Overview: Since the terrorist attacks of March 22, the Belgian government has been working through a list of reforms to bolster its ability to investigate and prevent future terrorist attacks. Despite allocating an additional €400 million (US $ 415,740,000) for counterterrorism and CVE efforts in 2016, however, Belgium still faced resource and institutional constraints. Belgium's complex, highly-decentralized government structure has hampered information sharing and cooperation among different levels of government. It has also contributed to uneven results in integrating migrant communities into mainstream Belgian society.
For several years, Belgium has taken an active approach to identify, disrupt, and decrease the flow of its relatively large foreign terrorist fighter problem. Several legislative changes helped fulfill many UN Security Council resolution 2178 obligations. In February, Belgium was the site of the inaugural U.S.-led Foreign Terrorist Fighter Surge Team designed to: identify new avenues of bilateral cooperation; assist in efforts to identify, disrupt, and decrease foreign terrorist fighter flows; and to promote greater domestic and international cooperation.
In 2016, the Belgian government created a centralized foreign terrorist fighters database to allow all Belgian law enforcement and intelligence agencies to share identities of known or suspected foreign terrorist fighters; the database contained approximately 800 names at the end of 2016. Belgian authorities reported approximately 450 Belgians have traveled to Iraq and Syria as foreign terrorist fighters, although the number of foreign terrorist fighter departures has been steadily decreasing.
The number of both departing and returning foreign terrorist fighters has slowed, raising concerns that radicalized individuals may have made the choice to remain in Belgium to commit violent acts. Since the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris in January 2015, the standard operating procedure has been to detain returning fighters until their cases can be assessed on an individual basis. Those who have not been connected to criminal acts overseas and who are believed to pose no risk of radicalizing others are generally released, but remain subject to additional monitoring by police and social service professionals.
Belgium is an active member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and participates in several of its working groups. Belgium currently deploys six F-16s in air operations in Syria and Iraq (in cooperation with the Netherlands), and its Special Forces are helping train Iraqi security forces as well as supporting, advising, and assisting them. Belgium also provided a frigate to escort the Charles de Gaulle carrier strike group in support of French Defeat-ISIS operations, and has contributed approximately 120 personnel in support of missions that include air-combat and air-combat support.
2016 Terrorist Incidents:
On March 22, suicide bomb attacks at Brussels National Airport (Zaventem) and at the Maelbeek metro station killed 32 and wounded more than 300.
On August 6, two police officers in Charleroi were wounded in a machete attack at a police station; the attacker was shot and killed by a third officer.
On October 5, two police officers were wounded in a knife attack in a park in Schaerbeek; the attacker was shot and wounded by a third officer.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Of the 30 counterterrorism measures proposed by the Government of Belgium since January 2015, 18 have been fully implemented, nine have been partially implemented, and three have yet to be implemented. Of the nine that are partially implemented, three are the subject of ongoing debate in Parliament (Passenger Name Record, pre-paid cards, revision of Article 12 of the Constitution), three have seen no legislative action but are already standard practice (detention of returnees, exclusion of hate preachers, and dismantling of unrecognized places of worship), two are moving through an administrative review to determine the exact parameters of a successful implementation (screening for sensitive jobs and extension of Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras, which uses optical character recognition on images to read vehicle registration plates), and one has been funded but is experiencing staffing and administrative problems (the Canal Plan, explained in the CVE section, below). Although implementation of these 30 measures has been slower than originally hoped, the Government of Belgium has steadily pushed forward to address what it deemed legislative and administrative vulnerabilities.
Belgium plays a significant role in international efforts to disrupt, prevent, detect, and punish acts of terrorism. The United States and Belgium maintained a close, cooperative counterterrorism partnership, collaborating on key bilateral homeland security initiatives. The primary actors in Belgian law enforcement are the Belgian Federal Police (BFP) and its multiple counterterrorism units, the Civilian and Military Intelligence Services, Office of the Federal Prosecutor, and the Crisis Unit. The interagency Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis plays an analytic threat assessment role, particularly with regard to foreign terrorist fighters, and advises the Government of Belgium on setting the national threat level. The Belgian National Security Council also plays a significant role in the intelligence and security structure. Belgian law enforcement and intelligence services disrupted several terrorist plots in 2016, including planned attacks targeting the EuroCup, a multi-national military installation, nightclubs in Brussels, and key international diplomatic personnel.
A Joint Investigative Team (JIT) between the Belgian Federal Police (BFP) and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation was formed on April 22, and a second JIT was formed in October. The purpose of these JITs is to speed up intelligence sharing between law enforcement and the United States to prevent future attacks and to better identify and disrupt terrorist networks. The cooperation has resulted in several arrests, the disruption of active terrorist plots, and the solidification of the criminal cases against the March 22 attackers.
Belgian law enforcement faces several impediments to more effective counterterrorism efforts including relatively light sentences after conviction, the inability to enter into plea agreements with defendants, the inability to task sources for active collection, the lack of empowerment for law enforcement officers (they can only do what the Investigative Judge directs them to do), and an overburdened court system that results from the lack of plea agreements.
Belgium was in the final stages of codifying the European Union (EU) Passenger Name Record (PNR) directive into Belgian law. Once Parliament approves, the legislation must be published in the official journal and then a royal decree drafted and signed. The Belgian PNR team was preparing two such decrees, one for PNR and one for Advanced Passenger Information. Belgium was in the process of negotiating with travel agencies, operators, and airlines on the implementation of the legislation.
This year has brought progress on information sharing under the Belgium-U.S. Preventing and Combating Serious Crimes (PCSC) Agreement. Belgium has a two-phase plan to implement the biometric information-sharing elements of the PCSC agreement that will make the PCSC tool available to the investigative process at both the federal and local levels. Belgium screens migrants against its own law enforcement and intelligence databases in addition to EU databases. Over the past year, Belgium has accelerated the pace of this screening and expanded the use of biometric screening, including fingerprints.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Belgium is a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and Belgium's financial intelligence unit. The Cellule de Traitement des Informations Financieres (CTIF) is a member of the Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units. Belgium has the core elements of a sound anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regime and continued its efforts to address areas of weakness, which include the implementation of targeted financial sanctions and information sharing.
The CTIF is tasked with tracking and investigating reports of financial crimes, including money laundering and terrorist financing, and has broad authorities under Belgian legislation to conduct inquiries and refer criminal cases to federal prosecutors. Money transfer and other remittance services are monitored and regulated, and Know Your Customer data is collected per EU directives. Non-Profit Organizations are regulated and monitored by the Ministry of Justice. UN lists of sanctioned individuals and entities are routinely distributed via gazette notices, although implementation through the EU regulations can take anywhere from several days to weeks.
For further information on money laundering and financial crimes, see the 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes: http://www.state.gov/j/inl/rls/nrcrpt/index.htm.
Countering Violent Extremism: Belgian authorities consider violent extremism as a complex phenomenon driven by political, social, and personal factors – polarization of ethnic and religious groups in society, terrorist propaganda, anti-Western religious ideology, the civil war in Syria, perceived or actual anti-Muslim discrimination, unequal distribution of educational or employment opportunity, criminality, and psychological disturbance. Many but not all Belgian-national terrorists or foreign terrorist fighters have non-terrorist criminal histories, have spent time fighting in Syria, have close familial ties to other criminals or terrorists, and often come from or have connections to poorer, mostly ethnic-Moroccan neighborhoods in Brussels or Antwerp.
Belgium's central counter-radicalization plan aims to identify people at the early stages of radicalization to violence to take appropriate measures. This strategy has been incorporated into the BFP Integral Security framework document designed to integrate policy at the federal and regional levels. The emphasis on the federal level is on pursuing and protecting while regional authorities focus on prevention and social measures. Belgium has undertaken efforts to reduce criminality, strengthen Muslim religious and community leaders, and reduce social polarization. The Ministry of Interior launched the "Canal Plan" in several Brussels-area neighborhoods with high rates of crime and links to terrorism. The plan includes an increase in police on the streets, a crackdown on drug-, arms-, and illicit-goods trafficking; promised reductions in petty crime; effective registration of all inhabitants in their official residences; and aggressive records checks of businesses and associations.
As part of its strategy to address foreign terrorist fighters, Belgium has created local security task forces focused on security measures, and local integral security cells focused on prevention and social service delivery for radicalized or potentially radicalizing individuals. Additionally, both public and private initiatives exist to attempt to reintegrate foreign terrorist fighters into Belgian society, as well as national programs and a federally supported network of de-radicalization specialists to work with foreign terrorist fighters. Belgium has increased police training under the joint Belgium-EU Community Policing and the Prevention of Radicalization program. The BFP has sponsored additional community policing initiatives, including one organized with Rutgers University's Department of Homeland Security Studies.
Belgium generally sentences convicted terrorists or supporters of terrorist organizations to prison. Countering the foreign terrorist fighter threat through prison de-radicalization is a top priority, and the Ministry of Justice has increased funding for radicalization-related counseling in prisons. Belgium has begun training imams who work with prisoners to recognize signs of radicalization to violence, and to identify possible recruiters; efforts are underway at some prisons to isolate radicalized prisoners to prevent the spread of violent extremist views.
The Government of Belgium has provided additional resources to strengthen the official institutions of Islam in Belgium to enable imams to act more effectively against terrorist propaganda, while regional governments have strengthened religious education and provided new training opportunities for religious leaders.
International and Regional Cooperation: Belgium participates in EU, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Council of Europe counterterrorism efforts, and is a member of the advisory board of the UN Counterterrorism Center. Belgium has also been an active proponent of Europol databases and EU-wide information sharing. As an EU member state, Belgium has contributed trainers and capacity building expertise to EU counterterrorism assistance programs in Sahel countries, including the Collège Sahélien de Sécurité; and the BFP provided training to counterparts in the Maghreb. Belgium currently leads the EU training mission in Mali to build Malian Armed Forces capacity to reduce threats caused by terrorist groups.
Belgium participates in all EU efforts to prevent and interdict foreign terrorist fighter travel across land and maritime borders, encouraging efforts to strengthen Schengen zone external borders, actively engaging in the Syria Strategic Communications Advisory Team, promoting the implementation of EU and domestic Passenger Name Record systems, participating in EU naval operation against human smugglers in the Mediterranean under Operation Sofia, and supporting the EU-Turkey agreement aimed at discouraging illegal migration to Europe. Belgium is also an active participant in Global Counterterrorism Forum workshops.