ChapterPDF Available

Ponsaers, P. , Devroe, E. (2016). "How integrated is local prevention of radicalisation and terrorism?", in T. Renard (ed.), Counterterrorism in Belgium: Key Challenges and Policy Options, Egmont Paper n° 89 , 23-33.



The implication of Belgium-linked terrorists in the shootings and bombings on November 13, 2015 in Paris became more and more obvious during the police investigation that followed these events. Today we know that the bombings at Brussels Airport and the Maalbeek subway station on March 22, 2016 were committed by the same French-Belgian jihadi network. The consequence has been that many international observers focused on the Belgian police system, wondering why the Belgian police forces had not been able to prevent the radicalisation of these persons. In this paper we examine this question, explaining what happened during the period that preceded these assaults and decoding what the events mean for the Belgian police system today. In other words, this paper doesn’t go into the reaction to radicalisation and the subsequent violence itself, but into the preventive and pro-active actions that had been undertaken earlier to avoid the radicalisation of certain “at-risk” individuals and groups. The main argument we want to develop here is that a targeted prevention agenda was largely present in discourse, but to a great extent absent in practice. Further, we advocate that, if implemented, this kind of preventive approach would have been much more effective than the repressive criminal justice agenda now applied with respect to jihadi terrorism.
with contributions from:
Sophie André is researcher and lecturer at the Department of Criminology,
University of Liège, Belgium.
Elke Devroe is associate professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs,
University Leiden, The Netherlands. She worked previously for the Ministry of Justice
and the Ministry of Home Affairs, Belgium.
Nils Duquet is senior researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute. Since 2006 he has
undertaken and coordinated numerous studies on conventional arms and dual-use
export controls, domestic gun policy and illicit firearms trafficking in Europe and
France Lemeunier is a consultant on counterterrorism and counterterrorist financing
issues, on a temporary leave of absence from the Belgian Coordination Unit for
Threat Analysis (OCAM/OCAD). From 2002-08, she worked as a legal advisor for the
Federal Prosecutor’s Office, before joining OCAM/OCAD as strategic analyst.
Paul Ponsaers is emeritus professor and member of the Department of Criminal Law
at Ghent University, Belgium. He worked previously as journalist and head of the
Police Policy Support Unit within the Belgian Ministry of Home Affairs.
Thomas Renard is senior research fellow at the Egmont Institute, and associate
professor at the Vesalius College, Brussels. He studied (counter)terrorism at the
George Washington University, Washington DC, and later headed the Brussels office
of the Centre on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation.
Vincent Seron is senior researcher and lecturer at the Department of Criminology,
University of Liège, Belgium. He is also a member of the Centre for the Study of
Terrorism and Radicalisation (CETR), in Liège.
The Egmont Papers are published by Egmont – The Royal Institute for International
Relations. Founded in 1947 by eminent Belgian political leaders, Egmont is an
independent think-tank based in Brussels. Its interdisciplinary research is conducted
in a spirit of total academic freedom. A platform of quality information, a forum for
debate and analysis, a melting pot of ideas in the field of international politics,
Egmont’s ambition – through its publications, seminars and recommendations – is to
make a useful contribution to the decision-making process.
Table of Contents
Introduction: the need for debate. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
About this report’s aim and structure. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Key policy options to strengthen Belgium’s counterterrorism approach . . 7
30 measures against terrorism: penal populism between expected efficiency
and potential collateral damage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Which measures? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
The reaction dynamic and its underlying concepts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Criticisms: The expected efficiency and potential collateral damage
in question . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
And tomorrow? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
How integrated is local prevention of radicalisation and terrorism? . . . . . . . 23
The police reform of 1998 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
The unconditional belief in law enforcement. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
The local police and the municipality treated as orphans. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
The lack of co-ordination of the municipal initiative. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
The official response: the federal “Canal Plan” and the regional security
plan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
A new “Framework Document for an Integral Security Policy”? . . . . . . 31
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
Counterterrorism financing in Belgium: a new perspective . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
The disruption of terrorist financing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36
International framework to counter the financing of terrorism. . . . . . . . . . 37
Counterterrorism financing architecture in Belgium . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41
Different approaches to Belgian counterterrorist financing . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
The BELFI project . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
The domestic terrorist asset freezing mechanism. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47
The use of financial intelligence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49
Firearms acquisition and the terrorism-criminality nexus. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
Characteristics of the illicit gun market in Belgium . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 52
Belgium as the “hotspot” for firearms acquisition by terrorists? . . . . . . . . . 54
Combating the illicit gun market . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55
Bilateral, European and global: the 3 external layers of Belgium’s counter-
terrorism policy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58
Bilateral cooperation: partners of choice and necessity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60
European cooperation: Belgium as a leading force . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 64
Global cooperation: a comprehensive contribution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68
Strengthening the three external layers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71
Thomas RENARD1
Some days can never be forgotten. Tuesday, 22 March, started just like any other day
of any other week, as another grey morning followed another cold night in Belgium.
But at exactly 7:58, that morning turned into a living nightmare. Two individuals
detonated powerful bombs in the departure hallway of Brussels Airport. One hour
later, at 9:11 a.m., a third explosion in the Brussels subway confirmed that Belgium
was under attack. Thirty-two people died, and more than 300 were injured on that
tragic day. For most Belgian citizens and residents, this was more than a tragedy; it
was a traumatic event. Many could relate with the victims or with the location of the
attacks. Most people still recall exactly where they were, and what they were doing
at the moment they heard the news.
In many ways, the coordinated attacks of 22 March were Belgium’s own 9/11.
Without a doubt the bombings were the worst terrorist attacks committed on
Belgian territory in modern history, and they will long be remembered for that.
As surprised as many were, there had been serious warning signals. Authorities had
dismantled a jihadi cell in the eastern Belgian city of Verviers a year before the
Brussels attacks, in January 2015 – purportedly preventing its plans from coming to
fruition. However, when the suspects were tried in early 2016, the federal prose-
cutor described the Verviers cell’s plans as a ‘draft for the Brussels attacks’. Two
years prior, in May 2014, four people were shot and killed in the Jewish Museum of
Belgium in Brussels by a French citizen who had allegedly returned to Europe after
fighting for Islamist rebels in Syria. This is believed to be the first attack committed
by a so-called “returnee” in Europe, illustrating a new type of threat. Even though
intelligence services had been anticipating such a scenario for over a year, authorities
were unable to prevent the attack.
Many experts describe the present time as a period of unprecedented jihadi
activity. While that is partly true, not least with regard to the scope of the threat,
Belgium had in fact been confronted to terrorism long before the rise of the Islamic
State. The so-called Communist Combatant Cells (CCC) committed several notable
terrorist acts in the 1980s. In addition, Palestinian groups were targeting the
Belgian Jewish community during the 1970s-80s. Many decades earlier, in the late
19th century, Brussels was shaken by anarchist terrorism on several occasions.
Islamist terrorism itself is nothing new in Belgium. Several cells and networks
1The editor is grateful to all the experts and officials who have accepted to meet and share their knowledge
for this publication, under the condition of anonymity. I would also like to thank my colleague Rik Coolsaet
for his guidance, and Teri Schulz for her precious editing work.
related to Iranian-linked networks, the Algerian Armed Islamist Group (GIA) and al-
Qaeda have been dismantled since the mid-1980s.2
Given its long history of terrorism, Belgium has developed a number of tools and
policies to deal with this phenomenon over time. Still, authorities were unable to
prevent the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels and the radicalisation of a significant
number of young individuals. Of course it is true that no country is immune to
terrorism, and that there is no absolute security. It is equally true that terrorist
attacks are, by definition, a failure of counterterrorism policy. In this case, it is a
failure that will haunt most of us for a very long time.
Failures trigger criticism. In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris and Brussels,
Belgium became the world’s favourite scapegoat. ‘Belgium-bashing’ became a global
trend as journalists from all over the world converged on Brussels, touring the now
infamous Molenbeek area and camping outside the devastated Maelbeek subway
station. Belgium had been renowned for its beer, its chocolate, and its waffles; now
it was known for its terrorists as well – all ‘successful’ exports, apparently.
According to ‘Belgium-bashers’, the dysfunctional nature of the country’s politics
was to blame. Institutional complexity has resulted in a fragmented approach to
counterterrorism, which supposedly has made it easier for radicalism and terrorism
to take root. In this view, “failure” and “failed state” are synonymous. Critics also
blamed certain social policies and complacency towards political Islam, which
allowed the emergence of “Molenbeekistan”. More critical voices blamed the weak,
amateurish or even ‘shitty’ tradecraft of Belgian security services for the country’s
transformation into a “jihadi hotbed”, and perhaps even the “rear base of global
jihad”, some said. Furthermore, these critics claim that Belgian authorities’ leniency
had turned the country into “Europe’s favourite gunshop”, allowing jihadists to
freely prepare the logistics of their plots.
The lack of nuance in these criticisms is quite evident. Yes, Belgium is institutionally
complex, but many other complex federal states are also confronted with terrorism.
That complexity is a challenge in itself, but does not explain all the country’s
problems. Yes, some neighbourhoods such as Molenbeek have been marginalised
socially and economically, but how is that different from many other neighbour-
hoods in Europe and beyond? Yes, security services have suffered from a chronic lack
of investment over the years, but the same could be observed elsewhere in Europe,
particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.3
Don’t get me wrong. I am not denying that there are (many) problems in Belgium.
Producing more foreign terrorist fighters per capita than any other European country
2See for instance Coolsaet, R. Belgium and counterterrorism policy in the Jihadi Era (1986-2007), Egmont
Paper 15, Brussels: Egmont Institute, 2007; Renard, T. Fear Not: a critical perspective on the terrorist threat
in Europe, Security Policy Brief 77, Brussels: Egmont Institute, September 2016.
3Renard, T. ‘Why Belgium is not Europe’s jihadi base’, Politico, 31 March 2016.
and having connections to many foiled and successful plots across Europe, clearly
there are holes in Belgium’s counterterrorism strategy. The problem with Belgium-
bashing is that its lack of nuance has made it easier for those responsible to brush off
valid criticism, in spite of real underlying problems. At the same time, Belgium-
bashing has monopolised most of the public space available for debate and criticism,
making it more difficult to actually address these concerns. As a result, there is an
urgent need to identify problems with Belgium’s counterterrorism strategy, with a
view to devising a more effective response.
About this report’s aim and structure
The starting point of this project was the ambition to assess Belgium’s counter-
terrorism policy critically but in a nuanced way. More than six months after the
Brussels bombings, and one year since the Paris attacks, it is possible to conduct such
an assessment with the necessary distance, while remaining relevant to the ongoing
policy debate. In line with the Egmont Institute’s long established research agenda
on (counter)terrorism,4 a group of Belgian scholars was invited to contribute to this
It should be clarified here that it is beyond the scope of this project to provide a fully
comprehensive picture of the state of counter-terrorism in Belgium. Instead, we
have decided to focus on a limited number of issues, which we considered both
under-developed at the policy level and under-studied at the academic level. There
are other topics deserving of consideration, for which there was unfortunately not
enough space in this report – such as socio-prevention, so-called ‘deradicalisation’
programmes, or the development of effective counter-narratives to jihadi propa-
ganda. This leaves room for more research and projects in the future. Belgian
counterterrorism can only be reinforced with open and continuous assessment, in
which both academics and policy analysts have a role to play.
This report does not seek to replace or challenge important reflections already taking
place elsewhere, notably in the parliamentary commission investigating the Brussels
attacks, or in the oversight committees of the police and intelligence services. These
committees will identify specific mishaps, mistakes and failures that have led to the
attacks, draw important lessons and perhaps suggest reforms. Such work is essential,
but should not prevent broader scrutiny of key counterterrorism challenges in
Belgium. As such, this report and the work done elsewhere are complementary, all
motivated by the same objective: making Belgium stronger and more resilient
against terrorism.
4See some of the Egmont Institute’s publications on (counter)terrorism on our website: http://egmontinsti-
This edited volume contains five articles. In the first one, Seron and André assess the
30 counter-terrorism measures announced by the Belgian federal government in the
aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo and November attacks in Paris. After a brief discus-
sion and categorisation of these measures, they formulate nuanced criticisms
regarding their expected efficiency. They describe some of these measures as a form
of “penal populism”, a degree of posturing in the government’s response to the
attacks. A number of highly interesting points are raised with regard to the judicial
and penological measures announced, as well as with regard to the debate on data
Zooming in from the federal to the local level, Ponsaers and Devroe evaluate policing
measures in place to prevent radicalisation and terrorism. Their analysis shows that
Belgium’s response to local radicalisation has been far too reactive and focussed on
law enforcement instead of developing a more preventive and integrated approach.
They further emphasise that despite recent political initiatives, there is still a
problem of coordination between various layers of governance – particularly in
Brussels – which further limits the efficiency of counterterrorism and counter-
radicalisation policies.
Lemeunier focusses on the countering of terrorism financing, a topic that has long
been neglected in Belgium – and everywhere else. After illustrating the growing
importance of this phenomenon and mapping the actors involved, she highlights
some of the key challenges as well as key advantages of a more sophisticated
strategy against terrorism financing. Indeed, according to her, more could be done
to use financial tools with a view to gathering intelligence on terrorist individuals, to
dismantle networks and even to foil plots.
The terror-crime nexus is another aspect that has been neglected for too long in
Belgium. Duquet explores the deadly connection between terrorism and illicit
firearms acquisition, starting from the fact that the Paris and Brussels attackers
bought their assault rifles in Belgium via pre-existing criminal ties. After describing
the illicit firearms market in Belgium, Duquet reviews some of the recent attempts to
curb this problem at the national and European levels and argues that more needs to
be done in this field.
In the final article of this report, Renard zooms out to the international level. Given
that the terrorist threat is of a global scope, and that it has many transnational ramifi-
cations, no counterterrorism policy can be effective without a robust external dimen-
sion. Renard maps the various “external layers” of Belgium’s counterterrorism
efforts at the bilateral, European and global levels. Emphasising the growing impor-
tance of these efforts, and acknowledging their limits, he highlights the different
dynamics underpinning Belgium’s actions at each level.
Key policy options to strengthen Belgium’s counterterrorism
Overall this report shows that the counterterrorism picture is not as bleak as
‘Belgium-bashers’ suggest. While recognizing that a lot remains to be done, the
various contributions of this report also highlight recent efforts as a sign of encour-
aging progress. As important as it is to look backward, and understand what could
have been done better or differently, it is perhaps even more important to look
forward and understand what should be done now. Based on the recommendations
concluding every article of this report, and drawing from recurring themes across the
report, I identify hereafter eight key policy options that could guide future develop-
ments in counterterrorism:5
1. The efficiency of the Belgian counterterrorism policy must be regularly evalu-
ated in a comprehensive manner. A number of measures, instruments, laws and/
or institutions have been approved over the past months. While this is good news
overall, this evolution must be closely monitored to ensure that counterterrorism
goes in the right direction, notably in terms of expected efficiency. It is not only
the effectiveness of individual measures that must be assessed, but also the way
each measure interacts and complements others. For instance, more resources
for counterterrorism may be needed, but will prove ineffective or even counter-
productive if they are reallocated from the fight against organised crime or
money laundering, given the connections between these phenomena. A broader
evaluation of overall counter-terrorism policy must also take place, in order to
identify possible loopholes and inconsistencies.
2. An effective counter-terrorism strategy must be comprehensive. It should look
well beyond the narrow traditional elements of counter-terrorism. To succeed,
the scope of the strategy must include social and economic policies, as well as
‘peripheral’ security policies, such as crime and financial security, but also cyber-
security, among others. The point is certainly not to say that all these policies
should be subsumed into counter-terrorism objectives – because that could also
prove counterproductive – but simply to acknowledge that these other policies
have significant implications (or ‘“externalities”) for the fight against terrorism.
The new security strategy (see recommendation 6) partly addresses this issue, but
it is far too soon to assess its ability to trigger this more comprehensive approach.
3. A shift in the counterterrorism approach is needed. Belgium relies too heavily on
a reactive and repressive response to terrorism, while underestimating the value
of a preventive approach. In a number of areas there is room for developing more
preventive and proactive measures, including (community) policing, local
5While these policy options are drawn as a conclusion from this report, they do not necessarily reflect the
individual views of this report’s various authors. The editor takes sole responsibility for them.
counter-radicalisation policies, counterterrorism financing or the fight against
arms trafficking. A strategy that aims to tackle early on all the elements contrib-
uting to the emergence of radicalisation and terrorism will be more effective than
a policy that strictly reacts to illicit activities. It may be more expensive to imple-
ment, but it is far cheaper than dealing with the social, economic and political
consequences of a major terrorist attack.
4. As a corollary to the previous point, certain aspects relating to the centrality of
the judiciary approach must be reconsidered. In Belgium, as opposed to several
neighbouring countries, most terrorist files are transmitted very rapidly to the
judicial authorities, which has practical consequences for the manner in which
investigations are conducted as well as on the type of information collected,
while it can also slow down investigations. It is argued in this report that intelli-
gence services and local actors could play a greater role in the prevention of
terrorism, ahead of the transmission of files to the judiciary authorities.
5. Counterterrorism efforts must be articulated across several layers of govern-
ance, in order to develop their full potential. In Belgium, this means that policies
must be tailored at the local level, but also coordinated at the level of the feder-
ated entities (in charge of socio-economic and education policies, among others),
and of course at the federal level (in charge of security and judiciary policies). The
national fragmentation of competences makes it more complicated to develop a
coherent and coordinated strategy against terrorism, as illustrated by several
articles in this report. While progress has been recorded in this area, more
remains to be done. The counterterrorism response cannot just stop at the
border, however. Many aspects must be coordinated with neighbouring coun-
tries, as well as at the European and global levels. Many efforts have been made,
notably to implement all EU and international regulations and recommendations.
Perhaps Belgium could go a step further now and become more of a global leader
in this area.
6. The new Belgian security strategy must be fully implemented. Belgium finalised
its long-awaited Framework Note on Integral Security (2016-19) earlier this year,
which is the guiding document for security policy at every level of the state,
encouraging horizontal cooperation across different security areas, but also
vertical coordination with all competent layers of the state. The fight against
terrorism appears prominently in the Framework Note. Whereas the govern-
ment’s document partly addresses some of the recommendations of this report,
it remains to be seen how much it can actually drive an integrated counter-
terrorism policy, and how the objectives and priorities established in the Frame-
work Note will be implemented in practice. For instance, it is unclear how
Belgium will coordinate its seven action plans against radicalisation (two federal
action plans, a general one and one on radicalisation in prisons, but also five
action plans from the federated entities). This calls for a close monitoring and
assessment over time.
7. The gap between the growing pressures and expectations that rest on security
services, and the limited means available to them must be addressed. The work-
load of these services has increased as a result of the increasing number of
terrorist-related activities in Belgium over the last two years, but also as a conse-
quence of all the new tasks and missions resulting from national and interna-
tional decisions. During their recent parliamentary hearing, the heads of both
national intelligence agencies emphasised that Belgian services are under-
resourced compared to neighbouring countries, whereas the threat is propor-
tionally higher.6 This gap between a growing workload and available resources is
a challenge to address, particularly in times of budgetary austerity. Some addi-
tional resources and capacities were promised as part of the “30 measures”
announced by the government, but it will take time to make these resources fully
available and operational. Beyond budgetary constraints, the main challenge
here is to respond quickly and flexibly to a threat that is continuously evolving
and may have fundamentally changed by the time additional means are made
available or new measures implemented. In other words, structural adjustments
as demanded by intelligence chiefs may be needed, but will not be sufficient by
themselves. Moreover, structural solutions must beware of developing
tomorrow’s response to yesterday’s problem.
8. Last but not least, counterterrorism efforts must be sustained over time. As time
passes and political pressure decreases, it will be a growing challenge to ensure
that these efforts do not falter. Counterterrorism fatigue and security disinvest-
ment have led to the current situation. Our past sins should not be repeated.
6Al-Bouchouari, Y. ‘La Sûreté de l’Etat et le SGRS handicapés par le manque de moyens’, L’Echo, 6 October
Vincent SERON and Sophie ANDRÉ1
The terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 and in Brussels in March
2016 prompted Belgian authorities to announce a series of 30 measures dedicated
to increasing the efficiency of their fight against terrorism. More precisely, the
Belgian government released two sets of measures. The first is a package of 12
counterterrorism measures, released in January 2015, a consequence of both the
Charlie Hebdo and Vincennes Hypercasher terrorist attacks and the joint police
operation, involving Belgian and French forces, mounted a few days later in Verviers,
Belgium to dismantle a terrorist cell about to launch an attack. The second set of 18
measures was announced in the days following the Paris terrorist attacks November
13, 2015.
This article focuses on these 30 measures, which represent one of the most visible
and immediate Belgian responses to current terrorist threats. It aims to describe the
reaction of the Belgian authorities, to assess the nature of this reaction and to
examine the underlying questions it raises in terms of expected and projected
efficiency as well as the balance between security and privacy. This article will also
discuss whether or not these measures can be seen as “typical” in the field of
counter-terrorism and more generally in the field of criminal policy.
Which measures?
In real terms, the total of 30 measures is not exactly precise given that there is some
overlap between the two packages. It is also important to stress that the degree to
which these measures have been realised is highly variable. Some of them have
indeed already been adopted and implemented while others are only at the concep-
tual or draft stage. It is also highly probable that some of these measures will never
be implemented, for various reasons ranging from technical problems to questions
of applicability. These measures can be divided into four categories: modification of
the legal framework, criminal policy, information gathering/sharing and structures/
1The authors would like to thank Professor Michaël Dantinne (University of Liège) for his useful suggestions
and comments.
Box 1: Belgium’s 30 measures against terrorism
18 measures announced in November 2015:
1. €400 million for security and the fight against terrorism
2. Reinforcement of police controls at the borders
3. Deployment of 520 military to reinforce security
4. Particular research methods. New technologies for the intelligence services
(voice recognition, expansion of wiretapping including arms trafficking) [revi-
sion of penal code needed]
5. 72 hours of administrative detention for acts of terrorism instead of 24 hours
[revision of Constitution needed]
6. House searches 24 hours a day for terrorist offenses. End of the exception
forbidding house searches between 21:00 (9pm) and 05:00 (5am)
7. Foreign fighters: deprivation of liberty and jailed upon return to Belgium
8. Electronic bracelet for people who are registered by the threat analysis
services: an adversarial procedure will be introduced in order to impose elec-
tronic control bracelets.
9. Belgian PNR (Passenger Name Record)
10. Screening of all hate preachers in order to place them under house arrest,
deprive them of their liberty or to expel them
11. Dismantling of unrecognized places of worship which propagate jihadism
12. End of anonymity for pre-paid cards
13. Plan Molenbeek: prevention and repression (renamed Plan Canal)
14. Reinforcement of the screening before access to sensitive jobs
15. Extension of the network of cameras recognizing license plates
16. Closing down websites preaching hate
17. Evaluation in order to adapt legislations linked to the state of emergency.
Possibility for temporary and exceptional measures to ensure public safety
18. Participation in the international fight against IS. Frigate Leopold I: escorting
mission of the French aircraft carrier “Charles de Gaulle”. Air strikes in rota-
tion with the Netherlands
12 measures announced in January 2015:
1. Insertion in the penal code of a new terrorist offense, relating to travel abroad
for terrorist purposes
2. Extension of the list of offenses leading to the use of specific research
3. More options for withdrawal of Belgian citizenship
4. Temporary withdrawal of the identity card, refusal to issue and withdrawal of
Measures aiming at modifying the legal framework include changes to the Belgian
Criminal Code and Belgian Criminal Procedure. It is worth noting that three new
terrorism-related offences had already been added to the criminal code in 2013,
concerning recruitment, provision and acquisition of terrorist training and public
incitement to commit terrorist offences. Travelling abroad for terrorist motives was
established as a specific criminal offence through the act of 2015/07/20, as is also the
case in other European countries like Spain or Germany. This same law has also
broadened the scope of special investigative methods – wiretapping, for example –
to include all terrorism offences classified as criminal under Belgian law. It has also
enlarged the range of cases in which Belgian nationality can be revoked for individ-
uals having double nationality. This legal disposition found a kind of corollary in the
act of 2015/08/10, which modified the consular code to allow the refusal, withdrawal
or invalidation of passports of individuals perceived as a threat to public order or
national security.
Apart from the legislation already in force, some of the measures related to the legal
framework are still waiting to be concretised. Within this subgroup of “legal
projects”, one can find a revision of the criminal code allowing intelligence services
to use special new investigative methods such as voice recognition and broadening
the scope of wiretapping to include suspected arms trafficking and other terrorism-
related offences. The same bill – which is still before parliament – also includes
powers to conduct house searches 24 hours a day in cases of suspected terrorism2.
The Belgian government has also expressed its wish to expand the duration of admin-
istrative arrest in terrorism investigations, from 24 to 72 hours. However, this last
5. Structural reform of the Intelligence and security structures. Establishment of
a National Security Council
6. Activation of the legally established mechanism to identify persons involved
in the financing of terrorism and whose assets will be frozen
7. Revision of the “Foreign Fighters” circular note of 25 September 2014
8. Optimization of the exchanges of information between the authorities and
the administrative and judicial services
9. Revision of the 2005 plan against radicalization
10. Fight against radicalism in prisons
11. Calling in the Belgian army for specific monitoring missions
12. Strengthening of the capacity of the State Security Service and transfer of the
VIP protection to the federal police
2These were forbidden between 9.00 PM and 5.00 AM except in cases of drug-trafficking related offences,
“in the act” offences and those realized with the consent of the “searched” person.
change will require modification of the Belgian constitution. The government has
also finally opened the door to an assessment of the options for creating longer-
running states of emergency, which could be used in exceptional circumstances as
have already been declared in France, for example.
Several measures can be classified in the “criminal policy” category, which is defined
here as all repressive measures used in the fight against terrorism but which are not
strictly juridical. Here again, few of these measures have at this stage been fully
implemented. The first subgroup mainly targets the “returnees”, Belgian citizens
who’ve gone abroad to fight with Islamic State (ISIS) and now want to come back and,
more generally, those individuals who are registered by the security services. In the
case of “returnees”, the Belgian government has declared it wants to systematically
deprive them of their liberty upon their return to Belgium. For those who are more
generally registered as “threats” to national security and who have not necessarily
been implicated in “foreign terrorism fighting”, the rule would involve placing them
under electronic surveillance.
The particular question of the relationship between prison and radicalisation is also
on the radar in Belgium. Authorities have opened prison sections specifically
dedicated to housing radicalised detainees to keep them from spreading their ideas
to others. Prison personnel are now being trained to improve both their awareness
of the risk of radicalisation during imprisonment and the efficiency of professional
care for those convicted of terrorism.
Another subgroup of measures is directly linked to security. In this field, the centre-
piece of the plan is the use of the military for security duties since January 2015. This
was demonstrated in the “Brussels lockdown” November 21-25, 2015 and increased
after the Brussels terrorist bombings in March 2016. This was accompanied by “Plan
Canal”, conceived by the Belgian Ministry of Home Affairs, which focuses on eight
municipalities in Brussels and surrounding areas, intending to monitor those locali-
ties perceived as vulnerable to radicalisation. It prioritises monitoring imams and
mosques and trying to eradicate the illegal economy. “Plan Canal” will take place in
tandem with a reviewed “National Action Plan against Radicalisation” launched in
2005, whose goal is to foster cooperation between the federal state and federal
entities. Both of these plans are in line with the established policy of excluding hate
preachers by means of incarceration, house arrest or expulsion from the territory.
The plans also demonstrate authorities’ determination to detect and dismantle
unrecognised and sometimes hidden places of worship that propagate radical and/
or jihadist messages. The same approach will be applied to websites disseminating
hate: The Belgian government has reaffirmed its determination to close them down.
To complete this set of measures, attention will be given to the freezing of assets
used for financing terrorism.
Information gathering/sharing is another crucial aspect of Belgian counter-terrorism
strategy. This is why optimisation of the exchange of information between all the
administrative and judicial services involved in the fight against terrorism is a central
principle of the Belgian reaction to the 2015 terrorist attacks. To enhance this
exchange of information, the duty of the Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment
(CUTA)3 to compile all data relative to radicalisation and terrorism emanating from
various services was strongly reaffirmed. CUTA has also created a dynamic database,
whose objective is to collect specific information about Foreign Terrorist Fighters,
which became fully operational in September 2016. Notwithstanding progress made
with regard to its establishment at the European level, a decision was made to create
a Passenger Name Record (PNR) at the Belgian national level. This database is used
to centralise data initially for passengers using flights, and at a later stage will include
high-speed trains and boats, in order to identify potential “red flags”. Several scree-
ning initiatives have also been announced with a particular focus on checks at Belgian
borders, monitoring of imams and mosques, and access to “sensitive” jobs.
Finally, the last category of measures includes the creation of new structures/infra-
structures. The most noteworthy of these was the setting up of the National Security
Council which is chaired by the prime minister and whose main duties include
defining general intelligence and security policy, fostering coordination and deter-
mining the priorities of the intelligence and security services4. This council is also
responsible for coordinating the fight against the financing of terrorism and the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. A “Foreign Fighters” task force and a
“Returnees Platform” have also been created, both of which demonstrate again the
particular attention being paid to the jihadist phenomenon.
The reaction dynamic and its underlying concepts
Beyond the nature and content of the 30 measures, the fact that stands out is how
quickly the Belgian authorities responded to events by proposing the measures:
there was only one day between Verviers and the first dozen measures and six days
between the Paris attacks in November and the 18 remaining measures.
As stressed by authors like Attali, we live in contemporary societies that are charac-
terised by competition between several timescales wherein the time of the media
and the market dominates all the other times or rhythms, including that of law/
police/justice or politics5. This media/market dictatorship has to be coupled with the
rise of what is labelledpenal populism” in order to understand the rapidity of
3Also known by its French/Dutch acronym: OCAM/OCAD.
4Beyond the prime minister, this council is composed of the minister of justice, the minister of home affairs,
the defence minister and all the vice prime ministers. Depending on the agenda, various other actors can be
invited to participate, such as directors of intelligence, judicial or police services.
5Attali, J., “ Les quatre échelles du temps”, Slate, 16th May 2011, [Online],
dsk-attali-quatre-echelles-temps, consulted on 01/06/2016.
governmental reactions after the terrorist attacks. The concept of “penal populism”
is quite hard to define precisely6 but is described by authors like Beck7 as a major
tendency in western postmodern societies, marked by a generalised need and call for
security. The “risk society”, as labelled by Beck, is prone to creating moral panic,
which can be defined as an apparent increase – from a quantitative and/or a qualita-
tive point of view – in a particular form of crime8.
The mass media play a determining role in this process, putting crime in the top
headlines so that this topic occupies a disproportionate place, especially when
compared to other social problems that have nothing to do with crime but which are
totally non-mediatised. This hyper-mediatisation process may cause a spike in atten-
tion that is interpreted by politicians as an urgent “call for reaction” emanating from
a “frightened public opinion”. In this logic, the sense of urgency calls for decisions
that have to be taken immediately and this implies bypassing the traditional prepara-
tory work that normally – or ideally – precedes the design of any criminal policy and/
or the drafting and implementation of any law.
This latter sequence highlights how penal populism works: rapid answers that aim to
reassure an anxious public after a very mediatised and emotional criminal act. The
nature of the answer given in the context of penal populism is usually repressive or
“tough on crime” because this way of dealing with the “problem” is perceived both
by those who decide and those who observe the reaction as the most appropriate
one. But the process does not stop at this stage. As described by the concept
“Memorial Crime control” by Sasson, the rhetoric to explain or present crime that is
overwhelmingly used in the media and on the political scene portrays offences as
resulting from a default in the control system9. Depicting the lack of controls as
almost the sole explanation of crime gives rise to a natural call for the apparently
obvious answer: controls need to be extended and reinforced! More generally, all of
the foregoing tendencies – media/markets time dictatorship, timescales, risk society,
moral panic, default in the control system and penal populism – are consistent with
the concept of “new penology” that characterizes post-modern and liberal societies
and whose main objective is to create apparent security by maintaining crime at
acceptable levels10.
Terrorism and counterterrorism, at the Belgian level, fit perfectly within this picture.
Because the attacks in Paris and Brussels were highly mediatised in Belgium, they
may have been a source of great fear and anxiety not only for those that were
6See Roberts, J.V., Hough, M., Understanding Criminal Attitudes to Criminal Justice, Open University Press,
Maidenhead, 2005, 201 p.; PRATT, J., Penal Populism, Routledge, New York, 2007, 211 p.
7Beck, U., Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London, Sage, 1992, 272 p.
8Cohen, S., Folks Devils and Moral Panics, 3rd ed., Routledge, New York, 2002, 327 p.
9Sasson, Th., Crime Talk – How citizens construct a social problem, Aldyne De Gruyter, New York, 1995,
192 p.
10 Simon, M.M., Feeley, J., “The New Penology: Notes on the Emerging Strategy of Corrections and its Implica-
tions”, Criminology, 1992, Vol. 20, N°4, 449-474.
directly hit by the attacks but also for the population in general which can be consid-
ered as the indirect victim of terrorism11. This creates fertile ground for what Ahmed
calls “the emotionalisation of the war on terror”, which is rooted in the perception
of the existence of a global threat and which facilitates the legitimisation of the
expansion of social control12. This also refers to what Roach called the “9/11 effect”,
describing policies and practices designed to shore up the security of the state and
to reassure apparently anxious citizens13. In a kind of implacable and systematic
process, the question of where the control systems have failed was placed directly
under the spotlight. This fact is now so well-known that it is anticipated by those who
want to avoid potential criticism, as demonstrated by François Hollande’s discourse
after the Paris November attacks, “planned in Syria, organized in Belgium and perpe-
trated in France”. This statement can be interpreted as an attempt to avoid criticism
of any control failures in France14. The communication of measures by the Belgian
government directly after the “events”, coupled with the fact that a significant part
of these measures has not yet been realised months later, seems to attest to the
predominance of the media/market timescale using the terminology of Attali, even
if it has to be taken into account that some juridical measures require time to be
The true nature of these measures needs a deeper and more balanced analysis in
order to determine whether or not they are symptomatic of the inter-related
tendencies described above. The greater part of the 30 measures is undoubtedly
coercive – directly or indirectly – and repressive. From this point of view, they are
consistent with penal populism, risk society and/or new penology as they extend
controls and create tougher criminal law. They indeed increase the scope of criminal-
ised behaviors, they reinforce penalties, they plan to collect and exploit more data
and they institute new structures dedicated to the fight against terrorism. But one
must keep in mind that this view may be biased by the fact that the 30 measures
studied here are those formulated by the Belgian federal state. In Belgium, a lot of
prerogatives that can have an impact on some aspects of terrorism or radicalization,
from a non-repressive viewpoint, are in the hands of federate entities and thus fall
outside the focus of this article. Notwithstanding this, it appears that all the afore-
mentioned concepts are applicable to the Belgian situation, which may then be
considered – within the limits expressed – as being totally typical. This means that
criticisms and questions that usually underlie these concepts fully apply to this situa-
tion, especially in terms of efficiency and collateral damage.
11 Doran, B.J., Burgess, M.B., Putting fear of the crime on the map, Springer, New York, 2012, 25-45.
12 Ahmed, Sh., “The ‘emotionalization of the “war on terror”‘: Counter-terrorism, fear, risk, insecurity and
helplessness”, Criminology & Criminal Justice, 2015, Vol. 15, N°5, 545-560.
13 Roach, K., The 9/11 Effect: Comparative Counter-Terrorism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011,
492 p.
14 Dantinne, M., “Le sens de la mesure”, Le 15ème jour du mois, Liège, décembre 2015.
Criticisms: The expected efficiency and potential collateral damage
in question
Considering that the 30 measures against terrorism are not only strictly symbolic but
are expected to bear results, their efficiency must be central to the discussion. If they
are seen as ineffective, their existence must be called into question. The assessment
of the efficiency of each of these measures and the collective approach they form
together requires both time – to implement the measures and allow them to demon-
strate their effects – and the creation of a true evaluation process with the identifi-
cation of pertinent indicators, among others. At this stage, it may therefore still be
too early, if not simply misleading, to draw any peremptory conclusions. This being
said, it is nonetheless possible to conduct a preliminary analysis of the expected
efficiency of these measures.
The measures mainly rely on a double paradigmatic approach, which is totally
symptomatic of the new penology: a rational perspective, on the one hand, and a
risk-management approach, on the other hand. The creation of new infringements
and the tightening of related penalties are intended to act as a deterrent for those
individuals who, for example, would reconsider engaging in jihadist activities in Syria
due to the threat of legal sanctions. This is inspired by a rational perspective that
postulates that the choices and behaviours of humans result from cost-benefit
analysis. But what is usually neglected in the use of such an approach is that ration-
ality is not monolithic, unlimited and objective, but rather plural, limited and
profoundly subjective15. In other words, what is considered as a “benefit” or a “cost”
differs from one individual to another. Being imprisoned or being dead certainly
constitutes a very strong deterrent for the vast majority of individuals but for some
particular psychological profiles, particularly those individuals driven by ideological
or religious motives, these outcomes can be perceived as insignificant when
compared to their overall objective. Further, they can even be viewed as a benefit,
for example, in terms of what is expected in the after-life: suicide bombings form an
almost absurd application of this view.
There is also the question of what each person can lose or gain, objectively or subjec-
tively. If an individual feels that they “nothing to lose” or that all that they own has
no value at all, then he or she cannot easily be deterred from committing an offence.
When attention is focused on some typical profiles of foreign terrorist fighters and to
the push/pull factors traditionally highlighted in the scientific literature dedicated to
this topic, the potential deterrent effect of all the factors related to the criminalisa-
tion of terrorism seems hazardous to say the least. This potential and very limited
deterrent effect also has to be linked with another traditional side-effect of criminal-
isation or reinforced criminalisation of a behaviour: “invisibilisation”. While authori-
15 Clarke, R.V., Cornish, D.B., “Modelling Offenders’ Decisions: A Framework for Research and Policy”, Crime
and Justice, 1985, Vol. 6, 147-185.
ties intend to deter individuals from being involved in terrorism-related activities
through harsher penalties, they can paradoxically increase the concealment of these
activities. This is especially true for families and friends who will undoubtedly think
twice before reporting to the authorities the possible radicalisation or jihadist
involvement of one of their beloveds. In this case, these measures will not only be
inefficient in terms of deterrence, but they are also going to complicate the detection
of the threat itself. They are thus likely to aggravate the problem they are supposed
to solve.
Even if the potential deterrent effect of these measures appears to be limited, they
are also integrated into a risk-management perspective that pays particular atten-
tion to the fact that terrorism is characterised by an almost unique feature, perhaps
shared only by mass-shootings and war-related crime: the ratio of the act/author to
the potential victimisation. In other words, a single criminal or isolated act can cause
extremely severe damage to a significant number of citizens. This implies a need for
risk detection at an early stage. When a risk of this kind exists, it requires the imple-
mentation of measures aimed at negating this risk, if possible, in the short, medium
and long term. Next to its assumed deterrent effect, the policy of systematic impris-
onment of returnees must be considered from this perspective; their incarceration is
expected to reduce the short-term risk of terrorist attacks. The same reasoning can
be applied to all the other measures that aim to broaden the scope of special inves-
tigative methods, to revoke the nationality of convicted jihadists, to expand the
possibility of house searches or to increase the duration of administrative arrests.
This large spectrum of applicability demonstrates that risk management is at the
heart of Belgian governmental reaction, as it is also central in post-modern society in
general, in moral panic, in penal populism and in new penology.
To be effective beyond its theoretical design, this approach requires an acute assess-
ment of the level of dangerousness of those who are targeted by authorities. The diffi-
culty of this assessment has been repeatedly demonstrated in criminological litera-
ture from the point of view of a wide scope of behaviours, but seems especially diffi-
cult with regard to radicalisation and terrorism. The identification of reliable “red
flags” that can be used to detect radicalisation is now haunting the daily work of a
broad range of professionals that may be in touch with susceptible individuals.
Flawless indicators simply don’t exist. On one hand, those who become radicalised are
fully aware of these “red flags” and thus they try to conceal all signs that could poten-
tially betray their real intentions. On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to deter-
mine the extent to which a given individual has been radicalised. Specific theoretical
models depicting the radicalisation process generally agree that this process is
composed of numerous stages that are absorbed at very different rhythms16 by
16 See Moghaddam, F.M. “The Staircase to Terrorism: A psychological exploration”, American Psychologist,
2005, Vol. 60, 161-169.; Borum, R., “Radicalization into Violent Extremism II: A Review of Conceptual
Models and Empirical Research”, Journal of Strategic Security, 2011, Vol. 4, N°4, 37-62.
different individuals. At the risk of sounding cynical, the only “red flag” that enables
authorities to accurately establish the extent to which an individual is radicalised (and
the risk he/she poses) is, in the field of terrorism…the commission of an attack.
Increased attention must also be given to the bias surrounding all the retrospective
analyses which are based on the knowledge of “the end of the story” – the terrorist
attack – which will give belated significance to life episodes and information that
could not possibly have been deduced when they when they happened or were
discovered. These analyses are almost always unsatisfactory from a scientific point
of view and sometimes lead to conclusions that are unfair to police, intelligence and
judicial services which are then scrutinised in the search for deficiencies in the
security system, as described above. These limits, both in terms of deterrence and of
risk management, demand a fight against terrorism that not only integrates these
components but goes beyond them to include all the work to be done upstream –
education, economic policies, city/urban policies, etc. Even if the success of the
efforts in these upstream fields remains uncertain and surely limited to the medium
and long term, the fact remains that it will always be less hazardous to try to prevent
the involvement of an individual in a radicalisation process than to deter him or her
from committing a terrorist attack once radicalised. In other words, fighting against
terrorism requires working simultaneously on the roots of radicalisation and in the
field of counterterrorism. These fields must not systematically be opposed, as it is
usually the case, in the political and scientific spheres.
Imprisonment is a good illustration of this problematic articulation between
immediate and long-term outcomes, as it also highlights the undesired side effects
of criminal policies that are principally built upon an assessment of “dangerousness”.
The average post-prison recidivism rate – between 40% and 50% for “known recidi-
vism” – is now widely acknowledged, regardless of the kind of crime committed. But
the question of incarceration raises additional, more specific questions in the case of
terrorism. The analysis of the 30 measures chosen by Belgian authorities identifies
the choice of imprisonment as the first and main reaction to radicalisation and
terrorism. It is worth noting that other countries have opted for the totally opposite
solution, favouring alternative approaches that allow people to remain free, as illus-
trated by the “Aarhus model” in Denmark, notwithstanding questions raised about
this approach17.
Leaving the question of efficiency aside, imprisoning people for terrorism-related
offences creates the risk of increasing radicalisation through the reinforcement of a
radical subculture within penitentiaries, not least when these kinds of inmates are
grouped in dedicated sections as is the case in Belgium. The issue of reinsertion after
imprisonment seems to be avoided or, at least, remains open: will the grievances and
17 Lindekilde, L, “Neoliberal Governing of ‘Radicals’: Danish Prevention Policies and Potential Iatrogenic
Effects”, International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 2012, Vol. 6, N°1, 19-125.
sentiments of injustice be reduced or will they instead be strengthened by prison,
once the end of the sentence has been reached? If we go back to the specific theoret-
ical models that aim to describe the radicalisation process, they all stress grievances,
feelings of injustice, and attribution of the blame to the “punishing state” as key
drivers of radicalisation. These perceptions and emotions are also very common
features among all detainees – regardless the type of crime they have committed –
and they seem to be reinforced by the custody itself. If there is not any specific and
efficient program that is particularly designed for this subgroup of detainees, the risk
is thus real that the detention aggravates the risk of radicalisation – and of an
eventual terrorist attack – whereas it is supposed to reduce or eradicate it.
Another major limit of risk-management based systems is that they unfailingly lead
to restrictions of freedom and privacy. While aiming to prevent terrorist attacks
through extensive checks and early detection of at-risk individuals, the public author-
ities take measures that extend the prerogatives of security services. This extension
goes hand-in-hand with a restriction of juridical guarantees in some cases. Some
experts think this tendency poses a more general and very paradoxical threat: in the
name of the fight against terrorism, the promulgation of measures whose efficiency
is clearly uncertain may destroy democracy, while intending to preserve it. This kind
of vicious circle is interpreted by some specialists as a gain for terrorists18.
Moreover – and still in the name of the fight against terrorism – these measures
multiply breaches in privacy through the collection of an ever-broadening dataset.
The line of rhetoric “Those who have nothing reprehensible to hide should not be
afraid”, used by the Belgian prime minister and others in the aftermath of the
Brussels attacks, must not prevent us from examining the questions underlying this
tendency. The efficiency of such data-gathering processes is, in fact, really question-
able. Furthermore, it requires additional time and resources from the police and
intelligence services, in order to process and exploit the collected data.
More fundamentally, in the field of terrorism and radicalisation, the assessment of
dangerousness can be schematically described by dividing individuals into two
groups: those who seem dangerous and those who do not seem dangerous. But this
assessment also attempts to sort out those who belong to the first group on a
continuum, ranging from “somewhat dangerous” to “very dangerous”. The goal of
security services is to focus surveillance on those who appear as the more dangerous,
considering that the means available to the services – human, financial, etc. – are not
unlimited. Will these data-gathering processes allow detection of dangerous individ-
uals or will they be used in order to refine the assessment of the dangerousness of
those individuals who are already under scrutiny? It doesn’t seem realistic to state
that they will – alone – be able to identify new or priority targets. The question is thus
18 Delmas-Marty, M., & al., “Détruire la démocratie au motif de la défendre”, Esprit, 2010, Vol. 3, 145-162.
more about the added-value they will concretely bring to the daily work of the
security services.
Finally, the question of the security of these new databases must not be neglected
because any unauthorised access may cause severe damage, especially when one
considers the sensitive character of the information they will contain19. One can also
raise the question of whether or not the adaptation and/or displacement effect has
been taken into account in this strategy. The creation of a Belgian PNR system is a
good illustration of this dynamic: taking it as a given that it will facilitate the arrest of
terrorists who are planning attacks is something of a fairy tale. Indeed it seems to fail
to take into account the fact that terrorists as well as ordinary citizens are informed
of the existence of this database and they will adapt their behaviour accordingly.
And tomorrow?
Social sciences, unlike astrology, is not about predicting the future. It is nevertheless
possible to raise already at this stage several questions about what is going to
happen in Belgium.
While keeping in mind that other kinds of policies do exist in the field of counterter-
rorism, there are also various ways of implementing “risk-based” policies. Mythen
and Walklate make the distinction between “what was” and “what if” risk policies20.
Schematically the “what was” dynamic is characterised by a careful examination of
what has happened – for example, after a terrorist attack – in order to take the most
appropriate measures in the light of the past. “What if” policies refer to another
dynamic, predicting all possible scenarios and taking measures to avoid the future
occurrence of terrorist attacks. “What if” is the basis for pre-emptive risk logic that
supplants prevention and whose objective is to pre-empt the unravelling of events in
relation to the horizon of projected futures. Apart from breaches of privacy and
freedom, “what if” policies justify “early action by the drive to protect the majority
‘just in case’: i.e. without knowing what the scale of the threat might be”21. But they
also create or reinforce a polarised representation of the world between a majority
that has the right to be protected and a minority that embodies a threat to its
security. This undoubtedly engenders some very negative effects in the field of
stigmatisation and secondary deviance22 with the risk of fostering the precise behav-
iours these “what if” policies aim to avoid.
19 Preuss-Laussinotte, S., “Base de données personnelles et politiques de sécurité: une protection illusoire?”,
Cultures & Conflits, 2006, Vol. 64, 77-95.
20 Mythen, G., Walklate, S., “Terrorism, Risk and International Security: The Perils of Asking ‘What if’ “, Secu-
rity Dialogue, 2008, Vol. 39, N° 2-3, 221-242.
21 Mythen, G., Walklate, S., “Counterterrorism and the reconstruction of (in)security: divisions, dualisms,
duplicities”, British Journal of Criminology, First published online, 11 March 2016, 18 p.
22 Lemert, E., Social Pathology: A Systematic Approach to the Theory of Sociopathic Behavior, New York,
McGraw-Hill, 1951, 468 p.
It is unclear whether the Belgian government has entered a “what if” or “what was”
policy. Yet, it seems paradoxical that a national government announces measures in
the immediate aftermath of dramatic events that occurred abroad – even in a neigh-
bouring country – and that it does not react in the same way following the occur-
rence of similar events in its capital city. In order to determine whether or not
Belgium has succumbed to the temptation of penal populism and whether the
country has entered in a “what if” or a “what was” dynamic, it will be necessary to
carefully follow the work to be accomplished by the parliamentary commission that
was set up to investigate the Brussels terrorist attacks, the recommendations it will
produce and the extent to which they are going to be followed by those who will
have the political power to implement them. Undoubtedly a discriminating analysis
focusing both on the process and on the result of the work led by this commission
will complete the picture of the Belgian political reaction to terrorism.
The implication of Belgium-linked terrorists in the shootings and bombings on
November 13, 2015 in Paris became more and more obvious during the police inves-
tigation that followed these events. Today we know that the bombings at Brussels
Airport and the Maalbeek subway station on March 22, 2016 were committed by the
same French-Belgian jihadi network.
The consequence has been that many international observers focused on the Belgian
police system, wondering why the Belgian police forces had not been able to prevent
the radicalisation of these persons. In this paper we examine this question,
explaining what happened during the period that preceded these assaults and
decoding what the events mean for the Belgian police system today. In other words,
this paper doesn’t go into the reaction to radicalisation and the subsequent violence
itself, but into the preventive and pro-active actions that had been undertaken earlier
to avoid the radicalisation of certain “at-risk” individuals and groups. The main
argument we want to develop here is that a targeted prevention agenda was largely
present in discourse, but to a great extent absent in practice. Further, we advocate
that, if implemented, this kind of preventive approach would have been much more
effective than the repressive criminal justice agenda now applied with respect to
jihadi terrorism.
The police reform of 1998
In 1998 the Belgian government reformed the Belgian police system.1 Without going
into too much detail, we observed the transformation of three different police forces
into one police system. The national gendarmerie, the national judicial (criminal)
police and the 589 municipal police forces were reorganised into “one integrated
police service, structured on two levels”. This meant that two different kinds of
police forces were created (the federal and zonal police), which were integrated by
means of functional instruments (such as, for example, a common planning cycle, a
shared educational programme, the same databases, etc.). The federal component
of the system was designated as being responsible for supralocal and complex forms
of public disorder and crime, under the supervision of the minister of internal affairs
1Ponsaers, P., De Kimpe, S. (2001). Consensusmania – Over de achtergronden van de politiehervorming,
Leuven/Leusden: ACCO.
and of the minister of justice. The local component of the system was no longer
implemented on the scale of municipalities, but on that of so-called “zones”, which
brought the number back to 196 zonal forces.2 On average, a zone covers three
municipalities. Zones were assigned responsibility for local and less complex forms of
public disorder and crime, with an important focus on prevention, under the super-
vision of mayors. The reform was fully implemented in 2001. No hierarchical link was
introduced between the federal and zonal levels.3
The reform coincided with an impressive international consensus concerning the
inadequacy of traditional police models in academic literature as, for instance, a
military-bureaucratic model or a crime-fighting model. Summarised, the following
critiques can be considered as the most important:
1. A mere increase in the number of police officers is not an effective strategy to
tackle crime or disorderly behaviour. The quantitative assumption cannot resolve
the necessary qualitative change of “how to do good policing”.
2. The police cannot prevent crime, and more generally, cannot function without
the help of the population, which means that the population is much more than
“the eyes and ears” of the police. The population is to a large extent the most
important partner of the police. Police forces need to be externally oriented and
they have to empower the citizenry.
3. The classic tactics of traditional police models are too reactive, as they do not
affect the circumstances that cause crime and disorder.
4. Police policy is frequently too broad and is applied to different problems in one
and the same way (“one size fits all”). Observers advocated the need for “tailor-
made responses4.
2At the moment of the implementation on 1st of January 2001, 196 zones were formed. Since then some
zones were subject of voluntary fusion. On the 1st of January 2016 there were still 189 zones. In the Brus-
sels Capital Region (composed of 19 municipalities) 6 zones were formed. Several times there were
proposals to bring them together to one zone. Most of the time this proposal, sustained by Flemish political
parties, was countered by French speaking parties.
Table 1: Total capacity of local and federal police as of 31/12/2013
Real capacity local police Real capacity federal police
Police officers Civilians Police officers Civilians
28.692 6.068 9.103 3.253
34.730 12.356
74% 26%
3Van Branteghem, J.-M., Van de Sompel, R., Ponsaers, P., Boekaert, T. (2007). “Pillars of community policing
in Belgium”, in Towards an excellent police function, Bruggeman, W., Van Branteghem, J.-M., Van Nuffel, D.
(eds.), Brussels: Politeia, 15-36.
4Verhage, A., Ponsaers, P. (2013). “Impacts of Community Oriented Policing”, In Bruinsma, G., Weisburd, D.
(Eds.), Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice (ECCJ), New York: Springer, 2430-2435.
As a consequence, the drastic reform was accompanied by the formal introduction
of “community-oriented policing” (COP) as the official philosophy of policing in
Belgium. COP is a strategy of policing that focuses on the police building ties and
working closely with members of communities. It seeks to create partnerships
between law-enforcement agencies and other organisations such as government
agencies, community members, non-profit service providers, private businesses and
the media, which represent a powerful channel through which the police can
communicate with the public. Community policing recognizes that police cannot
solve every public-safety problem alone, so interactive partnerships are created in
which the public assists the forces in developing problem-solving solutions. All polit-
ical parties, majority and opposition, pleaded for this police model, as well as parlia-
ment and the government. Finally the adoption of COP was consolidated in a circular
letter distributed by the minister of internal affairs in 2003.5 COP was embraced to a
large extent by the zonal police forces but was less visibly implemented within the
federal police.
This police model coincided perfectly with the introduction at the municipal level of
the so-called “Integrated Local Security Policy” (ILSP). The general idea of ILSP is that
security matters need to be treated in a broad, integral way and are too complex to
be tackled by one party. Multidisciplinary collaboration between different profes-
sionals is essential. ILSP strives for an integrated approach, addressing all aspects
that can promote security, including root causes of public disorder and crime. It is up
to the local administrative authority to coordinate this policy between municipal and
civilian initiatives (e.g. municipal services, employment and health-care
programmes, educators, street-corner workers, social housing, schools, etc.) and the
local police. It is in the framework of ILSP that municipalities installed “Local Cells for
Integral Security” (LCIS), based on a 2014 circular of the ministers of the interior and
of justice, with special attention to the problem of counter-terrorism, without being
There was some tendency to implement this policy within the police forces, more
precisely through the “CoPPRa” programme, which stands for “community policing
preventing radicalisation and terrorism”. CoPPRa started in 2010 as a European
Commission “European Action Plan” with a budget of four million euros. The CoPPRa
project was the result of the cooperation between 11 EU member states and the
Belgian integrated police led the project. In this framework, COP is used for the
5Duquesne, A., Verwilghen, M., Circular letter CP1 of the 25th of May 2003 concerning Community Policing,
Definition of the Belgian interpretation of the integrated police service, structured at two levels, B.S. 09-07-
2003; Attachment to the circular letter: Van de Sompel, R., Ponsaers, P., “De pijlers van de gemeenschaps-
gerichte politiezorg in België”, pp. 66.
6These cells are multidisciplinary platforms for consultation. They deal also with the information exchange in
the framework of foreign terrorist fighters (FtFs) originating from Belgium (August 21, 2015), which
replaces the circular of September 25, 2014. The aim of the circular is to protect public security from poten-
tial threats.
prevention of radicalisation, while it is built on the confidence of the citizenry in
public services at local level. CoPPRa is a kind of manual for beat officers on tracing
signals of radicalisation at an early stage. Belgium has 58 active trainers, which are
trained according to the Train the Trainer (TTT) concept. They trained some 500 first-
line officers and staff from specialised federal and local police units during interactive
training. In July 2011, the CoPPRa project was prolonged for another two years with
ISEC funding from the European Commission. In this project, 15 member states and
CEPOL, the European Police College, participated.
So far, so good. After the police reform, the local police forces and their policymakers
had the perception that the reorganisation was for the better and to a large extent
successful.7 How does it come then that the radicalisation process of several persons
and groups in the Brussels region failed to be observed and prevented by the local
The unconditional belief in law enforcement
Belgium, and more precisely the Brussels region, knew a long evolution toward jihadi
recruitment and radicalisation. It is striking that in these cases the response was only
the enforcement of criminal law, by supporting the prosecution and sanctioning of
offences against this law. As such, policing was limited to a reaction to offences
already committed and was thus essentially responsive, not preventive at all.8
Already in 1992, the self-declared Syrian imam Ayachi Bassam arrived in Molenbeek
and founded the Belgian Islamist Centre in 1997. The reaction of Belgian authorities
was purely a judicial one, indicting seven of the leading figures for spreading jihadi
propaganda and hate messages via the internet when the case came to court in 2012.
By then, most of the leading figures had already disappeared to fight in Syria and the
court could only condemn them in absentia.
In 2010, Fouad Belkacem founded Sharia4Belgium, which was dissolved in
September 2012. Two years later, in September 2014, the judicial process against
Sharia4Belgium started against 45 members, only seven of whom were present in
court. All others were judged, again in absentia during February 2015. A large
number of youngsters had already departed to fight in Syria.
There is also the network of Khalid Zerkani, who began recruiting young muslims to
fight in Syria and Iraq in April 2012. In February 2014, police arrested Zerkani. Thirty-
one other people were also indicted along with him but by the time the trial opened
7Bruggeman, W., Easton, M., Devroe, E., Ponsaers, P. (2010). “Conclusie: Kijken naar de toekomst van de
politie”, in Evaluatie van 10 jaar politiehervorming, Bruggeman, W., Devroe, E., Easton, M. (eds.), Panop-
ticon Libri n°4, Antwerpen-Apeldoorn: Maklu, 281-285.
8Garland, D. (1997). ‘Governmentality and the problem of crime. Foucault, criminology, sociology’, Theoret-
ical criminology, 1, (2), p. 173-214.
in spring 2015, most of them had disappeared, believed to be in Syria. Among them
was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who would become the local organiser of the Paris
assaults in November 2015. In July 2015, Zerkani was sentenced to 12 years in prison,
a term lengthened to 15 years in April 2016 after he appealed it.
In general, we can conclude that an important number of the jihadis recruited in
Belgium were members of one of the three networks mentioned. Over this long
period stretching from 1997 to 2015, it is clear the policy was focused on building
criminal cases against these networks and bringing the members to court. It is
striking that this strategy always involved a long period of incubation so that by the
time the cases came before the court most of the suspects had left the country. In
other words, the criminal procedure was not able to bring a great number of indicted
persons to trial. According to Belgian Minister of Internal Affairs Jan Jambon in 2015,
at least 837 individuals were on the watchlist of Belgian intelligence services; 273 of
them were reported to be in Syria or Iraq, whereas another 134 were believed to
have returned to Belgium.9 These figures put Belgium at the top of the list of EU
countries, in terms of the number of foreign fighters per capita.10
The alternatives to the law-enforcement strategy have not been sufficiently
explored. When we researched the prevention of radicalisation in 2010, tasked by
the former interior minister, we stressed already at that point the importance of a
solid preventive approach. This preventive approach was advocated by numerous
professional respondents, including teachers, educators, street-corner workers,
youth workers and social workers. They underscored the fact that often they were
not aware of the meaning of “radicalisation”, how to recognise it and how to deal
with radicalising youngsters. At that time we advised policy-makers to offer these
professionals training in preventive instruments, aiming at a deeper understanding
of radicalisation, making these professionals more sensitive in their professional
roles in the prevention of the radicalisation of individuals. We also advised to
develop a federal centre of knowledge and advice on the issue of radicalisation,
developing research and evidence-based preventive projects, such as de-radicalisa-
tion projects in prisons and programmes dealing with parental support, resilience
and employment along with exit programmes.11 The development of such a knowl-
edge centre was never seriously considered.12
Since that time there has been no real change in this domain. Recently a collaborator
of a Public Centre for Social Assistance (PCSA) of a Brussels municipality confessed
that social workers had still not received any instruction with regard to radicalised
9Verenigde commissies voor de justitie en voor de Binnenlandse Zaken, de Algemene Zaken en het Open-
baar Ambt van woensdag 2 december 2015.
10 van Ginkel, B., Entenmann, E. (eds.) (2016). The Foreign Fighters – Phenomenon in the European Union –
Profiles, Threats & Policies, ICCT Research Paper, The Hague: ICCT.
11 Noppe, J., Ponsaers, P., Verhage, A., De Ruyver, B., Easton, M. (2010). Preventie van radicalisering in België,
Governance of Security Research Report Series, Antwerpen-Apeldoorn: Maklu, pp. 185.
12 Ponsaers, P. (2016). “Prévention? Trop peu, trop tard”, in Le Vif, Jg. 34, nr. 13, 1 april, 20-21.
individuals, in spite of the fact that this service was dealing with individuals known to
the security services. More broadly, the staff of the PCSA didn’t get any training
concerning potentially radicalized individuals, while the PCSA was supposed to be
involved in identifying signs of radicalisation in the framework of the LCIS’s. Even
when some staff members asked for training, this was refused because it was consid-
ered non-essential.13 Although the situation inevitably differs from one PCSA to
another, as some cases of good practice are also reported, Belgium seems to be
stronger in policy formulation than in the implementation of the practices that would
carry out the stated goals of that policy.
The local police and the municipality treated as orphans
The lack of co-ordination of the municipal initiative
The federal specialised anti-terror section in Brussels (the so-called “DR3”) only
invests 6,8% of its capacity (seven people) in preventive missions because of a lack of
personnel.14 It is clear that prevention is primary a local task. But, as a consequence
of the lack of a coordinated prevention policy, today one municipality has a de-
radicalisation policy but not a single foreign terrorist fighter, while another munici-
pality has several fighters, but no policy. In Flanders the problem of radicalisation is
concentrated in Antwerp and Vilvoorde, but about 40 other municipalities also have
problems. Only 10 of these municipalities are realising a follow-up of “returnees”.
Seven of them started doing so only recently. In contrast, it is striking that there are
also some municipalities which are not confronted with Syria fighters (anymore15)
but nevertheless still have specific programmes and de-radicalisation officials. In
fact, in several municipalities nobody knows exactly whether or not there are
“returnees” on municipal territory.16
By means of an example, let’s have a closer look at the municipality of Molenbeek.
Molenbeek officially has 95.576 inhabitants and the average age is 34 years, all living
on a surface of less than 6 km2. Certain neighbourhoods have a density of between
30,000-36,000 inhabitants per km2.17 Between 1995 and 2016, the official popula-
tion grew from 68,000 to 95,000 inhabitants, without taking into account the 5,000
to 9,000 non-documented residents. This explosive growth is the consequence of a
high birth rate and low mortality rate (because of the high proportion of young
13 Interview with an anonymous respondent (realised by Thomas Renard), Brussels, 25 May 2016.
14 Doraene, J.-P. (2016). Terrorisme: le rapport qui décortique les vraies raisons de l’échec policier, in Le Vif,
15 E.g. Mechelen, city that was confronted with Syria4Belgium in the past, but most of these radicals left the
city. See:
16 Vergauwen, E., Dhondt, R., Elke gemeente haar eigen (non-)beleid tegen Syriëstrijders, De Standaard,
17 Leman, J. (2016). “De sociale problematiek in Molenbeek en het gewelddadig jihadisme”, Cahiers Polities-
tudies, n° 42 (in press).
migrants) and of an important influx of new migrants.18 Furthermore, the munici-
pality has a strikingly mobile population. When our research group did research in
this area in 2012, we observed already that the turnover in the population was so
significant that even beat officers were not able to monitor precisely who was living
where. Domicile controls proved to be almost impossible and as a consequence were
immediately outdated.19
According to the police chief of the police zone Brussels-West, in which the munici-
pality of Molenbeek is included, the local police has to accommodate newcomers in
houses officially declared “uninhabitable” because there is no alternative housing.
Furthermore, he claims that there are not enough schools to keep up with the rapid
population growth.20 The drop-out rate of youngsters in schools is significant and the
population is characterised by a low educational level. The unemployment rate is
also tremendously high. Amongst youngsters this rate is one of the highest in Europe.
Half of young inhabitants between 18 and 25 years stay unemployed, even if they
have a diploma21.
The chief of police of Brussels-West stresses the fact that there are many associa-
tions working in Molenbeek, but he claims there is hardly any consultation between
these organisations themselves or with the zonal police.22 Some of the initiatives are
supported by the Brussels region, others by the Flemish community or the federal
government. All of them are doing similar things, but there is an obvious lack of
coordination. To a large extent we can explain this situation as a consequence of the
structural position of this municipality within the Brussels Capital Region.23 In other
words, the combined promise of COP and ILSP is surely not satisfied.24
This kind of urban environment is described in the classic study of Samson & Groves25
as a place par excellence for the development of adolescent crime careers. This risk
increases with the presence of recruiters, such as Khalid Zerkani, who lured in young-
sters with a criminal background and pushed them further along this pathway. He
looked for them not in mosques, but in drug-dealing pubs, with a apocalyptic story
promising a new and better life in Syria. These young Muslims were attracted by the
18 Corijn, E. (2010). Brussel, een kosmopolitische stad … in wording. In van de Bossche, M., Lleshi, B. (eds.),
Identiteit en interculturaliteit: Identiteitsconstructie bij jongeren in Brussel, Brussel: VUB Press.
19 Liedenbaum, C., Descheemaeker, L., Easton, M., Noppe, J., Ponsaers, P., Terpstra, J., Vande Walle, G.,
Verhage, A. (2013). De Wijk achter de Botsing – Een Onderzoek naar Wijken in Nederland en België met
ernstige Ordeverstoringen, Reeks Politiestudies n°7, Antwerpen/Apeldoorn: Maklu.
20 Schoofs, N., “Ik heb te weinig agenten die Arabisch spreken”, De Tijd, 26 maart 2016.
21 Leman, J. (2010). ‘Laag-Molem, Kuregemse Kuren en Buitenlandse Buren,’ Cahiers Politiestudies, 2: 101-
22 Schoofs, N., “Ik heb te weinig agenten die Arabisch spreken”, De Tijd, 26 maart 2016.
23 Ponsaers, P. (ed.) (2016). ‘De communautarisering of de deconstructie van de soevereine staat’, Panop-
ticon, 37 (4), 249-259.
24 Ponsaers, P. (2016). Tussen woord en daad groeit een onoverbrugbare spagaat, in Bruggeman, W.,
Hardyns, W. (eds.), Radicalisme en Terrorisme, Van Theorie naar Praktijk, Reeks Veiligheidsstudies n°15,
Antwerpen/Apeldoorn: Maklu, 135-144.
25 Samson & Groves (1989). Community Structure and Crime: Testing Social-Disorganization Theory.
dangerous cocktail of risky delinquency and romanticised heroism.26 It is in this
context that the local police of Molenbeek have to function, not only to tackle the
demon of terrorism, but to avoid that young inhabitants develop delinquent careers
in the first place and become outlaws who have nothing more to lose.
The official response: the federal “Canal Plan” and the regional
security plan
In January 2016 the Belgian federal government came with a swift answer to the
events in Paris in November 2015, “the Federal Action Plan against Violent
Extremism and Terrorism”. The government translated the problem of terrorism into
a quantitative capacity problem. By 2019 the government wants to create 1.000 new
police posts joining in the struggle against terrorism.27 A specific part of this action
plan is the so-called “Canal Plan” of Interior Minister Jan Jambon. This plan envisions
300 new vacancies in the canal zone in Brussels, including the Brussels municipalities
of Molenbeek, Vilvoorde, Anderlecht, Koekelberg, Laken, Schaarbeek, Sint-Gillis and
Sint-Joost-ten-Node.28 It is remarkable that the federal minister formulated this plan,
while the law on the integrated police stipulates that local plans are to be formulated
by local decision-makers. But it is all the more remarkable that the plan supposes an
alliance between mayors of specific municipalities and not between police zones.
The Dutch-speaking, right-wing minister Jambon must trust now in the goodwill of
many actors, including a number of French-speaking left-wing mayors, for realisation
of the plan. Molenbeek and Vilvoorde are considered in the plan as the most urgent
targets. These municipalities got additional capacity from February 1, 2016; 50 and
20 new inspectors respectively.
The chief of police of Brussels-West commented on the plan, stating that this canal
plan does not change the structural shortage of 125 inspectors in his force, because
the budget for the force did not evolve together with population growth. In fact, the
Brussel-West force has the lowest budget of the Brussels Capital Region. The police
zone Brussels-North has 25,000 fewer inhabitants but a structural capacity of 100
members more than Brussels-West.
In addition to the federal measures, the Brussels region took its own initiative, based
on its new competences brought by the sixth Belgian state reform in July 2012.
Among other goals, this new structure foresees financial contributions for regional
efforts concerning security.29 As a consequence of that, the minister-president of the
26 Khosrokhavar, F. (2009). Inside Jihadism. Understanding Jihadi Movements Worldwide. Paradigm
27 Ponsaers, P., Devroe, E. (2016). “Molenbeek (maart 2016) na Parijs (november 2016). Het kanaalplan en de
sluipende privatisering”, in Themanummer Criminele organisaties en Organisatiecriminaliteit, Cahiers
Politiestudies, 39, 2, 213-236.
28 Consult:
29 Meerschaut, K. & De Hert, P. (2008). Een integraal veiligheidsbeleid op gewestelijk niveau. Het Brusselse
Gewest naderbij bekeken. Rechtsleer & Doctrine, 542-576.
Brussels region, Rudi Vervoort, responsible for security since July 1, 2014, presented
a plan together with the mayors of Brussels-city, Schaerbeek, Anderlecht and Molen-
beek simultaneously with Minister Jambon’s development of his “canal plan”. In this
regional plan, “a global and integrated approach” is announced for the problem of
radicalisation, concentrating on problems of education, youth care, employment,
social housing and social cohesion.
It is striking that neither plan (the federal “canal plan” of the interior minister nor
that of the Brussels region) refers to the other one. Instead of a real integrated local
security policy, we observe a significant decoupling of the federal police strategy and
the regional social policy.
A new “Framework Document for an Integral Security Policy”?
In the meantime, a “Framework Document for an Integral Security Policy” was
recently rendered public, at the initiative of the ministers of internal affairs and
justice, and in consultation with the regions and communities, but also with the
judicial authorities and municipalities. This framework document clarifies the mutual
arrangements of the different policy actors in the security field, but the working
group did not reach a satisfying solution for all the problems raised.30 While the
actual government was installed in October 2014, the “Framework Document for an
Integral Security Policy” was promised by the end of 2015. The document was only
made public at the beginning of June 2016 and became more a technical exercise
concerning procedures to follow and less the development of a shared integrated
vision on security.
A serious pitfall is the solution for the so-called “shared professional secrecy”, which
is expected to bind all actors in the domain of social and health care on the one hand
and the police on the other, especially concerning persons who become radicalised.
The case of Bilal Hadfi is in this respect a clear illustration. After the assault on Charlie
Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, he demonstrated his sympathy for this kind of action
in school. His teachers tried to report this, but there was no regular means of
communication to do so. Hadfi departed to Syria and was later one of the suicide
bombers in Paris in November 2015. This lack of a shared professional secrecy is an
example of precisely the kind of problem that lies in the no-man’s land between
regions/communities and the federal state. Today there is still no clear consensus on
this crucial issue.
On top of that, several local police chiefs complain openly about the fact that their
local force is frequently mobilised to sustain the federal police in the framework of
counter-terrorism. These chiefs threaten to stop their support to the federal police.
30 Bruggeman, W. (2016). Nationaal veiligheidsbeleid: eindelijk opnieuw geïntegreerd?, Panopticon, 37 (2),
They are convinced that this situation is the consequence of dramatic savings at the
level of the federal police, hindering basic police preventive tasks in the municipali-
In this article we demonstrated that for a long period a purely reactive law enforce-
ment strategy was dominant in counterterrorism in Belgium and a preventive
strategy (as a combination of COP and ILSP) was largely neglected. A much more
active preventive role of the administrative local authority, more specifically of the
mayors was absent except in rare occasions. In essence, the judiciary has monopo-
lised the problem and the administrative and preventive approach was considered in
fact as less urgent.
To a large extent this was a consequence of the fact that problems of terrorism were
considered as the caseload of the federal police, with criminal investigation consid-
ered the core task of this component of the police system. This is the simple corollary
of the policy concept politicians have of the real nature of police work, namely
“tackling crime”, a concept that seems attractive in times of austerity. But we know
that the influence on crime by the police is very limited. That is essentially because
the causes of crime are beyond the sphere of influence of the police and these causes
can only be countered by means of a mature and concrete concept of a Local Integral
Security Policy. As Peter Manning explained already in 1977, the mandate of police
is fragile and vulnerable and police personnel should be aware that they personify a
promise they can never keep.32
Central recommendations that follow from this article are:
Counterterrorism needs a more balanced effort between a law-enforcement
strategy and a tailor-made preventive approach.
Domicile controls are essential in a COP context.
Furthermore, this implies the implementation of concrete collaborative multi-
disciplinary practices between different professions.
This implies also the resolution of the problem of “shared professional secrecy”,
with respect for the standpoints of all the actors involved and not only that of the
The steering of security and counterterrorism policy is problematic in the Brussels
Capital Region, because of the different policy layers (19 municipalities, six police
zones, the region and the federal government). A real fusion of the 19 municipal-
31 Belga, “Lokale politie wil geen volk meer afstaan”, Het Laatste Nieuws, 28 april 2016.
32 Ponsaers, P. (2016). Revisiting the classics: Police work – The social organisation of policing: Peter manning,
Policing and Society, 26 (3), 253-359.
ities into one, and consequently the fusion of the six police zones, would bring an
important policy focus.
This would require that the minister-president functions at the same time as the
mayor of Brussels, as is the case in Berlin.33 It is essential to unify decision-making
power in one hand in Brussels.
33 Aden, H. & De Pauw, E. (2015) Policing Berlin. From separation by the iron curtain to the new German
capital and a globalised city, European Journal of Policing Studies, Special Issue Policing European Metropo-
lises, 2 (1), 13-30.
The quest for money is vital to terrorists. The Belgian press has reported a number of
terror cases with a significant financial dimension. Due to its unprecedented scale,
the case of Khalid Zerkani is illustrative of the deadly consequences made possible by
terror money. Often referred to the “biggest recruiter of candidates for Syrian jihad
ever known in Belgium”2, Zerkani, implicated in several major contemporary
terrorist investigations (the Paris and Brussels attacks, as well as the 2015 plot in
Verviers), notably relied on young recruits he instructed to commit robberies and
petty crimes, arguing that stealing from infidels was permitted by the Koran.
Proceeds of crimes were then used to “motivate” potential jihad candidates and
cover the travel expenses of those departing for Syria (or Somalia in the past) as well
as to support fighters while in combat zones. For his generosity – and his long, thick
beard – Zerkani was known as “Santa Claus” within the Belgian jihadist world.3
According to the 2015 Financial Action Task Force (FATF) mutual evaluation report
on Belgium, “in terms of terrorist financing, the main risk concerns activities related
to ‘jihadists’ traveling in the Near and Middle East”.4 The Belgian Financial Intelli-
gence Processing Unit (CTIF/CFI) confirms that the majority of the cases processed in
2015 were actually linked to the financing of foreign terrorist fighters and the individ-
uals linked to the Paris attacks.5 Figures provided in its latest report confirm activism
with respect to terrorist-financing activities occurring in Belgium since 2013; 626 files
have been transmitted to the judicial authorities for a total amount of EUR 16
million6. Between 2014 and 2015, following the January and November attacks in
Paris, the number of these files reported to the judiciary authorities has doubled.7
1The author writes strictly in a personal capacity.
2“Belgique: 15 ans de prison pour Khalid Zerkani, figure des filières de recrutement pour la Syrie”, Le avec AFP 14 April 2016.
3“Khalid Zerkani, ‘Papa Noël’ et mentor du djihad en Syrie”, La, 19 January 2016, Updated 20
January 2016.
4FATF (2015), Anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing measures – Belgium, Fourth Round
Mutual Evaluation Report, p. 7.
5CTIF/CFI, 22ème Rapport d’activités 2015, Annexe 1: Tendances de Blanchiment et de financement du
terrorisme CTIF, p. 5.
6CTIF/CFI, 22ème Rapport d’activités, Annexe 2: Statistiques, p. 19. These figures reflect suspicious activities
that occur in the financial sector only, based on reports transmitted to the Financial Intelligence Processing
Unit from the private sector. The global “dark” or undisclosed figure of terror money is undoubtedly more
consequent, but unknown by its underground nature.
7FATF (2015), Anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing measures – Belgium, Fourth Round
Mutual Evaluation Report, p. 5. These figures can barely explain by themselves if the increase of transmis-
sions to the judicial authorities is the result of enhanced awareness and supervision by professional entities
from the private sector or if it is a mere consequence of the terrorist attacks and the huge investigative
work undertaken consequently.
Overall, according to the unit, the risk that the Belgian financial system could be used
for structural funding of major terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the
Levant (ISIL) by means of major trafficking or counterfeiting of goods is not to be
underestimated, although the main risk today remains related to the foreign
terrorist fighters phenomenon.8 It is feared that these current trends will grow
commensurate with the expected prevalence of the “homegrown terrorist”
phenomenon (individuals radicalised and operating within their country of residence
under the ideology of major terrorist groups, like ISIL for instance).
From recent investigations, it has been shown that salaries, savings, profits from
commercial enterprises, social welfare benefits, selling of personal assets or
donations were among the techniques used to raise money in the Paris and the
Brussels attacks. Among other fundraising methods being reported in Belgium, the
CTIF/CFI also mentions credits or insurance fraud, although those were less promi-
nent in 2015.9 Abuse and misuse of non-profit organisations (NPO) is another long
established source of generating funding for terrorist organisations, considered as a
risk in Belgium as well.10
Like in many other European countries, the fight against the financing of terrorism
has not always been a priority in Belgium, politically or operationally.11 The
disrupting potential of counterterrorist financing efforts has long been underesti-
mated, based on the superficial premise that the planning of a terrorist attack is
relatively inexpensive and therefore almost impossible to prevent through a finance-
based approach. The use of micro-funding and underground financial techniques
make terrorist operations even more difficult to detect, but things are changing,
notably as a result of international pressure from the FATF mutual evaluation of
Belgium. Political commitments to bring the national counterterrorist financing
architecture in line with international standards12 have constituted the first concrete
step towards the recognition of stopping terrorist financing as a complementary tool
to combat terrorism more generally. One of the most concrete examples that this
perception is evolving within the operational services is the so-called Belfi project,
launched in 2014 under judicial supervision to implement greater scrutiny of individ-
uals and entities at risk of terrorism and terrorist financing by way of administrative
or judicial controls and sanctions for non-compliance with, primarily, tax or labor
8Idem, p. 5.
9CTIF/CFI, 22ème Rapport d’activités 2015, Annexe 1: Tendances de Blanchiment et de financement du
terrorisme, p. 23-24.
10 FATF (2015), Anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing measures – Belgium, Fourth Round
Mutual Evaluation Report, p. 76.
11 Lallemand, A. ‘Jean-Claude Delepiere au Soir: “En matière de financement du terrorisme, la Belgique n’est
nulle part”‘, Le Soir, 21 March 2012; interview with a retired officer of the National Terrorist Financing
Investigation Unit (NTFIU) of the UK Metropolitan Police, September 2016.
12 Government Coalition Agreement of the 9 October 2014: “Des initiatives seront prises en vue d’une mise en
œuvre encore plus efficace des recommandations du GAFI. La politique de poursuite et le gel en temps utile
des fonds destinés au financement du terrorisme retiendront une attention particulière.”
legislation.13 By creating a hostile and disruptive environment, financial resources of
these individuals and entities are being constrained, therefore limiting their opera-
tional capabilities. A specific point in this report will be dedicated to the results
achieved within the Belfi project thus far and the current challenges faced at opera-
tional level by the authorities involved.
Although rather positively assessed by the FATF in terms of efficiency,14 the Belgian
apparatus to combat terrorist financing was (and still is, to some extent) essentially
oriented towards the gathering of financial “footprints”, used to support evidence in
terrorist investigations. For instance, the CTIF/CFI used to have limited means to
share financial intelligence with non-judicial authorities, such as intelligence services
or the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (OCAM/OCAD), with the result that this
information remained mainly processed within the criminal justice system, rather
than being fully exploited at a preventive level. After the wave of terrorist attacks in
Paris and Brussels, a more proactive and preventive approach to counterterrorist
financing began to receive growing operational and political interest as a tool to
identify and prevent financial support for terrorism. This wake-up call accelerated
the implementation of measures derived from the range of compulsory international
standards, like the creation of a dedicated body responsible for defining the national
counterterrorist policy, including its financing, namely the National Security Council.
It also strengthened the emergence of a more comprehensive approach to counter-
terrorist financing. This is a work in progress. New and different measures today
permit a broader sharing of information, for example by the CTIF/CFI, and other ways
of improving the preventive potential of terrorist-financial intelligence are being
A preliminary point of this report will recall the logic of the disruption of terrorist
financing as a leveraging action to counterterrorism efforts more broadly. This paper
intends to offer a look at the relevant Belgian policy architecture, reflecting recent
changes in the global perception and approach to counterterrorist financing poten-
tial, and how international binding standards in this regard are actually being imple-
mented at the national level. Current challenges and recommendations in the imple-
mentation of new responses to terrorist and terrorist-financing threats will be
highlighted in conclusion.
The disruption of terrorist financing
Counterterrorist financing refers to one of the various tools to combat terrorism by
tackling terror-money flows. The objective is to make it harder for terrorists to
13 La Chambre, Bulletin n°B058 – Question et réponse écrite n°: 0856 – Législature: 54, 19 Jan. 2016.
14 FATF (2015), Anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing measures – Belgium, Fourth Round
Mutual Evaluation Report, p. 71.
operate by preventing them from raising, storing and moving funds, notably by using
the financial system of a country. This approach is based on the assumption that
money is the cornerstone of any terrorist organisational requirements, which consti-
tutes the basis of the development of the international counterterrorist framework
promoted by the Financial Action Task Force and the United Nations.
Interdicting these flows can degrade the capability of terrorist groups over
time, limiting their ability to launch attacks, increasing their operational costs
and injecting risk and uncertainty into their operations, which can have
tactical benefits, such as: damaging morale, leadership and legitimacy within
a network and forcing terrorist groups to shift activity into areas where they
are more vulnerable, including areas that they would otherwise avoid.”15
To varying degrees, terrorists need money to carry out attacks but they also need
much broader resources to cover organisational costs like propaganda, recruitment,
travels, trainings, salaries or social services. While this is more obvious for large para-
military groups with territorial control, like ISIL, small cells of individuals like those
involved in the recent wave of attacks against Europe also rely on fundraising to
achieve their objectives.
Measures implemented at a national level to tackle terrorist funding must permeate
the varying stages in which money is involved from the fundraising phase through all
the conduits to the end uses. This can be done through preventive measures like
those aiming at detecting terrorist and terrorist-financial activities occurring within
the financial-service and private sectors where application of “know your customer”
and “due diligence principles” (to assess and monitor customer risks of terrorist
financing) plays a crucial role by identifying suspicious movements of funds through
the financial system. Other preventive measures include the implementation of
targeted financial sanctions (such as travel bans, terrorist asset freezes or arms
embargos), measures to detect and prevent illicit cross-border transportation of cash
and the protection of vulnerable sectors like non-profits to ensure that they are not
used or misused by terrorist organisations. The “pursue approach” encompasses
broad measures to allow criminal investigations and judicial proceedings against
those financing terrorist activities. At any stage, such measures require the imple-
mentation of a risk-based approach and strong domestic and international mecha-
nisms to coordinate and share information.
International framework to counter the financing of terrorism
Belgium’s efforts to cut off terror financing do not take place in a vacuum. They
reflect and are shaped by international institutions and policies. Combating money
15 FATF/OECD (2008), Terrorist Financing, p. 27 quoting HM Treasury (2007)
laundering and the funding of terrorism have long been on the international agenda:
to protect the integrity and stability of the international financial system, cut off the
resources available to terrorists, and make it more difficult for those engaged in crime
to profit from their criminal activities.”16 However, the international community has
been slow in recognising the potential threat of terrorist financing, giving priority to
more traditional security policies and applying international standards as window-
dressing measures. As a consequence, counterterrorist financing has long been
considered as the poor child of the broader efforts against terrorism.
Things are slowly changing in light of the growing threat from ISIL and the foreign
terrorist fighter phenomenon, although some jurisdictions are still lagging behind
due to a lack of awareness, lack of resources or lack of political will.17 Statistics and
studies show that effective counterterrorist financing regimes are still inefficient in
many countries. The FATF suggests that some progress has been made but more
needs to be done to strengthen the existing regime18 and adapt to the constantly
evolving methods used by terrorists to raise, store, move and use their money.
The “rule setter” role played by the FATF in this regard has been crucial in developing
a comprehensive set of compulsory measures, endorsed by more than 180 countries
and jurisdictions, which are today recognised as the international standard for anti-
money laundering, counter terrorist financing and proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction (WMD).19 Created in 1989 initially to combat money laundering, the
FATF is an intergovernmental organisation whose goal isto promote effective
implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money
laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the inter-
national financial system”. Counterterrorist financing and counter financing of
proliferation of WMD have been included in its mandate in 2001 and 2011 respec-
Together with the 1999 convention and dedicated UN Security Council resolutions20,
the FATF recommendations (and interpretive notes) form the three main sources of
international obligations in respect to counterterrorist financing. The FATF is
currently undertaking numerous initiatives to better reflect the ever-growing
terrorist threat and the many changes in its scope and nature (ensuring that FATF
16 International Monetary Fund. IMF’s involvement in AML/CFT.
17 FATF Report to the G20 leaders. Terrorist Financing, Actions being taken by the FATF. November 2015.
18 Idem.
19 FATF (2012), International Standards on Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism &
Proliferation, updated June 2016, p. 7.
20 UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) n° 1267 (1999), 1373 (2001), 1988 (2011), 1989 (2011), 2178
(2014) and 2253 (2015) are those containing CFT binding requirements for the member states, ranging from
preventive/restrictive measures such as travel bans, terrorist assets freezes or arms embargos to general
requirements for mutual legal assistance and extradition as well as the criminalisation of terrorism
financing acts.
standards provide up-to-date tools to identify and disrupt terrorist financing activi-
ties, improving the understanding of terrorist financing risks, etc.) 21
At the European level, the financing of terrorism has progressively gained attention
over the last decade, reflecting the evolution of international standards and
addressing specific terrorist financing threats within Europe. The European Commis-
sion’s 2015 Action Plan against terrorist financing22 presents the first comprehensive
EU response to this evolving threat in line with international standards. The further
adoption in 2015 of the Fourth Directive on the prevention of the use of the financial
system for the purposes of money laundering or terrorist financing23 definitively
consolidates the change in the European vision, moving from a purely criminal law/
pursue response to a complementary risk-based approach.24
To prevent the use of the EU’s financial system for the purposes of money laundering
and terrorist financing, the Fourth Directive sets out a range of “European” stand-
ards, occasionally going beyond the international requirements.25 Additionally, the
directive establishes a supranational risk-assessment mechanism to identify terrorist
financing threats on which to base further mitigating actions.
Box 1: FATF main recommendations on counterterrorist financing
Identify, assess and understand terrorist financing (TF) risks;
Comprehensively criminalise TF as a distinct offence;
Have targeted financial sanctions and terrorist asset freezing;
Equip law enforcement agencies and financial intelligence units (FIUs) with all
necessary powers and resources;
Detect and prevent illicit cross-border transportation of cash;
Ensure prompt and constructive international and domestic cooperation and
Take preventive measures to protect sectors that could be misused (financial,
non-financial, non-profit organisations).
Source: FATF (2015), Consolidated Strategy on Combating Terrorist Financing, pp. 1-2.
21 FATF (2016), Consolidated FATF Strategy on Combating Terrorist Financing.
22 Commission Action plan for Strengthening the Fight against Terrorist Financing, 2 February 2015.
23 Directive (EU) 2015/849 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 2015 on the prevention
of the use of the financial system for the purposes of money laundering or terrorist financing, amending
Regulation (EU) No 648/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council, and repealing Directive 2005/
60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council and Commission Directive 2006/70/EC.
24 Directive (EU) 2015/849, Preamble.
25 Those measures include a due-diligence approach based on risk assessment, the obligation to ensure that
beneficial ownership information is made available by corporate entities, the strengthening of the inde-
pendence of the financial intelligence units (FIU’s) or other measures to limit cash payments, among other
In the context of a high terrorist alert, additional initiatives have already been
launched by the European Council and the Commission since the beginning of 2016
to strengthen the measures of the recently adopted directive and other instruments.
The objective of these new tools is primarily to take better account of the terrorist
financing threats posed by the growing use of cash, the illicit trade of cultural goods
and the use of virtual currencies.26 Another new priority area concerns access for the
European financial intelligence units (FIUs) to information on the holders of bank and
payment accounts, through centralized registers or electronic data-retrieval
systems27 and the adoption of a list of 11 non-EU countries with strategic deficiencies
in their anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing regimes, to be used as
a “red flag” for the entities involved.28 In addition, a new directive will (if adopted)
update the member states’ existing criminal legislation, notably with respect to the
travel, and training financing and overall threat of foreign terrorist fighters.29
As far as Belgium is concerned, work is in progress to implement the Fourth Directive
into the Belgian legal framework, notably under the coordination of the ministry of
finance. Belgian authorities take an active role in the non-regulatory work of multiple
international, regional or ad hoc fora such as the Egmont Group or the Counter-ISIL
Finance Group to improve terrorist-financing understanding and policies. As part of
the expert group on money laundering and terrorist financing, the CTIF/CFI is, for
example, taking part in the preparatory work of the supranational risk-assessment
The time has not come yet to assess the effectiveness of these numerous initiatives,
as most of them still need time to be implemented at the national level. The
awakening of the Commission in this area is welcome, although the debate and
threat itself seem to evolve much faster than the policy and legislative cycles,
creating a gap in the counterterrorism response. Furthermore, human rights issues
and additional burdens and responsibilities for all public and private stakeholders
resulting from these initiatives will undoubtedly raise capacity issues at the national
level – a problem that is already tangible today.
26 See the 5 July 2016 Commission impact assessment on the proposal for a Directive of the European Parlia-
ment and the Council amending Directive (EU) 2015/849 on the prevention of the use of the financial
system for the purposes of money laundering or terrorist financing and amending Directive 2009/101/EC.
27 5 July 2016, European Commission Fact Sheet – Questions and answers: Anti-Money Laundering Directive
28 Obliged entities refer to financial and non-financial professions as designated in article 2.1. of the Commis-
sion Delegated Regulation (EU) 2016/1675 of 14 July 2016 supplementing Directive (EU) 2015/849 of the
European Parliament and of the Council by identifying high-risk third countries with strategic deficiencies.
29 Proposal of a Directive of the European parliament and of the Council on combating terrorism and replacing
Council Framework Decision 2002/475/JHA on combating terrorism.
Counterterrorism financing architecture in Belgium
The Belgian counter-financing architecture is built on a set of legislation, regulations,
measures, structures and coordination bodies implementing international and
European standards. Since these standards are evolving in the context of the
changing threat internationally, this architecture is still in flux. The actors involved in
the Belgian counterterrorist financing architecture are basically the same as those
dealing with counterterrorism issues more generally. In other words, there are no
specialised operational agencies or units dealing with counterterrorist financing
which can be seen as the result of a lack of prioritisation but also of capacity, which
is itself the consequence of a chronic lack of investment by successive govern-
ments.30 It also contrasts significantly with the situation in neighbouring countries,
notably in France or the United Kingdom (but also in smaller countries), where
dedicated counterterrorist financing units have been embedded in the counterter-
rorism investigative divisions of police and intelligence services.31 These units
complement the main terrorist investigations by conducting systematic or risk-based
financial intelligence inquiries on identified targets. A notable exception in this
regard comes from the federal judicial police of Brussels where a small counterter-
rorist financing operational unit (DR5-FINTER) has been established to support the
anti-terrorist unit (DR3).
In line with FATF recommendations and as embraced by the Belgian National
Security Plan 2016-2019,32 counterterrorist financing is coordinated at the political
level by the National Security Council,33 which includes the ministers of justice,
defense, interior, foreign affairs and the other deputy prime ministers, under the
chairmanship of the prime minister. Representatives from the intelligence services,
police and judiciary can be invited on an ad hoc basis. Two implementing committees
(the Strategic Committee, at the level of heads of cabinet, and the Coordination
Committee, at the level of heads of operational services) are in charge of the formu-
lation of proposals regarding general intelligence and security policies.34 Within the
Coordination Committee, a counterterrorist financing platform gathering all relevant
partners was established in 2015, following another recommendation of the FATF.
Placed under the direction of the Financial Intelligence Processing Unit (CTIF/CFI),
the platform is tasked with the terrorist-financing risk assessment, the definition of
30 FATF (2015), Anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing measures – Belgium, Fourth Round
Mutual Evaluation Report, and p. 74. Reference is also made to the various auditions of the heads of the
public prosecution services, the federal police and the intelligence services before the so-called “commis-
sion attentats” within the Parliament.
31 Interview with a retired officer of the National Terrorist Financing Investigation Unit (NTFIU) of the UK
Metropolitan Police, September 2016 and a member of the French DGSI, October 2016.
32 Note Cadre de Sécurité Intégrale 2016-2020, p. 49
33 Royal Decree of 28 January 2015 setting up the National Security Council, M.B., 30 Jan. 2015. The NSC
succeeded to the Ministerial Committee for Intelligence and Security.
34 Royal Decrees of 2 June 2015 setting up the Strategic and coordination Committees for Intelligence and
security, M.B., 5 June 2015
a relevant comprehensive national strategy and the information sharing among
different stakeholders. The very first exercise to assess the terrorist-financing threat
at the national level took place in 2014, prior to the formal establishment of the
platform. Albeit an important exercise, the result was a compilation of various inputs
provided by the different services and was difficult to utilise. A new consolidated
assessment of the terrorist-financing threat is due by the end of the year, under the
direction of the national platform. This will lead to the prioritising and defining of a
consolidated national counterterrorist financing policy.
The CTIF/CFI plays a central role in the fight against terrorist financing as a bridge
between different actors involved in anti money-laundering and counterterrorist
financing, including with the private sector. In addition to its coordination role in the
Counter Terrorist Financing Platform, the CTIF/CFI is in charge of collecting and
analysing suspicious financial transactions reports linked to terrorist financing,
money laundering and proliferation financing. By law, financial institutions and other
non-financial professions (like notaries or real estate agents) are obliged to report
transactions they suspect of being related to criminal or terrorist activities, based on
a number of indicators.35 In case of a serious indication of money laundering or
terrorist financing, the file is transmitted to judicial authorities. Until very recently,
the CTIF/CFI was not allowed to share background financial information with the
intelligence services and OCAM/OCAD, even when it could constitute useful contex-
tual information. This restriction has been deemed ineffective and counter-produc-
Box 2: New key counterterrorist financing measures/initiatives (already
implemented or under preparation)
Implementation of the domestic terrorist asset freeze mechanism under
UNSCR 1373 (2001)
Set up of a political national coordination body in charge with the financing of
terrorism (NSC) and the operational national CTF platform
Ongoing terrorist-financing national threat assessment
Criminalisation of funding travel for terrorist purposes
Strengthening information sharing between dedicated services by way of
legislation, regulations, memoranda of understanding or protocols
Limitation of cash transactions and cross-border transportation of cash
Interdiction of anonymous pre-paid cards
Centralised access to the National Bank of Belgium to get information on the
existence of bank accounts related to suspicious terrorist (financing) activities
Belfi operation embedded within the “Canal Plan” of the government
35 Law of 11 January 1993 on preventing the use of the financial system for money laundering and terrorist
financial purposes, art. 2.
tive because only a small fraction of the CTIF/CFI reports transmitted to the federal
prosecutor’s office actually leads to prosecutions and convictions,36 resulting in the
under-utilisation of these reports and in the questioning of the efficiency of a purely
repressive approach.
Ways to move out of the exclusive relationship with the judicial authorities have
finally been identified and addressed. Whereas the mission of the CTIF/CFI remains
mainly judicial (the transmission of money-laundering and terrorist-financing suspi-
cions to judicial authorities), the unit has recently gained enhanced powers and
competences to better support the preventive work of the intelligence services and
of the national fusion center for terrorism and extremism (OCAM/OCAD). An initia-
tive adopted in 2016 has modified the secrecy duty of the CTIF/CFI, allowing it37 to
share contextual and background information on terrorism and terrorism financing
with the two intelligence services and OCAM/OCAD, even in the absence of any
transmission to judicial authorities.
Furthermore, a new bill currently discussed in the federal parliament will (if
approved), amend the Intelligence Services Act of 1998 and the existing definition of
terrorism to encompass the “process of radicalisation”38. This extension of the
definition of terrorism will consequently expand opportunities for the Financial Intel-
ligence Processing Unit to transmit pieces of information to the intelligence services
of its own volition, when that information is related to radicalisation and cannot
therefore be transmitted to the federal prosecutor’s office (only competent for
terrorist offences).39
The key player on the law enforcement side is the federal prosecutor’s office,
supported in its task by the federal judicial police. Together they are in charge of the
investigations and the prosecution of terrorist offences as well as proactive investi-
gations in this regard. As part of the main terrorist investigation, a financial investi-
gation is systematically conducted on the principal suspects. The crime of terrorist
financing is, to date, covered by two different provisions in the Belgian criminal code
(articles 140 and 141), depending on whether the conduct of providing/collecting
resources or funds is the result of an individual acting within a terrorist group (more
than two people) or not. Prosecutions for a sole terrorist financing offence are rare,
36 Often because the evidence threshold contained in these reports is not established to grant the use of
special investigation techniques.
37 Art. 227, L. 5 February 2016 amending art. 35, § 2 of the law of 11 January 1993 on preventing the use of
the financial system for money laundering and terrorist financial purposes, M.B. 19 Febr. 2016.
38 Radicalisation is defined as “a process influencing a person or a group of people so that this person or this
group is mentally prepared to commit terrorist acts”,
39 The Anti-Money Laundering Act of 1993 setting up the mandate of the Financial Intelligence Processing Unit
does not contain any definition of terrorism. To define the scope for the Financial Intelligence Unit to send
information to the intelligence services on its own initiative, one has to look at the definition of terrorism in
the 1998 Act. Radicalisation is not a criminal offence and is thus not a basis for criminal investigations by the
judicial authorities.
however.40 This is explained by the fact that the activities related to providing finan-
cial support to a terrorist cell usually take place in the broader context of supporting
terrorist activities and are prosecuted under the main offence of participation in the
activities of a terrorist group. A new provision to be introduced in the criminal code,
currently being examined at parliamentary level, will extend (if approved) existing
terrorist financing provisions to the financing of travel for the purposes of terrorism
or terrorism training, in line with the new requirements of UNSCR 2178.41
By processing extremist/terrorist-related intelligence as well as judicial information,
the Belgian coordination centre (OCAM/OCAD) contributes to smoother linkage
between the law enforcement components, the two intelligence services and other
national administrations or institutions, including those relating to terrorist
financing. The first mandate of OCAM/OCAD is to provide consolidated terrorist/
extremist threat assessments and set the threat levels based on the information
transmitted by its designated partners (the federal police, the ministry of foreign
affairs, the ministry of transportation, the civilian- and the military-intelligence
services, the immigration office and the customs and excise administration42).
Terrorist-financing related information is processed by OCAM/OCAD with a view to
contextualizing the background information on terrorist/extremist individuals or
groups. In 2015, OCAM/OCAD was also given new tasks, including to identify individ-
uals or entities with a view to freezing their assets under UNSRC 1373. The databases
on radicalisation and foreign terrorist fighters managed by OCAM/OCAD play a
critical role in these efforts by identifying at-risk profiles on which to base further
operational actions.
Last but not least, the civilian- and military-intelligence services participate in the
preventive approach of the counterterrorist and counterterrorist financing architec-
ture.43 The input of the intelligence services in terms of counterterrorist financing is
mainly based on enhancing the comprehensive understanding of the terrorist
networks, modus operandi and functioning, in a predictive manner.44 Both services
also provide technical assistance for terrorist investigations conducted under the
direction of the federal prosecutor’s office, which allows them to have useful access
to the criminal proceedings in return.
Structural deficiencies in the sharing of information between the various intelligence
and security services were pointed out in the aftermath of the Brussels attacks.45 The
criticism also implied a lack of synergy on counterterrorist financing. Over the past
40 FATF (2015), Anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing measures – Belgium, Fourth Round
Mutual Evaluation Report, p. 73.
41 S/R/2178(2014).
42 Loi du 10 juillet 2006 relative à l’analyse de la menace, M.B., 20 July 2007.
43 Loi du 30 Novembre 1998 organique des services de renseignement et de sécurité
44 CTIF, “Le Livre Blanc de l’Argent Noir. 20 ans de lutte contre le blanchiment et le financement du terror-
isme”, 2013, p. 202.
45 ‘La Sûreté et le Service du renseignement militaire ne se parlent pas assez’, La Libre Belgique, 19 May 2016.
two years, however, major efforts to strengthen interagency cooperation and the
timely exchange of information have been enforced by several new protocols and
memoranda of understanding established among the different partners taking part
in national counterterrorist and counterterrorist financing efforts. It is hoped that
these mechanisms will mitigate the lack of systematic financial investigation by the
intelligence services and will open the possibility of establishing comprehensive
priorities for the conduct of targeted investigations with the support of the financial
Unit, the federal police and OCAM/OCAD.
It should be mentioned that all those stakeholders maintain a high level of interna-
tional cooperation with respect to their legal mandate, though it was not under the
scope of this paper to get into a more detailed picture in this area.46
Different approaches to Belgian counterterrorist financing
This section reviews three different approaches to combat terrorist financing, as
developed in Belgium. In each case, recent developments and initiatives are
highlighted, in order to indicate the broader trend in this policy area.
The BELFI project
A number of initiatives have shown success in the fight against terrorism and its
financing, as illustrated by the proactive investigation run between 2005 and 2010 by
Box 3: Public-private partnership on counterterrorist financing
Private-public partnership is one of the key components of the FATF strategy to
combat terrorist financing. The CTIF/CFI plays a very active role in this regard in
guiding the designated entities of the private sector in implementing customer
due-diligence measures, applying a risk-based approach and reporting suspicious
transactions linked to money-laundering or terrorist-financing and sharing typol-
ogies among the different sectors notably through their regulatory and supervi-
sory institutions. Like the financial unit, the civilian-intelligence service (state
security) now has the possibility to request information from the National Bank of
Belgium (NBB) on the existence of bank accounts of individuals or entities poten-
tially involved in terrorist activities. This provides serious time savings. Previously,
state security had to send the same request to all the banks, and then process a
large volume of information. It is important to note that to further exploit the data
contained in the bank accounts, the law on special intelligence methods does
46 See the article of Renard in this volume.
the federal prosecutor’s office on a list of non-profit organisations (NPOs) which
were suspected of terrorist financing. 47 This “Al Capone approach”, mainly based on
the enforcement of tax and social/labor legislation, succeeded in developing a policy
that supervises the strict application of the legislation on associations and resulted in
the closing of a number of businesses.48 In September 2014, the initiative was
repeated under the auspices of the BELFI Project, launched by the federal judicial
police of Brussels (DR5-FINTER), under the coordination of the general prosecutor’s
office for Brussels and the labour court prosecution service for Brussels. Its goal is
twofold: it first aims to identify cases of abuses of the social welfare system in
connection with Belgian individuals traveling to Syria for terrorist purposes (as there
are cases of individuals using social welfare money to finance their terror-related
activities, or those of others); secondly it targets selected NPOs and businesses
(including mosques, sport clubs or Koranic schools) which might be funding or
supporting those individuals by providing financial, administrative or logistical help
or contributing to their radicalisation process.49 By indirect means, this initiative also
contributes to getting a more precise view of the criminal activities taking place in a
specific area, allowing a better understanding of the nexus between terrorism and
organised crime.
With regard to the abuse of the social system, so far a total of 98 individual cases
have been transmitted by the police to the social fraud administration for further
prosecution. Beyond its deterrent effect, the objective of the project is to cut off
those individuals from welfare/employment benefits – which amounts to more than
120.000 euros.50 The Belfi project is now being incorporated into the so-called “Canal
Plan” of the federal government, which foresees additional resources for security
measures targeting Molenbeek and its surrounding areas. Additional capabilities
have already been granted to the DR5 unit in this context.
The magnitude of the task is particularly important in the Molenbeek area, with 1571
entities there subject to scrutiny. It is hampered by difficulties in accessing the
administrative details from the welfare administrations. There is undoubtedly an
urgent need to raise awareness among those administrations with regard to
terrorism and terrorism financing, not least in light of the absolute refusal of cooper-
ation from some administrations, claiming they have an obligation to maintain
professional secrecy.51 A possible modification of the professional secrecy code for
social workers within the welfare administrations is currently being examined, in
consultation with the sector.
47 FATF (2015), Anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing measures – Belgium, Fourth Round
Mutual Evaluation Report, p. 77
48 Idem.
49 Audience solennelle de rentrée de la Cour du travail de Bruxelles, Discours prononcé le 2 septembre 2016
par le Procureur général Johan Delmulle.
50 Idem.
51 La Chambre, Bulletin n°B058 – Question et réponse écrite n°: 0856 – Législature: 54, 19 Jan. 2016.
Although it is difficult to link the use of these social benefits directly with funding
specific terrorist acts, some individuals are suspected to have provided indirect
support to terrorist activities necessary to maintain a cell or an individual operation.
As such, it is crucial for the national authorities to avoid involuntarily financing
terrorist activities and to launch procedures for the recovery of the unduly received
funds by way of judicial and administrative measures. More broadly, the credibility
of the global welfare system and the principle of solidarity among citizens are at
The second strand of the project aims at enforcing labour and tax regulations
through tight scrutiny of targeted entities. So far, those controls have led to the
opening of a criminal case for terrorist financing, various seizures, and administrative
orders to leave the territory and even the closing of premises for infringements to
urban or public hygiene regulations.
The domestic terrorist asset freezing mechanism
One of the flagship measures of the government to improve counterterrorism archi-
tecture in general in 2015 was the decision to implement the so-called domestic
“terrorist asset freezing mechanism” under the UN Security Council Resolution 1373
(2001) (calling on national authorities to freeze without delay the assets of individ-
uals suspected of terrorism who are not otherwise subject to an asset freeze at the
UN and EU level.)52 Twelve suspected terrorists’ accounts have to date been subject
to administrative freeze in Belgium53 with the application of new rulings taken in
2015 and 2016 in this perspective.54 These mainly concern individuals connected to
the Brussels and Paris attacks (like Mohamed Abrini or the Bazarouj family suspected
to have hidden Salah Abdeslam) or “foreign terrorist fighters” or people in their close
circles. The profiles’ identification is made by OCAM/OCAD and the final decision is
taken by the National Security Council then executed under the form of a Royal
decree. Although the basic mechanism was set up already in 2006, it had never been
implemented until now due to political reluctance concerning the issue of human
rights (the mechanism is not judicial), and doubts about the added value of such
52 United Nation Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001). This mechanism is distinct from the targeted finan-
cial sanctions imposed by the UNSCR on Al-Qaeda (S/RES/1267(1999) and the Taliban S/R/1989(2011), S/
RES/1888(2011) and successor resolutions.
53 Belga, 29 juillet 2016
54 Circulaire Justice et finance du 7 septembre 2015; Loi du 18 décembre 2015 (modifiant la loi du 11 mai
1995); Arrêté Royal du 30 mai 2016 établissant la liste des personnes et entités visées aux articles 3 et 5 de
l’Arrêté Royal du 28 décembre 2006 relatif aux mesures restrictives spécifiques à l’encontre de certaines
personnes et entités dans le cadre de la lutte contre le financement du terrorisme (MB du 1/06/2016 –
As such, the freezing decision cannot be considered to be an end in itself. As part of
a preventive approach (although known as part of the “targeted financial
sanctions”), the freezing of terrorist assets must be seen for what it is: a symbolic and
political signal for those tempted to engage in terrorist activities and a complemen-
tary tool to disrupt terrorist activities by cutting off their resources without delay
(which may be considered as the main potential added value of the measure).
Criminal proceedings and eventual seizure of the assets upon a final conviction
should always remain the final objective.
The use of financial intelligence
Financial intelligence investigation is a tool permeating counterterrorism efforts at
every level, rather than an isolated, stand-alone technique. As well described in a
2008 FATF report, “Financial information is mainly used as part of the evidential case
to hold criminals and terrorists to account. It also has a key intelligence role – for
example by allowing (...) to look backward (…) how a terrorist conspiracy was devel-
oped and the timelines involved); look sideways (by identifying or confirming associ-
ations (…); and look forward (by identifying the warning signs of terrorist activity in
preparation)”.55 For various reasons, financial intelligence has long been underuti-
lised by Belgian authorities in their preventive approach to terrorism. Following the
attacks in Paris, Brussels and Nice, a nascent interest emerged about the potential of
financial intelligence to identify and disrupt terrorist activities. Authorities realised
that financial intelligence, even in cases of micro-financing, can be instrumental and
complement other forms of intelligence in efforts to foil a plot, dismantle a cell, or
arrest individuals – if that intelligence is exchanged in a timely manner. Illustrating
this, it has been established that the French operation targeting Abdelhamid
Abaaoud in Saint-Denis, was partly facilitated by the gathering of financial intelli-
gence at international level.56
By investigating the financial ecosystem of a target and entourage, precious informa-
tion on habits, lifestyle, behaviour, revenues, connections, travels and physical
presence in a specific location at a specific moment can be easily accessed by law
enforcement authorities, respecting the human rights framework. Countries like
Belgium with broad financial inclusion present many opportunities to access that
financial information but also that contained in commercial records (like identifica-
tion data, telephone numbers, addresses) as key elements to better inform opera-
tional outputs. Recognising this potential, in a 2006 speech at Chatham House, then-
UK Chancellor Gordon Brown observed that “(w)hat the use of fingerprints was to the
nineteenth century, and DNA analysis was to the twentieth century, so financial infor-
55 FATF, Terrorist Financing. 29 February 2008, p. 31-32
56 Cellule de Traitement des Informations Financières, 22ème rapport d’activités 2015, Annexe 1, p. 27.
mation and forensic accounting has come to be one of today’s most powerful inves-
tigative and intelligence tools available in the fight against crime and terrorism.”57
Belgium has long neglected counterterrorism financing, as have most other
European countries. This lack of political and operational priority resulted in the
absence of coordinated threat assessments, of a comprehensive strategy to address
the threats, and of specialised units or agencies to implement such a strategy. The
Paris and Brussels attacks have, however, constituted a true wake-up call for Belgian
authorities, convincing them of the need to combat terrorism by all possible means,
including financial ones. Substantial progress has now been achieved, meeting a
number of international requirements, as well as the expectations of international
partners. Among these achievements, I have discussed the set-up of political and
operational platforms in charge of counterterrorism financing, both linked more
broadly to counterterrorism, the preparation of a consolidated threat assessment,
adjustments to the criminal code or other legislations and specific policy measures
and more cooperation between different counterterrorism agencies and administra-
Although it is unrealistic to think that terrorism could be eradicated simply by cutting
off resources to the terrorists, counterterrorist financing should be regarded as a
powerful tool, complementing global efforts to combat terrorism. As such, it should
be considered as a new priority for the Belgian authorities with full respect for
human rights standards. Of course, in times of budgetary constraints and counterter-
rorism overload, making room for more resources and capacities for counterter-
rorism financing is challenging. But recent experience in Belgium shows that more
can be done with existing means, through a more strategic approach and better
coordination between services.
In line with this conclusion, a number of specific recommendations can be made.
These policy options are a logical continuation of current trends, with a view to
ensuring a sustained approach to counterterrorism financing over time, which is a
challenge in itself. Recommendations are to:
Ensure the effective functioning of the national counterterrorist financing plat-
Identify the main terrorist-financing risks by way of a national consolidated threat
assessment that is regularly updated;
Set up a coordinated counterterrorist risk-based approach at the political level,
establishing priorities for action and allocating resources accordingly;
57 Keatinge T., “Tackling Terrorist Financing Starts at Home”, Center for Financial Crime and Security Studies,
RUSI, 2016.
Conduct (as systematically possible) financial-intelligence investigations on
targeted individuals or entities which have already been identified as being of
interest (foreign terrorist fighters, homegrown terrorists or hate-speech practi-
tioners, for example);
Implement swiftly all international and EU regulations related to counterter-
rorism financing, such as the Fourth Directive of the European Commission, and
continue the dialogue with the private sector in this regard.
The November 2015 attacks in Paris were just the latest in a series of terrorist attacks
using firearms in Europe, as they become the weapon of choice in the hands of
terrorists in Europe. In recent years police forces across Europe have seized signifi-
cant quantities of firearms and ammunition from different types of terrorist groups.1
An analysis of the modus operandi used in recent terror attacks strongly supports the
idea that terrorists in Europe are increasingly using firearms as instruments of
Since 2011 at least seven deadly terrorist attacks were carried out with firearms in
western Europe: the Frankfurt airport shootings (March 2011), the Utøya massacre
(July 2011), the Toulouse and Montauban shootings (March 2012), the attack on the
Jewish Museum in Brussels (May 2014), the Paris attacks (January 2015), the Copen-
hagen shootings (February 2015) and the most recent Paris attacks (November
2015). In addition to these successful attacks, several other terror attacks with
firearms were prevented. A well-known example is the foiled attack on the Thalys
train from Amsterdam to Paris (July 2015). An analysis of the guns used in these
terrorist shootings indicates that different types have been used. Often, but not
always, these terrorists obtained their firearms from the illicit gun market and in
several cases a weapons link with Belgium has been made. 2
A specific aspect of counter-terrorism efforts is therefore trying to prevent terrorists
from being able to acquire the weapons needed for their planned attacks. In many
cases terrorists rely upon their criminal connections to acquire sophisticated
weaponry. Terrorist and criminal networks both operate in the underworld of society
and some observers believe there is a growing nexus between them. There is ample
global evidence that terrorist and criminal networks cooperate at times in the acqui-
sition of weapons, for example, but some terrorist groups also rely on criminal activ-
ities to fund their terrorist activities. The lines between these networks become even
more blurred when terrorist networks are involved in prolonged criminal activities.
This terrorism-criminality nexus has mainly been observed in regions of instability,
but over the last decade there is growing evidence that the European Union (EU) is
1Europol, European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2015, The Hague: Europol, July 2015.
2Nils Duquet, Armed to kill: An exploratory analysis of the guns used in recent public mass shootings in
Europe, Brussels: Flemish Peace Institute, 27 June 2016.
also affected by the nexus between terrorism and crime.3 An often ignored aspect of
this nexus is the potential for terrorists to use “criminal skills”: individuals with a
criminal past can provide terrorist groups with valuable skills, which in turn can
increase the capacity of these groups to carry out more lethal attacks.4 The acquisi-
tion of weapons is one of these skills. The illicit gun market is therefore one of the
key areas where criminal and terrorist networks merge.
This paper aims to provide insight on the nexus between terrorism and criminality in
general, and in particular on the illicit gun market in Belgium and the ways in which
terrorists can access this market. This will be followed by an analysis of policy that
has been developed to combat the illicit gun market and recommendations for
urgent action to curb this dangerous and deadly trade.
Characteristics of the illicit gun market in Belgium
The illicit gun market in Europe is driven by criminals involved in different types of
activities such as drug trafficking and armed robberies. In Belgium, as in most other
EU Member States, police believe assault rifles make up only a small share of the
illegally-held firearms. Most guns used by criminals are handguns, which are easy to
use and conceal. For some criminal activities, for example robberies of grocery or
retail stores, criminals also regularly use blank firers and deactivated firearms since
they usually have no intention of shooting the gun, but only threatening with it.
Traditionally, the use of assault rifles by criminals is rather limited to more serious
criminal activities such as bank robberies. Although good statistics are lacking,
Belgian police forces have observed an increased availability and use of military-
grade firearms among criminals in Belgium in recent years.5 This observation is not
limited to Belgium alone, however; a growing availability of these weapons amongst
criminals has been observed across Europe.6
The Western Balkans are generally considered the prime source of trafficked
military-grade assault rifles in the EU. These guns are smuggled into the EU, mainly
in small quantities and often concealed in legitimate loads or transported in private
cars or buses. This type of trafficking is often described as “ant trade” where
numerous shipments of small quantities over time result in the accumulation of fairly
3West Sands Advisory LLP, Europe’s Crime-Terror Nexus: Links between terrorist and organized crime groups
in the European Union, Brussels: European Parliament, Directorate-General for Internal Policies, Policy
Department Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, October 2012.
4Rajan Basra, Peter R. Neumann & Claudia Brunner, Criminal Pasts, Terrorist Futures: European Jihadists and
the new Crime-Terror Nexus, London: ICSR, 2016.
5Police source quoted in: De Standaard, Gangsters beschieten politie met zware wapens [Gangsters shoot at
police with heavy weapons], 4 August 2010.
6Europol, Integrated EU approach against the illegal trafficking in heavy firearms, OC-Scan policy brief for
threat notice: 004-2010, 2010.
large numbers of illicitly-held firearms. Besides cross-border smuggling, assault rifles
have also ended up in the hands of criminals and terrorists through other means such
as theft and the reactivation of legally-acquired deactivated firearms.7
The increased availability of military-grade assault rifles observed in the criminal
underworld entails significant security risks. For terrorists, these types of firearms
are very attractive tools of violence since they can cause great physical damage in a
very short time frame. In addition to being very instrumental, assault rifles such as
the AK47 are also very attractive for terror groups because of their iconic value.8 If it
is getting easier for criminals to acquire military-grade assault rifles, it is therefore
also getting easier for terrorists with criminal networks to do so. For the acquisition
of the firearms, many terrorists use their connections in local criminal networks.
Illicit gun markets in Europe are typically very closed markets and access is generally
limited to those with good connections to criminal networks. Interestingly, many of
the perpetrators of recent terrorist attacks in Europe were connected to the criminal
underworld. It is known that several of the attackers had a criminal history and some
of them spent time in prison. Two of three perpetrators of the January 2015 attacks
in Paris (Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly) for example, spent several years in
prison and are believed to have become radicalised there. They were thus well
connected to the criminal networks who were then able to provide them with the
firearms necessary to execute their terrorist activities.
The March 2016 Brussels attacks also clearly highlight the deadly combination of
criminal and terrorist networks. Some of the perpetrators of these attacks were part
of the first generation of local criminals who were able to acquire military-grade
assault rifles in Belgium and also used them to shoot at the police. In January 2010
Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of the suicide attackers at Brussels Airport, fired an assault
rifle at police officers in the streets of Brussels after a failed attempt to rob a money
exchange office.9 This specific shooting, in which one police officer was injured,
boosted Belgian policy-makers’ awareness of the availability of heavy firearms
among criminals. This in turn also boosted EU policy-makers awareness of the same
problem across Europe. Subsequently the EU, under the Belgian presidency, adopted
an action plan in December 2010 to combat the trafficking of these weapons.10
Ibrahim El Bakraoui was sentenced to 10 years in prison for this failed robbery and
shooting incident. In 2011 his brother Khalid was sentenced to five years in prison for
a series of carjackings. It is believed that both brothers were radicalised in prison; the
7Nils Duquet & Maarten Van Alstein, Guns for sale: The Belgian illicit gun market in a European perspective,
Brussels: Flemish Peace Institute, March 2016.
8Europol, Changes in modus operandi of Islamic State terrorist attacks, The Hague, Europol, January 2016.
9De Morgen, Drie verdachten aangehouden na gewelddadige achtervolging [Three suspects arrested after
violent pursuit], 1 February 2010; The Guardian, Who are the Brussels attacks suspects?, 23 March 2016.
10 Council of the European Union, European Action Plan to combat illegal trafficking in so called “heavy” fire-
arms that could be used or are used in criminal activities, 3051st Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting,
Brussels, 2-3 December 2010.
Belgian police suspect that the brothers provided weapons for the terrorist attacks
of November 2015 in Paris. An article in Dabiq, the official English-language online
propaganda magazine of the so-called Islamic State, in fact states that the El Bakraoui
brothers were responsible for the acquisition of firearms and explosives for the
November attacks.11
Belgium as the “hotspot” for firearms acquisition by terrorists?
In the immediate aftermath of Paris terror attacks in November 2015, Belgium was
named several times as the place where the terrorists acquired at least some of the
guns they used in the incidents. The recent anti-terrorist raids carried out by Belgian
police forces that resulted in heavy gunfire between officers and terrorists armed
with assault rifles in Verviers (January 2015) and Forest (March 2016) reinforced the
notion that it is easy for criminals and terrorists to acquire military-grade assault
rifles in Belgium. Belgium has therefore often been labelled by the international
media as “Europe’s favourite gun shop” for criminals and terrorists. This label is not,
however, based on comprehensive evidence since it is currently impossible to
compare the scope and nature of the Belgian illicit gun market with that in other
European countries. This mainly due to a lack of basic data and the limited number
of in-depth studies available on the topic.
But lack of proof doesn’t mean Belgium does not have a problem with illicit firearms.
Between 2009 and 2015, Belgian police have recorded 1,303 cases of the illicit trade
of firearms and almost 39,000 cases of illegal firearms possession. 12 There’s little
data on the number and types of seized firearms, their provenance and the context
in which they were used.13 Therefore, it’s impossible at this time to make a valid
estimate of the number of guns illegally circulating in Belgium. The same problem
also applies to most other EU Member States, however; a recent report for the
European Commission concluded no accurate quantification of illicitly-held firearms
in the EU is possible on the basis of the existing available data.14
What we do know is that Belgium is a country with some specific historical traits that
might explain why it appeals to those people seeking to acquire guns illegally.
Belgium has for many centuries been and still is a major producer and exporter of
firearms. Despite the relatively small size of the Belgian defence industry, Belgium is
one of the most important European exporters of military-grade firearms (especially
11 Nils Duquet, Armed to kill: An exploratory analysis of the guns used in recent public mass shootings in
Europe, Brussels: Flemish Peace Institute, 27 June 2016.
12 Federale Politie, Politiële criminaliteitsstatistieken – België – 2000-2015, 2016.
13 Nils Duquet & Maarten Van Alstein, Guns for sale: The Belgian illicit gun market in a European perspective,
Brussels: Flemish Peace Institute, March 2016.
14 Centre for Strategy é Evaluation Services, Study to Support an Impact Assessment on Options for Combat-
ting Illicit Firearms Trafficking in the European Union, Brussels: Directorate-General Home Affairs, July
to the Middle East).15 This historical tradition of gunmaking has given Belgium a
worldwide reputation as a firearms country. It has also resulted in local knowledge
and expertise in gunmaking, repair and handling that is being passed on from gener-
ation to generation. Moreover, until 2006 Belgium had quite liberal domestic gun
legislation and it was rather easy to legally buy many types of firearms in Belgium
compared with its neighbouring countries. This resulted in significant numbers of
foreign nationals travelling to Belgium to buy guns, including people with criminal
intentions. After a violent shooting incident in the streets of Antwerp in 2006, Belgian
gun legislation was modified and has become now more restrictive and solid. For the
legal possession and acquisition of most types of firearms, authorisation is now
needed. But despite this new gun legislation, the country has retained its reputation
as a ‘hotspot for guns’.
Combating the illicit gun market
Shootings incidents in the public domain often instigate discussions about
firearms legislation and policy.16 For the last 10 years, deadly shooting incidents
have also driven Belgian domestic firearms policy. A couple of weeks after a public
shooting incident in Antwerp in 2006, the Federal Parliament voted in favour of
new, significantly more restrictive, firearms legislation.17 A deadly shooting
incident at the Christmas market in Liège in December 2011 boosted Belgian policy
attention for the combat against illicit firearms. In March 2012 the Belgian Federal
Government issued an Action Plan against illicit arms trafficking, which
announced, among other things, the restriction of firearms that could be acquired
without a licence and a strengthening of the police service’s operational capabili-
ties, for example by allowing telephone tapping in cases of illicit gun trafficking. In
addition, firearms trafficking became a “priority criminal phenomenon” in the
National Security Plan 2012-2015 and in October 2012 a confidential circular from
the Board of Prosecutors General with regard to the judicial handling of arms
trafficking was adopted.
After the adoption of the Action Plan to combat the illicit trafficking of ‘heavy
firearms’ in 2010, several additional steps were taken at the European level to
combat illicit firearms trafficking. In October 2013 the European Commission
announced a series of legislative and operational measures to support the fight
against illegal firearms; their adoption was significantly accelerated by the November
attacks in Paris, which also compelled the European Commission to propose several
15 Seventeenth annual report according to Article 8(2) of Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP defining
common rules governing control of exports of military technology and equipment, Official Journal of the
European Union, C 163, 4 May 2016.
16 Sarah Parker, “Balancing Act: Regulation of Civilian Firearm Possession”, in: Small Arms Survey 2011. States
of Security, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
17 Wet houdende regeling van economische en individuele activiteiten met wapens, 8 June 2006.
amendments to the 1991 Firearms Directive.18 In recent months the European
Council and the European Parliament have submitted their own amendments to the
proposal of the European Commission. The proposed amendments to the Firearms
Directive include, among other things, stricter rules for the acquisition of certain
semi-automatic firearms. In December 2015 the European Commission also intro-
duced common guidelines on deactivation standards and procedures19 and adopted
an Action Plan against firearms trafficking.20 which envisages, among other things,
better intelligence on firearms trafficking, increased cross-border cooperation,
reinforced controls at the external borders of the EU, an enhanced exchange of
ballistic information and enhanced cooperation with source countries, for example
in southeast Europe.
Recent terrorist attacks clearly indicate that criminals and terrorists are well aware
of the weakest links in the chain. The policy response should therefore be national
and transnational at the same time. Particular attention should be paid to the situa-
tion in the Western Balkans, but also to other countries on the border of the
European Union where there may be an uncontrolled proliferation of firearms.
Europol, for example, has warned that the volatile situations in Libya and Ukraine
may in the future lead to the increased availability of military-grade firearms and
explosives to terrorists in the EU.21 Governments should therefore urgently take all
necessary steps to combat the illicit gun market and the observed dynamic of easier
access to military-grade assault rifles for criminals and terrorists.
In order to successfully combat the illicit gun market and terrorist access to this
market, a three-fold approach is needed both at the Belgian and the European
level.22 First of all, a clear and harmonised legislative framework is needed in the EU
to safeguard the legal possession and trade in firearms from the illicit gun market.
Criminals and terrorist have used loopholes in the current EU and national legal
frameworks to acquire some of the guns used in recent terror attacks.23 These
loopholes need to be closed. The new rules on common deactivation standards
18 European Commission, Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending
Council Directive 91/477/EEC on control of the acquisition of weapons, COM(2015) 750 final – 2015/0269,
18 November 2015.
19 Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2015/2403 of 15 December 2015 establishing common guide-
lines on deactivation standards and techniques for ensuring that deactivated firearms are rendered irre-
versibly inoperable, Official Journal of the European Union, L333/62, 19 December 2015.
20 Communication from the Commission to the Parliament and the Council. Implementing the European
Agenda on Security: EU Action Plan against illicit trafficking in and use of firearms and explosives, 2
December 2015.
21 Europol, European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2015, The Hague: Europol.
22 Nils Duquet & Maarten Van Alstein, Guns for sale: The Belgian illicit gun market in a European perspective,
Brussels: Flemish Peace Institute, March 2016.
23 Nils Duquet, Armed to kill: An exploratory analysis of the guns used in recent public mass shootings in
Europe, Brussels: Flemish Peace Institute, 27 June 2016.
across the EU and most of the measures recently proposed by the European Commis-
sion therefore would clearly bring added value.24
Secondly, gaining better insight into illicit gun markets across the EU is urgently
needed. As acknowledged in the recently adopted EU Action Plan against illicit
firearms trafficking, it is essential to build a better intelligence picture of this threat
in order to enhance and accelerate an effective law-enforcement response. To
achieve this we need better and more data collection, management and analysis. The
findings of a recent study clearly show the potential benefits of better collection,
analysis and cross-border sharing of data on gun crime and ballistic intelligence,
while at the same time highlighting the current lack thereof in many European
Thirdly, besides clear and harmonised gun legislation without loopholes and the
strengthening of analytical capacities needed to gain better insight into the illicit gun
market, the law-enforcement agencies combatting this phenomenon on a daily basis
need to be strengthened. One way to accomplish this would be to encourage cooper-
ation within and between EU Member States as much as possible. Collaboration with
neighbouring countries that are considered potential source countries for illicit
firearms in the EU should also be reinforced.
Recent terror attacks have illustrated that terrorist networks are able to acquire very
lethal firearms through their connections with criminal networks. A comprehensive
approach that closes the legal loopholes, strengthens analytical capacities and
reinforces the operational capacities and cooperation between law-enforcement
and judicial agencies is urgently needed, in Belgium and in the rest of Europe. Of
course it is impossible to close all firearms acquisition possibilities for persons with
malign intentions, but by putting continuous pressure on the illicit gun market it
would become more difficult for them to do so. This would mean terrorists would
need more preparation and take more risks to acquire their weapons of choice,
which in turn would provide counter-terrorism forces with extra time and additional
opportunities to intervene before it is too late.
24 For example: including blank firing weapons in the scope of the Directive, requiring information exchange
between EU Member States on granted and refused transfers of firearms, limiting the possibilities of selling
firearms and ammunition online, including collectors and brokers in the scope of the Directive and intro-
ducing common rules on marking of firearms.
25 Erica Bowen & Helen Poole, Examination of firearms and forensics in Europe and across territories,
Coventry: University of Coventry, May 2016.
The March 22nd terrorist attacks in Brussels were to a large extent a homegrown
phenomenon. They were orchestrated and perpetrated in Belgium, by Belgian
citizens (Mohamed Abrini, Najim Laachraoui and the brothers Khalid and Ibrahim el-
Bakraoui). A majority of the network’s other members related to these attacks and
those in Paris on November 13th were also Belgian nationals or French citizens
residing in Belgium. Furthermore, even though Belgium may not have been the
originally intended or priority target of the plotters, the Islamic State (ISIL) claimed
and justified the attacks against a country that it described as a ‘crusader’ and an
It does not, however, take much effort to appreciate the many international ramifi-
cations of this case and, more broadly, of the current terrorist threat. To begin with,
the main terrorist organisation threatening Europe, ISIL, is based in Syria and Iraq.
There is increasing evidence to claim that the Paris and Brussels attacks were
planned at least partly in Syria, although the network probably maintained a large
degree of operational autonomy.2 This implies communications, but also travel
between Belgium and that region, where recruits became familiarised with assault
weapons and explosives.
Investigations have also shown extensive international connections between
individuals, particularly between those in France and Belgium, as well as
movements across Europe either for logistical, recruitment or reconnaissance
purposes. The ‘Belgian-based’ network behind the Brussels/Paris attacks included
several nationalities, notably French citizens (such as the Abdeslam brothers), but
also a Swede of Syrian origin (Osama Krayem, who allegedly decided not to blow
himself up in the Brussels metro) or an Algerian who had lived in Sweden (Mohamed
Belkaid, who was presented by ISIL as one of the key religious and operational
figures of the network3).
The current terrorist threat is globalised and, as a result, the response to terrorism
can hardly be constrained within strict geographical or legal boundaries. As various
studies have shown, (jihadi) terrorism has once again acquired a global dimension,
1‘Attentats de Bruxelles: l’organisation terroriste Etat islamique revendique les attaques’, RTL Info, 22 March
2Renard, T. ‘After Paris and Brussels: reassessing ISIS’s strategy in Europe’, The Strategist, 8 April 2016.
3Dabiq, Issue 14, April 2016, p. 7.
particularly since the rise of al-Qaeda.4 ISIL closely follows the path of al-Qaeda in this
regard, plotting attacks in Europe and elsewhere while encouraging other groups
from Africa to Asia to join its ranks. This ‘new’ terrorism does not only call into
serious question our notions of territoriality and sovereignty, but also blurs the very
distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ security.5
In response to this globalised threat, and along with domestic counter-terrorism
arrangements, an international approach is therefore necessary. Belgium should not
– and in fact cannot – address the current threat on its own. This paper aims precisely
to look at the international dimension of Belgium’s counter-terrorism efforts, to
explore how much Belgian authorities contribute to the global efforts against
terrorism – and against ISIL more specifically – and, conversely, how much Belgium
benefits from its cooperation with third countries and international bodies.
Many criticisms have been voiced against Belgium in the aftermath of the attacks in
Paris and Brussels. Some French intelligence officials have said that Belgian services
‘are not at the level’, whereas a French minister and a Member of Parliament
accused Belgium of willful naiveté in the face of the threat, resulting in a lack of trust
between security services and therefore, in under-cooperation.6 Similarly, some
anonymous US officials complained of the lack of cooperation from Belgian authori-
ties in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. One of them even called Belgian intelli-
gence services ‘shitty tradecraft’.7
Such harsh criticisms may express frustration, but they are overall exaggerated as
they fail to reflect the large scope of cooperation between Belgium and its partners.
This paper offers a mapping and an assessment of these cooperation efforts at the
bilateral, plurilateral, European and multilateral levels. It underlines the key rationale
for cooperation and offers some suggestions for further improving it. This paper is
based on a series of interviews with key stakeholders, including Belgian intelligence
officers, federal police investigators, a federal magistrate, military officers and
officials from the ministries of justice, interior and foreign affairs as well as senior EU
counter-terrorism officials. All interviewees are cited anonymously.
4See for instance Greenberg K (ed). Al-Qaeda now. Understanding today’s terrorists, New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2005; Stern, J. Terror in the name of God. Why religious militant kill, New York: HarperCol-
lins, 2003; Neumann, P.R., Old and new terrorism. Late modernity, globalization and the transformation of
political violence, Oxford: Polity Press, 2009.
5Kastoryano, R. ‘Terrorisme global et territoire’, Critique, 2011/5 (768), 2011, pp. 370-80.
6Meskens, J. ‘Alain Marsaud au Soir: “La naïveté des Belges nous a coûté 130 morts!”‘, Le Soir, 21 March
2016; Walton, E. ‘Attentats de Paris: controverses autour de la coopération internationale entre les services
de renseignement’, France TV Info (online), 18 November 2015.
7Hosenball, M. ‘U.S. frustration simmers over Belgium’s struggle with militant threat’, Reuters, 24 March
2016; Weiss, M, N. Youssef, N. De Visser, ‘U.S. Officials Bash ‘Shitty’ Belgian Security Forces’, The Daily
Beast, 22 March 2016.
Bilateral cooperation: partners of choice and necessity
Belgium has prioritised cooperation with a relatively small number of countries,
which constitutes the first external layer of its counter-terrorism policy. Cooperation
with the neighbouring countries appears obvious since jihadi networks span
borders.8 This is particularly true with France, but also with the Netherlands, the
United Kingdom (UK) and Germany. Cooperation is also well established with a
number of key partners, such as with Morocco, since many Belgian would-be jihadis
are of Morrocan origin (second- or third-generation) or with Turkey, since most
foreign terrorist fighters transit through Turkey en route to Syria. The United States
is another key partner, particularly important for a small country like Belgium with
limited intelligence and technical capacities. The volume and quality of cooperation
may vary, but each of these partnerships is quite developed institutionally and
France is undoubtedly Belgium’s main counter-terrorism partner and, in return,
Belgium’s cooperation is highly valued by French authorities, in spite of some criti-
cism.9 Cooperation is broad and deep, perhaps one of the deepest relationships of
this kind in Europe,10 dating back at least to the mid-1980s.11 The ‘excellence’ of this
cooperation was emphasized at the highest political level, on the occasion of a
special bilateral summit hosted by Belgium in February 2016.12 While this meeting
between prime ministers (together with their ministers of interior and justice) was
partly a public diplomacy effort to show solidarity, it did nonetheless lead to a
number of practical commitments and operational actions. The ministers announced
the deepening of exchanges between police and intelligence services, the more
frequent use of joint investigation teams (JIT) and the deployment of a French liaison
magistrate to be posted in the French embassy in Brussels, with a view to facilitating
judicial cooperation between the two countries. They also committed to feeding
‘systematically’ the various databases of the European Police Agency (Europol) and
to cooperate further on counter-radicalisation strategies, among other things. In a
8The jihadi networks stretch easily across the Franco-Belgian border, notably in the absence of linguistic
barriers, meaning in practice that Belgian and French jihadis train together in Syria and form joint
commandos. From French citizen Mehdi Nemmouche, who conducted a deadly 2014 attack against the
Jewish museum in Brussels, to the terror cell dismantled in the Belgian town of Verviers in January 2015,
which may have been planning attacks on French territory, to the Paris attacks that were orchestrated from
Brussels, the terror connections between the two countries are deep and numerous. For more on the
nature of this Franco-Belgian network, see Coolsaet, R. Facing the fourth foreign fighters wave. What drives
Europeans to Syria and to Islamic State? Insights from the Belgian case, Egmont Paper 81, Brussels: Egmont
Institute, March 2016, pp. 43-4.
9Interview with an intelligence analyst, OCAM, Brussels, 4 December 2015; interview with an intelligence
official, State Security (VSSE), Brussels, 19 April 2016.
10 Interview OCAM, op cit.
11 Coolsaet, R. Belgium and counterterrorism policy in the Jihadi era, Egmont Paper 15, Brussels: Egmont Insti-
tute, September 2007.
12 ‘Consolider le partenariat franco-belge en matière antiterroriste’, Joint statement of France and Belgium,
Brussels, 1 February 2016.
separate meeting, the ministers of youth and education from both sides committed
to developing joint programmes to prevent youth radicalisation.13
At the operational level, the good cooperation between France and Belgium is visible
in the regular contacts between the French prosecutor François Molins and his
counterpart Frédéric Van Leeuw (‘several times a day’, according to a source).14
Magistrates exchange a lot of information, either ‘spontaneously’ or via the use of
Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) requests (‘commissions rogatoires’, in French).15
Judicial cooperation should be facilitated by the new liaison magistrate. The
exchange of suspects between the two countries has also been quite smooth: Mehdi
Nemmouche (Jewish museum attack, 2014) arrested in France, was extradited to
Belgium whereas Salah Abdeslam (Paris attacks, 2015), arrested in Belgium, was
extradited to France for trial.
A number of JITs have been established between France and Belgium in counter-
terrorism matters.16 In this framework, police officers from one service benefit from
easier and swifter access to the intelligence and evidence gathered by their counter-
part, or jointly, leading to tangible results such as coordinated operations. Over the
past three years, around 30 JITs have been created with France, a number of which
relate to counter-terrorism.17 There have been, for instance, JITs established with
regard to the 2014 Jewish museum attack, to the 2015 foiled Thalys plot and to the
November 2015 Paris assaults. A trilateral JIT was also established with France and
the Netherlands to dismantle a cell active across the three countries and centred on
a French citizen named Reda Kriket.18 France is one of the few European countries to
have a liaison police officer in Brussels (complementing cooperation within Europol).
France has also offered technical support to Belgium, for instance, during the opera-
tions in Verviers when the French intervention unit of the gendarmerie (GIGN)
assisted Belgian forces with ‘technical resources that Belgium does not possess’ and
officers to operate that materiel.19
Cooperation between intelligence services is also good compared with other
partnerships, with information flowing in both directions. Nevertheless, it is far less
13 ‘La France et les trois communautés de Belgique unies contre la radicalisation des jeunes’, WBI Interna-
tional, 30 May 2016.
14 ‘Attentats terroristes: comment la France et la Belgique coopèrent’, Agence France Presse (AFP), 17 April
15 Joint interview with a Federal magistrate and two police inspectors, Brussels, 27 May 2016.
16 A JIT is a form of contract established between magistrates of distinct countries, foreseen by the European
Framework Decision of 2002, and the Belgian law of 9 December 2004 with regard to international judiciary
cooperation. Belgium has established 120 JITs since the arrangement’s first use in 2006, a small fraction of
which are related to terrorism cases. This puts Belgium as the 4th main user of the JIT mechanism in
17 Interview with a Belgian official, Ministry of Interior (MoI), Brussels, 24 May 2016.
18 Joint interview with a Federal magistrate and two police inspectors, op cit.
19 Bindler, M-E and I. Ory, ‘Opération de Verviers: la Belgique remercie le GIGN’, Europe1, 15 January 2015.
institutionalised than police and judicial cooperation and, overall, underpinned by a
comparatively smaller degree of trust.20
Morocco and Turkey are two other important partners of Belgium in the fight against
terrorism, although cooperation appears more complicated than with France. Police
and judicial cooperation with Rabat is assessed relatively positively, as Moroccan
authorities are said to pass on useful information to the investigations (such as
signalling movements of individuals or flagging key people to watch or phone
numbers to monitor).21 Morocco is the only country in the world where Belgium has
both a liaison police officer (since 1999) and a liaison magistrate in its embassy in
Rabat. An important convention was concluded with Morocco in 2014 (and adopted
in April 2016), which refines the framework for law enforcement and judicial cooper-
ation between the two countries with regard to terrorism.22 The forms of coopera-
tion covered by the convention include the exchange of information and the
exchange of good practices, as well as mutual logistical, technical and scientific assis-
tance. Cooperation with the Moroccan intelligence services exists as well, although
trust is much lower than with the French services.23
Turkey is another important partner, notably with regard to the exchange of infor-
mation related to Belgian citizens aiming to reach Syria or returning to Europe via
Turkey. Since 2012, Turkey has already arrested and returned to Belgium more than
60 foreign terrorist fighters or jihadi aspirants.24 Soon after the November attacks in
Paris, Ahmed Damani, a Belgian citizen, was arrested in Turkey. He is suspected to
have played a role in the attacks.25 Whereas Belgium has had a liaison police officer
in Ankara since 1996,26 Turkey appointed one in Brussels only in March 2016, with a
view to facilitating cooperation. Judicial cooperation relies on the various legal
instruments of the Council of Europe, which have been complemented by an
additional bilateral memorandum of understanding.27
This bilateral cooperation is perceived as being quite ‘cyclical’, however, hindered by
political tensions.28 For instance, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
publicly announced after the Brussels attacks that Ibrahim el-Bakraoui (one of the
suicide bombers) had been arrested in Turkey and deported to the Netherlands in
2015 with a warning that he was trying to enter Syria, it was largely perceived in
20 Interview VSSE, op cit.
21 Joint interview with a Federal magistrate and two police inspectors, op cit.
22 ‘Projet de loi portant assentiment à la Convention de coopération entre le gouvernement du Royaume de
Belgique et le gouvernement du Royaume du Maroc en matière de lutte contre la criminalité organisée et le
terrorisme, faite à Bruxelles le 18 février 2014’, Chambre des Représentants de Belgique, Doc 54 1646/004,
21 April 2016.
23 Interview OCAM, op cit.; interview with a retired intelligence official, VSSE, Brussels, 16 December 2015.
24 ‘La Turquie a intercepté 60 candidats belges au djihad’, Belga, 9 March 2016.
25 ‘Attentats à Paris: Dahmani, le suspect belge arrêté en Turquie, avait aussi un passeport syrien falsifié’, La
Libre Belgique, 24 December 2015.
26 Interview with a Belgian official, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Brussels, 14 April 2016.
27 Interview MoI, op cit.
28 Interview MFA, op cit.
Belgium as a hostile political gesture.29 With a view to fostering better trust and
cooperation, it was decided in early March 2016 to organise ‘regular’ meetings
between relevant ministers and administrations from both sides.30
Cooperation with the UK and the US is also deemed important by Belgian authorities,
although it remains less developed than with France. Five suspects were arrested in
April 2016 in Birmingham, England, in connection with the Paris and Brussels attacks,
as a result of a joint investigation by British, French and Belgian services.31 On that
occasion, the Belgian federal prosecutor underscored the ‘very good cooperation
with British authorities’32.
With the US, counter-terrorism cooperation has been developed for years, but it has
further intensified recently. A joint investigation team including the FBI was set up
after the Brussels attacks. Remarkably, this was the first JIT focused on counter-
terrorism between a European country and the US.33 Bilateral cooperation is also
facilitated by a 2011 bilateral agreement on serious crime and terrorism, as well as
by the presence of liaison officers in Brussels and Washington. The volume of
exchanges between intelligence agencies has increased significantly since November
2015, as the new context lifted some of the traditional reluctance to share informa-
Cooperation with the US, and to a lesser extent with the UK, is justified by the large
amount of intelligence gathered by these countries, directly or via their cooperation
with services worldwide, which makes the US a de facto intelligence hub, even for
European countries. But cooperation is also motivated by the unrivalled forensic
expertise and technical capacities of these countries. For instance, it is the coopera-
tion with the FBI that allowed the retrieval of sensitive data from the cell phone of
Mohamed Abrini, the alleged ‘man with the hat’ in the Brussels airport attack. ‘It is
very concrete help,’ said Belgian Prosecutor Van Leeuw. ‘I had always received the
same message about some encrypted messages: “this is not possible”,’ he explained.
‘But all of a sudden, it was possible to read them. I won’t go into further detail, but I
think it’s clear enough.’35
In addition to bilateral cooperation, some cases of minilateral formats could also be
singled out. There are, for instance, quadrilateral encounters between prosecutors
of Belgium, France, Spain and Morocco several times per year.36 These meetings are
29 ‘Selon Erdogan, Ibrahim El Bakraoui a été extradé vers la Belgique qui l’a relâché: le parquet dément’, RTL
Info, 23 March 2016.
30 Interview with a Belgian official, MFA, Brussels, 9 June 2016.
31 Dodd, V., J. Grierson and N. Parveen, ‘Five arrested in UK after inquiry linked to attacks on Brussels and
Paris’, The Guardian, 15 April 2016.
32 Press release by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, Brussels, 15 April 2016.
33 ‘Attentats: Le FBI en renfort’, Le Soir, 14-15-16 May 2016.
34 Interview VSSE, op cit., 19 April 2016.
35 Torfs, M. ‘Belgium and FBI set up “joint investigation team”: A big help’, Flanders News, 13 May 2016.
36 Interview with a Belgian official, Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Brussels, 26 April 2016.
designed for very operational purposes. A consultation mechanism was also set up
in the aftermath of the June 2015 attacks in Tunisia involving G7 members, Spain,
Belgium and Tunisia (called G7+3). Belgium has contributed to counter-terrorism
capacity-building efforts in this context, including in very operational terms such as
military training.37
Overall, counter-terrorism cooperation is quite developed and institutionalised with
a number of countries, mainly the neighbours (France, UK, Germany and the Nether-
lands), the southern partners (Morocco and Turkey) and the transatlantic partner
(US), with France by far the main partner. Belgian judiciary and intelligence services
receive a significant amount of information from all services of these countries.38
According to a Belgian official, contacts with these countries are ‘quite intense’ and
mature, spanning every level from ministerial to operational.39 Cooperation pre-
dated the recent attacks, but has undoubtedly intensified since early 2015.
As a matter of principle, a bilateral partnership implies that both sides are willing to
engage and benefit from cooperation. And, to be sure, Belgium is a committed
partner. Trust, however, is a major variable facilitating or hindering cooperation. If
partners have sometimes expressed a lack of trust in Belgian authorities, the reverse
is equally true. Yet, in spite of volatile degrees of trust, sometimes due to difficult
political contexts, Belgium’s counter-terrorism partnerships have persevered and
even deepened in the face of necessity.
Ultimately, it is quite evident that Belgium is more on the “demand” rather than the
“supply” side of these partnerships with powerful counter-terrorism partners, due to
its limited capacities, to the fact that its services are overwhelmed with the current
threat and to the absence of a ‘niche of expertise’ which would appeal to foreign
services.40 International cooperation fills important gaps in Belgium’s technical
capacities. Everyone needs to work together against terrorism, but Belgium needs
this cooperation perhaps more than others. Having said this, Belgium’s domestic
counter-terrorism efforts do provide a major contribution to the global fight against
terrorism and the strengthening of domestic capabilities is the shared priority of
Belgian and foreign authorities.
European cooperation: Belgium as a leading force
A number of European countries are affected by jihadi terrorism, with ISIL having
declared war on the entire West. In this context, the development of a European
response to terrorism is a priority for Belgium, especially in the European Union (EU)
37 Interview MFA, op cit., 14 April 2016; See also Clevers, A. ‘L’armée belge va former des soldats en Tunisie’,
La Libre Belgique, 10 December 2015.
38 Interview with an intelligence analyst, OCAM, Brussels, 29 April 2016.
39 Interview MoI, op cit.
40 Interview VSSE, op cit., 19 April 2016.
framework. In his speech at the annual Diplomatic Contact Days in 2015, Foreign
Minister Didier Reynders emphasised the importance of EU-wide cooperation in this
area, while underscoring the need to improve existing EU instruments and to adopt
new ones.41
Belgium was among the first countries in Europe – if not the first – to draw attention
to the issue of foreign terrorist fighters. In June 2013, Joëlle Milquet, then Belgian
Minister of the Interior, initiated an informal series of ministerial meetings with the
EU countries most affected by this challenge (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France,
Germany, Ireland, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK), along
with the European Commission and the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator (CTC),
under Belgian leadership. The group, known as the G11, usually meets ahead of the
Justice and Home Affairs Council, a meeting of the 28 EU ministers of justice and
home affairs. Its purpose is ‘to exchange information on the threat, compare notes
on policy measures and discuss areas where intensified cooperation is needed’.42 As
a smaller and informal group, the G11 is a forum to ‘crystallise the political will’
among key countries.43 Most decisions related to counter-terrorism over the past
few years were first adopted within the G11. For instance, the group facilitated the
decision to improve the exchange of information across Europe, particularly through
EU databases such as the Schengen Information System (SIS II), it advocated in favour
of strengthening Europol and Eurojust, it sought to speed up the adoption of the
Passenger Name Record (PNR) and debated measures related to counter-radicalisa-
tion on the internet.
In addition to its leadership role in the G11, Belgium is at the forefront of information
sharing within the specialised agencies Europol and Eurojust. Belgium is described as
‘top of the class’ by senior officials within these agencies.44 It is the main contributor
to Eurojust data, whereas it is the third largest contributor (behind France and the
Netherlands) to Europol’s Focal Point Travellers system, where it had entered infor-
mation about 611 foreign fighters by the end of April.45 Unfortunately, not all
member states are equally committed, as 90% of the information in the database
comes from five member states, including Belgium. Things are evolving positively,
however, and most governments have stepped up their cooperation since early
2015, although more needs to be done.46 For instance, with regard to the European
Information System (EIS), a criminal database, only 18 foreign fighters had been
introduced in the system by just two member states in December 2014, whereas by
41 ‘Reynders sur la lutte contre le terrorisme: “Nous pouvons faire mieux”‘, Belga, 2 February 2015.
42 ‘Background note’, Justice and Home Affairs Council, Council of the EU, Brussels, 8 October 2014.
43 Interview with a Senior EU official, Council of the EU, Brussels, 4 May 2016.
44 Interview with a Senior EU official, Eurojust, Brussels, 11 May 2016.
45 Interview MoI, op cit.
46 Interview Council of the EU, op cit.; ‘State of play on implementation of the statement of the members of
the European Council of 12 February 2015, the JHA Council Conclusions of 20 November 2015, and the
Conclusions of the European Council of 18 December 2015’, Note from the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordi-
nator, 6450/16, Brussels, 1 March 2016.
January 2016, close to 1500 foreign fighters from more than 14 member states were
included in the database, which is an improvement but clearly does not represent
the full scale of the threat.47 For apparent technical reasons, which are allegedly
being worked out, Belgium’s contribution to the EIS is suboptimal. Overall, however,
Belgium contributes proactively and extensively to all EU databases. In contrast, a
number of other member states are still neither sharing information nor using it,
whereas a number of free-riders use the information shared by others.48
With regard to the PNR, the system of data collection on air travellers adopted by the
EU in April 2016 after years of negotiations between the European Parliament and
the EU member states, Belgium is not only doing its utmost to implement the new
directive as soon as possible (despite having two years to do so), but it is also the only
member state to have opted for the maximum implementation of the PNR. Belgium
aims to cover intra-EU travels, as well as extending the measure’s scope beyond air
travel to international maritime, bus and high-speed train travel.49
If the exchange of police and judicial information is deepening at the EU level, that is
less the case among intelligence services. Intelligence cooperation is not an EU
competence, and there is no equivalent to Europol or Eurojust to centralise intelli-
gence from all member states.50 Most observers agree that more cooperation is
needed, but no format has yet gathered consensus. After the November attacks in
Paris, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called for the creation of a ‘European
CIA’ in order to improve cooperation among intelligence services – the reiteration of
a proposal already made in 2004 together with Austria, in the aftermath of the
Madrid bombings.51 Such a proposal appears controversial and unrealistic – not to
mention that the framing seems inappropriate, since the CIA is in charge of foreign
intelligence, whereas Michel seemed to refer to the need for an EU-wide ‘domestic’
intelligence agency. In a more pragmatic manner, the current interior minister, Jan
Jambon, decided to create a working group within the G11, with a view to exploring
how European intelligence cooperation can be improved.52
An interesting initiative in this domain has emerged outside the EU framework,
however, in the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG). The CTG, established in 2001, is an
offshoot of the Club of Bern, an informal club gathering the heads of intelligence
services from EU member states plus Norway and Switzerland. Although outside the
EU structures, it reports occasionally to EU institutions, notably the Council of the EU.
47 ‘State of play on implementation of the statement of the members of the European Council of 12 February
2015, the JHA Council Conclusions of 20 November 2015, and the Conclusions of the European Council of
18 December 2015’, Note from the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, 6450/16, Brussels, 1 March 2016.
48 Interview Council of the EU, op cit.
49 Interview MoI, op cit.
50 There is a small structure, called IntCen, which operates mostly on open sources (as well as on reports from
national services), but whose role is essentially limited to providing analysis and assessments to the EU
51 ‘“CIA européenne”: l’appel de Charles Michel reçoit un accueil glacial’, RTBF, 30 November 2015.
52 Van Horenbeek, J. ‘Jambon probeert Europese inlichtingendeal te forceren’, De Morgen, 22 April 2016.
Under the Dutch Chairmanship, intelligence chiefs agreed to step up cooperation
within the CTG, with a view to exchange information more rapidly and automatically
(liberated from a number of clauses that limit the sharing of intelligence), in a more
standardised manner (since all intelligence services use different spellings, but also
evaluation criteria) and resulting in possible operational decisions.53 Paradoxically,
while Charles Michel called for a European CIA, Belgium offered rather lukewarm
support for the Dutch proposal, taking some time before endorsing the initiative.54
Operational police cooperation has developed importantly in the context of Europol.
After the November attacks in Paris, a special task force was established at Europol
(Task Force Fraternité) mobilising a number of resources. Belgium contributed to the
Task Force, through its liaison staff at Europol, while the EU agency sent officers to
its operational centre in Brussels. The Task Force has led to a number of intelligence
leads, according to Europol.55 The mandate of the task force was logically extended
to cover the Brussels attacks, in view of the strong connections between the two
events and of the good results yielded. Following the Brussels attacks, a Joint Liaison
Team (JLT) was set up at Europol, in complement to the Task Force, with additional
specialised staff from member states whose mission was to identify new leads.
Although Belgium has reinforced its staff in Europol, it had not yet been able to
second an officer to the JLT by early October 2016, more than six months later, due
to internal procedures. 56 The nomination was allegedly imminent, however. Further-
more, a week after the Brussels attacks, the Belgian Federal Police organised an
operational meeting in partnership with Europol, gathering more than 50 counter-
terrorism experts from 30 countries to explore the international dimensions of the
investigation.57 Overall, the role of Europol in supporting the current investigations
is deemed very useful by Belgian and EU officials.58
In the fields of radicalisation and counter-narratives, Belgium has benefitted from EU
support. The Syria Strategic Communications Advisory Team (SSCAT) was established
in January 2015, at the request of Belgium. The SSCAT aims to develop a network of
expertise and good practices with regard to counter-narratives, offering tailored
advice to EU member states. The team of around ten experts is funded by the
European Commission, hosted by the Belgian Ministry of Interior and supported by
the British Home Office (since half of the team comes from the UK). Although the
scope of the project goes beyond Belgium, Belgian authorities have contributed but
53 Interview with an intelligence official (VSSE), Brussels, 19 April 2016; ‘State of play on implementation of
the statement of the members of the European Council of 12 February 2015, the JHA Council Conclusions of
20 November 2015, and the Conclusions of the European Council of 18 December 2015’, Note from the EU
Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, 6450/16, Brussels, 1 March 2016.
54 Interview VSSE, op cit., 19 April 2016.
55 ‘The ECTC Task Force Fraternité’, European Counter Terrorism Centre, Infographic, January 2016.
56 Interview MoI, op cit.
57 ‘Belgian Federal Police and Europol host joint international operational briefing after terrorist attacks in
Belgium’, Press Release, Europol, The Hague, 1 April 2016.
58 Interview Council of the EU, op cit.; Interview MoI, op cit.
also largely benefitted from SSCAT expertise, through positive spillover within the
interior ministry.59 The first phase of the project ended in July 2016, but a prolonga-
tion was foreseen.
Another major EU initiative in the area of prevention is the Radicalisation Awareness
Network (RAN), established several years ago, and transformed into a Centre of
Excellence in October 2015. The RAN brings together a large number of European
experts and first-line practitioners on the prevention of radicalisation, in order to
exchange good practices. There are nine working groups, one of which is led by
Belgium (on schools). Thanks to RAN, Belgium has increased its network and exper-
tise on counter-radicalization by exchanging with international colleagues, but also
by strengthening networks and initiatives at local and regional levels in Belgium.60 In
the field of radicalization, the EU has also funded a project focused on youth resil-
ience to radicalisation and violent extremism, implemented by the Belgian Ministry
of Interior (2013-17).61
Overall, although the EU undeniably plays a relatively small role in the fight against
terrorism,62 EU member states have become more willing to cooperate and to share
information in light of the growing threat. A number of measures and initiatives have
been adopted, which improve Europe’s overall response to terrorism, but more still
needs to be done. Belgium has been a driving force in this regard, as the EU consti-
tutes the second external layer of Belgium’s counter-terrorism policy. In contrast to
what may be observed at the bilateral level, where Belgium is on the demand side of
cooperation, Belgium is clearly on the supply side at the EU level. It supplies data, but
also political leadership, which is perhaps not surprising given Belgium’s long history
of promoting EU cooperation and integration. It also supplies key personnel, as the
EU counter-terrorism coordinator and the president of Eurojust’s counter-terrorism
group are both Belgian nationals. In return, Belgium has benefited greatly from initi-
atives such as SSCAT and RAN, and from the support of Europol and Eurojust.
Global cooperation: a comprehensive contribution
At the global level, Belgium supports a comprehensive approach, covering all aspects
of counter-terrorism, from prevention to repression and shutting down terror
financing, through the combined use of soft and hard measures.
Over decades, and particularly over the past 15 years, the number of international
organisations, measures and decisions related to the fight against terrorism has
multiplied exponentially. The United Nations (UN) has been very active in this field,
59 Interview Council of the EU, op cit.; Interview MoI, op cit.
60 Interview MoI, op cit.
62 See for instance Renard, T. EU counterterrorism policies and institutions after the Lisbon Treaty, Policy Brief,
Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation, September 2012.
notably through the adoption of a large number of resolutions and even of a Global
Counter-Terrorism Strategy in 2006. Belgium strongly supports the implementation
of UN resolutions and other legal instruments, which it has signed and ratified. It is
also a member of a like-minded group in New York concerning the UN counter-
terrorism sanctions regime.63 In the context of the UN, Belgium is also actively
promoting more space for the prevention of violent extremism, notably by
supporting the action plan of the UN Secretary General on this topic and by organ-
ising events on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly meeting.
There is a large number of multilateral bodies whose work is relevant to the fight
against terrorism. One of these organisations is the Council of Europe (CoE), which
focuses notably on the respect of the rule of law and human rights in the fight against
terrorism. That balanced focus, between human rights and pure counter-terrorism,
has been defined as a key priority for Belgium’s global approach. Under the Belgian
chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers (2014-15), the CoE adopted an
additional protocol related to the convention on the prevention of terrorism
(although Belgium must still ratify the convention), and an action plan on violent
extremism and radicalisation.64
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is another important multilateral forum,
dealing with money laundering and the fight against terrorism financing, of which
Belgium is a member. In its 2015 evaluation report, the FATF considered that the
action of Belgian authorities ‘is commensurate with the actual phenomena and
threats’65 while pointing out several issues requiring adjustment. It further estimated
that the level of cooperation of Belgian authorities was ‘globally satisfying’ whereas
in return Belgium was ‘globally satisfied’ with the international help it receives.66 The
leading role of Belgium in setting up the Egmont Group in 1995, a major forum for
international financial intelligence units dealing with money laundering and terrorist
financing, should also be mentioned. Furthermore, Foreign Minister Didier Reynders
has made the fight against terrorism financing one of his priorities, regularly raising
the issue with his peers and insisting on full implementation of UNSC resolutions
2170 and 2178, which call on members to combat the flow of foreign fighters.67
On the more forceful side of the counter-terrorism spectrum, the US-led coalition
against ISIL has become one of the main international forums to deal with the threat
of ISIL and foreign terrorist fighters since September 2014. The coalition started as a
military platform coordinating operations in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi govern-
63 Interview MFA, op cit., 14 April 2016.
64 Interview MoJ, op cit.
65 ‘Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures – Belgium’, Mutual Evaluation Report,
FATF, April 2015, p. 75.
66 ‘Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures – Belgium’, Mutual Evaluation Report,
FATF, April 2015, p. 147.
67 Interview MFA, op cit., 14 April 2016. For more on countering the financing of terrorism, see the article by
Lemeunier in this volume.
ment. Belgium has contributed to the military operations of the coalition from the
beginning, sending six F16s and around 120 military support staff to the region,
which were later organised in a 6-month rotation mechanism with Dutch forces.
Originally limited to missions in Iraq, the Belgian government has decided to extend
the mandate of Belgian F16s to Syria, starting in July 2016. Although that decision
was presented as the logical prolongation of the Dutch mission, which had already
been extended to Syria, it appears that the decision was far from automatic. It was
in fact taken well after the Brussels attacks.68 In the context of the coalition, Belgium
is also offering military training to local Iraqi forces and to the Peshmerga, and it
deployed a frigate to escort the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the after-
math of the Paris attacks (from 18 November 2015 to 4 January 2016). Staff officers
are also supporting coalition command and control at various levels (in the US,
Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq).69
Whereas the coalition constitutes firstly and mainly a military effort, it has broad-
ened its scope to develop a more comprehensive approach. Belgium is an active
member of the working group on ‘foreign terrorist fighters’, which aims to exchange
best practices among coalition members, and hosted a two-day meeting of the
working group at the Egmont Palace in early May 2016. Working groups on ‘counter-
financing’ and ‘counter messaging’ have also been established in which Belgium
participates. In addition to the anti-ISIL coalition, another relevant US-led multilat-
eral forum is the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), established in 2011.
Although not a member, Belgium has participated in a number of its meetings.
In addition to its contributions to the coalition, Belgium is engaged in a number of
international missions that have important counter-terrorism dimensions. For
instance, Belgium contributes to the EU training mission in Mali, of which it took
command in July 2016. It has a military presence in Afghanistan and it has a police
presence in the EU capacity-building mission EUCAP Sahel in Niger and Mali, as well
as in the UNOSOM Somalia. It has also seconded counter-terrorism experts to the EU
delegations in Libya (based in Tunis) and Jordan.
Finally, at the diplomatic level, Belgium supports moderate forces in Syria as well as
the political transition process led by SGUN Special Envoy De Mistura. It also supports
local humanitarian access and aid. It has committed around €90 million in support to
humanitarian projects, mainly in Syria and to a lesser extent in Iraq (2014-16).70
Overall, Belgium is committed to multilateralism and to a comprehensive approach,
including in the fight against terrorism. That is the third external layer of its counter-
terrorism policy. It participates actively in multilateral discussions and supports the
68 Interview MFA, op cit., 14 April 2016.
69 Interview MFA, op cit., 14 April 2016; Interview with a military official, Brussels, 20 May 2016; see also ‘Irak:
la Belgique envoie un soutien humanitaire aux peshmergas’, La Libre Belgique, 4 February 2016.
70 Interview MFA, op cit., 14 April 2016.
implementation of all multilateral decisions. With regard to the anti-ISIL coalition,
Belgium is a willing and proactive member. Its military contribution may appear
modest in absolute numbers, but it is far from insignificant relative to Belgium’s
limited and overstretched capabilities. Above all, Belg