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23rd Nov 2019

Investigation

Espionage in Belgium: recent cases

  • Congolese, Colombian and Moroccan intelligence has also been at work in the EU capital (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

With Belgium's spy-catcher-in-chief, the VSSE's Alain Winants, speaking out to international media about espionage in the EU capital, TargetBRUSSELS and EUobserver profile the cases that came out in the open in recent years.

2012

During a colloquium on economic espionage in Brussels Dany Van de Ven, director of the Belgian Security and Defense Industry, reveals that two Belgian defense companies have been targeted. Information related to new technologies was stolen from their computers.

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The Belgian state security service, the VSSE, scrutinises the strategic position of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei on the Belgian market. Huawei provides Belgian phone operators Belgacom and Mobistar with hardware for their 4G network.

Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders orders a VSSE probe into allegations, first published in EUobserver, that Wael Saker, a Syrian intelligence officer posing as a diplomat in Brussels, is terrorising Syrian expats who are critical of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

2011

A group of hackers known by the two names Comment and Byzantine Candor raid emails in EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy's computer a few days ahead of an EU-China summit. They also steal emails and attachments from the EU's counter-terrorism head, Gilles de Kerchove, four of Van Rompuy's top advisors and four other EU officials dealing with trade development. China denied involvement when the hack became public one year later.

On the eve of the EU's regular spring summit, the European Commission announces it has been the victim of a sophisticated cyber attack. As a counter measure, the full staff of the commission and the European External Action Service is ordered to stop accessing its work emails from home and to change its passwords.

The VSSE applies "Special Intelligence Methods" in 193 inquiries into espionage, while the Belgian military intelligence branch, the ADIV, launches 54 inquiries. The information is cited in the 2011 Activities report of the Belgian Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee. At least seven cases are related to foreign journalists suspected of intelligence activities.

2010

In its 2010 annual report, the VSSE claims there are close links between the Kashmir Centre EU and Pakistani authorities, including the Pakistani secret services. "Vigilance is necessary to avoid interference," it warns.

Russian intelligence activities in Belgium, according to the VSSE, were focused on Euro-Atlantic defence policy, EU political decisions and EU economic policy, as well as the Russian-speaking community in Belgium.

Serbian lobby groups also attracted the attention of the VSSE because "some of their members are possibly linked to Serbian intelligence."

The VSSE launched an inquiry into the activities of the Colombian intelligence agency, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), over activities directed against "institutions and NGOs on Belgian soil." The DAS allegedly spied on the European Parliament and members of NGOs Broederlijk Delen and Oxfam Solidariteit.

2009

Canadian researchers publish Tracking Ghostnet - a report on a Chinese cyber espionage network affecting over 1,000 computers worldwide. They discovered that email traffic in Tibetan-leader-in-exile the Dalai Lama's offices in Belgium had been intercepted. The Brussels embassies of India and Malta figured on the list of targets.

"Without being aware of it, I have been spied on by a non-European country during several months," Javier Solana reveals in Spanish daily El Pais. Solana was the EU's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy. The electronic attack on Solana's correspondence could be traced to servers in South East Asia.

A confidential memorandum by Stephen Hutchins, the EU commission's director of security, leaks in German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Hutchins warns that "the threat of espionage is increasing day by day. A number of countries, information seekers, lobbyists, journalists, private agencies and other third parties are continuing to seek sensitive and classified information."

The Nato headquarters in Brussels withdraws the accreditation of two Russian diplomats accused of espionage: Viktor Kochukov, heading the political department of the Permanent Mission of Russia to Nato, and Vasily Chizhov, the son of Russia's ambassador to the European Union. The two Russians are instructed to leave Belgium.

In its annual report for 2009, the VSSE focuses on Congolese intelligence activities in Brussels. The arrival of Congolese ambassador Henri Mova in Belgium is "marked by an increased intention to control and follow the Congolese community, in particular through the secret services."

2008

In Estonia Herman Simm is arrested for treason. During 13 years, Simm was passing information to Russia. At the end of his carreer Simm headed the National Security Authority in Estonia. He had access to top secret documents exchanged between Nato member states. Simm also had security clearance for EU classified information because he took part in meetings of the Commission Security Policy Advisory Group and the Council Security Committee, two EU advisary councils on information security. Simm was later sentenced to 12 and a half years imprisonment.

The VSSE informs Belgian justice minister Jo Vandeurzen about hacking attempts against email accounts of the federal government, probably emerging from China, but clear cut evidence was missing. The attackers used social engineering - profiling people's personal details using open source information - in order to convince Belgian officials in charge of energy and European affairs to open the spiked emails which they received.

Alain Winants, head of the VSSE, asks Mohamed Yassine Mansouri, chief of the Moroccan intelligence agency DGED, to call back three of his officers from Belgium. Relations between the VSSE and the DGED deteriorate so badly that the DGED not only withdrew three officers but all of its personnel from Belgium.

2007

Eavesdropping equipment is discovered in the Brussels apartment of Gorka Elejabarrieta Diaz, a lobbyist for the Basque nationalist political party Batasuna. A microphone with a sender was hidden behind the plinth in Diaz' living room.

2006

The Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, a secret US government operation to trawl the Swift database, is revealed by several American newspapers. Based in Terhulpen near Brussels, Swift - the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication - handles financial messages between 10,000 financial institutions in 212 countries.

2005

Between 2002 and 2006 a dozen spin-off companies of Liege University, all located in the science parc of Sart-Tilman in Belgium, become the victim of remarkable burglaries. Expensive equipment in the offices of the companies is left untouched by the thieves, but hard disks containing sensitive data on clients and R&D is stolen. The companies involved are active in high-tech industries such as space and defence.

The Brussels based private intelligence company European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center (ESISC), headed by former French spy Claude Moniquet, claims that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association - a Chinese student organisation - runs an international espionage network out of Belgium.

2004

In its annual report for 2004, the VSSE writes it is following the activities of Chinese intelligence services: "The technological and scientific knowledge that China needs in order to develop often has to be taken from abroad. The Chinese secret services show a special interest for the scientific and economical potential."

The CIA informs the VSSE that an Iranian company is attempting to purchase a hot isostatic press from Belgium firm Epsi, warning it could be used for nuclear proliferation purposes. A few months later, another CIA note is sent in order to prevent the export, which eventually takes place anyway. The socalled "Epsi affair" leads to the resignation of Koen Dassen as the head of the VSSE.

2003

Phone interference in the Justus Lipsius building, the headquarters of the EU Council in Brussels, leads to the discovery of five black boxes with espionage equipment hidden in the concrete walls of the building. They were connected to telephone lines of the delegation rooms of France, Italy, Germany, the UK, Spain and Austria. The espionage equipment was discovered because a third party had manipulated one of the telephone lines linked to the black boxes in order to find out what position the EU's member states would take on the upcoming US and UK invasion of Iraq. Three months after the discovery, the Belgian Federal Prosecutor's Office launched an inquiry into the case. In 2010 it decided not to prosecute anyone. A later inquiry by the Belgian Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee raised the question of possible Israeli involvement.

Kristof Clerix is a Belgian journalist, author of books on the intelligence world and publisher of www.targetbrussels.be, a website on espionage in the heart of Europe

What is 'SECRET UE' anyway?

Classified files can damage EU interests if they get into the wrong hands. But where is the line between security and transparency? What is the difference between a lobbyist and a spy? EUobserver investigates.

About Andrew Rettman

Andrew Rettman writes about foreign relations for EUobserver. He joined the site in 2005 and specialises in Israel, Russia, the EU foreign service and security issues. He is 37 years old and was born in Warsaw, Poland.

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