Brussels Lockdown: X-Ray of the Belgian Security Apparatus

Brussels, the diplomatic capital of the world and host to the NATO headquarters and EU institutions, is under the highest terrorist threat. MO* investigative journalist Kristof Clerix, author of two books on intelligence, explores the Belgian security landscape. Who is keeping Brave Little Belgium safe?


Soldiers patrol as the Belgian capital remains on the highest possible alert level on November 23, 2015 in Brussels.

1. Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment (OCAD)

What? the central player in the Belgian fight against terrorism, set up in 2006 in the aftermath of the Madrid bomb attacks

Capacity? around 50

Head? André Vandoren, since July 2008

Political supervision: minister of Home Affairs Jan Jambon (N-VA)

Tasks: analyze every kind of threat in relation to terrorism and extremism that can endanger the internal as well as the external security, and assess every possible threat towards Belgian interests or Belgian citizens abroad or against all other vital Belgian institutions.

The OCAD receives information from its foreign counterparts and from its participating supply services: the State Security, the military intelligence service ADIV, the Federal and local Police, and the Federal Public Services of Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Mobility and Transportation, and Finance. These supply services are obliged to communicate all relevant information concerning possible threats linked to terrorism, extremism and radicalism.

On the basis of this input, the OCAD issues punctual as well as strategic assessment reports allowing an appreciation of whether threats might manifest themselves or, if already detected, how they are evolving and, as appropriate, what measures prove to be necessary. The Crisis Centre then establishes the measures.

On a daily basis, the OCAD makes a threat analysis. There are four threat levels:

  1. Low: threat is improbable or non existent
  2. Medium: threat is little probable
  3. High: threat is possible and probable
  4. Very High: threat is very serious and imminent

Over the past years, the general threat in Belgium was qualified as ‘medium’, except for certain places (such as the American embassy or Jewish institutions, for which the threat was qualified as ‘high’). After the dismantling of a terrorist plot in Verviers early 2015 the general threat level in Belgium was raised from ‘medium’ to ‘high’. On November 21, 2015, the threat level for Brussels was raised to ‘very high’ –this is only happened twice before.

Since August 2012, the OCAD has been keeping a consolidated list of people related to the threat of Foreign Terrorist Fighters. According to official numbers, currently over 250 Belgians are fighting in Syria and Iraq, most probably in jihadist circles. At least 125 Belgians have returned and 75 have died in combat.

Some 800 names currently are on the consolidated list, divided in categories (Belgians in Syria and Iraq; on their way to the battlefield; stopped on their way; planning to leave; returnees; women and children). As from January 2016, the list will be transformed into a dynamic database.

2. State Security (VSSE)

What? civil intelligence service, set up in 1835

Capacity? around 600

Head? administrator-general Jaak Raes, since April 2014

Political supervision: minister of Justice Koen Geens (CD&V)

Tasks: the Belgian Law on the Intelligence and Security Service of 30 November 1998 defines the tasks of the State Security: gather, analyse and process intelligence regarding espionage, interference, terrorism, extremism, proliferation, sects and criminal organisations.

In September 2015 an important internal reshuffle of the State Security took place, prioritising intelligence on Foreign Terrorist Fighters and the terrorist threat.

© Kristof Clerix

Belgian State Security

The law on Special Intelligence Methods of 2010 defines which methods the Belgian intelligence services can apply to gather intelligence: “Specific Methods” (e.g. observe public accessible places or collect localisation data of electronic communication traffic) and “Exceptional Methods” (e.g. enter and observe in non public accessable places, set up a front company, open mail, collect information regarding bank accounts, intercept communications or penetrate an IT system). Next to these Special Intelligence Methods come other sources, such as informants (HUMINT, human intelligence) and open sources.

As from August 2012, when the first Belgian citizens left to join the battle in Syria, the State Security has been following up the Foreign Terrorist Fighters, being one of the first intelligence services in Europe to stress the importance of the topic. ‘Without any doubt, the return of Foreign Terrorist Fighters will become a problem for Belgium’, former administrator-general Alain Winants was quoted in Belgian financial daily De Tijd when he left office in April 2014.

On November 10th 2015 –three days before the Paris attacks– two analysts of the State Security expressed their anxiety about returnees during an academic colloquium in the headquarters of the intelligence service: ‘The Belgian Foreign Terrorist Fighters have learned the skill to kill on the spot: how to make bombs, how to handle war weapons, they exchange experiences. When these people return, you really have a problem as a country. On top of that, they have been trained in operational awareness. They know that they might be under surveillance once they are back in Belgium. The younger generation Syria fighters clearly takes counter measures and is more difficult to track.’

‘Since the dismantling of a terrorist plot in Verviers we know that sleeping cells of Foreign Terrorist Fighters exist all over Europe that can pose a threat’, administrator general Jaak Raes, said in an interview with daily De Tijd, published the day after the Paris attacks.

3. General Service Intelligence and Security (ADIV)

What? military intelligence service, set up in 1915

Capacity? around 600 [In November 2009, former ADIV head Michel Hellemans told the Justice Commission of the Chamber that he employed 619 people.]

Head? General Eddy Testelmans, since March 2012

© Kristof Clerix

General Eddy Testelmans

Political supervision: minister of Defense Steven Vandeput (N-VA)

Tasks: similar to the tasks of the State Security, but focused on the military dimension. Its first role consists in collecting and analysing intelligence related to any activity that threatens the inviolability of the national territory, the military defence plans, the performance of the roles of the armed forces, or the security of Belgian nationals abroad. Moreover, the ADIV must ensure the military security of the personnel coming under Defence, military installations, military secrets and the scientific and economic potential. Besides, it must neutralise any cyber attacks and identify their perpetrators.

Whereas the State Security can only operate in Belgium, the ADIV can also work abroad. On a permanent basis the ADIV has some 20 intelligence officers stationed abroad. A second difference with the State Security is that the ADIV has a SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) capacity at its disposal, which allows it to intercept communication sent out from abroad. Once a year, a list with SIGINT targets is approved by the Belgian minister of Defense: countries, organisations, individuals and political movements that are of importance to support Belgian military operations and national interests.

4. Federal Police

Capacity? around 14.500

Head? Catherine De Bolle, since February 2012

Political supervision: minister of Home Affairs Jan Jambon (N-VA)

Role in the fight against terrorism: about 230 policemen –70 more than in 2010– work in the specialised antiterrorism unit: 130 in Brussels, 30 in Antwerp, 20 in Charleroi, 20 Liege, 10 in Ghent and around 10 in the central services.

Next to that also police officers of other departments can take up a role in the fight against terrorism –e.g. some of the 30.000 to 35.000 officers of the local police, who are the “eyes and ears” in the local communities. In 2010 the project Community Policing Preventing Radicalisation & Terrorism (CoPPRa) was launched in order to inform local police officers about terrorist organisations.

About 50 police officers work in the specialised unit of the Federal Police combatting organised arms trafficking. Other departments of the Federal Police that are focused at trafficking in general (of arms, drugs, etc) can also play a role in this field.

The house searches and arrests of suspects in the framework of judicial inquiries into terrorism are carried out by the Commissariat-General Special Units (CGSU), in collaboration with the specialised antiterrorism unit. The CGSU has some 500 members and consists of an intervention unit, an observation team and a technical unit.

5. Crisis Centre

What? Coordination and Crisis Centre of the Government, set up in 1988 after the shipwreck of the Herald of Free Enterprise before the Belgian coast

Capacity? about 80

Head? Alain Lefèvre, director-generaal ad interim

Political supervision: minister of Home Affairs Jan Jambon (N-VA)

Tasks: crisis management. The Crisis Centre assures a 24/7 permanence for the collection, analysis and diffusion of urgent information. It is also the national and international contact point in alert situations, plans and coordinates the security of big events, organises the security of VIPs and institutions, and is responsible for emergency planning.

On the basis of the daily threat analysis by the OCAD, the Crisis Centre establishes the necessary security measures. Following the threat evaluation of OCAD defining threat level 4 (‘very serious’) on Saturday November 21st 2015, the Crisis Centre rolled out a three axes approach: cancellation of big events, increased security of public transport (including temporary closure of the Brussels metro), and an increase of police and military in the streets of Brussels.

For Monday November 23rd the Crisis Centre also recommended the closure of all schools in Brussels, from kindergardens to universities. Citizens were recommended to avoid highly crowded areas in the Brussels region (concerts, major events, train stations and airports, public transport, highly populated commercial areas) and to stay vigilant.

6. Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee

What? committee commissioned by the parliamentary oversight body on intelligence, set up in 1991

Capacity? three members, assisted by an administrative staff and an investigation service

Head? chairman Guy Rapaille, Solicitor General at the Liège Court of Appeal

© Kristof Clerix

The Standing Committee I: Pieter-Alexander De Brock, Guy Rapaille en Gerald Vande Walle.

Political supervision: parliamentary oversight body

Tasks? the Standing Committee I is responsible for reviewing the activities and functioning of the State Security and the military secret service ADIV. The review relates to the legitimacy, effectiveness and coordination of their work. In addition, it reviews the functioning of the Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment.

The Standing Committee publishes an annual report in which it discusses past supervisory investigations and makes public all relevant data on the Special Intelligence Methods that Belgian secret services have applied. In 2014 e.g., the State Security applied these methods in 499 cases related to terrorism and radicalisation processes, and 267 cases related to extremism. The numbers for the military secret service ADIV were considerably lower: 7 (terrorism/radicalisation) and 15 (extremism).

In October 2014, the Standing Committee I launched a supervisory investigation into the information position of the two Belgian intelligence services about the recruitment, the mission, the stay and the return of Belgian Foreign Terrorist Fighters. In November 2015, in response to the Paris attacks, it announced a new, additional investigation into the subject matter.

7. Financial Intelligence Processing Unit (CTIF)

What? anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing body, set up in 1993

Capacity? (to be confirmed)

Head? Jean-Claude Delepière, since 2004 (Delepière is also former head of the Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee, and of the Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment)

© Senate

Jean-Claude Delepière

Political supervision: minister of Finance Johan Van Overtveldt (N-VA) and minister of Justice Koen Geens (CD&V)

Tasks? The CTIF is in charge of processing suspicious financial facts and transactions linked to money laundering and terrorism financing, reported by currency exchange offices, agents acting as payment institutions (money remittance), banks and other credit institutions, the postal service, notaries, casinos, the National Bank of Belgium, accountants, etc.

In 2014, the CTIF reported 37 files to the judicial authorities due to serious indications of terrorist financing for a total amount of EUR 6,8 million. Several files were related to jihadis who went to fight in Syria or Iraq. ‘In 2014, numerous files involved short-term loans or loans with companies for consumer credit or credit institutions in Belgium. These funds were then withdrawn in cash and taken to Syria or Iraq to finance the activities of terrorist groups in the region or to pay for travel to Syria or Iraq’, CTIF’s Annual report 2014 states. ‘Typically all the money was simultaneously withdrawn from savings and current accounts, indicating that the individuals did not plan on returning.’

In 2014 the CTIF reported several files to the judicial authorities featuring non profit organisations led by individuals known for their radical attitudes and for spreading radical ideas, also to recruit jihadis for Syria.

Physical cross-border transportation of currency was a frequently used technique in files related to terrorist financing. In 2014 the CFI reported several files to the judicial authorities in which large amounts of cash were seized that had not been declared to the Customs and could be linked to terrorist financing.

‘Even though CTIF’s files relate to fairly small amounts, these files do contain useful information for the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office to contextualise and localise terrorist networks in Belgium and abroad’, the annual report states.

8. Federal Prosecutor’s Office

What? the Federal Prosecutor’s Office that is the driving force in Belgium behind the judicial inquiry into terrorist networks. It was set up in May 2002.

Capacity? 24 federal magistrates, out of which 8 are specialised in terrorism. 2 additional terrorism magistrates are currently being recruited. Next to that five magistrates from other prosecutor’s offices can be detached to assist in terrorism cases.

Head? Frédéric Van Leeuw, since April 2014

© Kristof Clerix

Federal Prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw

Political supervision: minister of Justice Koen Geens (CD&V)

Tasks: the Federal Prosecutor’s Office is among others in chare of the criminal prosecution of terrorism, serious breaches of international humanitarian law, piracy at sea, human trafficking, organised crime, money laundering and serious criminal offenses abroad against Belgian citizens. It is also responsible for a coherent approach against illegal arms trafficking.

In its Annual report 2012 (the last one made public), the Federal Prosecutor’s Office gives an overview of the number of new criminal investigations into terrorism that have been launched:

2007: 111
2008: 53
2009: 52
2010: 65
2011: 84
2012: 60

Belgian daily De Tijd reported that the number for 2013 is 150 and that up to November 19 2015, 275 new investigations into terrorism had been launched in 2015.

9. National Security Council

What? the political driving force behind the Belgian security apparatus, set up in January 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and the dismantling of a terror plot in Verviers.

Head? Belgian prime minister Charles Michel (MR)

Members? Vice prime ministers Kris Peeters (CD&V), Jan Jambon (N-VA), Alexander De Croo (Open VLD), Didier Reynders (MR), plus minister of Justice Koen Geens (CD&V) and minister of Defense Steven Vandeput (N-VA)

Task? The National Security Council took over the role of the Ministerial Committee for Intelligence and Security (1996-2015). It sets up the general intelligence and security policy, coordinates and defines the priorities of the Belgian intelligence and security services. It is also responsible for the coordination of the fight against the financing of terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and for the policy of the protection of sensitive information.

The National Security Council is called together by the Belgian prime minister Charles Michel and can ask assitance from the heads of the State Security, the military intelligence service ADIV, the Federal Police, the OCAD, the Executive Committee of Home Affairs, the College of Prosecutors General and the Federal Prosecutor.

In response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, on 19 November 2015 the Belgian government announced in the Federal Parliament a set of security measures (pdf).

© Kristof Clerix


10. Strategic and Coordination Committee for Intelligence and Security

What? administrative liaison body between the National Security Council and the intelligence and security services, set up in June 2015 (replacing the College for Intelligence and Security)

Members? The heads of the State Security, ADIV, OCAD, Federal Police, Local police, Federal Public Services of Foreign Affairs, Crisis Centre, College of Prosecutors-general and the National Security Authority

Head? the security advisor of Belgian prime minister Charles Michel (MR)

Tasks? advise the National Security Council and implement its decisions in a coordinated way. It makes proposals regarding the general intelligence and security policy, the coordination of the fight against the financing of terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the policy regarding the protection of sensitive information. Also it develops action plans for any priority put forward by the National Security Council, and is responsible for the efficient collaboration and exchange of information between the intelligence and security services.

Kristof Clerix (37) works as an investigative journalist for MO*magazine and has specialised in intelligence reporting since 2004. He has written over 150 articles and two books on Belgian intelligence, and has also contributed to several academic publications on the subject. On several occasions Clerix has been interviewed by national and international media as an expert on Belgian intelligence. Clerix is also a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

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