Sunday 27 March 2016

The latest from Brussels - 03/27/2016

Belgian prosecutor’s office denies terrorist track in murder of guard at nuclear center

© Eric Vidal
© Eric Vidal / Reuters

26 March, 2016

The murder of a security guard at a nuclear research center located near the Belgian city of Charleroi two days after Brussels attack is not linked to any terrorist activity, prosecutor says dispelling earlier media reports.

The Charleroi prosecutor's office in charge of the case "formally denied" any link between the murder of Didier Prospero, a security guard from the G4S international security firm, who worked at the National Institute of radioelements (IRE ELiT) in the town of Fleurus not far from Charleroi, and any planned terror attack, the Belga news agency reported, citing the Charleroi prosecutor.

The prosecutor also denied earlier media reports that Prospero’s access badge was stolen, Belga reports.

Brussels terrorists targeted nuke plants, changed plans after Abdeslam's arrest – report

Prospero was found dead in the bathroom at his home in Froidchapelle by his three children as they returned from school on Thursday. He was shot four times and his dog was also killed. He was in charge of security at the IRE ELiT that specializes in production of radiochemical and radiopharmaceutical products as well as in radioactivity analysis.

The case is being handled by criminal investigators while anti-terror specialists are not involved, Belga reports. According to the local Derniere Heure newspaper, the investigation is working on two tracks: a burglary gone wrong and a crime related to the personal affairs of the victim.

In the meantime, officials from the Belgian Electrabel energy company that runs the neighboring Charleroi nuclear power plant stated that its personnel is not affected by the incident.

"No personnel of Electrabel or one of its sub-contractors working on sites was murdered this week," a company official said as quoted by the Derniere Heure. The company representative also stressed that authorization needed to get access to the nuclear site is issued by the National Security Authority and, in case of death, all clearances are immediately removed.

Earlier on Thursday, Derniere Heure reported that Prospero was a member of a nuclear power plant staff and that his security pass was stolen.

Computer with suicide bomber’s note found in trash can

The paper also recently reported that Brussels suicide bombers Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui were planning attacks on Belgian nuclear power stations and that the arrest of Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam had accelerated the plans of the terrorists.

The brothers reportedly planted a hidden camera in front of the home of the director of the Belgian nuclear research program. The footage with “dozens of hours” of the movements of Belgium's nuclear boss was seized during an anti-terrorist raid in the apartment of another suspect belonging to the same terror cell, Mohammed Bakkali.

Similar information, but without the names of Brussels suicide bombers was published in DH in February.

Belgium is on high alert following the deadly Brussels attacks. On Tuesday, Brussels was rocked by twin blasts at the city’s Zaventem Airport and an explosion at the Maalbeek Metro station, just meters away from key EU buildings, less than an hour later.

Shortly after the deadly Brussels attacks, personnel from Belgium’s two nuclear power stations in Doel and in Tihange were promptly evacuated. DH also reported that soldiers have been seen at both sites in recent weeks.

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

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.

*  *  *
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 seeBelgium 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) s

urveillance 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."

*  *  *
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.

The latest report from Britain's channel four

Belgian prosecutor files terror charges against 3 men

A masked Belgian police officer © Vincent Kessler
A masked Belgian police officer © Vincent Kessler / Reuters

26 March, 2016

Three men have been charged with terrorist activities, the Belgian prosecutor said, adding that one of them identified only as Faycal C, was seen in security footage in Brussels’ Zaventem Airport, along with Brussels attackers shortly before the blasts.

Faycal C was charged with participation in terrorist groups, terrorist killings and attempted terrorist killings, the prosecutor said.

Two other men, identified as Aboubakar A and Rabah N, were also charged with terrorist activities and membership of a terrorist group. Rabah N was also wanted in connection with a recent Paris raid when police said they foiled a terrorist attack.

A man identified as Abderamane A., who was arrested on Friday after being shot in the leg at a tram stop in Brussels’ Schaerbeek district, will be detained for an additional 24 hours, the prosecutor said.

The man was arrested Thursday, the prosecutor said, adding that police searched the suspect’s house but didn’t find any explosives or weapons.

RTL cited police sources who said that the man fled Brussels’ Zaventem Airport shortly after the attacks and he was seen in the Schaerbeek area of Brussels nearly two hours after the bombings.

Faycal C was seen standing next to Khalid El Bakraoui, one of the suicide bombers in security footage in Brussels’ Zaventem Airport prior to the attacks.

According to Le Soir newspaper, his name was Faycal Cheffou. Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur told Le Soir that Cheffou was a journalist and called him “dangerous,” adding that the suspect had been previously detained at a park, where he had been trying to convince asylum seekers to become radical extremists.

Cheffou was identified by a taxi driver who drove the suspect Tuesday morning, Le Soir reported.

Belgian authorities urged that a march to show solidarity in the wake of the Brussels attacks, which was scheduled for Sunday, be postponed due to security reasons, RTBF reported, citing Brussels’ mayor and Belgium’s interior minister. Organizers of the “March Against Fear” later called off the event.

We totally agree with the authorities’ request to delay this plan for a later date. We in turn ask citizens not to come to Brussels this Sunday,” said march organizer Emmanuel Foulon, as quoted by Reuters.

On Tuesday, the Belgian capital was rocked by twin blasts at the city’s Zaventem Airport and an explosion at the Maalbeek Metro station, just meters away from key EU buildings, less than an hour later.

Belgian prosecutor identified two suicide bombers as brothers Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui. According to Belgium’s RTBF public broadcaster, both brothers, residents of the capital, were known to police for links to organized crime, but not for terrorism.

The third suspect in the Brussels airport attack was reported by Belgian media as Najim Laachraoui. Born on May 18, 1991, he is a native of Schaerbeek, a municipality located in the Brussels-Capital Region of Belgium.

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