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Belgium: Extremism and Terrorism

This report compiled by the Counter Extremism Project allows us to take a deeper look at the history of extremist activity in an example country: Belgium. Find the full report here:

On February 5, 2020, it was reported that prosecutors in Belgium are currently seeking to bring eight men to the country’s highest court for their alleged role in carrying out an ISIS-inspired triple suicide bombing in Brussels in March 2016. The ringleader, Oussama Atar, who was allegedly a senior figure in ISIS’s intelligence service, purportedly died in Syria in 2017. One other suspect, Salah Abdeslam, is already in French jail due to his role in the Paris 2015 attack that killed 131 people. The other suspects have been formally charged, but their trials are not due to start until 2021. (Source: The National)

On January 30, 2020, the Belgian Court of Cassation confirmed a ruling by the Brussels Court of Appeals that the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) should not be classified as a terrorist organization. Although the Belgian government considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization, the Court of Cassation represents the opinion of the judiciary which is an independent body from the executive branch. The ruling claimed that EU anti- terrorism legislation cannot be applied towards the PKK as it is involved in a non-international armed conflict or civil war and is thus allowed to use legitimate military force. The PKK is an internationally designated terrorist organization that has been in conflict with the Turkish government for decades. Although it is uncertain if the ruling will create diplomatic altercations with Turkey, the Belgian government depends on stable relations with Ankara to track Belgian nationals who joined ISIS in Syria and continue to remain in the region. (Sources: Brussels Times, Brussels Times)

On May 29, 2018, imprisoned drug-dealer Benjamin Herman, out on temporary leave, killed four people in Liège. Herman attacked two female police officers with a knife, stabbing them repeatedly. He then stole their pistols, which he used to shoot and kill them and a passenger in a nearby car while reportedly shouting “Allahu akbar.” He then fled to the nearby Atheneum Léonie de Waha school and took a cleaning woman hostage. Police shot and killed him during a confrontation outside the school, which wounded four officers. Herman had also killed a former criminal accomplice the night before. Belgian authorities had granted Herman a two-day release in preparation for his 2020 release. Herman reportedly converted to Islam in prison and authorities confirmed that he likely radicalized there after coming into contact with Islamic extremists. Belgian officials labeled the killing spree a terrorist attack but did not believe Herman was connected to a terrorist network. ISIS later claimed responsibility via Telegram, referring to Herman as one of its “soldiers.” Belgium did not raise its terrorism threat level. (Sources: Reuters, New York Times, Associated Press, France24) The attack was Belgium’s first fatal terror attack since March 22, 2016, when ISIS-affiliated terrorists launched a series of bomb attacks in Belgium, together killing 32 people and wounding more than 300 others. The attacks—the deadliest in Belgium’s modern history—came nearly two years after the May 2014 shooting attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, perpetrated by former ISIS fighter Mehdi Nemmouche. (Sources: Reuters, NPR, Telegraph)

Overview On the morning of March 22, 2016, two suicide bombers—later identified as former ISIS fighter Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and suspected bomb-maker Najim Laachraoui—launched attacks at Zaventem airport, killing 16 people. An hour later, another suicide bomber—identified as Ibrahim’s brother Khalid el-Bakraoui—struck the city’s metro system, killing 16 people at the Maelbeek station. In the wake of the attacks, Belgium temporarily raised its national threat level to the highest level (four), closed the metro system, evacuated the airport, and shut down two nuclear power plants. The attacks also propelled the country into a weeks-long manhunt for attacks suspect Mohamed Abrini, who was arrested alongside several co- conspirators on April 8, 2016. (Sources: Reuters, Guardian, New York Times, Guardian, CNN, New York Times)

The Brussels terrorist attacks were the deadliest in the country’s history. Several government representatives resigned or offered to resign, after it emerged that the government had failed to follow through on leads flagged by the Turkish government and anticipate major national security lapses flagged by the European Union. Turkey had previously arrested one of the bombers—Ibrahim el-Bakraoui—and deported him to the Netherlands on suspicion of being a foreign fighter. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an said that he had alerted Belgium of the arrest, but that Belgian authorities did not effectively pursue the lead. (Sources: Politico, Reuters, Atlantic, Independent, BuzzFeed, New York Times, U.N.,, Le Soir, New York Times, BuzzFeed, New York Times, Telegraph)

The attacks highlighted Belgium’s struggle to meet surveillance demands. More than 500 Belgians are suspected to have left the country to serve as foreign terrorist fighters abroad, according to the Belgian government. As of January 2018, the government suspected that at least 100 foreign fighters had returned to the country. Other factors reportedly hindering Belgium’s intelligence apparatus are the country’s language divide and overall budgetary constraints. As one anonymous official told media, “We just don’t have the people... and, frankly, we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have.” (Sources: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism - The Hague, Soufan Group, Deutsche Welle, Politico,, United Nations, Pieter van Ostayen, New York Times, BuzzFeed, New York Times, U.S. State Department)

Despite Belgium’s efforts to improve its national security since the Brussels attacks, the country has continued to experience lone-wolf terror attacks. On August 7, 2016, ISIS claimed an attack in which a machete-wielding man wounded two Belgian policewomen in the city of Charleroi. On August 22, 2016, a machete-wielding woman attacked passengers on a bus in Brussels, wounding three people. On October 5, 2016, a knife- wielding assailant stabbed two policemen in Brussels. On March 23, 2017, a man was intercepted while driving at high-speed on De Meir, the major shopping street in Antwerp. The incident—while not producing casualties or injuries—bore the hallmarks of similar vehicular attacks in Nice, Ohio, Germany, and London. On November 20, 2018, a knife-wielding assailant stabbed a police officer in the city center of Brussels while allegedly shouting “allahu akbar.” (Sources: Reuters, Telegraph, Independent, Wall Street Journal, CNN, BBC News, Express)

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