When Belgian police apprehended Salah Abdeslam on Friday, March 18, they prevented what could have been the single most devastating terror attack in history. Abdeslam’s arrest triggered the Brussels terror network to downgrade their plans, quickly attacking soft targets at the airport and metro.
Brussels La Dernière Heure newspaper reported Thursday that Abdeslam’s network had targeted Belgium’s nuclear power plants in attacks that would have been catastrophic. Footage obtained by investigators identified Tuesday’s suicide bombers, Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui, planting a hidden camera in front of the home of the director of the Belgian nuclear research program.
Ten hours of this footage had been seized in December 2015, during an anti-terrorist raid of the apartment of Mohammed Bakkali, who belonged to the same terror cell.
The cell had identified and tracked the program director for months, constituting a major security breach and leading to questions about the effectiveness of Belgium’s security services. Authorities indicated this week that the Brussels terrorist cell was also behind the November 2015 Paris attacks that saw over 130 people killed, including seven perpetrators.
The Tihange nuclear plant, a likely target of the plot, was evacuated following the Tuesday bombings in Brussels, and is presently guarded by the national army.
The incident is not the first time that terrorists have looked to attack a nuclear site in Belgium. In 2003, former Belgian-Tunisian professional soccer player Nizar Trabelsi plotted to attack an American airbase in Flanders, Belgium, where nuclear missiles are stored. Trabelsi was apprehended and extradited to the US, where he remains in custody.
Belgium has Europe’s highest known per capita participation rate in jihadist groups like Daesh. According to figures from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, Belgium supplies 40 jihadists per million inhabitants to the fighting in Syria and Iraq. In the study, Denmark comes in a distant second place with 27 jihadists per million.
As the capital of the European Union, Brussels has a population that is more than one quarter Muslim, leading to fears of future crackdowns against the minority population.