Counterterrorism in Belgium: The Military as a New Player of the Public Debate

Miss Chloé Thomas

In January 2015, France was hit by multiple attacks among which the shooting against the satiric journal Charlie Hebdo and the hostage tacking in the supermarket Hyper Cacher, claimed respectively by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. As its direct neighbor, Belgium reacted by launching the Operation Vigilant Guardian (OVG), organizing the military deployment in the streets and sites considered sensitives. A few months later, following new attacks in Paris in November 2015, France proclaimed a state of emergency, due to end on the 1st November 2017. In Belgium too, security measures were reinforced as the city of Brussels announced a five-days lockdown during which schools and shops were shut down. The military presence in the street was consequently intensified and varied with the threat assessment. Armed forces are still deployed today, as the threat level is estimated at 3 out of 4, meaning that an attack is possible and likely.

Quite unusually in Belgium, the military has now become a fully-fledged actor of the public debate. Indeed, if the political discourse praises the OVG and its efficiency, at least on a symbolic level, and while a strong majority of the population favors it, the military has many times decried the human and financial costs of such a mission as well as its negative impact on the armed forces’ organization and performances.

By means of Didier Bigo’s concept of field of security professionals, the contribution will address the military’s reflexivity and its capacity to influence the public debate on counterterrorism. Through the analysis of information campaigns, the army command’s interventions in the media and face-to-face interviews with army officials, it will interrogate the military’s reading of terrorist attacks and how it differs from the political discourse. More generally, this paper will contribute to the discussions about the role of security professionals in the construction and definition of security issues and their influence on security policies.