Belgium on My Mind

March 26, 2016–The ISIS/ISIL terrorism story is moving quickly in the wake of this past week’s bombings in Brussels. I haven’t the time to write much but here are two quick points:

A lot is being made of supposed gaps in Belgian security, failure to prod the Abdeslam character on his knowledge of future attacks as if that were an intelligence failure. The truth is we’re talking apples and oranges. Police apprehended Abdeslam and the Belgians and French are building a criminal case against him. By definition that is a police matter. The nature of police work is that it is backward-looking, and oriented to legal action. Intelligence attempts to peer into the future. This is not an intelligence failure, it is an inevitable consequence of the orientations of different kinds of activity. I bet you Abdeslam, if only to brag, said something about the Paris attacks. Had he been shaken down first from the intelligence perspective, he would have clammed up (as he did in the event), and the Belgians would have gotten nothing out of him on any matter.

Also important is that Belgian intelligence and police action has evolved past the point where Abdeslam’s knowledge or lack of it is relevant. They have leads on other suspects, have already taken down different elements of the terrorist network, and are moving on from there.

Second point. Today’s speculation is about threats to Belgian nuclear plants. Some of the writing is breathless, as if a bunch of terrorists can waltz into a nuclear plant, extract a pile of uranium, and explode an atomic bomb. That’s highly unlikely. Apart from the fact that nuclear plants tend to have good security, the fact is that nuclear fuel elements are set into the reactors or held under a highly regimented (and secure) regime to protect from radiation leakage. Extracting fuel would require expert knowledge. Making nuclear fuel into a bomb would also require specialized knowledge. And equipment.

It’s not clear that an atomic bomb is attainable as a practical matter. A “dirty bomb,” in which radioactive material is used in a bomb in the same fashion as nails or shrapnel, is the more likely possibility. Either way, the radioactive material broadcasts its own energy signature so our terrorist would be in a race with security services looking for that giveaway.

The most likely scenario–if any of this should be regarded as at all probable–is an action designed to cripple a nuclear reactor in place, in effect, to trigger a Chernobyl or Fukushima. While an event such as that is certainly highly dangerous and would inflict grave damage, it is also within the range of failure modes which authorities have long considered possible, and presumably for which they have prepared contingency plans. I recognize this is a wish and a prayer, and that like many contingency plans, everything may go wrong when the moment for implementation comes, but this is a whole lot less dangerous than the specter of an atomic bomb exploding in a major city. Let’s try and keep some perspective here.

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