The news set off an uproar 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.
PARIS — A suspect linked to the Nov. 13 Paris attackers was found with surveillance footage of a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official, Belgian authorities acknowledged Thursday, raising fears that the Islamic State group is trying to obtain radioactive material for a terrorist attack.
The existence of the footage, which police in Belgium seized 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 uproar 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 and about the ambitions of the terrorist network that used Belgium to plot the Paris attacks.
The International Atomic Energy Agency also confirmed Thursday a report by Reuters that radioactive material had been missing since November in Iraq, where the Islamic State group controls broad areas of territory, adding to fears that the group may be able to acquire material for an attack with newly disconcerting dimensions.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Winners and losers from the October Democratic debate
- Russian hacker indicted by Mueller is held in Belarus, then released
- 6 questions looming over the crowded 2020 Democratic debate
- The Latest: Bush-DeGeneres friendship prompts final question VIEW
- Owl vs. owl: Should humans intervene to save a species? VIEW
Belgian news media, citing sources close to the investigation, said the surveillance footage had been retrieved from the home of Mohamed Bakkali, who was arrested after the attacks and jailed on charges of terrorist activity and murder.
Belgian officials have said privately that Bakkali may have been involved in planning several attacks, not only those in Paris. Eight people are in detention in Belgium and charged with involvement in the November Paris attacks, which killed 130 people.
The purpose of the footage retrieved by Belgian police was not clear. But experts and officials speculated 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 the agency had been informed immediately about the footage and employees had been told to increase their vigilance. But he acknowledged that no additional guards had been hired or other measures taken to secure the perimeters of Belgium’s nuclear sites.
Berg said 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, 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 group 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, 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 Thursday, saying 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,” Nollet said.
Jambon responded that after viewing the tapes, the ministry had determined 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.