Country Report on Terrorism 2014 - Chapter 2 - Belgium

Overview: Belgian authorities maintained an effective counterterrorism apparatus that was overseen by the Ministries of Interior and Justice in 2014. They continued to investigate, arrest, and prosecute terrorism suspects and worked closely with U.S. authorities on counterterrorism matters. The Belgian government has formed a task force focused on countering radicalization to violence and developed a national strategy to address the issue.

The new coalition government, which assumed power in October, announced a number of new measures aimed at disrupting the significant number of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters who have traveled to Syria and Iraq. These include strengthening and enforcing legislation that would prohibit traveling abroad to participate in armed groups, and stripping dual nationals of their Belgian citizenship if they are convicted of these or other terrorism crimes. Belgian officials announced stricter enforcement of regulations that allow them to prohibit passport issuance of or revocation of passports to disrupt the travel of suspected foreign terrorist fighters.

As one of the leading countries of origin for foreign terrorist fighters in Europe, Belgium has focused efforts on identifying, disrupting, and decreasing the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. According to Belgian government statistics, of the estimated 358 foreign terrorist fighters of Belgian origin, approximately 47 have been killed and 87 have returned to Belgium. Both the Ministry of the Interior and the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (OCAM) continued their implementation of new strategies to address the foreign terrorist fighter problem in 2014. A December 2013 study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization estimated that Belgium has the highest per capita number of Syrian foreign terrorist fighters of any European country.

Belgium is an active member of the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), conducting air strikes and sending support personnel to the campaign against ISIL in Iraq. On December 18, the Council of Ministers approved the extension of the mission through June 30, 2015, as well as the deployment of up to 50 military trainers to Iraq in 2015. The number of personnel and length of the training mission will be determined based on a Ministry of Defense needs assessment.

2014 Terrorist Incidents: On May 24, a shooter killed four individuals at the Brussels Jewish Museum. Mehdi Nemmouche, a French-Algerian dual national arrested by French authorities a few days later near Marseilles, is the key suspect in the shooting. He was extradited to Belgium on July 30 and was in prison awaiting trial at year’s end. In early December, the French police arrested five additional individuals in Marseilles for their alleged participation in helping prepare for the Brussels Jewish Museum attack. Nemmouche reportedly fought in Syria with ISIL from December 2012 through March 2014.

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: The Belgian government continued to make use of counterterrorism legislation that was reinforced in 2003 to provide authorities with enhanced powers to investigate and prosecute terrorist suspects. On October 13, the Belgian government took the final step to implement the Prevent and Combating Serious Crime (PCSC) Agreement with the United States by publishing a royal decree in the country’s official register.

Following the May 25 general elections, a new federal government was sworn in on October 11. The government’s coalition agreement proposed a number of measures to be taken in the fight against violent extremism. The new ministers were in the process of drafting legislation at year’s end.

Belgian law enforcement units can capably detect, deter, and respond to terrorist incidents. The primary actors in this apparatus are the Belgian Federal police and its counterterrorism division, the Civilian and Military Intelligence Services, Office of the Federal Prosecutor, and the Crisis Unit. The Inter-Ministerial Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis plays a coordinating role, particularly with regard to foreign terrorist fighters.

Belgium worked closely with other Schengen zone states and Turkey to improve efforts to share information and interdict prospective foreign terrorist fighters traveling to Syria, including increasing border checks aimed at disrupting and decreasing the flow of the fighters. All new Belgian passports contain biometric data. Belgium has advocated for more systematic screening by partners at Schengen borders; of the approximately 20,000 asylum applications filed in Belgium in 2014, 94 percent were made at local offices in Belgium rather than at ports of entry into the country. Belgian officials have expressed concern that 80 percent of the approximately 10,000 unsuccessful asylum applicants simply disappear rather than accepting assistance to return to their country of origin.

Significant law enforcement and judicial actions related to counterterrorism included:

  • On September 29, the trial began in Belgium’s largest terrorism trial ever, against the “Sharia4Belgium” organization founder Fouad Belkacem (aka Abu Imran) and 45 other organization members, some in absentia, on various terrorism-related charges. A verdict had not been issued at year’s end.
  • On October 14, a Brussels Court handed down sentences to Rachid Benomari, Mohamed Said, and Mustapha Bouyahbaren for their participation in al-Shabaab activities in Somalia in 2011 and 2012. Benomari was sentenced to 18 years in prison, Said received a five-year sentence, and Bouyahbaren received a five-year suspended sentence. The three have appealed the ruling.
  • On May 21, a Brussels Court sentenced 19 terrorist suspects for their active or passive participation in al-Shabaab activities in Somalia.
  • On December 17, the Hof van Cassatie (Supreme Court) partially overturned the January 2014 appellate court ruling against the so-called Hamdaoui cell, also known as the “Sint-Jans Square Gang.” Hassan Hamadoui and other members of his cell were accused of participating in extremist chat rooms, of plotting possible terrorist attacks in Belgium, and of traveling to fight in Chechnya; all received prison sentences ranging from five to eight years. Hamdaoui’s appeal was rejected by the Hof van Cassatie and his 12-year sentence affirmed, but seven of his accomplices were granted a new trial because the prosecution failed to translate evidence and other documents into Flemish, as required by court procedures.

Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Belgium is a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) as well as the Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism (MONEYVAL), a FATF-style regional body. Belgium’s financial intelligence unit, the Cellule de Traitement des Informations Financieres (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. Belgium is also a member of the Egmont Group, a global association of financial intelligence units. According to the 2013 CTIF annual report (the most recent report), of the 1,168 financial crimes cases that CTIF referred to prosecutors, only 25 (2.14 percent) were connected to possible terrorist and/or proliferation financing, a slight increase from the previous year (1.32 percent).

For further information on money laundering and financial crimes, see the 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), Volume 2, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes:

Regional and International Cooperation: Belgium continues to be a leader in regional cooperation and information exchanges, and the agreement among the parties in the new coalition government specifically refers to the importance of sharing information as a component in combating violent extremism. Belgium participates in EU, NATO, OSCE, and Council of Europe counterterrorism efforts, and is a member of the advisory board of the UN Counterterrorism Center. In December 2013, former Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet hosted a ministerial meeting of her counterparts from EU member states affected by the foreign terrorist fighter problem. EU officials and representatives of the United States worked to develop additional areas of cooperation in border controls, radicalization prevention, and information sharing. In May 2014, Belgium hosted a follow-up meeting that was expanded to include officials from Turkey, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia.

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 Belgian Federal Police have provided training to counterparts in the Maghreb.

Belgium is not a member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) but has participated in GCTF workshops. Belgium is implementing UN Security Council Resolutions 2170 and 2178 to mitigate the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters and to restrict terrorist financing.

Countering Radicalization to Violence and Violent Extremism: Countering violent extremism (CVE) remains a high priority for the Belgian government. The government has identified unemployment, alienation, and discontentment as potential drivers of radicalization to violence in some communities.

Belgian government support for projects such as the city pair program between Columbus, Ohio and Vilvoorde is designed to facilitate positive community engagement between the government, police force, and the Muslim community. The city pair program allowed for community leaders to exchange best practices in countering violent extremism and improving integration, thus providing unprecedented access to the municipal services and local minority community of Vilvoorde. Based on this exchange, Vilvoorde officials hope to create law enforcement and community advisory groups, similar to the DHS Civil Rights and Civil Liberties/FBI roundtable for the Somali community; to begin diversity training for law enforcement; to develop online counter-narratives to ISIL propaganda; to establish teacher and student exchanges that focus on cross-cultural education and sensitivity training; to design positive media campaigns for Muslims; and to found a Citizens Academy for the Belgian police force, modeled after U.S. programs.

OCAM’s “Plan R” (Action Plan Against Radicalization) promotes a series of measures designed to address radicalization to violence in Belgium, including the exchange of best practices between agencies and regions, the refusal of visas to extremist preachers, the increased financial screening of Belgian extremists, the watchlisting of foreign terrorist fighters, and the facilitation of contact between social services and the families of foreign terrorist fighters and returnees. OCAM has also worked to develop better cooperation with the prison system, and now has plans for a prison de-radicalization program based on community policing models.

Among the components of the government’s strategy on preventing radicalization to violence is an effort to counter extremist messaging on the internet. The Ministry of Interior is working to increase cooperation with the internet industry in Belgium, working with the big five internet providers to suppress violent extremist content.

The government counter-radicalization strategy includes an interagency effort to support local government actors who work with returnees from Syria and Iraq to monitor their reintegration into society and provide them with guidance and support. The new government has suggested it may link the receipt of social services for returnees and their families to mandatory participation in de-radicalization programs.