tuesday many employees of the two nuclear power plants were frantically sent home. AFCN spokesman Lodewijk van Bladel said that there were no specific indications that terrorists had targeted the Belgian nuclear power plants. “But they are one of the possible targets of terrorist attacks”, he then added. Allegedly, the nuclear power plants had been operated with minimal staffing, in order to be able to evacuate the plants more quickly if this had been necessary.
This second argument is also not rearing for the many residents in nearby Antwerp. For one wonders why a nuclear power plant must be evacuated? This actually only happens in an emergency. And this is obviously not considered impossible in Belgium. And this has to do with the fact that the above-named known Islamist was able to work in the most sensitive area of Doel for three years until 2012. Rather, the actions taken in the wake of the new attacks make it clear that the AFCN does not trust the security checks of its personnel. It obviously considers it possible that terrorists can continue to be active in a nuclear power plant.
In fact, the case of Boughalab, born in Morocco, is hanebuchen. It far exceeds the scandal of Belgium’s alleged release of one of the assassins despite Turkish warnings (Erdogan: Belgium released terrorist despite warning). In a state governed by the rule of law, you cannot simply imprison people, which is not the case in Turkey “safe third country” Turkey is handled differently. But the case of Boughalab is different. One cannot even claim that the young man, born in Tangier, slipped under the radar of the security authorities.
He is said to have passed security checks, even though the authorities were well aware that Boughalab was a particularly active member of the radical Islamic organization “Sharia 4 Belgium” belonged to. The organization was happy to demonstrate in front of the royal palace in favor of turning Belgium into an Islamic state in which Sharia law would apply. Boughalab even ended up on the list of defendants when members of Sharia 4 Belgium were put on trial. But this had no effect on his employment in the high security area of the nuclear power plant. He was responsible for safety inspections there and was employed by an external company.
Thus, it is understandable that the employees of external companies also yesterday, Wednesday, the nuclear power plants only “in urgent traps” was allowed to enter. About half of the more than 2,000 employees working at the two nuclear power plants come from subcontractors. It is safe to ame that they have still not been properly audited. And this means that no consequences have been drawn from the events surrounding Boughalab. His case has been known since October 2014.
As early as 2012, he had left for Syria to fight for the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) to fight. There he called himself Abu Ubaydah al-Jarah al-Beljiki and is said to have been killed as a 26-year-old in the battles in March 2014. This is what the extremism expert Pieter Van Ostaeyen had announced.
The fact that Boughalab has left for Syria can be interpreted in two ways. Perhaps he was to receive the appropriate training and then, after his return, use his internal knowledge to prepare an attack on a nuclear power plant in order to turn it into a huge dirty bomb. Presumably, such an escalation was not (yet) on the agenda of the IS four years ago. But that could have changed long ago.
Did the Islamists want to kidnap a nuclear expert??
For, as is also reported, Islamists are also targeting nuclear experts. A top researcher at the Belgian nuclear research center SCK-CEN in Mol, one of the world’s largest production facilities for radioactive isotopes, was investigated. These are used in medicine to diagnose cancer, but can also be used to irradiate entire city districts with a dirty bomb.
The researcher’s house was also spied on by an Islamist who, according to Belgian security authorities, is said to have been involved in the Paris attack and is in pre-trial detention for it. During the search of an apartment in Auvelais, about 60 kilometers south of Brussels, fingerprints of Monir Ahmed Alaaj (alias Amine Choukri) were also found, who was recently arrested in Brussels together with the suspected Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam (Attacks in Paris: “A more coarse network than we thought”).
Video recordings were found in the apartment. Ten hours had been filmed the entrance of an apartment that turned out to be that of the researcher. A camera had been installed under bushes. Belgian security forces speculate whether a kidnapping of a family member was being prepared to force the researcher to hand over radioactive material.