Overview: Belgium had an active counterterrorism policy that included robust domestic security efforts, international information sharing, and support for multilateral efforts. The country’s greatest terrorism threat remained homegrown terrorism carried out by lone actors, whether inspired by Islamist violent extremism or, to a lesser extent, racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism, which Belgium calls “violent right-wing extremism.” The general threat level during 2021 remained at 2 on a four-point scale, with 4 the most severe. During the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities noted an increase in “right-wing extremist propaganda,” especially online.
2021 Terrorist Incidents: There were no terrorist attacks in Belgium during 2021.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Belgium’s primary CT-related agencies included the Ministries of Defense, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Justice, 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 maintained a Crisis Center. An interagency body called the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA), comprising representatives of the relevant ministries, was responsible for setting nationwide threat-level ratings and maintaining Belgium’s database of individuals with a nexus to terror. Belgium’s law enforcement capacity, although underfunded, was capable and experienced in responding to and deterring terrorist activity.
During 2021, CUTA was reportedly tracking about 675 people for links to terrorism, of whom about 50 were in the category of violent right-wing extremism and about 15 in the category of “violent left-wing extremism.” The majority of the remaining were linked to Islamic extremism.
Belgian law enforcement took actions to disrupt potential terrorist actions. Some examples include the following:
- In March, Belgian police arrested four minors who had been radicalized to violence by online jihadist propaganda and who were at various stages of plotting terrorist attacks. The four were not working together.
- On May 17, a former Belgian special forces soldier, Jurgen Conings, left behind a note that threatened violence against health experts and politicians and disappeared with a significant arsenal of military weapons. His body was found five weeks later after a three-country manhunt, dead of an apparent suicide. The case exposed poor controls and communication between the military intelligence and operational sectors. On July 9, Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder fired the head of military intelligence and promised improved vigilance and controls to prevent persons with known far-right views from becoming violent threats.
For 2021, Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden announced a budget increase of $5.8 million supporting the recruitment of 1,600 new staff, including police officers. For 2021, Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne announced a $322 million increase to hire 1,400 new staff and ensure “a faster justice process,” representing a 15 percent augmentation over the Federal Public Service Justice’s 2020 budget. In mid-2021, the justice minister and the director of state security announced an additional increase of more than $10 million specifically for hiring staff and modernizing the state security computer infrastructure.
During 2021, Belgium’s Parliament did not pass any legislation that would alter Belgium’s ability to investigate, prosecute, or deter terrorism. Challenges to effective counterterrorism efforts continued to include Belgium’s complex government; the difficulty of information sharing between various agencies; data collection and retention regulations; short prison sentences; and bureaucratic hurdles to the full use of civil informants. Belgium implemented UNSCR 2396 through, among other actions, the implementation of the EU PNR directive for air travelers, through its aggressive prosecution of known FTFs, often in absentia, and through its maintenance of databases to track known and suspected terrorists. Belgium’s Passenger Information Unit made a significant contribution to travel-related information analysis.
On July 17, pursuant to a policy change announced in March, Belgium repatriated six female FTFs with their 10 children from northeastern Syria. This was the first government-initiated repatriation of adult FTFs, motivated mostly by concern for the children. There remained about 20 adults and 20 children with a claim to Belgian citizenship in camps/detention in northeastern Syria.
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 Counter-ISIS Finance Group (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 has implemented the EU’s Fourth and Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directives.
Countering Violent Extremism: In 2021, Belgium replaced its plan to counter radicalization to violence, “Plan R,” with a new counterterrorism strategy. Known as “StrategyTer,” the new plan expands the strategy to include far-right and far-left extremism. It better incorporates the various federal, regional, and community actors in concentrating on preventing violent extremism. The plan reinforces the local task forces established under Plan R to coordinate the CVE response among local security, municipal, NGO, and social services personnel. During 2021, the Belgian cities of Antwerp, Liège, and Vilvoorde remained part of the Strong Cities Network and participated in a CT-sponsored CVE workshop following up on their City Pair exchanges, as did the city of Verviers.
International and Regional Cooperation: Belgium participated in CT efforts with the EU, NATO, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe, and it was a member of the advisory board of the UN Counterterrorism Center. The country was also an active contributor to the subcommittees of the UNSC responsible for counterterrorism. Belgium was 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 was not a member of the GCTF but often participated 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. In addition to the CIFG, Belgium is a member of the Stabilization, Communications, and Foreign Terrorist Fighter Working Groups in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.