Overview: Belgium has an active counterterrorism policy that includes robust domestic security efforts, engagements in international information sharing — including with the United States through the Visa Waiver Program — and support for multilateral efforts. The caretaker status of Belgium’s government during most of 2020 hampered its ability to make meaningful policy advancements, but the new government, seated in October, made strong commitments to improving the resources and legislation supporting these sectors. The country’s greatest terrorism threat remains homegrown terrorism carried out by lone actors, whether inspired by Islamist violent extremism or, to a lesser extent, the far right, which Belgium calls “violent right-wing extremism.” There was no change in the threat level in 2020, nor did authorities note a change in tactics.
2020 Terrorist Incidents: There were no terrorist attacks in Belgium during 2020.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Belgium’s primary CT-related agencies include the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, Interior, Finance, and Defense, together with both federal and local police, the civilian and military security and intelligence services, the Office of the Federal Prosecutor, the Financial Intelligence Processing Unit, and the National Security Council. The Ministry of Interior maintains a Crisis Center. The interagency Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA), consisting of representatives from the organizations listed above, plus Treasury and Transport, assesses and sets nationwide threat level ratings and maintains Belgium’s database of individuals with a nexus to terror. Belgium’s law enforcement capacity, although underfunded, is capable and experienced in responding to and deterring terrorist activity.
In 2020, security forces interrupted a small number of attacks in the planning stages, and the court system advanced important cases. The following list provides a sampling of successful interventions:
- On October 31, police arrested two minors (ages 16 and 17) in the province east of Liège on suspicion of planning a terror attack. The two had reportedly recorded a video pledging allegiance to ISIS and planned to attack police.
- On December 4, a two-day trial concluded for Matthew Govaert, a 23-year-old from the suburbs of Brussels arrested in 2019 for allegedly planning a terror attack on Embassy Brussels. Govaert had reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS.
In late 2020 the government budgeted additional financial resources to security, justice, and law enforcement agencies. Belgium’s highly devolved government structure presents challenges to effective internal communication and cooperation between Belgium’s numerous law enforcement and criminal justice entities. During 2020, Belgium’s Parliament did not pass any legislation that would alter Belgium’s ability to investigate, prosecute, or deter terrorism. There remained hurdles to the effective use of civil informants, and Belgium’s short prison sentences continued to reduce the efficacy of plea bargaining. Belgium implements UNSCR 2396, in part, through the implementation of the EU PNR directive for airport travelers, through its aggressive prosecution of known FTFs, often in absentia, and through its maintenance of databases to track known and suspected terrorists. It established the Belgian Passenger Information Unit in 2018 and has continued to add airlines and test the possibility of broadening to additional transport modes.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Belgium has been a member of FATF since 1990. Its FIU, the Belgian Financial Intelligence Processing Unit, is a member of the Egmont Group. Belgium is also a member of the Defeat-ISIS CIFG. In 2006, in response to UNSC 1373, the country created a domestic designation regime that allows it to freeze the assets of listed terrorists. Belgium implemented the EU’s Fourth Anti-Money Laundering (AML) Directive in 2017 and added the Fifth AML Directive into its civil code on July 20.
Countering Violent Extremism: Belgium originally drafted a plan to counter radicalization to violence, “Plan R,” in 2005 and updates it regularly. Under Plan R, local task forces coordinate the CVE response among local security, municipal, NGO, and social services personnel. This helps clear the hurdle posed by complex overlapping federal, regional, and local CVE and CT responsibilities. For example, while the Ministry of Justice is responsible for prison deradicalization from violence plans, released prisoners fall under the jurisdiction of local deradicalization from violence efforts and are tracked and assisted through the local task forces. Resources for both were limited. Belgium launched an imam training program in 2019 to lead to a centrally certified cadre, but participation was low. Management of Brussels’ Grand Mosque was transferred to an administrative board in 2019 because of concerns about Saudi influence, but accusations surfaced in late 2020 of undue Moroccan influence. On October 22, the Flemish Minister of Civic Integration and Equal Opportunities announced a fivefold increase in the region’s investment in CVE, to more than €2.5 million. On November 13, Flanders’ regional government passed legislation aimed at reducing foreign financing of mosques, which in some cases in the past had been linked to extremism. The Belgian cities of Antwerp, Liège, and Vilvoorde are part of the Strong Cities Network (SCN). All three, plus the municipality of Verviers, participated in CVE City Pair Exchange Programs. Belgium remains opposed to the repatriation of adult FTFs from Iraq and Syria, but it accepted five adult FTFs and their 13 children deported from Turkey during the year.
International and Regional Cooperation: Belgium participates in CT efforts with the EU, NATO, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe, and Belgium is a member of the advisory board of the UN Counterterrorism Center. The country is also an active contributor to the subcommittees of the UNSC that deal with counterterrorism. Belgium is a troop-contributing member of Operation Inherent Resolve in Jordan, the European Union Training Mission in Mali, and the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. Belgium participated in all EU efforts to interdict FTF travel across land and maritime borders, encouraged efforts to strengthen Schengen zone external borders, and maintained a leading role in the European Strategic Communication Network. The nation is not a member of the GCTF but often participates as an observer. CUTA represents Belgium on the newly created EU Network of Prevent Policy Makers, which is primarily dedicated to the fight against violent extremism.