The fight against terrorism three years after the Brussels attacks

le mercredi 20 mars 2019 14:00 Discours

Ladies and gentlemen,

Belgium will have general elections in May, together with the elections for the European Parliament. This means that my mandate is almost over, although the caretaking government, which is already in place, can last for a while. (In Belgium, you never know.)

I knew when I started that the fight against terrorism would be a priority. The attack in the Jewish Museum had happened the day before the elections that led to my new post, in May 2014. And everyone knew that the number of Belgians who had left to fight in Syria was posing a threat that we had never faced before.

Three months after the beginning of my mandate, the massacre in Charlie Hebdo took place. 10 days later, a police operation in Verviers ended up in a violent confrontation in which two terrorists were killed. All our fears had been confirmed. The crisis reached its peak with the attacks in Paris in November 2015, with links to Belgium, and of course the attacks in Brussels on 22 March 2016.

[ What we did not do (state of emergency, etc) ]

In times like this, the temptation arises to demonstrate your political commitment by strong symbolic measures while ignoring their perverse effects. Dangerous ideas emerge across the political spectrum. As Minister of justice, I could feel the risk of destabilising the rule of law.

That is why, before describing what we did do, I want to emphasise what we did not do. Restraint is the most difficult part in such a traumatic period. My team and I had to work hard in the aftermath of every attack to explain why this or that new proposal was counterproductive or a clear violation of our human rights obligations.

Belgium refused to create a legal basis for a regime of a State of emergency. We avoided an exception regime for investigating and prosecuting terrorism. There was no significant extension of administrative powers. We blocked attempts to allow the withdrawal of nationality for Belgians from the second or third generation of migrants.

When the rapporteur of the United Nations on human rights in counter-terrorism did her evaluation on Belgium, I had the chance to meet with her and we had a very interesting conversation. She is from Northern Ireland and has a deep knowledge of Counter-Terrorism policy.

One of her first questions was “how do you explain that Belgium did not fall into these traps” ?

I am not sure I am the best placed to explain that. But I know I am proud of Belgium, its citizens and its institutions for having shown self-restraint and maturity.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying every single measure we took was perfect. The UN rapporteur does point to weaknesses in our system. I am fully aware of that.

And I am certainly not saying that our reaction was to do nothing. Far from it. A lot has been done.

Legislative changes – improving investigations

There were a lot of legislative changes and a full list would take the rest of the time I have for this speech. A major part has been dedicated to improving the existing framework regarding intelligence and judicial investigations.

The legislation on privacy intrusive techniques was broadly reviewed and modernised, including on issues such hacking by the police into a laptop or a smartphone from outside, or infiltrating groups on internet.

It is now possible to search a house at night, in specific circumstances. The period of “garde à vue” was extended, but remains very reasonable compared to many European countries.

New offences were added to the code of criminal law, including the act of preparing a terrorist attack.

I could go on and on with these legislative changes but I do not think that is the most relevant for this event. What I want to say is that the changes were necessary, targeted and carefully balanced adaptations of the legislation.

Non legislative measure were also taken and are certainly as important.

[ Sharing information and the challenge of labelling someone as radical or extremist ]

One of the main evolutions is a change of culture among the various Belgian agencies. Sharing of information is much more fluid than it was five years ago. The relationship between intelligence services and the judicial investigation is much more flexible than it was before. The services were pressured by the political level but most of the changes came from within the intelligence and law enforcement community.

The evolution in the minds of the experts led to new tools which themselves facilitate the changes in mentalities.

This leads me to one of the challenges about fighting radicalisation and violent extremism, namely the question of labelling someone as “radicalised” or “extremist”.

A database was set up where intelligence and police agencies share information about certain categories of people. It is a real joint database which is a revolution. Other actors such as prisons or probation officers were granted access to the database and are required to feed it.

In a first stage, the criteria were focused on the start of the crisis, namely the departure of hundreds of mostly young people to fight in Syria. The database was limited to people who were in Syria, had attempted to go there, were already back or were showing signs of willing to go there.

Later, the database was extended to hate preachers, which represented a significant extension, including because it covers other sorts of extremism, including far right extremism for example.

It will also be extended to people who have been convicted for terrorist offences, even if they have nothing to do with IS and Syria. And the services are discussing a more fundamental extension to people with clear signs of violent extremism, at least those spending time in prison.

The database is a key tool in the security oriented approach of the fight against terrorism and violent extremism.

There is no legal measure attached to being added in the database.

However, it does not only enable the services to share information. It is also a tool used to discuss individual cases in Local Task Forces and to decide how to follow the case of the person concerned, for example when he or she is released from prison.

It is relying on a centralised assessment of whether the person meets the relevant criteria to be inserted in the database.

Nevertheless, it is attracting scrutiny and a study has started already a while ago to monitor its effects. We need such a database but it is important to avoid the perverse effects it can have on stigmatising people and maybe hampering their rehabilitation.

[ Radicalisation in prisons ]

Another key aspect is the fight against radicalisation in prisons. All European countries exposed to terrorism and extremism are facing the same problem. None has found an approach clearly better than the one followed in the other countries. It is a “trial and errors” process. Belgium is no exception, I am aware of that.

The main challenge to the fight against radicalisation is that this phenomenon is to some extent inherent to the prison system. We need to improve general conditions of detention and in particular reduce over-population. But first of all, we need to avoid imprisonment when it is not absolutely necessary because the prison will always be an environment making the person vulnerable to ideologies giving a false sense of purpose.

One of the most difficult endeavours of my mandate has therefore been to reduce the prison population and to favour alternative sanctions.

But radicalisation inside the prison remains a huge problem. An aspect which we have discussed a lot is the dissemination of inmates considered as radicalised. Should we keep them together in specific locations to avoid spreading ideas and to have a specialised staff in charge ? Or should we on the contrary avoid any concentration and spread those inmates as much as possible ?

The answer we came up with is a combination of the two. Two specialised sections were created for inmates showing a clear risk of influencing others and therefore spreading radicalisation. But dissemination remains the favoured strategy in other cases.

We have made progress in our methodology, the training of prison staffs and the processes.

But we need to do better and the administration responsible for the prisons is finalising a new plan in this regard.

[ a European Islam ]

As Minister of Justice, I am also in charge of what I would call “religious affairs” for lack of a better translation.

The attack in Christchurch has once again demonstrated that terrorism is not restricted to a particular faith or ideology. And it is essential to fight all forms of violent extremisms.

This being said, a lot of attention has been drawn to Islam, whether we want it or not. It is a delicate issue for a European Minister to deal with. We all have every right and even an obligation to feel reluctant to involve the State in religious affairs.

And the dialogue is complicated by the lack of hierarchical structure and by the multitude of components in the Muslim community, which also renders that culture so rich and interesting.

My approach has been to support the efforts of the Muslim community to organise itself without interfering in this organisation.

One of our goals must be to impede efforts of third countries to influence Islam in Europe. This influence has led to very strong support to Salafist doctrine, an extreme version of Islam. In other cases, the foreign influence has the effect of importing in our communities political tensions that should not take place in Europe. In any case, foreign influence makes it very difficult for an European Islam to emerge.

Curbing foreign influence means that we need to hold our Muslim communities to their responsibility to shape their own future. The often still strong interdependence of local religious communities with their countries of origin or the Gulf States is a reality. This poses challenges that are independent of religion, but which are not without consequences in terms of the integration of the various communities in Europe. It also means we should jointly support alternatives for the Muslim community on questions such as education and training of imams as well on the financing of Mosques.

A specific challenge in Belgium concerns the Great Mosque, located in the Cinquantenaire, barely a few hundred meters from here. The Mosque and the cultural center attached to it had become too much linked with a rigorous and rigid interpretation of Islam with too much foreign influence. The Belgian State, which owns the building, revoked the partnership. Discussions are ongoing, including with the Representative body of Belgian Muslims, to make sure that the Great Mosque remains an important Muslim place in Belgium, better anchored in European values.

[ Polarisation and Hate Speech ]

Another challenge is our approach of Hate Speech online. I do not want to restrict our efforts to the internet. We need to engage people in the physical world to recreate social bonds. But it is more and more obvious that what is happening online is feeding a polarisation that affects our societies.

The European Commissioner, Vera Jourova, has done a lot at EU level by drafting a code of conduct with the big IT companies such as Google or Facebook and by monitoring its implementation.

Yet hate speech keeps spreading across social media and IT platforms. It does not only harm the victims. The multiplication of hate speech reinforces users in their hatred and builds an echo chamber.

The question becomes more and more whether we should rely on the internal policies of these companies. By relying on self-regulation, we leave not only the choice but also the responsibility on private actors to define what is hate speech and what is freedom of expression. It is all the more complex because these companies are mostly based in the US where the boundary between freedom of expression and a criminal offence of hate speech is very different from the European approach.

Commissioner Avramopoulos has submitted a draft regulation that creates clear obligation for providers to take out terrorist content. I fully support the proposal and I hope it can be voted by this Parliament.

But Germany has a legislation that has a much broader scope and is applicable to hate speech. I hear that France is going in the same direction.

I wonder whether we should not, during the next European legislature, envisage binding rules on hate speech online.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The most direct threat posed by IS, with the prospect of organised and concerted actions, has significantly decreased. But there is no reason to rejoice. The recent attacks show that the threat is still there, and is also coming from non-religious extremism.

The Belgian services have been able to breathe a bit since the beginning of last year, after three years of extreme pressure. But we all know that we cannot let our guard down. We need to prepare for the next attack, wherever it comes from, wherever it happens in the EU.

We need to be prepared at the level of first response actors. We need to be prepared to handle victims much better than we have done. We need to be prepared at the level of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to detect early signs and intervene.

But we also need to be prepared at the level of the society. The resilience of our populations is amazing. Life in Brussels, Paris, Barcelona, Berlin or London is almost back to normal.

Yet we are also fragile. Polarisation is fragmenting and weakening us as a society.

We need to be prepared to resist the call of the sirens of populism and oversimplification. We need to be prepared to stand up for our principles and our freedoms.

Europe is our best asset to fight climate change, avoid financial crisis or deal with migration flows.

Europe and European values are also our strongest weapon to fight hatred, intolerance and terrorism.

I thank you for your attention.