Last week I was in Las Vegas attending a banquet honoring retired intelligence officers, many of whom once worked for the CIA. Some of the guests were still active. Others currently work for the Department of Defense. There were four of us from the press.
I got to chatting in a three-way conversation with a former U-2 pilot and a current defense contractor who frequents the Pentagon (and therefore asked to remain anonymous).
“What’s going to happen if al-Qaeda gets their hands on WMD?” the pilot asked.
“They already have,” the defense contractor said. Then he told the story of how, just last January, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had bungled a WMD experiment using bubonic plague.
“None of you press wrote about that,” the man said, eyeballing me.
I had to correct him because I did write about that story — for Pajamas Media. My article cited two papers, the Sun and the Washington Times; I couldn’t locate any firsthand sources with access to the information. “How do you know that the information was correct?” I asked my fellow banquet guest.
“I was at the military briefing,” he said. Then he added that the briefing was not classified and included several members of the press.
“Why do you think that story wasn’t more widely reported?” I asked.
He said something to the effect of: there are some things the public finds easier to ignore.
I had the same reaction when I returned home from my trip on Friday night to read a single-line item on the Counterterrorism Blog: “Switzerland: Terror cops arrest Collider scientist linked with al-Qaeda,” it said. The Collider is the largest nuclear research facility in the world. For at least the next forty-eight hours the story did not appear anywhere in the U.S. press, despite the fact that the arrested nuclear scientist, a 32-year-old Algerian-born French man named Dr. Adlene Hicheur, was being described by France’s Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence as a “very high-level” operative with AQIM. That’s the same group who’d been experimenting with bubonic plague earlier in the year. Adlene Hicheur had attended Stanford University, in California, in 1999 and 2002.
Looking into the story, I quickly learned that the charges against the “mild-mannered, deeply religious” French Algerian were stunning. Authorities say Dr. Adlene Hicheur and his 25-year-old brother Halim, also a nuclear scientist, had provided al-Qaeda with data on terrorism targets including the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. That facility, located underground on the Swiss-French border, is not your average nuclear facility. It is a 17-mile underground tunnel track where scientists are trying to create anti-matter by smashing atoms together. The results, the scientists hope, will create mini black holes and allow scientists to further explore theories about what happened after the Big Bang created the universe 14 billion years ago. Throw terrorists into that mix and a lot could go wrong.
It was at the Collider that Dr. Adlene Hicheur has spent the last six years working as an independent contractor for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). “We can confirm that Adlene Hicheur was a member of the experimental collaboration at CERN,” a spokesman for CERN told the press. Equally alarming and according to the Daily Mail, the younger Hicheur brother “carries out research at similar high-security scientific institutions around Europe.” This includes a top-secret nuclear research center in England called the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.
French authorities have been watching the brothers for the past 18 months. According to Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, the decision to arrest the Hicheurs came after email correspondences between at least one of the brothers and known AQIM operatives had been intercepted by French intelligence agents. “According to European intelligence sources, MI5 had been warned that the suspects ‘are outstanding scientists who had been honing their techniques in nuclear fusion across the world,’” says the Daily Mail.
Both brothers are internationally known and respected scientists with access to top-secret nuclear facilities throughout Europe. To those who knew the brothers personally, the news came as a blow. “They were held out to young people here as an example of what you could achieve, whatever your background,” a local youth worker from the brothers’ French town of Vienne told an Indian newspaper, the Siasat Daily. “There is a state of shock at what has happened and some anger,” the worker said.
Angry or not, this story is not something anyone should find easy to ignore.