A French investigating judge has filed preliminary charges against a physicist at the world’s largest atom smasher who is suspected of al-Qaeda links, a judicial official said.
The 32-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin, who works on the Large Hadron Collider, is suspected of involvement with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a North African group that targets Algerian government forces and sometimes attacks foreigners. He was arrested on Thursday in France.
Investigating magistrate Christophe Teissier filed charges against the suspect for “criminal association with a terrorist enterprise,” a broad charge that is often used in terror-related cases in France, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
French judicial officials have said the suspect has acknowledged that he corresponded online with the group and vaguely discussed plans for terror attacks. In line with French judicial policy, he has not been identified.
Under French law, preliminary charges mean the investigating judge has determined there is strong evidence to suggest involvement in a crime. It gives the investigator time to pursue the inquiry before deciding whether to send the suspect to trial or drop the case.
The physicist is one of more than 7,000 scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the border between France and Switzerland.
“This guy has a doctorate in particle physics, so he’s clearly an intelligent person. It does take some intelligence, it does take some dedication to achieve qualifications at that level,” said James Gillies, spokesman for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, which operates the collider.
At CERN in Switzerland, the suspect worked in a laboratory studying antimatter and the Big Bang theory on the origin of the universe.
Gillies said that security controls to access the office where the suspect worked were fairly light, but added that his “card didn’t give him access to any of the underground facilities” and that there was nothing that would have interested terrorists.
“There’s nothing in there that people can steal and use for terrorist ends, nothing at all. It’s all about personal safety,” he said.
There are areas where we have cryogenic liquids, high magnetic fields, particle beams and so on, where you need specialist knowledge to be able to go there,” Gillies said.
CERN featured in Dan Brown’s best-seller Angels & Demons, which was turned into a movie starring Tom Hanks. The plot hinges on a plan to destroy the Vatican with antimatter stolen from CERN. But that idea is “pure Hollywood,” Gillies said.
“If you run CERN flat-out, it would take 250 million years to produce the quantity that was stolen from CERN in Angels & Demons, Gillies said. “There are far more efficient ways of creating that amount of destructive matter. It’s not here that that’s going to happen.”
CERN has said that none of its research has the potential for military application, and that all its results are published in the public domain.
The suspect also worked in France and at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“We are pretty shocked and surprised,” said Jerome Grosse, spokesman for the institute, where the suspect worked as an instructor in experimental physics.
Grosse said that the scientist had not been seen at work for most of the year because he was ill but that he had been in touch via e-mail.
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