Monday, 30th October 2017

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PM to outline Brussels N-threat

Narendra Modi has made a habitual success of his political career by being at the right place at the right time. His two-day visit to Washington to participate in the concluding series of a biennial Nuclear Security Summit launched by Barack Obama in 2010 is no different.

By K.P.Nayar in Washington
  • Published 1.04.16
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets members of the Indian community in Washington on Thursday. (PTI)

Washington, March 31: Narendra Modi has made a habitual success of his political career by being at the right place at the right time. His two-day visit to Washington to participate in the concluding series of a biennial Nuclear Security Summit launched by Barack Obama in 2010 is no different.

By stopping over in Brussels on the way to Washington, Modi has positioned himself well to be a much sought-after attendee at the inaugural event of the summit: a heads-of-delegation-only working dinner at the White House to be hosted by the US President on Thursday evening, which will be 4am on Friday in India.

Most of the 50-plus heads of state and government attending the two-day summit will want a first account from Modi about his summit-eve discussions in Brussels with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, especially his 30-minute restricted meeting yesterday with Michel about terrorist threats to Europe and Belgian threat perceptions after the March 22 airport and Metro bombings.

The agenda for the White House dinner has fortuitously been tailor-made for Modi to hold forth since he was the last of the Nuclear Security Summit attendees to visit Belgium. Originally, Obama had asked important heads of delegations to make brief remarks at the White House dinner on "security threat perceptions".

After the Brussels bombings, the agenda was refined, and therefore, Modi and other select attendees will now intervene on "evaluating the threat".

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, had met the very same Belgian leaders as Modi on his way back here from Moscow soon after the bombings. But a week has elapsed since Kerry's meetings, so White House sources said Obama himself wants to hear Modi's assessment.

Belgium is a participant in the Nuclear Security Summit, but Michel has been held back by domestic developments on terrorism.

The kingdom will, therefore, have representation at a lower level. The minister of security and home affairs, Jan Jambon, has taken Michel's place, which has given Modi greater importance as a first hand briefer on Brussels than would have been the case if the Belgian Prime Minister had attended.

Quite unexpectedly, threats out of Belgium have been catapulted to the heart of the two-day Washington summit after shocking revelations that a David Headley-type reconnaissance agent acting on behalf of the Islamic State, better known as IS, may been scouting for nuclear materials in Belgium.

Carl Robichaud, who is an expert with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, told foreign media here covering the two-day summit that at a Belgian nuclear reactor, Doel 4, an insider recently released lubricant causing mechanical problems that caused about $200 million of damage to that reactor.

Hitherto, it was "not suspected to be linked to any kind of terrorism. It appears to be a case of sabotage, but they still have not figured out the perpetrators or the cause. But that was a major threat to the Belgian nuclear power plant there".

The March 22 bombings are giving those who are looking into this incident a pause and making them rethink.

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Matthew Bunn, professor and co-principal investigator at the project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University, wrote recently that a few months ago, Belgian police discovered that a secret video camera was used to monitor activity deep inside nuclear research sites with a wide range of radiological materials, including enough highly enriched uranium for several nuclear bombs.

The monitoring was done by the same terror cell that carried out one of the attacks in Paris. Bunn's account reads like a thriller. "Belgian terrorists recorded about 10 hours of video at Belgium's SCK-CEN research facility, near the town of Mol. Belgian authorities believe the hidden video camera was picked up by Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, brothers who are believed to have later been suicide bombers in the Brussels attacks. They reportedly delivered it to Mohammed Bakkali, now under arrest, who is accused of helping with logistics for the Paris attacks."

Most serious of all, Bunn has argued that "if the Belgian suicide bombers were the ones monitoring the nuclear facility, it is possible they first planned to attack the country's nuclear infrastructure. They may have shifted to the airport when their plans were accelerated by the arrests of co-conspirators, or because of Belgium's deployment of armed troops to guard its nuclear facilities." Chilling indeed!

It is not clear, however, whether Modi's advantage in being at the right place called Brussels at the right time and a consequently enhanced role at the Washington summit will be enough to paper over differences in approach on nuclear issues which have emerged between India and the US in the run-up to the summit.

Such differences, which both sides have been trying to keep from spilling out, came to the surface after national security adviser Ajit Doval met Kerry on the eve of Modi's arrival here from Brussels.

After meeting Doval, Kerry said about the situation in the Indian sub-continent: "We see in the region some choices being made that may accelerate possible (nuclear) arms construction, which we have serious questions about."

Kerry, of course, prefaced his sting with a sweetener that "India has a long record of being a leader, of being responsible, and it is particularly important right now at a time when we see in the region some choices being made". Unmistakably, the reference is to the NDA government's security and defence policies although, being a suave diplomat, Kerry would not spell those out.

Sweeteners aside, the Americans did not mince their words. Kerry added that "we have raised them (questions about South Asian nuclear arms race) with various partners in the region. So our hope is that this Nuclear Security Summit will contribute to everybody's understanding about our global responsibilities and choices...So I am delighted to have Ajit here. There are other security issues we need to talk about, but it is important to have this conversation."

In response, Doval passed the buck to his boss, the Prime Minister. "We attach considerable value to it, and Prime Minister Modi, who will be here, is deeply interested in seeing and ensuring that the safety and security of the radioactive material must be ensured."

In implied criticism of the previous UPA government, Doval added that "we have made many strides after the new government of Prime Minister Modi has come and we have taken our relationship to new heights.... We have been able to improve and achieve substantial results. We do hope that this cooperation will find a new strength...particularly with concerns about terrorism, about concerns about the cyber space...And we do hope that together, we should be able to make this place a better place to live and meet with these challenges together.