The terrorist threat: responses and challenges

op 24 november 2016 16:04 Toespraak CUTA Madrid Group
  • Introduction

Fusion centers were created to ‘connect the dots’. They are information sharing hubs that provide comprehensive analyses that no other single partner can offer.

Bringing the Directors and Heads of several Counter-Terrorism Coordination Centers together is timely and important.

It is timely because terrorism is hitting us hard. Disrupting plots and preventing attacks requires information. The sharing of relevant data is needed more than ever. It is important because sustainable success requires the combination of all our efforts.

I am therefore pleased to see that Eurojust, IntCen and the European Commission are represented here as well. Coordination with all stakeholders is the only way to be effective in a changing world, against new threats.

Conditions in which terrorist groups can grow

Terrorist attacks have happened throughout the world, but when they happen in your own country, it feels unreal.

‘Why’ is always the first question that comes up. But it is not the right question, because we will never be able to answer it. The better question is probably ‘what are the conditions in which terrorist groups can take root and grow’? There is no easy answer to that question either.

IS managed to convince young Muslims of a civilizational struggle between Islam and the West. Almost 30,000 foreign fighters are believed to be in Syria and Iraq. 5.000 of them are said to be European. The number of Belgian foreign fighters currently still in Syria/Iraq, on their way to Syria/Iraq or whose attempt to travel to Syria/Iraq failed, mounts up to nearly 400 people.

While the actual ongoing military campaign to recapture important parts of the territory in Iraq and Syria seems to be quite successful, one has to be careful that poor foresight again does not characterise the current decision to only focus on the militarily defeating IS. It is unlikely that it will resolve the circumstances that originally gave rise to extremism.

A first consequence of the current military successes is that IS has increased its plotting on targets outside of Iraq and Syria and continues to encourage attacks in Europe. IS does no longer call on youngers in Europe to come to Syria but now calls on them to commit attacks in their home countries. So the threat from foreign terrorist fighters is slowly shifting to homegrown foreign fighters. Homegrown attacks inspired by the IS brand have become as much a threat to our country and Europe as those directed by foreign terrorist fighters (even though they do not dispose of any combat experience).

A second consequence of the military pressure on IS in Syria and Iraq is the increased number of returnees. Their decision to return to their home countries is of huge concern to all of us and obviously holds the risk of new attacks.

The conclusion is that IS has managed to spread its tentacles to Europe. As long as the conflicts in the broader Middle East, that lies at the core of the threat, are not being settled, and there is little hope that they will in the near future, regional turmoil will be grist to the mill of terrorist groups. It is important to realise that as we cannot afford to think of internal security as one thing and external security as another. The two are inextricably connected.

What changed in the aftermath of the attacks?

Belgium, just as much as other European countries, took considerable effort to fight the terrorist threat. It goes without saying that many of the measures that the Belgian government took, in one way or another, are related to the initiatives that have been taken at the level of the European Union.

I could now enumerate a long list of legal and organisational measures, but that would boring. So I will limit myself to the main strands of work.

The first strand is related to a better exchange of information and coordination at all levels.

In 2015 the National Security Council was created. It is a forum where a core group of ministers meet with the heads of services, under the presidency of the Prime Minister. Meetings of the National Security Council are prepared by a strategic committee where the policy advisers meet with the heads of services and then there is a coordination committee where the heads of services meet amongst each other.

Other than these three coordination mechanisms, there are also specific platforms, the local task forces, to ensure the exchange of information between the intelligence services, local police, federal police, prosecutors, etc. on the issue of foreign terrorist fighters. In addition to that, mayors were asked to set up ‘local integral security cells’ where security services exchange information with the socio-preventive services, who also play a crucial role in the early detection of signs of radicalisation. The creation of a common database, with direct access for police and security services, also allows a better information flux to the administrative authorities, in particular to the local mayors, and the socio-preventive services.

So, a lot of efforts were made to increase the sharing of radicalisation and terrorism-related information, between security services and with socio-preventative services. Just like the lines between crime and terrorism have become blurred, relevant agencies need to break down institutional silos and become more effective at sharing relevant information across departments and ‘disciplines’.

But sharing of information is not enough. As you all know, the threat is constantly evolving and it is evolving in response to our efforts to control it. This means that our counter terrorism policy needs to be dynamic and responsive to new conditions.

That brings me to the second strand of work: the legislative measures

Prior to and in the aftermath of the attacks, the government made fundamental changes in its legislation to address the threat of terrorism, to prevent terrorist attacks from happening and to prevent radicalisation.

  • New offences were added to the antiterrorist provisions in our criminal code leading to a significant extension of the scope of criminal offences: Since July 2015, it has become a criminal offence to travel abroad for terrorist purposes. And today, the criminalisation of preparatory acts and extension of the offences of participating in a terrorist group, inciting to terrorism and financing of terrorism will be approved by Parliament.
  • Our legislation was also adapted to make house searches possible at night for terrorist offences. We extended the possibility to revoke passports and IDs of persons suspected of trying to leave Belgium and join terrorist groups abroad, and we put an end to the of anonymity of prepaid SIM cards, etc. Ministerial guidelines were approved to implement the national freezing of assets of people and groups suspected of terrorism and the assets freezing of numerous individuals is a fact.
  • Last but not least: a new legislative framework is being created for our intelligence and police services in the context of the use of special investigation / intelligence techniques.
  • All this legislative work should make it easier for police and intelligence services to act upon threat and will also help prosecutors to investigate and prosecute. Already today, under the current legislation, we have more investigations and more convictions than any other EU country. To give you an idea, the average number of convictions for terrorism during the years prior to 2014 was 7 to 8 convictions a year, which was not a low number compared to other European countries. But in 2014, the number of convictions jumped to 55 in 2014. It doubled in 2015 where 115 people were convicted of terrorism by Belgian courts. That number is very high in absolute terms and becomes extraordinary if you take into account the size of the Belgian population. This gives an idea of the priority given to terrorist investigation and cases by the police and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office.

The third strand of work relates to what we could call the protective measures. I will not go into detail on these measures but I am sure that those who regularly travel to Belgium have seen that for more than a year now, we have the military patrolling on our streets. Approximately 1.000 soldiers are being deployed on a daily basis on strategic locations mainly in the airport, railway stations (specifically the Thalys and Eurostar terminals), metro stations, other public transports, shopping malls, public manifestations and everything that falls under soft targets (concentration of people) etc.

The fourth strand regards our work in prisons. Prisons are potential breeding grounds for radicalisation and recruitment. Detainees form a group that is particularly susceptible to radicalisation. Potential recruits are often imprisoned for minor offences, but their frustrations and anger with society, peer pressure, the isolation from ‘normal’ society, the search for a meaning in life make them especially susceptible to radical thinking. In addition to that, prisons bring together criminals and terrorists, and therefore create opportunities for networking and ‘skills transfers’. Individuals with a criminal past tend to have easier access to weapons; they are adept at staying ‘under the radar’ and planning discreet logistics and their familiarity with violence lowers their (psychological) threshold for becoming involved in terrorist acts.

The central objective of our policy is, on the one hand, to prevent radicalisation of detainees during their imprisonment and, on the other hand, to develop a specialized follow-up of radicalized people during their detention.

To realise that, we invested heavily in the training of our personnel and of imams working in prison.

In addition to that two special sections have been opened in the prisons of Ittre and Hasselt to deal with radicalised inmates showing a high risk of radicalising others. They should certainly not be perceived as additional ‘high security’ sections, but as sections with staff that is specialised in dealing with the radicalization problem and in which adequate follow-up can be provided.

By removing the most radicalised detainees from the prisons in which no specialised follow-up can be provided, the risk of recruitment and spreading of radical ideas as well as the risk of entanglement between ideologically inspired radical networks and ‘regular’ criminal networks is reduced. The transfer of detainees to prisons providing specialised follow-up is decided on the basis of an individualized evaluation and will be subject to a specific assessment. So the so-called terror-detainees are not automatically transferred to these specialised sections. This is only the case when they actively try to radicalise others.

Let me now move on to some challenges. I will limit myself to three.


  • (1) Prevention of radicalisation

The first challenge relates to the prevention of radicalisation. Much of the efforts I described are focused on ‘hard’ security: detection, investigation and prosecution. In general, we have done relatively well.

In complement to this security approach, we also need to focus on why people radicalise, on tackling the grievances or “push” factors and the “pull” factors such as revenge, identity or status, but also on the ways in which ideologies and narratives radicalise.

To be effective in our policy response, it is crucial that we understand the full extent how people were radicalised, why they went to Syria, how their travel was organised, what they did there and with what intentions they returned. Understanding this, will make our approach more effective.

Much of this work is being done by intelligence and security services nationally and through exchanges with counterparts in- and outside the EU, but it is a continuous effort.

There is already a large body of knowledge that has given us very valuable insights in the drivers of violent extremism. We all know now that violent extremism is not caused solely by psychological deficiencies, poverty, discrimination, etc. but that it is connected to many factors - personal, structural, ideological - that shape the path to radicalisation and violent extremism. So we know that there is no single path.

In spite of all this knowledge, there are still a number of important questions in areas where more empirical evidence and research would be very much welcome. There is e.g. still no conclusive evidence that non-violent extremism is a “conveyer belt” to violent extremism, just as there is no conclusive evidence to the contrary. More research is also needed on the role of ideology. Is ideology only a final pull factor, a secondary tool to justify the use of violence or is it a primary factor that pulls individuals into terrorism?

Other than research, prevention of radicalisation also requires a strong engagement with those communities that seems to be particularly vulnerable to radicalisation. But it is essential to deal with communities on a whole range of issues, not solely on those related to counter-terrorism or radicalisation. Otherwise we will not be able to overcome the perception that the government only sees the community through the lens of counter-terrorism or considers a particular community as an inherent security problem, are doomed to fail.

Community engagement should be broad-based and should reflect the diversity of the community. This means that governments should engage with a wide range of people representing the different backgrounds, levels of education, different religions, and not only men, but also women, in order to identify and empower moderate voices within communities.

Such an approach requires patience and a long time horizon but it is essential as the challenge of radicalisation cannot be met by governments working alone, but by collaboration between public, private, non-governmental organisations, civil society and the different communities.

(2) De-radicalisation

Some European countries have developed programmes for individuals who are already embracing violent extremism, to try to rehabilitate them through disengagement and/or de-radicalisation. Disengagement programmes entail a change in behaviour, while de-radicalisation programmes aim to bring about a change in beliefs and a rejection of extremist ideology. Existing initiatives vary significantly in characteristics, underlying philosophy and the bodies running the programmes. In some countries, the programmes are conducted by local police, in others by the intelligence services or non-governmental organisations. In some countries they work on a voluntary basis, in other they are compulsory.

In Belgium, we are about to start the development of a disengagement programme in the prison context. To make progress here, we decided to rely on a team of international experts that is training our imams but we also look with great interest to experiences such as the rehabilitation centre for returnees in Aarhus, Denmark, where some foreign fighters have been rehabilitated through individual coaching and mentoring, meeting with parents, etc.

I know that there is a lot of discussion on whether or not it is possible to disengage or deradicalise someone. But we simply do not have the luxury to to sit and wait. Such an approach is a hard sell for every politician.

(3) Internet, social media and access to communications data

While the Internet on the one hand contributes to deepening and broadening the public debate, it has also become an arena for extremist groups and forces to spread their anti-democratic and extremist messages.

Perpetrators make use of the encryption capabilities of online communications programs such as Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, or use encrypted emails. In cases where service providers do not cooperate, or if the communication services are end-to-end encrypted (as with WhatsApp), law enforcement authorities are not able to obtain data that are necessary for criminal proceedings. The same goes for intelligence services.

As intelligence and law enforcement authorities miss out on opportunities to obtain much needed information in the fight against terrorism, it is of utmost important that they are to access these data. At present, there is no international or EU instrument regulating the use of encryption technologies.

But the problem is not limited to the issue of access to encrypted content. Also access to data related to the identification of the source of a communication and the location are problematic when providers do not have their seat in Belgium. Fortunately we now have case law from the Belgian Supreme Court. The Court confirmed that Yahoo! – a provider of a free webmail service – is considered to be territorially present in Belgian when it takes actively and voluntary part in the economic life for instance by making use of the domain name and location-based advertising. This means that the service provider is bound to respect national legislation. The recent Skype arrest confirmed this by stating that the Yahoo case law also covers the content of communications and interception in real time.

This case law is very helpful but it can lead to situations where a provider faces contradictory obligations from the State where it offers a service and the State where it is based and potentially from another State where the data is located. Ideally, we would need an EU approach both to access data within the EU and to access data owned by providers located abroad, especially in the US.


So, the challenges ahead of us are numerous, but so are the opportunities.

I would like to conclude my intervention by stressing that the dynamic and evolving nature of the international terrorist threat requires us to show ambition, to be innovative and to work together. I invite you to use this informal forum to work along these lines. While it is always interesting to share national experiences and arrangements in place, the objective here is to discuss future ways to work together. This meeting is about the future, not about the past.

I finally would like to commend all of you for your hard work in the fight against terrorism and I encourage you to keep up these efforts and ensure that we remain a step ahead of the terrorists.