On March 22nd 2016 the two consecutive bombings at the Brussels’ Zaventem airport and the Maalbeek metro station brought Belgian counterterrorism policy under heavy scrutiny. With the Paris attacks foreshadowing an impending threat, the Belgian security alert had been raised to critical levels since November 2015. Yet in spite of warnings from numerous countries, the Belgian counterterrorism strategy failed to deter a predicted ISIL attack. Now, ten months after the last terrorist attack on Belgian soil, police and army personnel are still routinely stationed throughout the capital’s busy shopping streets and tourist attractions. Belgium’s counterterrorism policy remains highly criticized, both internationally, as well as domestically. Are these regular accusations of Belgian incompetence justified?
Terrorism is by no means a new phenomenon to Belgium. Having fallen victim to a range of different types of political violence in the past two centuries – from left wing to anarchist to religious terrorism—, Belgium has continuously faced the many challenges of developing a functioning counter-terrorism strategy. The expansion of ISIL in Syria and Iraq in the recent years has complicated past Belgian strategies profoundly. With Syrian refugees fleeing to the European continent, and aspirant European fighters traveling to Syrian training camps, the Schengen system has stretched to breaking point Belgium’s capacity to regulate the movement of people at its borders. Further compounding the issue, the BBC reports more Belgian Islamists going to fight for ISIS per capita than any other European country. With so many Belgian citizens traveling to Syria, the issue of returning foreign fighters becomes a problem particularly pertinent to Belgian counterterrorism policy.
To add to these challenges, Brussels holds important symbolic value. Serving as the headquarters of the EU and NATO, the Belgian capital is particularly vulnerable as a target for anti-Western terrorism. Budgetary constraints further worsen Belgium’s ability to reconcile its small size with its accessibility as a target. The culmination of these factors makes the creation of an effective counterterrorism policy especially difficult, particularly if it involves the safeguarding of liberal principles and the rule of law.
Prior to the March 22nd bombings, Belgium had shown a clear policy of building criminal cases against domestic terrorist networks: bringing its members to court, and carrying out trials in accordance with existing legal frameworks. With the 2003 Terrorist Offence Act criminalizing participation in terrorist activities, Belgium has taken a cautious approach to its conceptualization of terrorism, remaining wary of the potential implications of framing terrorism as a Manichean battle against an irreconcilable opponent. In honoring the criminal justice system, Belgian policy sets a precedent that excludes particular practices, such as indefinite detention without trial or unethical interrogation methods. Doing so allows the Belgian government to draw legitimacy from its actions, and thereby evade some of the ethical pitfalls of “the war on terror”.
The current heavy presence of police forces throughout Brussels falls within this criminal justice model. With the typical pattern of ISIL-related attacks on soft targets – Christmas markets, beach promenades, cafés –, the current presence of police and security personnel should make Belgian targets more resistant. This, combined with Belgium’s existing preventative and reactive counterterrorism policies, as established by the EU’s “prevent, protect, pursue and respond” policy, is likely to serve as an appropriate response to the current threat. Further security measures would arguably only alienate the Belgian population rather than deter future attacks. Indeed, Belgium has looked to the historical tendency of hard, coercive methods propelling potential-recruits straight into the arms of violent organizations. For this reason, then, it is more important in the long run for Belgium to protect the rule of law in order to protect its values as a liberal democracy than to respond harshly.
Based on this understanding of the mechanisms of terrorist recruitment, Belgium has developed multi-layered frameworks that evenly balance proactive and reactive approaches. Going beyond purely reactive law enforcement strategies, Belgium has developed several anti-radicalization programs. Such policies policy are aimed at countering both “bottom-up” as well as “top-down” recruitment specifically tailored to the Belgian domestic situation. These strategies also involve bilateral partnerships with various European countries such as France and Turkey.
This being said, Belgian security and intelligence services have not shown “incompetence” or made fundamental “errors” as has been commonly suggested. This is not to say that improvements cannot be made. Indeed, the Belgian security and intelligence service are overwhelmed and lack the capacity to deal with the sheer extent of information flow. They also often fail to coordinate with one another, particularly between municipalities. Similarly, the overarching European counterterrorism structure needs to be reworked to create a unified, functioning framework. Yet these shortcomings demonstrate institutional and practical flaws rather than fundamental misconceptions about the nature of the threat itself, or strategies through which these threats should be deterred.
In the short-term, the current Belgian counterterrorism policy is unlikely to deter all future attacks. In spite of popular narratives or rhetoric suggesting otherwise, terrorism will never disappear entirely. There is no ‘quick fix’ policy, and Europe will inevitably face more security challenges in the future. However, the direction that European nations choose to follow when confronted with these threats is vital. Belgium has demonstrated a course that honors the openness of European society and the fundamental freedoms of its citizens. Looking forward, Belgian policy should aim to continue in this direction: developing policy that minimizes illegal weapons trading and prohibiting Belgian citizens from joining foreign militant groups in Syria, while simultaneously upholding and respecting the rights of its citizens.
Ultimately, despite accusations of a fragmented and institutionally flawed approach, Belgium’s counterterrorism policy evenly balances domestically tailored strategies with international partnerships and institutional policy frameworks. While such an approach does not guarantee immunity to future attacks, it sets a precedent for upholding democratic values and civil liberties. The Belgian model serves as an example of a long-term strategy that responds proportionally to the security threat without excessively compromising its liberal values.