Fears Al Qaeda-linked scientist was planning nuclear attack on UK after MI5 learn he worked at top-secret British lab
- MI5 investigate brilliant scientist's links to world-famous Rutherford Appleton nuclear research centre
- French Interior Minister claims 'worst may have been avoided' after brothers' arrest
- Uncanny parallel to Dan Brown novel as scientist hunting for 'God particle' is held over fears he planned to attack Britain
Raid scene: French police at the modest flat in Vienne where Adlene and Halim Hicheur were arrested on Thursday
A brilliant young nuclear scientist who was arrested in France last week over alleged links to Al Qaeda had worked for a top-secret British nuclear research centre.
Last night fears were growing that Dr Adlene Hicheur – who was a researcher for the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire for a year – could have been planning a nuclear attack in the UK.
The French government said yesterday that the arrest of Hicheur, 32, and his brother Dr Halim Hicheur, 25, could have averted a terrorist atrocity.
They were seized after an 18-month investigation by French anti-terrorist police hours before Adlene Hicheur was due to travel to the laboratory where he now works at, CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research near Geneva.
Halim Hicheur carries out research at similar high-security scientific institutions around Europe.
The brothers’ council flat was stormed at 6am last Thursday by eight masked officers from the elite Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence (CDII), the French equivalent of MI5, and 20 armed riot officers.
With almost no noise, a spearhead unit rushed up the concrete steps leading to the cramped flat in Vienne, South-East France. A battering ram was used to break the lock and the warning ‘Armed police!’ shouted.
Large-calibre machine pistols and other weapons were aimed at those inside the flat, including the brothers’ parents and siblings.
Secret agents had been monitoring the brothers’ movements, and all their phone calls, text messages and emails were being bugged ‘in real time and minute by minute’, according to a security source.
‘It was like we were sitting on their shoulders. We knew exactly what they were saying.’
Mysteries of the universe: An aerial view of the Rutherford Appleton lab where Dr Hicheur worked
The source said that Adlene Hicheur had been ‘pinpointing nuclear targets’ but would not be more specific.
The scientists were being questioned last night at the maximum-security headquarters of the CDII on the outskirts of Paris while MI5 began trying to piece together their movements and contacts in Britain.
French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said both men posed such a serious threat that he had halted the long-running surveillance operation and ordered their ‘immediate’ arrest.
‘The investigation will reveal what were the objectives in France or elsewhere of these men,’ he said. ‘Maybe the inquiry will reveal that, thanks to these two arrests, the worst could have been avoided.’
Mr Hortefeux said the apparently mild-mannered, highly religious brothers were a ‘high-level threat’ who were suspected of ‘criminal activities related to a terrorist group’.
Last night, MI5 was understood to be examining their British links amid fears that they were plotting to launch a nuclear attack in the UK. A spokesman for the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory refused to release details about Adlene Hicheur’s time there.
Fears were growing that the men may have been in a position to smuggle nuclear material out of a secure lab for use in a ‘dirty bomb’ attack, or to plant explosives inside the sensitive facility.
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.
‘There are genuine fears that they were locating terrorist targets, especially in countries like France and Britain. Their level of expertise in nuclear fusion was improving all the time, leading to the terrifying scenario of a terrorist nuclear attack.’
The arrests followed surveillance that had logged the French-Algerians’ ‘every word and every move’, including frequent visits to England.
The Mail on Sunday understands that MI5 and British police had begun their own investigation into the two men after the French provided a full breakdown of their visits to, and work in, the UK.
The police will want to question anyone who has worked with or studied alongside either man at Britain’s scientific research centres or universities.
The brothers first came to the attention of French anti-terrorist officers when their names cropped up in an investigation trying to identify French jihadists fighting Nato forces in Afghanistan.
The decision to arrest them followed the interception of internet exchanges with people identified as having links to terrorists in Algeria. The messages reportedly included information on potential targets in France and elsewhere in Europe.
The brothers’ British links included Adlene’s work for the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, as well as research at university cities including London, Manchester, Durham, Edinburgh and St Andrews. They had also spent time studying at Ivy League universities in the US.
Adlene Hicheur is a former research fellow at the Rutherford Appleton and still visits the UK for conferences and other meetings. He and Halim are accused of compiling information about possible targets and sending it to contacts in North Africa involved with Al Qaeda Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The group is thought to have been behind a number of terror attacks in Algeria and has recently been linked to a call for vengeance against China for mistreatment of its Muslim minority during riots in July.
European intelligence sources said that Adlene Hicheur, who studied at Stanford University in California before moving to Oxfordshire, had expressed a ‘very strong wish to carry out attacks anywhere where Western security interests can be damaged’.
This included ‘countries like Britain and any others where Americans are well represented’, the source added, making it clear that neither brother had yet ‘carried out an attack nor put the material into place to do so’.
Adlene Hicheur is now working on analysis projects with CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The nuclear research body said he ‘was not a full-time CERN employee’ and claimed ‘his work did not bring him into contact with anything that could be used for terrorism’.
But there is no doubt that his role would have made him useful to terrorists, especially those keen to develop a nuclear capability.
The Mail on Sunday has learned that Adlene Hicheur used to work at another atomic collider – the two-mile long Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) at Stanford University in 2001.
‘Some people at the department were freaked out when they were told about the allegations against him,’ a source at the US Department of Energy said. ‘But there really is nothing to worry about because this lab conducts basic science.’
Unmarried Adlene Hicheur still lived with his elderly parents on the council estate in the working-class L’Isle district of Vienne.
‘The raid was a shock to all of us,’ said Veronique Reguillon, 48, who lives in the flat upstairs. ‘The police were in and out in a few minutes, with neither of the boys putting up any resistance.
Adlene is a quiet, studious type who never caused any trouble on the estate. He grew up here with his brother and three sisters. The family has had the same flat for 30 years.
‘His mum and dad are immigrants from Algeria and have worked hard all their lives. They are devout Muslims, with all the women in the family often wearing veils.
‘Adlene is a brilliant academic. Halim is like his brother – well-mannered, hard-working and studious. Their parents will be finding this very hard to take.’
Under French anti-terror laws, the brothers can be held for four days before being formally charged.
The antimatter bomb and the recipe for a Hollywood blockbuster
Chilling: Tom Hanks stars in the apocalyptic film Angels & Demons
The arrest of Al Qaeda suspect Dr Adlene Hicheur as he set off for his laboratory at CERN has chilling echoes of Hollywood thriller Angels & Demons, starring Tom Hanks as Professor Robert Langdon.
Based on the best-selling book by Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, the blockbuster’s apocalyptic plot opens at CERN.
In Brown’s story, a flask containing highly dangerous antimatter is stolen from a secret physics laboratory by an underground brotherhood called The Illuminati and taken to Rome, where they plan to use it to destroy the Vatican.
If antimatter came into contact with matter, they would violently annihilate each other. But in reality, the amount needed to cause such a mighty occurrence, and the expense and difficulty of producing it, mean this proposition belongs firmly in the realms of fiction.
CERN does produce antimatter in its quest to unlock the secrets of the universe and observe the hypothetical Higgs Boson which scientists refer to as the ‘God Particle’ as it gives all matter mass.
The Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile circular tunnel, tries to recreate conditions soon after the Big Bang 13.7billion years ago by blasting protons together at 99.99 per cent of the speed of light.
It took 20 years, 10,000 scientists, and £5billion to create, but the equipment failed soon after its launch in September last year. However, it should be operational next month.