Vilvoorde has been a pioneering actor within the Belgian municipal context with a well-recognised approach to local violent extremism related issues. Between 2012 and 2014, Vilvoorde saw 28 inhabitants leave to fight in Syria, which prompted a policy response from the city. Since the launch of their deradicalisation plan in 2014, no further citizens have left for Syria, demonstrating methodological success in addressing the underlying causes of radicalisation and the motivations of foreign terrorist fighters.
Vilvoorde formally joined the SCN in May 2016, making an active contribution to learning and expertise across the network. Mayor Hans Bonte addressed the inaugural SCN Global Summit in Antalya, Turkey, presenting on Vilvoorde’s local strategy and highlighting important shared challenges in cities all over the world.
With the highest European levels of foreign terrorist fighters travelling to the Syria/Iraq conflict, Belgium has developed its own comprehensive approach to countering violent extremism and preventing radicalisation. Both the Federal and regional governments play an important role in the strategy. Key to the Belgian strategy is ensuring good communication between the Federal, Flemish, Walloon and municipal policy levels and adapting solutions to every local context. On a Federal level, the focus is primarily security and safety measures, while the regional and local levels focus on prevention and resilience-building. To a large extent, regions and cities can therefore design their own prevention programmes to complement national policy.
In 2015, the Belgian Federal government issued 15 counter terrorism measures. One of these measures was reviewing the Belgian approach towards radicalisation, which led to an updated Plan R: the action plan against radicalism (in English). The Action Plan Against Radicalism aims to strengthen the ties between the different policy levels to maximise the sharing of information. In order to achieve this, different bodies have been set up and strengthened over recent years. Among these is the National Task Force, charged with the general management and the continuous monitoring of the Action Plan against Radicalism. There are also multiple working groups (permanent, theme-based or ad hoc) designed to gather detailed information on specific topics and pressing challenges. Additionally, Local Task Forces (LTFs) were set up in order to ensure an efficient interaction with the local level. LTFs are a platform where different national and local actors meet to share information, determine policy, and propose measures on local problems and solutions to radicalisation and extremism.
The Federal government also took measures to respond to more regional problems. For instance, the Channel Plan (“Kanaalplan”) was developed specifically for the region of Brussels and Vilvoorde. Its main goal is to strengthen the Police Departments in these cities with 1000 extra counter-terrorism police by 2019, in both frontline and administrative roles. To support this, there are plans to devolve more powers and responsibilities to the local police. 300 of the additional 1000 police will work in Brussels and the Brussels region (Molenbeek, Anderlecht, Sint-Joost, Koekelberg, Sint-Gillis, Schaarbeek and Vilvoorde).
The Flemish government’s strategy is mainly focused on prevention and awareness-raising. In 2015, the Flemish government issued the Concept note on the prevention of radicalisation processes (in Dutch). It was developed in response to the high numbers of young people leaving for Syria from the Flemish cities of Vilvoorde, Antwerp and Maaseik and is specifically tailored to the challenges these cities experience.
Also in 2015, the Action plan for the prevention of radicalisation processes that could lead to extremism and terrorism (in Dutch) was issued by the Belgian Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities (VVGS /Vereniging van Vlaamse Steden en Gemeenten), based on the concept note developed by the Flemish government. The VVGS also published a practical handbook to prevent radicalisation on a local level (in Dutch) with tips and checklists, based on a similar Dutch handbook for municipalities.
Vilvoorde has drawn frequent praise for its innovative and hands-on response to radicalisation and violent extremism. This has been led at the highest political levels with strong involvement from Mayor Bonte and his team in developing a thorough local strategy. The city has launched multiple projects to stop the flow of young men and women to Syria, and to strengthen the bond between the city’s Police Department and its young inhabitants. Vilvoorde has appointed a municipal official to overlook the city’s radicalisation policy and put in place a dedicated PVE and CVE service to implement the city’s local strategy.
Since 2013, Vilvoorde saw more than 30 of its inhabitants leave to fight in Syria and Iraq. With no prior local precedent, Mayor Bonte developed and led his own response, articulated in what has been termed ‘the plan for warmth and safety’, and become widely known as ‘the Vilvoorde method’. The plan works on three levels:
- Prevention before radicalisation;
- Resilience-building and community building;
- Information campaigns, awareness-raising;
- Capacity-building and training of youngsters, teachers, parents etc.;
- Intercultural and inter-religious dialogue.
- In cases with evidence of radicalisation, individual help is provided for radicalised youths and their environment;
- Reintegration and rehabilitation programmes for returning foreign terrorist fighters.
- Law enforcement (a joint Flemish and Federal responsibility).
Central to Vilvoorde’s approach is the PVE and CVE service of the city. Vilvoorde has appointed a dedicated municipal official to overlook the city’s radicalisation policy, while acting as the main point of contact for questions and problems regarding radicalisation. In addition to this main point of contact, the city has a team to support the implementation of the ‘the plan for warmth and safety’. This team includes:
- A full-time head of service to coordinate policy;
- A full-time prevention worker to organise training and sensitization campaigns for schools, and youth workers in the city;
- A full-time employee focusing on individual cases and coordinating the individual programs and family support;
- A half-time social worker focusing for individual casework and family support.
In addition to these city employees, the city of Vilvoorde has official partnerships with two professional local organisations, adding the following experts to the team:
- A full-time psychologist responsible for parental support, interventions and guidance in families;
- A full-time caseworker responsible for individual support of radicalised persons, based on the find/bind/mind methodology of the team.
The Police Department, schools & teachers, religious institutions, social services, and public and mental health all have roles to play in certain cases. The city also has agreements with other organisations for specific referrals to enhance collaboration with employment and welfare agencies and the centre for psychological assistance, for example. There are also several youth outreach projects in which the theme of radicalisation is being addressed, both within and outside the school environment.
Although policing policy is a Federal responsibility, the City of Vilvoorde has taken the initiative to support and improve the city’s local Police Department, including the installation of a ‘unit for local integrated security’ at the local level. This is a monthly gathering of the Mayor, the Chief Commissioner, the head of the police anti-radicalization unit and the head of service for CVE from the city. These meetings are a platform to specifically discuss the local approach on PVE and CVE and to determine which cases or set of challenges should be dealt with either by the police or the city, or in collaboration. This is to create unity of command between the ‘soft’ prevention/intervention and the responsive approach.
In addition, Vilvoorde’s Second Wave Project (in English) was launched in 2013. The project aims to start and support structural dialogue between the municipality, youths and the police to improve the relationship between youth and police. It comprises a part of the societal measures in the Vilvoorde plan. The Second Wave project was established after conversations with young people in the direct environment of others leaving for Syria. These conversations showed that young people saw the poor relationship between Vilvoorde’s youth and police as having influenced the radicalisation of their friends and acquaintances, thus highlighting the need for a better relationship between the two groups.
KEY SOURCES & FURTHER READING
Official Strategy Documents & Action Plans