Conjure up a list of cities considered world capitals of espionage. Those featured in movies and television, with their romantic atmosphere and scenery, include Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, London, Cairo, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, Bangkok, and Saigon.
Not to ignore the less romantic but important cities of Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, DC.
By comparison, Brussels seems overlooked by spy novelists and film directors, but its unusual concentration of diplomatic missions to the European Union, NATO, and to Belgium itself brings a high ratio per square kilometer of diplomats and lobbyists—as well as spies. “Washington and Brussels compete for the largest number of embassies and other representations on earth” remarked an ICT (information and communications technology) executive close to the Belgian authorities. He added that the spy agencies of numerous countries, including America, Russia, and China “do whatever they want here; there are so many [espionage] issues going on that Belgian authorities don’t know where to start.”
His view was not contradicted by other Belgians in the private sector and in government, including the police, who requested anonymity when interviewed in July, commenting only on background. Another frustrated business person asked, in relation to China’s efforts, “When will we wake up?”
The observation that Brussels is teeming with foreign agents is not new: several stories appeared during 2018 and 2019, with Politico calling the city a “prime target for spooks,” and Bloomberg, calling it a “gateway for China.” A September, 2019 article in the German daily Die Welt quoted EU sources saying that the streets of Brussels were swarmed by at least 250 Chinese and 200 Russian operatives. According to Die Welt, the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Union intelligence arm, warned EU officials to avoid certain restaurants and bars in the “EU District.” Supposedly the lunchtime crowds include Chinese agents trying to listen in on conversations at adjoining tables.
“The Belgians are frankly overwhelmed,” said Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6), now the senior advisor for Cyber Security and China at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “They have neither the resources nor the political backing they need to deal with a challenge on this scale.”
Though this problem has been under discussion for years, it seems to be getting worse because there is little action by Belgian policy makers.
One problem, said the ICT executive, is political inertia in Belgium, a country long mired in existential crisis between its Flemish- and French-speaking halves. Due in part to this fragmented political scene, it can take months to assemble a government in Belgium’s parliamentary system after the votes are counted: the most recent example is a 400-day lag between the May, 2019 election and the seating of a government in September the following year. “During this sort of standstill security is not a topic (and) we lack a security mindset in general,” the executive added. “There is insufficient organization and fragmented decision making.”
“The power of China is much more than those who are running around here” said another ICT executive. He pointed out that equipment from Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE is still being used in all three major Belgian mobile telephone networks. From an engineering perspective, he opined that the software in telecom switches and other equipment is almost certainly updated remotely with new releases from China. “That means the network could be shut down at will,” disabling communications for the EU, NATO, SHAPE, and Belgian authorities during an emergency. And with frequent software updates being a normal part of operations, “it is virtually impossible to monitor each of them up to the last feature.” [SHAPE, which stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, is a NATO command with its own building in Brussels.]
The effect of unreliable communications was painfully demonstrated during the March 2016 terrorist bombings in Brussels, when mobile networks became basically unusable for several hours—including the national emergency network—leaving first responders virtually in the dark. “Belgian policy is merely declarative,” added this ICT executive, “based on all the more studies and promises, but no implementation.” This begs the question, how real is the risk that EU and NATO will be unable to communicate during a crisis if telecommunications are crippled or lost.
The specter of foreign interference with Belgium’s infrastructure was underlined this week when a foreign hack against the prime minister’s office was exposed. The affected equipment housed there serves not only the PM’s chancellery, but also the federal and local police forces, whose officers lost access to their data either briefly or for extended periods.
Belgian cybersecurity officials were uncertain of the origin. Though the sophistication of the hack suggested a major power, “the truth is we don’t know. The investigation has just begun,” said Michel Rignanese of Belgium’s Center for Cybersecurity.
A Belgian executive, speaking confidentially, expressed the similiar uncertainty about about solar modules imported from China—which make up an increasing share of the Belgian power grid that supplies Brussels. He opined that embedded semiconductors could in theory be used from afar to shut off or significantly reduce power to Brussels if desired by the manufacturer during a dispute between NATO and a hostile power.
Ralph Ahlgren, the President and CTO of the Silicon Valley solar company Soleeva, confirmed manipulation of solar technology is a technically feasible. “Megawatt-scale solar installations should always be carefully examined” to measure the risk that “backdoor channels could be used to disable or disrupt” a power network, Ahlgren said, adding that a large percentage of solar inverters used in utilities could be vulnerable in this way, with semiconductors that have a secret purpose. “For that reason, we don’t use products sourced entirely from China.”
“In Belgium there is no safety and security culture,” stated Dr. Kenneth Lasoen, a Belgian Research Fellow specializing in intelligence and defense at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “The Americans do urge the Belgians to rectify the security situation from time to time,” in particular after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which were planned and executed from Belgium. “But then, nothing happens.”
Unfortunately, American counterintelligence training for its personnel in Brussels may not be as robust as one would expect in this target-rich environment: besides the EU and NATO, there is also SHAPE. One experienced American service member commented that they had received no security training since arrival months before, and was surprised to hear that EEAS warned of spies listening in at certain eateries. “It does seem like the Americans may need additional OPSEC training for this environment,” observed Dr. Lasoen.
The Belgian National Security Strategy of 2021 signaled the intent to make the nation a “hostile environment for espionage,” added Lasoen, “but if we also came down hard on the Americans, they might retaliate.”
Another ICT executive also wondered if Washington itself might be behind the lack of action in Brussels. “Why do the Americans let this continue? Are they part of it? Do they actually benefit from it?”
By contrast, in neighboring Holland the Americans “don’t do anything …without notifying Dutch authorities,” said Lasoen, whose work has brought him into regular contact with both Dutch and Belgian intelligence. “Dutch counterintelligence is sufficiently performative to catch operations on their soil.”
For its own reasons, Washington may not have chosen to cultivate such a close relationship with Brussels—perhaps because of the plethora of agencies on the Belgian side and the difficult political culture of a small divided country.
Belgium has had it successes, such as the 2016 arrest of militants linked to the 2015 Paris attacks and more recent operations against European drug traffickers. But perhaps its most revealing success was, in retrospect, a stress test for its government: the April 2018 arrest and instantaneous extradition to the U.S. of Xu Yanjun.
Xu is the Chinese Ministry of State Security officer arrested in Brussels during his hitherto successful operation to steal jet engine technology from various sources including General Electric. Xu took one operational risk too many and was nabbed in Brussels, noted an experienced expert on the MSS, based in the U.S..
In spite of Xu’s unprecedented arrest in a Western capital, Beijing made little fuss over his case, with a few statements in English but seemingly none in state-approved Chinese language media. A web search on the Chinese characters for Xu Yanjun, the Ministry of State Security, and Belgium (徐延军, 国安, 比利时) reveals zero coverage in mainland China’s media of Xu’s extradition to America, presumably to avoid a loss of face amongst the Chinese populace. By contrast, at the time there was wall-to-wall coverage, mug shots and all, from non-communist Chinese language sources outside of the PRC.
The low-key response contrasted sharply with Beijing’s apoplectic reaction in December that same year to the detention in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei, which led the Chinese Communist Party to
It may seem odd that Beijing chose not to punish Belgium over Xu’s arrest as they did with Canada over Ms. Meng’s detention. But with an apparently robust and valuable Chinese espionage network on Belgian soil–that may have attracted the Xu operation in the first place–Beijing might logically have decided that squeezing Brussels too hard might instigate counterintelligence action spoiling the favorable, laisse faire espionage environment there.
More than one Belgian wondered if Washington has made the same calculation: that intelligence collection in Belgium is more important than helping improve the counterintelligence capabilities of an ally. Whether or not this is true, without a significant change of minds in several capitals, including Washington, it seems that Brussels, packed with assets vital to the West, will continue to be a city “pwned” by hostile spies for the foreseeable future.