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How Belgian authorities might further counter radicalisation

Euro-View: Antoine de Borman and Quentin Martens on counter-radicalisation

Antoine de Borman
Quentin Martens

Belgium has been one of the first European countries confronted with significant radicalisation movements. As early as 2012-2013 when Europe saw the first departures to Syria, Joëlle Milquet, former Belgian Minister of Home Affairs, launched measures to tackle this threat, including the adoption of a prevention strategy against terrorism and violent radicalism.

Then came the Paris and Brussels attacks in 2015 and 2016. Since then, tighter cooperation between intelligence services to identify dangerous groups has become necessary.

We have analysed the phenomenon of radicalisation and its various causes, as explained in our book, “La Belgique face au radicalisme”, published in April 2016. However, there are no simple reasons why young people, born and raised in Europe, turn themselves into bombs.

What kind of counter-measures should be taken?

First of all, cooperation among all levels and sectors of government is imperative. For federal states such as Belgium it is a big challenge to link policies at different levels. However, this is a central issue for non-federal states too. Why? Local entities in any state are crucial players for detecting and countering radicalisation. And that demands closer cooperation between them and national intelligence services, with all the implications for the exchange of confidential information.

Secondly, the screening of returning foreign fighters must be stepped up. More than 500 Belgian residents left for Syria after 2012, making Belgium the European country most affected by this phenomenon in relative terms. The returnees are battle-hardened whose military techniques can be used for terrorist acts.

According to Jaak Raes, head of Belgium’s State Security, a third of these returnees are considered dangerous and represent a serious threat. In our view – and we have proposed this – there should be full and compulsory screening of all returning foreign fighters. A multidisciplinary treatment centre dedicated to returnees should be created in Belgium whose goal would be to assemble returnee profiles, assess the level of threat they represent and identify the most appropriate solutions ranging from detention to reintegration and support for the individual at home.

Indeed, radicalisation is a highly complex dynamic process. Experts often observe that the more experience they gain in the field, the more it is difficult for them to fully understand the phenomenon. There are no simple reasons to explain why young people born and raised in Europe turn themselves into suicide bombs.

Third, we must block the use of the Internet by terrorists. The web and its social networks play an important role in radicalisation. Dangerous words are expressed freely on the Internet, with few legal consequences. Thus, we need to strengthen our ability to detect and monitor terrorist propaganda, boost legal and technical possibilities for the removal of content that glorifies terrorism and, finally, deploy counter speech to tackle online terrorist propaganda.

One way to do this would be to create a unit within the cyber-security centre devoted to blocking and withdrawing websites that advocate terrorism. This is urgently needed. In Scotland Yard, a special cell has successfully removed 93 percent of problematic content, thanks to the cooperation of the internet suppliers. This model could be followed.

Creating a similar unit in Belgium could work not only as a relay to internet providers removing dangerous propaganda, but also analyse terrorist content and behavioural patterns of suspects on the net. The implementation of such unit should have a sufficient budget to recruit and retain highly qualified personnel.

Fourth, no long term solution can be found without structured psychological support for the parents of radicalised children. At the same time, Belgian authorities would be wise to rely on the experience of these parents to prevent and detect radicalisation at an early stage.

The final but most difficult challenge is to begin reducing tensions in our society. As Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, has observed, the goal of terrorism is to deepen divisions in our society. The antidote to this is to strengthen community dialogue and promote open exchanges, debates and friendships between people of different backgrounds.

Ultimately, it means improving the sense of “living together” – admittedly, no easy objective to achieve since it demands imagination, creativity and a mobilisation of all levels of society.

     Antoine de Borman is currently director of the Study center (CEPESS) of the Belgian political party Centre Démocrate Humaniste (cdH) and held previous positions at federal and regional ministers in Belgium. He be reached at deborman@cepess.be.
     Quentin Martens is an adviser at CEPESS, a post he has held since 2011. He previously worked at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and can be reached at martens@cepess.be.

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