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Belgium | Mixed reports of possible terrorist activity

Belgium | Mixed reports of possible terrorist activity

Police in Brussels have said that a vehicle carrying gas canisters, which they stopped on 2 March, was not rigged as an explosive device.

 They have since released the driver, but it is unclear whether they are confident that he was not carrying the gas canisters in preparation for a later attack. The driver was reportedly given a suspended jail sentence last year for having previously travelled to Syria to join Islamic State.

The incident occurred close to the Porte de Hal in central Brussels. The army’s explosives removal team deployed to investigate the vehicle, but found no detonator alongside the two gas canisters. Some reports in the local media said that one of the canisters may also have been empty. And the driver has told police that the canisters were for ‘domestic use’. But the driver’s background in Syria, his terrorism conviction, and that his vehicle had fake number plates, led the police to start a more thorough investigation.

More generally, we assess that there is a severe threat of terrorism in Belgium. This means that an attack is highly likely. Belgium does not often feature in propaganda and threats from groups such as IS or Al-Qaeda however. Other European countries such as France, Germany and to a lesser extent the UK are more commonly the focus for these groups’ messaging. The last time IS mentioned Belgium was in issue 14 of its Dabiq magazine released in April 2016, and briefly in a video last December in which IS summarised the attacks it claimed in Europe in 2016.

There are other signs that lead us to assess that attacks in Belgium are likely though. The country has the largest number of foreign fighters per capita among European states, a poor history of integration of communities from immigrant backgrounds, and relatively weak controls of firearms. And in several of the attacks, foiled plots and arrests in Western Europe in the past two years, police have found links to extremists based in Belgium.

For now it appears that Belgium is primarily an operational hub, with mounting attacks elsewhere, particularly France, being a priority over attacks in Belgium. This was even the case with the most high-profile attacks in the country to date, which occurred in Brussels on 22 March 2016. The perpetrators had initially intended to mount the attacks in France, but changed their plans after the authorities got closer to detaining them and foiling the plot.

Separately, reports have been circulating in the media that an ‘IS affiliate’ has released a video showing the central train station in Antwerp. These reports are misleading, and it appears that a sympathiser made the video. It has received very little attention among IS supporters online. But probably in part because mentions of Belgium are relatively rare in jihadist messaging, the video attracted some media coverage in Belgium and abroad last week.

The authorities reportedly sent additional security forces to the station after the video was uploaded as a precautionary measure. But media reporting of the video has been inaccurate, and potentially exaggerates the implications for the threat in Belgium. The video is not from an official IS channel on Telegram, but instead was probably uploaded to a small pro-IS Telegram channel. And more popular pro-IS channels have not picked up on it.

It is unclear who made the video, but it is of poor quality, appears to have been filmed on a mobile phone, and has no official IS branding on it. It briefly shows an IS flag drawn and the text ‘WE ARE STILL HERE’ on a scrap of paper. It then shows the outside of the train station and the person filming then walks inside. Such videos do indicate a general intent to target these types of locations, and as we have frequently reported, crowded public spaces like transport hubs are probable targets for attacks. But by themselves, videos are far from being a sign of a credible threat. And in this case, there is nothing to suggest that the station is a target for IS, or that sympathisers who might be intent on targeting it have the capability to do so.

Image: The vehicle driven by a terrorist suspect in Brussels on 2 March 2016; LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ/Belga/PA Images

Published: 8th March 2017
Categories: Company News