Belgium pledges security crackdown on Islamist violence

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel pledged a security crackdown and an extra 400 million euros ($427 million) to fight Islamist violence on Thursday, while rejecting criticism of Belgium’s security services in the wake of the Paris attacks.


Michel told parliament that the government would introduce laws to jail jihadists returning from Syria, ban hate preachers and close down unregistered places of worship in response to last week’s attacks.

French President Francois Hollande said the coordinated suicide bombings and shootings that killed at least 129 people had been planned in Belgium. French media quoted an intelligence source as saying: “The Belgians just aren’t up to it.”

Michel stopped short of acknowledging the attacks had been organized from Belgium, blaming “Franco-Belgian cells”.

“Also I don’t accept the criticism seeking to disparage our security services, who do a difficult and tough job,” Michel said, adding that French raids on Wednesday in the Paris suburb of St Denis were the result of a tip-off from Belgium.

The prime minister said Belgium would amend laws to convict or expel hate preachers and close unrecognized and clandestine mosques and Islamic cultural centers.

Analysts often point to Belgian group Sharia4Belgium, able to speak out in public for years until the country’s largest terror trial starting in 2014 resulted in conviction of its members for recruiting fighters to go to Syria.

“Religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution but places of worship cannot become places to spread jihadism,” Michel said.

He said the government would also make it impossible to buy mobile phone cards anonymously and would allow police to carry out house searches at any time of the day or night. These are currently only allowed between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m.

The poor Brussels district of Molenbeek has been at the center of investigations into last week’s attacks in Paris after it emerged that at least two of the attackers had been living there.

As he spoke, Belgian police were carrying fresh raids in Molenbeek and elsewhere in Brussels related to the Paris attacks, prosecutors said.

Ahead of an emergency meeting of justice and interior ministers in Brussels on Friday, Michel said it was vital for the European Union to reinforce its external borders.

France is set to call for the rapid adoption of an EU database of airline passengers – long-stalled in the European Parliament due to privacy concerns.

Michel said Belgium was looking at introducing registers of passenger names flying or taking high-speed trains into and out of the country.

Belgium would support French military efforts by sending a vessel to escort French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.

Michel also said he had spoken to British Prime Minister David Cameron and suggested an exchange of intelligence information.