Officials Rule Out Militant Link To The Belgian Nuclear Guard Who Was Shot, But It Wouldn't Be Unprecedented

This photo taken on January 12, 2016 shows the cooling towers of Belgium's Doel nuclear plant belching thick white steam. They are part of a groundswell of concern in the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg over the safety of Belgium's seven ageing reactors at Doel and at Tihange, further to the south and east. / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Source: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Days after a terrorist attack that killed 31 people at the Brussels airport, a Belgian nuclear security guard was shot and killed, adding to the country's already high anxiety. On Saturday, officials made it clear that they did not believe there was any link to militants, also denying previous media reports that his badge was stolen in Thursday's attack. Still, even as local officials assure the public that this was not done at the hands of militants, it's understandable why the public would be suspect of a targeted attack on a nuclear facility.

Belgian paper Le Soir reported that the murdered guard worked at Belgian's national radioactive institute at Fleurus, which is outside of Brussels. Although Dernière Heure reported that the guard's security badge was stolen and quickly deactivated, local authorities with the Charleroi prosecutor's office denied the reports, which echoed throughout American media reports.

It's understandable why this news would send shockwaves through the public with an already tense situation in Belgium and active counterterrorism sweeps. At this point, even unrelated incidents can seem like a much bigger deal. But it's also important to note that, in the past, Belgium's nuclear facilities have been the subject of concern for the country's officials.

Dernière Heure reported that the suspected attackers originally considered targeting a nuclear facility. Their suspected plans were thwarted when they needed to speed up the timeline of the attack, and they switched their target to the capital.

According to the Washington Post, 11 days before the suicide bombs went off in Brussels, the Belgian government sent 140 troops to guard the two nuclear facilities, which have seven reactors between them. Up until March 11, the facilities were guarded by unarmed private security guards.

Belgium had a cautionary tale in one of its former employees Ilyass Boughalab. Boughalab, who was employed to inspect leaks in one of the nuclear reactors, had security clearances from 2009 to 2012. When he left Belgium for Syria, he was convicted for being a part of a group called Sharia4Belgium. He died fighting in Syria in 2014.

Although Boughalab's family says that he was radicalized after he received the security clearances, according to the Washington Post, Belgium had another scare when a plant had to shut down after someone opened a valve and drained out all of the lubricant, something the outlet called an act of "sabotage." The plant wasn't in danger, but the incident did cause extensive damage that caused it to shut down for four months.

The guard's murder might have been an unfortunate coincidence, but the fears stoked in its wake aren't unfounded.

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