Thank you. I am grateful for the robust counterterrorism partnership we have had with Belgium over the years, which includes engagements with local and national government officials, law enforcement, mental health professionals, social workers, and community and civil society leaders— really, everyone who cares and is invested in keeping us all safe!
From exchanges that have brought religious leaders and scholars to the United States on study tours to capacity building workshops for parents and youth leaders, the programs we have supported through U.S. Embassy Brussels have promoted whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches to preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE).
Keeping Belgium and the United States safe from terrorism requires all of us working together. This is why convening these events, which allow us to speak candidly among friends, is so important.
The tragic attack here in Brussels just this past week that left one police officer dead and the terrorist attacks that struck Brussels on the 22nd of March 2016 shock us all, and leave no question that the threat of violent extremism is horrifically real.
We mourn the 32 civilians killed and the over 300 injured by ISIS at Zaventem airport and on the metro that day. In addition to bringing the perpetrators of these heinous acts to justice, your government conducted an extensive review of Belgian efforts to not just interdict future terrorist plots, but to build resilience against violent extremism before radicalization and mobilization to violence occur. Prevention.
One of the recommendations of this parliamentary inquest was greater coordination between and among government agencies. Another recommendation was for municipalities to play a leading role in prevention work. This is why our continued engagements with Belgian municipalities has been so critical.
Later today, I will travel to the Netherlands for a Strong Cities Network event we are sponsoring in The Hague. More than 100 local leaders from across Europe and the United States will spend two days at the Peace Palace for the “Transatlantic Mayoral Dialogue on Preventing Hate, Extremism, and Polarization, and Safeguarding Local Democracy.”
Cities, as you know, have become the main battleground for modern terrorism. This is why the Obama administration helped launch the Strong Cities Network at the United Nations in September 2015. This network brings more than 160 cities around the world together to share best practices and lessons learned on P/CVE, including Belgian municipalities such as Antwerp, Liege, and Vilvoorde (VIL-Vord-A).
Through U.S. Embassy Brussels, we have encouraged these municipalities and others to be part of a global community of local policy makers and practitioners. We are even supporting a youth empowerment program in Antwerp and Liege called “Young Cities,” which encourages aspiring youth leaders to work with their local governments on projects that promote resilience in their communities.
I have been incredibly inspired by the young people who are working to make their communities more resilient and to fight intolerance. Whether in Tunis or Jakarta, and many other places, it is these young folks who inspire the most confidence and make me optimistic about this effort of ours to counter violent extremism and build peaceful communities.
Another program we are supporting, in partnership with U.S. Embassy Brussels, is the “Father Schools” program, which encourages fathers and other community leaders in Antwerp, Liege, and Molenbeek to steer their family members away from violent extremism and other harmful influences and toward tolerance and inclusivity. This program and “Young Cities” both promote an inclusive approach to public safety that avoids stigmatizing minority populations. I am excited to see these and other programs first hand.
While the threat from Islamist terrorism remains prevalent, we are also experiencing the rise of antisemitism and other types of far-right extremist violence—what the United States calls racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism, or REMVE. Countering REMVE is an absolute priority for the United States. It was the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlotteville, after all, which inspired President Biden to return to public service.
Over the last several years, there has been an increase in REMVE attacks globally. From a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in May, to an LGBTQI+ bar in Bratislava, Slovakia, in October, we are witnessing a significant uptick in attacks by white identity terrorists. In Antwerp and Ghent in September, police raids against suspected violent extremists left one of them dead. But possibly saved many innocent lives.
REMVE is not a new phenomenon, for certain, but its evolution as a prominent, global threat is alarming, aided in part by the decision by certain social media platforms and online chatrooms to exercise little or no moderation of content, including anonymous platforms such as 4chan and encrypted platforms, such as the so-called “Terrorgram” channels on Telegram.
We must support more research to understand the REMVE attacks that have already occurred and to prevent future tragedies. This is why the research conducted by my colleague Michael Duffin, in partnership with Ghent University’s Institute for International Research on Criminal Policy, is so important. We cannot allow gaps or blind spots in our understanding of the REMVE threat, particularly in countries like Poland, which have attracted transnational REMVE adherents and groups from around the world.
We are also supporting efforts by the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) and the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law (IIJ) to develop toolkits on countering REMVE, which are available on the GCTF and IIJ websites.
Before I turn the floor over to Mike, I want to touch on some of the REMVE trends related to the global REMVE movement.
Trend #1: Accelerationists, who believe mass-casualty violence against their perceived enemies will lead to a race war and the eventual creation of a racially pure state, have called for attacks on critical infrastructure, including in the energy and transportation sectors, thereby attempting to undermine confidence in government, endanger populations, damage the economy, and hasten the breakdown of society.
Trend #2: Threatening and intimidating politicians and harassing refugee, immigrant, and LGBTQI+ populations.
Trend #3: Research by the NGO Moonshot shows that Russia-based bots and trolls have had a heavy hand in attempting to promote anti-Ukraine rhetoric, falsely alleging that Ukrainian citizens fleeing Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine are actually economic migrants and that they are draining the resources of Poland and other countries.
Trend #4: Antisemitism and Holocaust denial: The Kremlin and pro-Russia actors distort and try to instrumentalize the history of the Holocaust and the Second World War in a cynical attempt to justify Russia’s violence against Ukraine, along with their other malign political aims. The Kremlin’s false narratives are not only shameful, they distracts from genuine efforts to come to raise awareness and grapple with the real and growing global threat of REMVE, including neo-Nazism, antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred.
Trend #5: The Transnational Nature of REMVE; with the 2019 Christchurch attacks being the most prominent example. In the wake of the attack on Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, investigators found a “trail of breadcrumbs” the perpetrator left across Central and Eastern Europe in 2018 while meeting other white supremacists and visiting sites of religious and ethnic strife. Although the perpetrator’s travels to this region may not have had tactical value, he found inspiration and support from those who share his ideology. Since his attack, the perpetrators of other REMVE attacks from Buffalo to Bratislava have praised this sick man and other REMVE actors.
We also saw the transnational nature of REMVE in Hanau, Germany, in February 2020, when a 43-year-old white supremacist, who had obtained weapons training at a commercial facility in Slovakia, opened fire on two shisha bars in a racially motivated attack. He killed nine people before killing his mother and then himself.
Further, we have seen an escalation in violence perpetrated by REMVE actors who are increasingly interconnected, some adopting and amplifying each other’s manifestos and violent ideologies, syncing together online and offline, across borders, and sharing ideas, ideologies, and tactics.
Finally—and we see this increasingly at home in the United States—we are seeing the mainstreaming of divisive and misleading rhetoric from public figures who stoke fear and anxiety by peddling disinformation about contentious issues, including about refugees and immigrants, and about government responses to global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, and climate change.
For example, each time public figures directly or indirectly reference in a manner to lend credence to “Great Replacement Theory” it legitimize the rhetoric of REMVE actors who want to radicalize, recruit, and mobilize to violence vulnerable people who feel as though they are being left behind by rapid social changes and disproportionately impacted by economic downturns.
Our elected leaders have an important role to play in dousing the flames of hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia.
To this end, President Biden convened a “United We Stand” summit at the White House in September, in response to numerous incidents of hate-fueled violence in the United States. As President Biden said, “an attack on one group of us is…an attack on all of us.” The summit highlighted a historic package of new actions the federal government, and civic, faith, philanthropic, and business leaders will take to address hate-fueled violence and advance national unity within the United States. The mayoral dialogue we are sponsoring in The Hague over the next two days is part of our international call to action.
Before I conclude, I want to take a moment to recognize the outstanding work our colleague, Ms. Marie-Helene Desomer, has done in the Public Affairs Section at U.S. Embassy Brussels over the years. She has been at the heart of every P/CVE-related activity we have supported in Belgium, providing us with great suggestions for programs to support and helping make our ideas even better.
Last month, Timothy Betts, the Senior Bureau Official for the Bureau of Counterterrorism, recognized Marie-Helene for her work with a Franklin Award. While we are grateful for the contributions all our colleagues at U.S. Embassy Brussels have made over the years, no one has helped further our partnership with Belgium like Marie-Helene. It will be a bittersweet day when you retire next spring. You will be missed but you have provided us all with motivation and mission to continue your invaluable work.