Since terrorists struck the United States on September 11, 2001, the U.S. Department of State has developed strong partnerships with Belgium to counter violent extremism (CVE). These engagements have led to the development of a cohort of policy makers, practitioners, and researchers on the local, national, and community levels who are not only working to prevent another terrorist attack but also to identify and address the drivers of radicalization, recruitment, and mobilization to violence.
From 2014 to 2016, Islamist terrorism emanating from Belgium played a significant role in Western Europe. An ISIS terrorist cell based in the Brussels enclave of Molenbeek, for example, was responsible for the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, and the March 2016 bombings in Brussels, which killed 32 people. During this time, many heard the ISIS siren call, and several hundred people across Belgium (including women and children) left their homes to support ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, some as foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). Support for terrorism by a small number of Belgians overshadowed the broader social and economic contributions immigrants and minority communities made to Belgian society.
In consultation with the Government of Belgium, local and regional government officials, and community leaders, the Bureau of Counterterrorism and U.S. Embassy Brussels facilitated the exchange of good practices and lessons learned on building awareness of and resilience to violent extremism. These efforts have led to increased capacity and political will, which has led Belgian participants in these programs to share their knowledge with others across Europe and around the world.
Examples of our CVE-focused programs in Belgium include:
- City Pair Program exchanges have allowed city officials and community leaders from Antwerp, Liège, Verviers, and Vilvoorde to travel to, meet with, and learn from U.S. counterparts.
- The International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) has exposed national, local, and community leaders to violence prevention and community engagement techniques in the United States.
- Strong Cities Network workshops and summits have connected Antwerp, Liège, and Vilvoorde to other members of this network around the world.
- “Mother Schools” and “Father Schools” programs have trained parents from Antwerp, Liège, and Molenbeek how to recognize the warning signs of radicalization to violence and how to steer their children away from these and other harmful influences.
- The Strong Cities Network’s “Young Cities” program is mentoring youth leaders from Antwerp and Liège on how to advocate for and lead meaningful change in their communities, including in partnership with local governments.
- Speaker programs, including one from December 2019 featuring former neo-Nazi skinhead Christian Picciolini, have informed policy makers, practitioners, media, and the public about the dangers of violent extremism, including racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism (REMVE).
These efforts have led to new or updated policies, strategies, and programs that respect the civil rights and liberties of all Belgian residents and have improved Belgium’s ability to prevent and respond to acts of terrorism. In Vilvoorde, a municipality of 37,000 people just north of Brussels, about 30 people traveled to Syria and Iraq as FTFs. By visiting Columbus, Ohio, in 2014, a delegation led by Mayor Hans Bonte was able to identify ways to enhance their own community engagement strategy, which contributed to a dramatic drop in FTF departures.
Antwerp, one of Europe’s most diverse cities, developed a smart phone app for law enforcement officials to improve their cultural competency. They were inspired by an initiative they saw at San Diego State University as part of a 2019 City Pair Program.
These projects have built on previous Embassy Brussels activities, starting shortly after 9/11, to help communities build more social cohesion. As early as 2005, U.S. Embassy Brussels organized a two-day research-based conference entitled “Muslim Communities Participating in Society: A Belgian-U.S. Dialogue” which brought about 30 Muslim-American leaders to Belgium for a dialogue with about 60 counterparts. The discussions centered around civic life, media portrayals, women’s issues, youth development and economics. Embassy Brussels followed up with a major U.S.-Belgian policy dialogue on media coverage of sensitive topics, including two exchange programs on the topic for Belgium’s Flemish and Francophone public broadcasters.
Several prominent U.S. scholars and religious leaders have traveled to Belgium for meetings, workshops, and interfaith dialogues; Belgian community leaders have visited the United States on a variety of programs. Issues pertaining to economic opportunity have been addressed by U.S. speakers and embassy grants mainly by promoting entrepreneurship. Youth outreach has included a mix of exchanges, sports diplomacy, arts, and ongoing small grants programs to support innovative school drop-out prevention programs as well as active citizenship and leadership. Other programs have focused on community policing and diversity in the workplace.
While terrorism remains an elevated threat in Belgium — as across much of Western Europe — Belgium is more prepared to address terrorism today thanks to the partnerships developed through State Department public diplomacy programs.
About the Author: Michael Duffin serves as a Senior Advisor on Countering Violent Extremism for the Bureau of Counterterrorism. He is also a non-resident fellow at Ghent University’s Institute for International Research on Criminal Policy.