Counterterrorism in Belgium: Key challenges and policy options

Counterterrorism in Belgium: Key challenges and policy options

A recently published report focuses on priority aspects for Belgium’s heavily criticized counterterrorism approach and provides eight key options to strengthen the country's efforts in fighting terrorism.

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris (November 2015) and Brussels (March 2016), Belgium’s counterterrorism policy has been heavily criticized – domestically and worldwide. A number of these criticisms were overly exaggerated (so-called ‘Belgium-bashing’), and they were therefore quickly discarded. Worldwide Belgium was called the ‘failed state’. Yet, some criticisms pointed to real underlying problems, which required a serious response. Starting from this observation, a group of scholars convened by the Egmont Institute undertook the exercise to assess Belgium’s counterterrorism policy in a critical but nuanced manner. This challenge resulted in a 75 pages scientific contribution to the counterterrorism literature. Authors contributed on the relevance of counterterrorism financing, the 30 measures announced by the Belgian government, the terror-crime nexus and an overview of the ‘external dimension’ of Belgium’s counterterrorism efforts. Devroe and Ponsaers developed in their article ‘How integrated is local prevention and radicalisation of terrorism?’ the need of a renewed and consolidated form of local Community Oriented Policing (COP), a “consent” model that seems to be overtaken by a harsh “control” model in France and the Netherlands.

Also in Belgium, a purely reactive law enforcement strategy became dominant in counterterrorism and a preventive strategy (as a combination of COP and Intelligence Led Policing) was largely neglected. In essence, the judiciary has monopolized 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 considered 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. Police researchers agree on the fact 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, steered by the Mayor. 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. Indeed, tackling crime equals by no means solving problems.

The Egmont report does not aim for exhaustiveness, but it does focus on some priority aspects, and provides a eight key options to strengthen Belgium’s counterterrorism approach:

1. The efficiency of the Belgian counterterrorism policy must be regularly evaluated in a comprehensive manner.

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.

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.

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.

5. Counterterrorism efforts must be articulated across several layers of governance, in order to develop their full potential.

6. The new Belgian security strategy must be fully implemented, in the Framework Note on Integral Security (2016-19). 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).

7. The gap between the growing pressures and expectations that rest on security services, and the limited means available to them must be addressed.

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 disinvestment have led to the current situation.