Country Report on Terrorism 2015 - Chapter 2 - Belgium

Overview: Belgium’s counterterrorism apparatus was overseen by the Ministries of Interior and Justice. Belgian officials continued to investigate, arrest, and prosecute terrorism suspects and worked closely with U.S. authorities on counterterrorism matters. The Belgian government formed a task force in 2015 focused on countering radicalization and developed a national strategy to address the issue. Major terrorist attacks in Brussels in March 2016 have further galvanized the Belgian government’s efforts to address counterterrorism shortfalls.

The coalition government, which assumed power in 2014, announced a number of new measures aimed at disrupting the significant number of Belgian foreign terrorist fighters who have traveled to Iraq and Syria. These include strengthening and enforcing legislation that would prohibit traveling abroad to participate in armed groups, and stripping naturalized dual nationals of their Belgian citizenship if they are convicted of violating these or other terrorism laws. Belgian officials announced they intend to more strictly enforce regulations revoking or prohibiting the issuance of passports to suspected foreign terrorist fighters to prohibit travel. Countering violent extremism (CVE) remained a high priority for the Belgian government, at both the national and sub-national levels. Following the January 2015 police raids in Verviers and the participation of several Belgian citizens in the November 13 attacks in Paris, the government established two plans to help combat violent extremism: a 12-point action plan in January and an 18-point action plan in November.

Belgium is an active Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) partner, contributing six F-16 aircraft and 120 support personnel to the Counter ISIL campaign in Iraq. Belgium also contributed approximately 30 military trainers near Baghdad Airport. In 2015, Belgium allocated US $56 million in humanitarian support for Iraq and Syria.

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 the Minister of Interior, 272 individuals have left to fight with ISIL, 80 of those are presumed dead, and 134 have returned to Belgium.

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: In January 2015, the Belgian federal government announced a 12-item action plan against terrorism. On June 29, the government released a report about the full implementation of the first tranche of the plan which included the creation of a new National Security Council chaired by the Prime Minister, the domestic deployment of the army when the threat level is raised, and the development of better de-radicalization programs in prisons. An additional five points were addressed by legislation passed by the federal parliament in July to strengthen the existing legal framework against foreign fighters. The legislation expanded the list of offenses that can be considered terrorism, made traveling abroad for terrorist purposes a crime, and expanded the ability of security services to use wiretaps to collect information. The new laws also allow the government to temporarily withdraw the identity cards or seize the passports of potential foreign terrorist fighters seeking to travel to Syria or Iraq and to revoke the citizenship of naturalized Belgian citizens convicted of terrorist offenses. The government is in the process of finalizing the remaining four points, which include mechanisms to identify providers of terrorism financing; improving information exchange between security, police and judicial authorities; revision of the Foreign Fighters Circular (concerns information management and monitoring measures for foreign terrorist fighters resident in Belgium); and revision of Belgium’s counter-radicalization strategy.

The government has been working to implement the necessary legislative changes to complete these measures. After the November 13 Paris attacks, the federal government announced an additional set of 18 preventive and counterterrorism measures. Promising additional funds to counterterrorism efforts, and creating a new ad-hoc parliamentary committee, the Belgian government renewed its commitment to European counter-radicalization efforts. This new counterterrorism strategy rests on four pillars: addressing hate speech, minimizing the threat of potentially dangerous individuals, augmenting security services, and encouraging international action. Measures that did not require legislative changes (the reinforcement of police controls at the borders, the deployment of additional troops to reinforce security) were implemented in 2015. The government continued its ongoing efforts to eliminate hate speech, targeting websites that incite hate, expelling hate preachers, and closing unsanctioned radical mosques.

The primary actors in Belgian law enforcement are the Belgian Federal Police and its multiple counterterrorism units, 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 the foreign terrorist fighter issue. As noted previously, the National Security Council now plays a significant role in the intelligence and security structure.

In 2015, Belgium worked closely with other Schengen zone states and Turkey to improve efforts to share information and interdict prospective foreign fighters traveling to Syria, including increasing border checks aimed at disrupting and decreasing the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. All new Belgian passports now contain biometric data. Belgian officials remain concerned that Brussels Airport is used by French, Dutch, and German foreign terrorist fighters to conceal their travel. Belgium has advocated for more systematic screening by partners at Schengen borders.

Following the Paris attacks, the Minister of Interior strengthened the controls at the French border. He also announced the installation of additional Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras throughout Belgium. In August, commenting on the failed attack on a Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris, Prime Minister Michel claimed that, we will have to, more and more, seek a new balance between freedom of movement and rights to privacy, but at the same time it will be necessary to accept some constraints.”

Belgian law enforcement and justice authorities have arrested and prosecuted numerous individuals suspected of recruiting fighters to go to Syria and Iraq. On November 19, media reported that federal prosecutors launched 275 terrorist cases in 2015; there were 84 such cases in 2011.

On November 9, prosecutors opened a new terrorism case in the Brussels Court against 15 suspects accused of inciting youth to go fight in Syria. The defendants in the case include Jean-Louis Denis, aka “the submissive,” Mohamed Khemir, Mickael Devredt, and Khalid Zerkani.

On February 11, the Antwerp Court handed down a ruling in the largest counterterrorism court case in Belgian history; the case involved 46 suspects, including 45 members of the now-disbanded extremist Salafist organization Sharia4Belgium. The Court ruled that Sharia4Belgium was indeed a terrorist organization that played an active role in the recruitment of would-be terrorists to fight in Syria and Iraq. Former leader Fouad Belkacem, also known as Abu Imran, was sentenced to 12 years in prison, while other leaders in the organization received 15-year sentences. Of the 46 suspects, only eight were present in the court; the remaining were reportedly missing, in Syria, or dead, and were convicted in absentia, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was the ringleader of the November 13 Paris attacks. The 45 Sharia4Belgium members were all found guilty of membership in a terrorist organization and of playing an active role in its terrorist activities; they received sentences ranging from three to 15 years.

Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Belgium is a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). 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 terrorism financing, and has broad authorities under Belgian legislation to conduct inquiries and refer criminal cases to federal prosecutors. The unit is a member of the Egmont Group. According to the latest 2015 CTIF annual report (which covers 2014), of the 1,131 financial crimes cases that CTIF referred to prosecutors, 37 (3.27 percent) were connected to possible terrorist and/or proliferation financing, a slight increase from the previous year (2.14 percent). For further information on money laundering and financial crimes, see the 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes:

Countering Violent Extremism: In 2015, both the Ministry of the Interior and the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (OCAM) continued their implementation of new CVE strategies to address the foreign terrorist fighter problem. The number of foreign terrorist fighters leaving Belgium decreased in 2015, but the government remained concerned about and engaged on this issue.

In addition to its ongoing CVE programs, the federal government identified 10 pilot cities facing particular radicalization threats, and funded specific countering violent extremism initiatives. Four of those cities are located in the Brussels Capital Region (Anderlecht, the City of Brussels, Molenbeek, and Schaerbeek), four in Flanders (Antwerp, Maaseik, Mechelen, Vilvoorde), and two in Wallonia (Liege, Verviers). The government originally allocated US $435,000 (later increased to US $ 650,000), to fund these counter-radicalization programs. In November, the government added a one-time US $1,089,055 grant to share between these 10 cities to strengthen their CVE efforts. Also in November, the federal government granted US $462,850 to be spread amongst five cities to fund local CVE efforts; the five cities are Charleroi, Genk, Kortrijk, Menen, and Saint-Gilles (Brussels region). In 2014, the Belgian government also supported a city pair project between Vilvoorde and Columbus, Ohio that is designed to facilitate positive community engagement between the government, the police force, and the Muslim community.

Among the components of the government’s strategy on preventing radicalization 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 providers to suppress violent extremist content. The government reiterated its dedication to combating online hate messages in its November counterterrorism measures.

The government’s counter-radicalization strategy includes an interagency effort to support local government actors who work with returnees from Syria to monitor their reintegration into society and provide them with guidance and support. In light of Belgian foreign terrorist fighter involvement in ISIL’s November 13 attack on Paris, the Belgian government has proposed imprisoning Belgian foreign terrorist fighters upon their return to Belgium, prior to implementing rehabilitation efforts.

International and Regional Cooperation: 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. 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 has participated in GCTF workshops.