By TERI SCHULTZ
BRUSSELS – Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon’s first year on the job hasn’t been easy. It started with the January Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and its links back to Belgium and the discovery of an Islamist ring planning to kill local police. And it ends on the dark events of Paris on 13 November, with a finger of blame pointing at Belgium for being home to numerous perpetrators.
“Unfortunately, 2015 will be remembered in Belgium as a year of almost continuous threats of terrorism,” Jambon told the British Chamber of Commerce here on 15 December.
The Belgian government is now trying to better equip itself to fight terrorism. It pushed through a dozen new measures in January 2015 and now, according to Jambon, aims for 18 more to be implemented.
The Belgian minister justifies the drastic security measures his government took immediately after the after the November Paris attacks in view of what was considered a “serious and imminent threat” in Brussels. The city was virtually shut down for four days afterwards.
He said there were two possibilities: “We could underestimate the danger and not take enough action or we could overestimate the danger and take too much action.” He has no regrets over the decision to briefly raise the country’s threat level to a maximum of four, saying, “the choice was simple: better safe than sorry.”
One of his personal projects for reorganising Belgium’s police force is to remove from its list of “police tasks” such trivial tasks as granting permission to install illuminated signs or certifying that swarms of bees have been neutralised. He said the reform would allow the government “to maximise police resources and to reinvest the freed-up resources in the core tasks of the police”.
Another initiative involves banning the use of pre-paid phone cards. Jambon said returning foreign fighters, of which Belgium has the highest ratio per-capita in the world, are evading law enforcement with these disposable cards. “These are well-trained fighting machines,” he explained, familiar not just with weapons but with mobile phones and how not to be tapped. “They are specialists,” who change pre-paid phone cards every day, he added.
Belgium also plans to arrest foreign fighters when they return home, and to heavily monitor anyone who appears to be planning to leave for Syria or Iraq.
Jambon said one silver lining in today’s tense terrorist situation has been an acceleration in policymaking, both in Belgium and at the EU level. In Belgium, for example, the debate over police reform has stretched on for more than a decade. Now, however, the government is expected to reach political agreement before Christmas on a reform plan that Jambon unveiled on 14 December.
At EU level, as of a year ago Europol – the European police network – was getting 80 percent of its information from just four member countries (including Belgium). Now virtually all EU countries contribute, so the “exchange of information in Europe going in right direction” he said.
Likewise, he noted that a Belgian passenger-name record system (PNR) is moving along, ahead of a proposed European system, which has just passed approval by the European Parliament. “We want to know who uses our global aviation and rail traffic, and who enters and leaves our country,” said Jambon, who recently visited the UK’s PNR headquarters, heralding it a “tremendous success, a great example.”
Meanwhile, Jambon refutes the perception that Belgian mosques are the radicalising factor that turn youths toward Syria and Iraq. He said he meets often with families of foreign fighters — mostly their mothers — and that he sees a recurring theme: the internet as the source of the problem. At some point along the radicalisation process, Jambon explained, young people stop going to the mosques with their parents because they find the religious establishments too moderate.
Jambon said it’s a priority for Belgium to regain its image as a safe place to do business. “We all have to send out the message now that normal life can continue here in this country and in Brussels,” he said.
“There is a link with Molenbeek and with foreign fighters in Belgium and Brussels, you can’t deny it,” he acknowledged, adding that “just as there was a link with France when we had the Jewish museum [killings] here [in 2014].”
However, Jambon insists there has been no evidence so far corroborating that the planning of the Paris attacks was carried out in Belgium.
Simply claiming that no evidence has yet materialised is somewhat disingenuous on Jambon’s part, particularly since it is still early days in untangling what all now acknowledge is a complex terrorist nexus stretching across the whole of Europe. On the other hand, Belgium’s intelligence machinery is nowhere near as bad as commonly portrayed in the press. Indeed, the country’s security forces have foiled many plots…a number of which do not make it into the newspapers.
More important will be how the government uses some EUR 400 million in new funding for the country’s security services. One thing is clear: there is a woeful lack of security personnel who speak Arabic fluently. That should be a human-resource priority for the police force.