How can local authorities address violent radicalisation? Meeting of the work group of the Belgian Forum for Prevention and Urban Security

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Evere, Belgium, 4 June 2014 – The work group on the prevention of violent radicalisation set up by the Belgian Forum met for a third time on 3 June in Evere, in the Brussels-Capital region.

The problem of the violent radicalisation of young people who go to Syria to fight the Jihad appeared in Belgium shortly after the start of the civil war in Syria, three years ago. Following the terrorist attack on the Jewish Museum of Brussels on 24 May, it is now a pressing issue. According to various estimates, 261 individuals left Belgium to go fight in Syria since September 2012. Compared with the number of inhabitants in Belgium, this is the highest proportion in Europe. According to the interministerial Agency for Coordination and Analysis of Threats (OCAM according to the French acronym), an average of six individuals go to Syria each month, of which 70% are Belgian nationals of various ethnic origin –Moroccan, Chechen, Turk, Syrian and Belgian. There is a growing number of members of the “Islamic State of Irak and the Middle East” (known also as ISIS/ISIL, this group linked to Al Qaeda recently conquered several large cities in Iraq), which seeks to establish an Islamic califate in Syria and Iraq, and has been sending whole families to settle there.  Radicalised and violent youngsters who leave Belgium to join such groups pose a direct threat to the security of Belgium if they decide to come back and pursue their activities. Indeed, they would come back even more radicalised and would have acquired an experience in fighting in a civil war environment but also might suffer from post traumatic stress disorders.
Given the magnitude of this phenomenon, it is a now a political priority for both the federal and local authorities. The Belgian Minister of the Interior requested that local authorities participate in the prevention of radicalisation and has set up a specific funding scheme in order to draw up programmes for the prevention of violent religious radicalisation in Vilvoorde, Brussels, Antwerp, Liege, and Mechelen.

Getting a precise overview of the situation and exchanging preliminary field practices
The work group was set up in March 2014 with the objective of allowing local authorities member of the Belgian Forum to cooperate in their prevention effort and to exchanges practices and tools. Apart from representatives of Belgian cities, it also invited representatives of the various police zones. The work group has established a general overview of the situation in the various cities and police zones and exchanged practices developed on the ground.

The objectives of the meeting on 3 June were to identify the needs of the towns and police zones regarding the training of field officers, to develop the project of an information “one stop shop” for families and youngsters, and to start working on guidelines for local authorities. It was attended by representatives of the communes of Anderlecht, Brussels, Charleroi, Evere, Liege, Molenbeek Saint-Jean, Vilvoorde, Schaerbeek, Saint-Josse, of the police zones of Brussels, Brussels North, Vesdre, Montgomery, and by managers of the police zones for of the intelligence service, directors of community police, and representatives of the Belgian and European Forums.

This meeting coincides with the fact that the Belgian government, who recently created a task force on radicalisation, considers local authorities to be key partners in the efforts to tackle this issue.

The “one-stop shop” on radicalisation would provide information on what this term means precisely, what is the issue at stake, what is the situation in Syria, and what are the consequences of going to fight the Jihad in Syria. It would be primarily targeted at the general public. The platform would also provide assistance to members of the public who have observed signs of radicalisation in their entourage and who need advice on how to react. The platform could provide information on where to get help locally and at the federal level, as well as on non governmental organisations present in Syria. It could also offer personalised psychological support.

This platform would be available online. Also, a toll free number would be available. This national helpline would function thanks to a strong local partnership, since it is at the local level that the national policy will be implemented and that personalised support can be provided.

Prevention stakeholders in need of targeted training
Prevention stakeholders themselves need to exchange and gather information. Partners have identified various categories of prevention: the general prevention of radicalisation; prevention targeted towards individuals at risk, in the process of being radicalised or who are getting ready to go fighting, and the “de-radicalisation” of jihadists after they return to Belgium.

During the meeting, partners discussed several options. One is humanitarian action. Another is to enroll youngsters who left for Syria and have come back disillusioned. Participants also suggested to enlist the help of families, and to get religious authorities on board, so they can argue on religious grounds against the assertions made by muslim extremists. Lastly, they talked about how to use the legislative and judicial framework to deter would-be jihadists and to inform about the sanctions they incur.

Many participants agreed that it would be difficult to “de-radicalise” young fighters and that it is necessary to build up a credible narrative to counter the beliefs that inspire those who want to go fight the Jihad. But there is not much knowledge in this field yet and partners agreed that they urgently need to exchange, to acquire knowledge and to develop targeted training. Training programmes could for instance include some elements of the training given to police officers as part of the Coppra Plan, as well as concrete examples and direct testimonies. Some participants emphasised that it would be necessary to adapt such training programmes to their local context and to the existing body of knowledge. Furthermore, they should be focused on muslim radicalism and should not avoid the issue by dwelving on more general issues.

Participants agreed to develop these ideas into a concrete proposal to be submitted to federal authorities, at the next meeting of the work group, which will be held in Schaerbeek.