The problem of terrorism is a serious challenge to the national security of all countries, and aspects of globalization and easier access to other countries make it difficult to deal with these challenges. In today’s world, large numbers of people can move virtually unimpeded between states. In addition, one consequence of integrative geopolitical forces is an increase in external migration and refugee flows, in which the territories of regions are populated by people from different political and social cultures. This creates a particular vulnerability for the national security of open countries because foreign communities can be linked to radicalization and terrorism. One prime example of this is the Belgian Kingdom, which has traditionally been a source of jihadists coming to Belgium from Islamic countries.
After the 2015 attacks in Paris, Belgian authorities, informed of possible attacks on Belgium, took several important initiatives aimed at preventing the spread of radicalism in the country. Such measures included increasing the number of police patrols, tightening the practice of issuing citizenship and simplifying procedures for its withdrawal, improving video surveillance systems, and creating new coordination councils. However, this proved insufficient, as Islamic terrorists struck two subway stations and the airport in Brussels in March 2016, injuring at least 38 people. These crises were key turning points in the history of law enforcement practices in the country. Moreover, the fact of the terrorist attacks, even in the face of advance information about this probability, affected public confidence and the tacit recognition of Belgium as a “failed” state.
Concerned about the current level of national security and in an attempt to regain their reputation as a calm and peaceful region, Belgian authorities significantly changed the law enforcement counterterrorism practices in the country after 2015-2016. However, the literature on this issue reflects only the outer side of the change, ignoring the interests of law enforcement officers. In contrast, this study seeks to explore the critical patterns of perception of these changes, if any, on the part of Belgian police officers with counterterrorism experience. The study, however, seeks not only to examine specific changes but also to form a subjective assessment, on a Likert scale, on the part of police officers. In addition, the concern for psychological well-being for local police officers is critically evaluated since it is clear that interacting with terrorism is a serious stressor on the mental state.
The overall focus of this research paper is to examine the phenomenology of counterterrorism in the Belgian Kingdom’s law enforcement practices as a response to the 2015 attacks on Paris and the 2016 attacks on Brussels. Admittedly, many initiatives have been introduced by Belgian authorities, but their effectiveness and impact on local law enforcement services are questioned. Conducting an in-depth study of these patterns through questionnaire surveys and qualitative semi-structured interviews of police inspectors was the central aim of this paper.
An obvious manifestation of the intensification of globalization processes in the world has been the increasing frequency of terrorist attacks as forms of violent dissent against political and cultural ideologies. Terrorism is a serious challenge to the national security of all countries, including those from which the most significant number of terrorists statistically originate. As a phenomenon, however, terrorism does not have a single academic or legal interpretation because it is highly sensitive and individualized for each particular attack. For example, the Cambridge Dictionary (2021) refers to terrorism as actions of a violent nature carried out for political purposes. In this definition, it is not difficult to identify two important features of any manifestation of terrorism, namely, violence and the presence of a goal. Godefroidt’s study indicates that terrorism should be understood as “an idea determined to a large extent by the specificities of the intergroup context in which threats or acts of violence take place” (Godefroidt 2020, p. 6). The same article acknowledges that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” (p. 10). These interpretations encompass aspects such as the imperative of context and the ambiguity of terrorism. In other words, for a critical study, the perception of terrorism through the prism of emotional connotations alone is not appropriate, and therefore the need to study terrorism in the spectrum of all its manifestations is actualized. In general, and within the framework of this study, terrorism is viewed as a socio-humanitarian political technology aimed at using unlawful force to influence public perceptions and lobby for political reforms systematically.
In the academic study of terrorism, it is crucial to assess how widespread the phenomenon is for study in the scholarly literature. The use of Web of Science tools makes it clear that academic research on terrorism has received the most interest since the 2000s, with a maximum increase of 210% in new papers in the interval in 2002 compared to 2001. Given the tragic American events of September 11, 2001, which catalyzed a dramatic need to study the phenomenology of terrorism, such a jump does not seem surprising. Otherwise, there has been a clear trend toward an exponential increase in the number of publications and related citations over the past twenty years, as Figure 1 clearly shows. As a conclusion, a growing number of independent authors are turning to the study of the effects of terrorism and trying to investigate them in all possible forms.
It is a mistake, however, to assume that the problem of terrorism is exclusive to national security studies. On the contrary, as Figure 2 shows, the study of terrorism is systematically pursued in the fields of law, economics, history, philosophy, computer science, and even environmental studies, in addition to the classical political and international sciences. It follows that the problem of terrorism is relevant to the academic community without reference to specific fields of knowledge. Thus, the study of terrorism as a catalyst for change in the Belgian police is constructive.
Terrorism is a severe national security problem not only for large countries but also for comparably small states without impressive resource wealth. One reason for the widespread terrorist effects is not an attempt to seize countries’ resources and territories — although, of course, in the case of countries such as Afghanistan, this cannot be ruled out — but to exert political influence and frighten the population (Bashar 2021). Therefore, Belgium, a small state in northwestern Europe, has historically been the target of terrorist attacks. Traditionally, Belgium is considered one of the safest European countries, receiving not only economic support from the European Union but also complete military protection from the NATO alliance, of which Belgium was one of the first to join (NATO 2021). The Kingdom’s national security is confirmed by the Global Terrorism Index, which is 3.043 for Belgium: This means that the country is only lightly exposed to terrorism (TE 2021). At the same time, Belgium was ranked 17th on the global peace index in 2020, ahead of the Netherlands, the UAE, and the United Kingdom (Institute for Economics and Peace 2020). This data allows us to see today’s Belgium as a generally secure state that cares about the well-being of its population and takes preventive measures to reduce the level of terrorism.
However, this image of Belgium may contradict the way the Kingdom is perceived in the public and the press. In reality, this security agenda has persisted for a long time, as the state’s history highlights only a few attacks by terrorists during the 1980s, after which the country enjoyed a quiet time until 2014 (Van Ostaeyen 2019). However, attacks by radical Islamic forces have intensified in Belgium over the past 7-10 years, with massacres, acts of intimidation, and injuries to law enforcement officers. Modern Belgium is often perceived as the home of Islamic terrorists, especially in light of the events of recent decades. Because of its inability to protect its citizens, even with preventive information about possible terrorist threats, Belgium has often been called a failed state (Burns 2016). For example, the 2016 terrorist attacks, which claimed a total of 38 lives, were among the most high-profile cases in Belgian history, which “undermined the collective sense of perceived security and social cohesion” (Pelletier 2018, p. 477). Then, on March 22, the Islamic State organization carried out a series of bombings at Brussels airport and the metro. It is believed that these bombings were a consequence of the 2015 Paris attacks and the detention of Salah Abdeslam, who was responsible for the preparation of the Belgian bombings.
Concerned about national security, local authorities introduced a number of key reforms, including restrictions on the practice of Salafism, a branch of Sunni Islam, and increased police patrols, which, in turn, led to an increase in extremist ideas within society. In the past seven years, large-scale criminal organizations have been dismantled throughout the country, confirming the authorities’ counterterrorist intentions (Devroe and Ponsaers 2021). Although these reforms and actions were designed to change the situation within the country radically and to maximize security, such strategies on the part of the government have not had the desired effects. More specifically, because of the fragmentation of Belgian Muslim diasporas, the traditional purveyors of terrorism in the country, interaction, and control of radical Sunni Islam in Belgium is complicated. Leaders of such communities are often in conflict with each other, leading to problems with the established management of terrorism within the country (Rondelez et al. 2016). Thus, attempts to increase control by Belgian authorities could only catalyze dangerous reactions from jihadists living in Belgian territory.
Terrorist attacks carried out in the Belgian Kingdom have effects beyond intimidating the local population and expressing the will of radical Islamists. After another terrorist attack or after victims of violent acts within the country, the Belgian police are often criticized for failing and being ineffective in terms of preventive measures. Terrorism reveals important conflicts within the Kingdom’s police structure that have immediate effects on national security. In particular, because of the historical, ethnic diversity of the country, there is a lack of coordination between French-speaking and Dutch-speaking police colleagues (Burns 2016). The implementation of police counterterrorism measures is also opaque to the public (Morris 2016). Notably, the report of the parliamentary commission on the March 22, 2016, terrorist attack highlighted the following reasons for Belgian police inefficiency: the fragmentation of the regulatory environment and the imbalance between prevention and suppression of a looming problem (La Chambre 2017). Although these aspects were important for the lack of high results on the part of Belgian law enforcement officers, it was not exceptional. These problems, in addition to the lack of dialogue with the population, were the reasons for the low level of trust in the Belgian police and the assignment of “failed” status to the state. There were also tensions within police unions that stemmed from low salaries for officers: as a consequence, it was not uncommon for Belgian police officers to protest, slowing down law enforcement services (Spirlet 2021). Recognizing the need for radical changes, authorities in the Kingdom initiated a reform of the country’s counterterrorism police in order to not only change its perceived image after the 2016 terrorist attacks but actually to improve the national security agenda in Belgium.
For the past five years, the Belgian counterterrorism police has been in the spotlight, requiring a thorough overhaul aimed at improving its effectiveness. The literature shows that the police have taken a course to improve communication with the population in order to increase their own legitimacy qualitatively. Among these measures are the expansion of criteria for the admission of new candidates, the creation of Rainbow Cops Belgium departments responsible for improving working conditions for sexual minorities in institutions, and preventive work on critical social problems in the workplace: harassment, humiliation by superiors, or any form of discrimination (Garaglia and Melgaço 2021; Colvin 2020). It is correct to note that the country’s terrorism management system has changed dramatically since 2016. An approach based solely on law enforcement functions and intelligence gathering about impending terrorist attacks has been transformed into comprehensive strategies that include suppressing problems in their infancy. This includes cracking down on systematic offenders and dealing with migrants.
The Belgian police have strengthened measures of ethnic profiling of civilian flows within the country, which has a contradictory meaning. On the one hand, it raises questions about bias against racial minorities, and news stories about the detention of innocent black migrants confirm this (H’madoun 2018). On the other hand, the need for close surveillance of Muslim communities in the country is driven by the statistical aspects of domestic terrorism. Given the need for such monitoring, a royal decree was issued in 2018, authorizing the police to detain families of illegal migrants within the country (JUSTEL 2020). It is reported that “since August 2018, 9 families with a total of 22 children awaiting their removal from the territory have been detained” in specially created isolation units under 24-hour detention (Amnesty International 2019, p. 21). This shows a significant change in the vector of law enforcement, as previously the Belgian police only worked with men returning from Syria and Iran, but since 2016 has shifted to women and children as well (Coolsaet and Renard 2018). Among other things, the state assumed responsibility for shaping a culture of compliance with international law so as not to violate the natural liberties of a Belgian resident, regardless of his ethnic and socioeconomic background (UN 2019). These steps underscore the general movement of the country’s police forces toward humanizing counterterrorism activities while tightening preventive control practices.
The systemic approach to dealing with radicals who have already been caught has also changed. The observed humanization is manifested in the desire to reform the offenders and reduce the level of violence in the country in the long term. In particular, this includes engaging with prisoners to foster Belgian patriotism and persuade them to abandon violent ways. Thus, Coolsaet and Renard (2018) reported that “this new, big-picture approach shows promise, but it remains difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the myriad programs that have been launched since 2015” (para. 10). This evidence shows the determination in the mood of the Belgian authorities to radically change the agenda of the “failed” state.
Today’s Belgian counterterrorism police are far from perfect in the sense of providing unimpeded protection of national security. However, after the events of 2016 and the decline of the state’s reputation at the global level, there has been a restructuring of the regulatory framework within the police. It is highlighted that a single database was created for all units to facilitate the exchange of information, which is especially relevant to language barriers within the police (Jean-Meire 2017). It is reported that the communication system with the local NCB unit of Interpol, which gives the Belgian police almost unlimited access to intelligence data, has been significantly improved (Interpol 2019). The police of the Kingdom have actively invested in the development of technological solutions that improve operations. Among these are the products offered at the Smart Policing Hackathon, which combines the needs of the Belgian police and the capabilities of hackers (EY 2020). This includes technological solutions such as the Tafuta comprehensive suspect information search analytics tool, a training platform for new CTF cadres, and improved interaction between the responsible public and the police.
Another interest of the research work was to determine the emotional strain experienced by Belgian counterterrorism police officers. Understandably, working in law enforcement is associated with constant work stress and threats to personal safety. However, the academic literature is not rich in qualitative evidence regarding exactly how Belgian counterterrorism officers experience stress. For Turkish police officers, Kale and Gedik (2020) showed a high prevalence of depression and anxiety. Khan (2021) also showed that terrorist attacks dramatically increase the level of perceived stress among police officers, which becomes a predictor of professional burnout. These problems were mainly catalyzed during the difficult times of COVID-19 associated with uncertainty and transformation, including for police structures (Frenkel et al. 2021). Thus, insufficient evidence exists regarding the emotional well-being of counterterrorism police in Belgium, creating a critical need to fill this gap.
At the center of the methodological framework of this study was a qualitative approach designed to identify critical patterns in the perceptions of changes in Belgian police structures in the minds of the police officers themselves. Since it was assumed that the terrorist attacks of the past five years had affected the transformation of the police, the research design consisted of a semi-structured interview with police officers who had at least five to six years of experience in local units. This approach was chosen primarily because the survey highlights key perceived, sometimes unobservable patterns from primary sources with national statistics.
The sample for this study was created using a nonprobability approach, whereby not every member of the general population had an equal chance of being included in the experimental group. However, each of the participants in the final sample met the minimum inclusion criteria, which included age (>30 years old) and involvement in counterterrorism activity in Belgium. Police officers from the Kingdom were emailed invitations along with questionnaires: 100 copies in total. In order to take part in the test, the respondent had to fill out the questionnaire completely and send it back; so any blank or rejected questionnaires were not accepted for analysis. In addition, a full-length interview was conducted with two police officers, for which it was helpful to identify key response patterns.
Because of the restrictive measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the questionnaire was administered electronically, which affected the size of the final experimental group. A total of 63 respondents were interviewed based on the generated sample, which means the response rate to the questionnaires sent out was 63 percent. Thus, 22 participants did not send completed questionnaires without explanation, and 15 people voluntarily refused to participate due to a high workload and lack of free time. It is noteworthy that the gender composition of the sample was skewed towards men: only 9 percent of women participated in the survey. In terms of age distribution, the most significant number of people (no. = 55) belonged to the group from 41 to 50, forming middle-aged adults. The data also showed that 56 of the sample had more than twenty years of experience in law enforcement structures, which means that the current sample meets the initial interests of the study and can be representative of changes in the Belgian police force. A summary of the gender, age, and professional distribution is shown in Table 1.
Table 1: Distribution of Age, Gender, and Work Experience in the Final Sample
|Χ²||0.67, p>0.05||2.84, p>0.05||3.00, p>0.05|
Questionnaires were distributed to officers in three departments that belong to the counterterrorism unit and the Brussels Northern Police Area. Each of the participants interviewed in the survey and interviews had experience in dealing with a terrorist threat in the past six years. Questionnaires could be completed either electronically or printed out and then scanned, depending on the needs of the respondents. With the interview participants’ permission, their responses were recorded with an audio device, and the audio was then transcribed and analyzed.
The survey questionnaire was presented with thirteen questions, of which the first three pertained to the descriptive demographic block. The following ten questions were “New police regulations have shown improvement in the fight against terrorist attacks,” with which the respondent could either agree, disagree, or neither agree nor disagree. The measurements were conducted on a five-level Likert scale so that respondents had the opportunity to partially agree or disagree if they were not unequivocally sure about their attitudes toward a particular measurement. The apparent advantage of such a scale is that it provides a sensitive measure of the respondent’s psychometric state. In processing, the partiality of response was not ignored but was attributed to a stronger pattern. Thus, if a large number of respondents unambiguously agreed with a statement, and some fraction could not fully agree, the overall agreement percentage was counted and additionally indicated that not all participants could be in full agreement. On the contrary, if a large proportion of respondents could not give an unambiguous opinion on a particular statement, this automatically indicated a problem of uncertainty, which included respondents who did not fully agree.
Processing the Results
Since the research project was based on a qualitative methodology, the appropriate processing tools were a careful content analysis with key patterns highlighted. For the survey questionnaire, the numbers (shares) of specific answers were counted according to the Likert scale — this made it possible to determine general trends for each question and trace the connection between semantically similar statements and their perception in the minds of the respondents. For questions of this type, a general diagram was additionally constructed, allowing a visual tracing of the described patterns. For the qualitative interviews of the two police inspectors, a critical analysis of the overall responses was also conducted. In addition, since the entire interview was divided into four blocks — terrorism, police cooperation, regulations, and risks — four word clouds were prepared to reflect the common keywords found in the responses of each block.
The present study aimed to use a qualitative approach to obtain preliminary results about the transformations that have taken place in Belgian police structures in relation to the tragic terrorist events of the past five years. The literature review clearly demonstrated a change in the primary vector of the development of the Royal Police, but the evidence obtained reflected only the outer side of the problem under study. In contrast, a semi-structured interview with Belgian police officers allowed the same patterns to be assessed from within.
Q4. New police regulations have shown improvement in the fight against terrorist attacks.
The fourth question of the questionnaire explored the general impression of Belgian police officers about the changes that have taken place against the background of the terrorist attacks. It is noteworthy that an absolute majority of the participants (80 percent) could not express a clear position on this question. None of the participants stated the opposite effects, and only 10% of the respondents stated that they either partially agreed (5%) or wholly agreed (5%). In addition, participants were asked to justify their choice, and a meta-content analysis of the detailed responses primarily shows that Belgian police officers recognize the emergence of new organizational rules in institutions. Such rules are certainly aimed at improving the professional agenda, but respondents stated that “no means to make them work. At the same time, a smaller number of police officers stated that the structural changes had positive effects and helped to combat the radicalization of society as well as improve communication between crisis services. Thus, the overall result is that the introduced rules did have effects on Belgian police officers, but most of them did not see significant benefits.
Q5. New police regulations have shown improvement in the fight against radicalism.
In contrast to the previous question, the fifth question assessed the impact of the new organizational regulations in the police on the fight against radicalism, not only against terrorist networks. Expectedly, the distribution of responses was similar, with 85 percent of individuals unable to give a definite answer. However, three times fewer respondents already agreed with this statement, indicating a decline in recognition of the effectiveness of new regulations for dealing with radicalism. Notably, 1% of respondents disagreed with this statement in part. The key patterns of the content analysis again demonstrate that communication across departments has been significantly improved, which has had an impact on improving the processes for recognizing radicalization. In addition, it was highlighted that funding for law enforcement projects has increased, which has also had a positive impact on improving the agenda. Meanwhile, respondents were concerned about decreased public trust due to the practice of ethnic profiling of Muslims. Finally, participants also stated that any changes in organizational practices that had been made were primarily related to responding more quickly to radicalization crises, but not to preventive measures to reduce destructive attitudes in society.
Q6. Better cooperation with Interpol/Europol can reduce terrorism.
Approximately one in three respondents (35%) stated that improved channels of communication would significantly improve counterterrorism practices. Again, however, the majority of participants (65%) were unable to give a definite opinion on this statement. While acknowledging that communication with Interpol is “absolutely necessary” and critical, it was also clarified that the current agenda does not meet this goal. Although channels for the exchange of helpful information have been established, the local police, according to respondents, are in no hurry to communicate with Interpol and Europol.
Q7. Better cooperation with NATO can reduce terrorism.
NATO is a politico-military international alliance, one of the purposes of which is to combat radicalism in order to increase the stability of the world order. In other words, the ultimate role of NATO and Interpol are similar, but the regulations and norms of operation differ. Therefore, 90% of the respondents surveyed could not give a specific opinion on this statement, which means that the number of consensus participants was reduced threefold. Only one in ten respondents agreed, which implies that an alliance of the Belgian police with NATO is less encouraged and recognized than an alliance with Interpol. NATO can indeed play a role in the fight against terrorism on a global level, but improved cooperation with the Kingdom’s police was not seen in the survey.
Q8. Better cooperation with local and federal police can reduce terrorism.
Strong agreement was expressed by respondents on this question, with all 100% of participants partially (48%) or fully (52%) endorsing the influential role of cooperation with the federal police. Respondents noted different goals and approaches to professional performance between the units but also pointed to improved cooperation between them in recent years.
Q9. Current police training sufficient in dealing with terrorism?
It is extremely interesting that 100% of the respondents completely disagreed with this statement, which shows the low level of perception of the professional training of the Belgian police from the inside. Officers are not confident in their abilities and show that the fight against terrorism requires additional, deeper training modules.
Q10. New police regulations have added workload.
95% of respondents said that the workload has indeed increased with the introduction of new organizational regulations, with 5% being unable to express a definite opinion. It is noteworthy that respondents indicated that the number of bureaucratic functions of the police increased, which affects the increase of fatigue.
Q11. New police regulations have led to higher stress at work.
The initial question reflects the expected results: in total, approximately every fourth respondent stated that he/she experiences more stress at work because of new regulations, and 74 percent of participants did not give an unambiguous answer. This does not mean that most police officers are not stressed, but it may indicate that they have not felt a greater level of stress but have been able to adapt. Only three people disagreed with this statement. The general pattern of the content analysis is that the level of perceived stress is entirely dependent on the individual.
Q12. Police officers have access to meetings where they can debrief a traumatic situation regarding radicalization or terrorism.
In terms of stress treatment, 99% of the participants said that they did not have access to meetings where they could discuss their problems. This becomes a signal that works to improve the mental well-being of employees is not being implemented in Belgian work. The content analysis showed the stigma that Belgian policing must be a priori strong, and attendance at such events, even if they are held, may not be encouraged.
Q13. Engaging with the community can decrease radicalization.
On this question, 84% of the participants gave an unambiguous agreement, which means that engaging with the community does make sense, according to the respondents. It is indicated that this is an excellent preventive strategy for reducing radicalism in the community. Only ten individuals were unable to give any specific answer. This was due to a bias on the part of police officers in that society is not ready to see them as people but sees only police officers, which can reflect on the quality of interpersonal communication. In addition, in this context, some of the participants reported that the police should be more diverse and representative in order to improve the agenda of communication with the public.
Two Brussels counterterrorism police inspectors with a combined experience of more than 20 years were selected for interviews. A detailed content analysis of their transcribed responses showed that both inspectors acknowledged the existence of structural change, but they were not inclined to evaluate its positive impact on agenda transformation. At the same time, respondents expressed the belief that the Belgian terrorist attacks reflected the impossibility of complete national security, especially the low effectiveness of continuous surveillance as a counterterrorism measure in a growing population. Interestingly, only one respondent mentioned specific changes in law enforcement practices since 2016, naming the Brussels Channel Plan (formerly the Molenbeek Plan). Probably referring to Interior Minister Jan Jambon’s initiative to create a comprehensive plan to reduce radicalization in parts of Belgium traditionally considered sources of jihadism (Buxant 2016). Notably, the same respondent responded that complete protection from terrorism would never be achieved because the subjectivity of decisions in committing terrorist attacks cannot be ignored. It is impossible to predict precisely what is in the mind of a jihadist suicide bomber, so the preventive role of the Belgian police will never be absolute. It is important to emphasize that while the first three sets of interviews yielded results that were interesting for the research purposes of the study, the fourth set proved to be the most uninformative. Of the two respondents, only one gave answers, and these answers were of no value for the purposes of the research project, so they were ignored in further discussion.
The Threat of Terrorism
When analyzing the responses of the first block of interviews, it was found that in addition to the prominent most common words, both respondents mentioned OCAM. This Belgian acronym stands for l’Organe de Coordination pour l’Analyse de la Menace (Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis) and defines the name of the body that was established in the Kingdom in response to the emerging threat of radicalism. The OCAM was created on the basis of a mixed counterterrorism group in Belgium in 2006, and the body, which operates solely on the legal regulations of the Royal Decrees, monitors extremists and terrorists in Belgium almost around the clock, allowing for an effective channel of communication between responsible agencies and a strategic threat assessment. For example, the current threat level, according to OCAM, is rated 2 out of 4, which means “medium threat,” as shown in Figure 8. In other words, many Belgian terrorists who have not yet committed acts of violence, but are planning them, have long been known to police units: digital databases contain exceptional information on such extremists. When necessary, the Belgian police, on the basis of OCAM data, can revoke individuals’ passports, deport them from Belgium or place them in local custody (CUTA 2021). Clearly, the activities of the OCAM cannot be attributed to the Belgian government’s response to the 2016 terrorist attacks, but both respondents indicated that interaction with this body had increased markedly. On this basis, it is safe to say that it was the strengthening of useful communication between the different departments of the law enforcement services that was one of the manifestations of the authorities’ reactions.
In the second block of interview responses on police cooperation, both respondents indicated “excellent” or “good” relations between the different counterterrorism police departments in the country. It was especially emphasized that the relationship between the agencies is improving every year, which may indicate increasing counterterrorism practices in the country in an attempt to maximize security after 2016. In addition, this may indicate improvements in the technical equipment of the structures and the overcoming of most barriers, including language barriers. Respondents emphasized that information sharing between departments ultimately comes down to human factors and issues of trust, and this response creates a dual perception of the usefulness of such a foundation. On the one hand, genuinely interested law enforcement officers communicate effectively with each other and trust strategic information. In contrast, if the quality of police cooperation is tied to subjective forces, then professional burnout, low interest in the outcome, and industrial espionage can negatively impact public safety. Consequently, this response sets the stage for an additional debate about whether strict legal regulations are required to establish communications between Belgian counterterrorism agencies.
The findings from this block of interviews fit in well with the results of the survey questionnaire. Whereas both interviewees stated unequivocally that relations between the different counterterrorism agencies in the Kingdom are well established, the interviewees were only so unequivocal in identifying the communication between local and federal police forces to ensure cooperation. When it came to Interpol or NATO, most participants could not give an unequivocal assessment of this connection. For example, in the second block, the important issue of hierarchy between the different military and police forces in the country was touched on. The respondent stated that the local police had never cooperated directly with NATO, and this was generally confirmed by the results of the questionnaire survey, in which 90% of the participants could not give an accurate assessment of the connection between NATO and the Belgian police. As stated earlier, one of NATO’s current goals is the fight against international terrorism, and therefore any form of police-military cooperation has an effect on national security (NATO 2021). Biscop and Wilén (2021) suggest that the Belgian government should take the initiative to declare its national interests to NATO, the UN, or the EU in order to maximize the protective effects against radicalism and terrorism. In this sense, there may indeed be some exclusivity in the approach of NATO and the Belgian Federal Police in matters of counterterrorism, ignoring smaller structures in the law enforcement hierarchy. However, it is clear that the lack of information and the concealment of evidence turns out to be the opposite strategy, which could eventually lead to the realization of new terrorist attacks due to the lack of full involvement of all parties involved.
The threat of terrorism and the rise of radicalism is still relevant to the Kingdom, especially in light of the increasing flows of migrants into the country. The inability to provide absolute protection leads Belgian authorities to try to improve national security practices through new regulations constantly. For example, in 2016, almost immediately after the terrorist attacks in March, the authorities allocated an additional 400 million euros to fight terrorism in the country (Thomas 2020). The increase in the number of police officers patrolling the streets mentioned by respondents was also one of the federal government’s measures. Surveillance of extremists, including through OCAM, has also been stepped up. It is specified that “special attention is paid to the spread of hate speech: ‘closure of unrecognized places of worship that spread jihadism,’ ‘exclusion of hate preachers’ and ‘closure of hate-preaching websites'” (translated from French, Thomas, 2020, p. 13). In addition, the same author reports that the Belgian government has initiated the European Passenger Name Record program, which automatically tracks the personal data of passengers using Belgian airports or airspace. In this case, airlines are obliged to provide Belgian counterterrorism services with information on all passengers who leave or, conversely, enter Belgian borders.
Interestingly, the question of legal regulation in the third block of interviews was the least covered by respondents, who often answered “no answer” or “no comment.” The inability or unwillingness to answer the questions in this block could have been due to either a low interest in the legal regulations of counterterrorism practices, low awareness, or a reluctance to provide a professional assessment of the weak decisions of the Belgian government. Nevertheless, some interesting patterns did stand out. In particular, respondents stated that the regulation of Belgian counterterrorism would never be perfect because “it is impossible to see what is going on in the mind of a person who decides to carry out an attack.” However, this does not mean that new rules should not appear because no one is ruled out by ever-expanding threats to national security. Among these is the steadily high incoming flow of migrants to Belgium, as shown in Figure 9. It is clearly seen that over the past four years, since 2016, the number of incoming migrants has been steadily increasing, and only in 2020 reached the level of 2013, dropping noticeably. The reason for this decline is obviously related to the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the closure of the borders of the Belgian state (Stroobants 2021). In other words, with the exception of the impact of the pandemic, the number of immigrants in Belgium is constantly increasing, which creates additional threats of the growth of extremist sentiments among foreign communities.
Respondents in the interviews stated that not reducing the current level of vigilance is the only correct strategy to help ensure national security at a high level. However, it is related to bureaucracy, which, as another respondent pointed out, affects the quality of work tasks performed with staff shortages and increased workloads. This is entirely consistent with the patterns found in the survey questionnaire, with a combined 95% of participants linking the new regulations to increasing workloads and 22% affirming a link between the new regulations and work stress. Putting this together, one finds that the expansion of counterterrorism practices in Belgium through new regulations is unambiguously linked to an increase in work stress for employees. The Belgian government’s attempts to improve the national security agenda through new regulations have already been detected and are unquestionable, which means that in the long run, in the absence of an expansion of law enforcement officers, service workers will find themselves under stress or even professional burnout (Soomro et al. 2021). In turn, this will affect the quality of the work performed and lead to errors and negligence. Consequently, the Belgian authorities must not only implement new regulations but also ensure that law enforcement services are sufficiently staffed so as not to overburden officers.
The recent mention of COVID-19 was not coincidental, as counterterrorism practice in Belgium knows the name Jurgen Conings, who was mentioned by a respondent in his response to this block. Conings was an elite Belgian special forces soldier who, in May 2021, at the height of the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, stole weapons from military barracks and declared war on the Belgian government and, in particular, the Belgian chief virologist over lockdown and restrictions (Geerts 2021). This example reflects the development of far-right sentiments not only on the part of the Kingdom’s Islamic diasporas but also among the indigenous Belgian population. Conings gathered a large audience of like-minded people on social media, and there were even protests in Belgium endorsing the extremist’s anti-government actions, as shown in Figure 10. Two things are noteworthy in this story: First, the Jurgen Conings phenomenon clearly reflected the psychological tension growing in society at a time of severe social restrictions. Conings was not the only one to oppose government measures, but he was one of the first whose actions took a radical turn. As a consequence, law enforcement still has much work to do with the search for potential extremists in Belgian society in difficult times of the pandemic. Such activities, according to the respondent, should be based on the practice of coercive investigations that do not take into account the origin and ideology of the perpetrator. To put it differently, any bias must be excluded during the preventive management of terrorism in the country so that the Jurgen Conings phenomena are not repeated.
Secondly, this story showed the low level of awareness in the Belgian law enforcement. It is reported that “neither the Belgian army nor the Belgian minister of defense appear to have been informed about this” (Geerts 2021, para. 9). This could be an important marker of a low dissemination culture in the law enforcement hierarchy, where key counterterrorism figures in the country are not aware of specific extremist issues. In addition, the Jurgen Conings effect showed the low preparedness of the Belgian counterterrorism police to deal with extremists. In particular, although the national manhunt began on May 18, his body would not be discovered until June 20, with the help of mountain bikers who smelled a decomposing human body (HLN 2021). In other words, for almost a month, the Belgian services could not track down one person with extremely radical views, which demonstrates the low level of non-preventive practices in the country. 100% of those surveyed agreed with this and reported that the current level of training in the local police does not allow for an effective fight against terrorists.
Consequently, a critical gap is created between what the Belgian government and population want Belgium to be in the context of national security and what it actually is. On this issue, it is clearly necessary to create additional, qualitatively new practices for managing terrorist situations in the country in such a way as to ensure full preparedness for any such events in the future. Biscop and Wilén (2021) propose a working solution to create a National Security Strategy, the first in the history of the Belgian Kingdom to systematize and structure the country’s counterterrorism practices. This solution includes expanding the composition of the counterterrorism coordination council, improving communication with the population — because the creation of the Strategy must be based on a broad public debate — and creating new positions of responsibility in Belgium’s bureaucratic practices. Regarding the solution to the problem of counterterrorism, it is clear that such strategies will be the main core regulating all law enforcement services and covering the errors and inaccuracies observed in current practices.
However, it is clear that no matter how well-developed and effective the new Strategy ultimately turns out to be, it will not be completely perfect. According to the interviewee, who has been a counterterrorism police inspector for five years, no regulation will be a complete success or failure because “any regulation will bring its share of successes and failures. The Belgian authorities must take this into account when trying to establish counterterrorism activities in the country. Among other things, it should take into account any problems associated with the workload and stress of police officers in the context of increased work responsibilities. According to a survey questionnaire, 99 percent of participants said they did not have adequate access to stress management programs and psychological support within agencies. There may seem to be a fundamental gap in mental well-being support for officers because “supervisors usually do not remind or talk about such services. Consequently, the new practice or strategy to be developed should address not only law enforcement practices in the country but also the well-being of workers, on whom the quality of national security in Belgium ultimately depends.
One of the only points with which almost all respondents agreed is the recognition of the existence of new regulations. Participants did indicate that they felt the changes in their practice and began to follow the new regulations but did not indicate the specific legal norms with which this new practice is related. However, this does not mean that these changes are ephemeral but rather may indicate the absence of some of the most striking and memorable regulations that were stored in the minds of respondents. On the contrary, an examination of additional literature on the subject reveals several interesting regulations reflecting improvements in Belgian counterterrorism practices, not all of which comply with humanitarian norms of international law. For example, UNIA (2019) points to a preventive measure of extremism management whereby people of unknown or questionable backgrounds are not hired in Belgium. This measure is part of a security clearance that helps manage radicalism in a number of sensitive sectors related to airports, law enforcement and security services, and nuclear power plants. Understandably, such regulation, tightened after 2016, prevents questionable individuals from working in strategically important facilities, but the example of Jurgen Conings shows that this practice is flawed. The stated inhumanity of this practice is that, according to UNIA, applicants are not informed of the specific reasons for refusal, and even a judicial appeal does not help to fully identify the motivation for the refusal due to affiliation with radical communities. Thus, the existing mechanism lacks transparency, which may be useful for national security but ineffective for building a dialogue with the population.
In addition, the legislative framework has changed somewhat, which has improved the practice of counterterrorism in the country. In particular, in 2015, an addition to Article 23 of the Belgian Nationality Code, 23/2, was adopted and modified in 2018, expanding the reasons for depriving an individual of the nationality of the Kingdom. Specifically, the following provisions of this article, noted in Table 2, were approved in June 2018. Notably, it is impermissible to deprive a Belgian terrorist of his civil rights if, in doing so, he remains without the citizenship of another country. This measure protects local extremists from deportation but creates convenient conditions for the Belgian government with respect to migrants from other countries with dual or hidden citizenship. The Belgian naturalization procedure for re-citizenship requires the individual to legally stay in the country for five years, to know one of the national languages, and to demonstrate social integration (BXL 2021). While the first two points seem easy to measure, the last one is as vague as possible, which creates the possibility for refusals even if the other criteria are met.
Table 2: Provisions from the Code de la nationalité belge Regarding the Removal of Nationality from a Belgian Found Guilty of Episodes of Radicalism or Terrorism (JUSTEL 2019)
|Original article||Translation to English *by the author|
|Les Belges qui ne tiennent pas leur nationalité d’un … peuvent être déchus de la nationalité belge … |
s’ils manquent gravement à leurs devoirs de citoyen belge (23 § 1).
|Belgians who do not derive their nationality from a foreigner … can be stripped of their Belgian nationality … if they seriously fail in their duties as Belgian citizens.|
|Le juge ne prononce pas la déchéance au cas où celle-ci aurait pour effet de rendre l’intéressé apatride, à moins que la nationalité n’ait été acquise à la suite d’une conduite frauduleuse, par de fausses informations ou par dissimulation d’un fait pertinent (23/2 § 2).||The judge shall not declare forfeiture if it would render the person concerned stateless, unless the nationality was acquired as a result of fraudulent conduct, false information or concealment of a relevant fact.|
|La personne qui a été déchue de la nationalité belge en vertu du présent article ne peut redevenir Belge que par naturalisation (23/2 § 4).||A person who has been deprived of Belgian nationality by virtue of this article can only become Belgian again by naturalization.|
In total, since the 2015 and 2016 attacks, the Belgian authorities have developed several dozen new initiatives and regulations that have changed national security practices in the country. Seron and André (2016) highlight thirty such measures that were adopted directly in 2015 in response to the tragic events of the Paris attacks: some of them have already been mentioned in this paper, while others are published for the first time in Figure 11. Although the ultimate goal of these measures, that is, national counterterrorist security, is not in doubt, some authors are inclined to call such a rapidity from publication populism as a tool for the political use of terrorism to tighten control over the population (Thomas 2020). It follows that it is in the interest of the Belgian government to find a compromise between national security goals and the real interests and freedoms of the population, but refining the details of this balance is not the purpose of this study and can be measured in subsequent works.
To summarize the overall outcome of the current study, it is worth detailing the specific findings that emerged from the literature search and the processing of qualitative results from surveys and interviews. First of all, it should be recalled that the present study aimed not only to analyze the actual initiatives and practices infusing law enforcement counterterrorism tasks in Belgium but also to explore the key patterns of perception of these initiatives by law enforcement officers. First, it was shown that the Paris (2015) and Belgian (2016) terrorist attacks were key turning points for Belgium. Failure to manage terrorism in the country and allowing attacks by Islamists, even with prior knowledge of this likelihood, provides a foundation for considering the failure and low effectiveness of Belgian counterterrorism. Second, it has been shown that, as a response to these attacks, Belgian authorities have initiated several dozen initiatives that have qualitatively affected law enforcement practices. However, respondents to the survey questionnaire could not unequivocally agree that such transformations were helpful in combating terrorism and radicalism. Third, it was shown that relations between the different counterterrorism services in Belgium, including NATO, Europol, and Interpol, the federal and local branches of the Belgian police are good and well established, which means that since 2016 there has been a change in the system of strategic data exchange. It is acknowledged that the quality of this communication is extremely important, but it is also mentioned that military-police cooperation is far from perfect. Fourth, it was interesting to learn that 100 percent of respondents agreed that the current level of police training does not allow for effective counterterrorism. This is confirmed by the stories from Belgian law enforcement history discussed in the sections above. As a consequence, for the Belgian authorities, there should be a gap in the training programs, on which basis adjustments should be made and thereby the skills of the police in Belgium should be improved.
Fifth, a significant cluster of results was related to work stress and increasing workload. It has been shown that the expanding regulations and regulations impose additional bureaucratic functions on police officers, which translates into an increased workload. From a counterterrorism perspective, this may be an ineffective practice, as paperwork-weary police officers are ineffective in actually fighting radicalism. In addition, such practices can lead to problems of professional burnout. That is why the Belgian authorities should look at the emotional well-being of officers and sensibly increase the workload of police personnel while also initiating an increase in the number of officers. Sixth, there was an almost unequivocal recognition that Belgian law enforcers need improvements in dialogue with the public, which relates to increased trust and voluntary civil information. Because of prejudice against the police, officers may not be perceived as real people, which creates communication problems and affects the psychological well-being of police officers. Furthermore, when civil liberties are respected, and counterterrorism measures are humane enough, the public helps the police by reporting suspicious individuals. All of this ultimately leads to better national security outcomes for Belgium.
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