Catherine De Bolle has served as Europol's Executive Director since May 2018. She previously served as Commissioner General of the Belgian Federal Police between March 2012 and April 2018. Between June 2015 and April 2018, she also served as the President of Belgium's Coordination Committee for Intelligence and Security. Between 2001 and 2012, De Bolle served as the chief of the local police of the Belgian city of Ninove. Since November 2015, she has been a member of the Executive Committee of Interpol. In October 2017, De Bolle was the recipient of France's highest civilian honor--Officier de l' Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur.
CTC: Between 2012 and 2018, you were the Commissioner General of the Belgian Federal Police. During this time, Belgium faced one of the biggest terrorist threats faced by any country because of the presence of jihadi networks on Belgian soil and the significant numbers of jihadi extremists traveling from the country to fight in Syria and Iraq. What were the lessons learned in confronting those challenges?
De Bolle: For us, the period of intense operations started in the [Belgian town of] Verviers, where in early 2015 we disrupted a terrorist cell. Due to that investigative file, we had more insight into what was going on. And then we had the terrorist attacks in Brussels in March 2016. The lessons learned for us after that terrorist attack was that cooperation is key. You have to cooperate with all the services involved in your own country but also on the European and the international level. Terrorism is a transnational challenge. Jihadi terrorists have traveled across borders, and they've created transnational links as evidenced, for example, by the French- and English-speaking communities of IS [Islamic State] fighters in Syria. Information exchange is therefore key. You have to be prepared for the unpredictable because nobody predicted what we saw play out in Belgium nor the huge impact it would have. Another lesson learned was that in law enforcement it's very important to have a clear view on what is going on with regard to extremists' use of social media, and there needs to be investment in creating capability in this regard.
Our experiences in Belgium made it clear the importance of efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism. We were able to establish a bottom-up, cascading approach from the local communities to the national level to detect and deal with radicalization. All this involved important debates about the most effective way of going about this. What could be done on the local level by Belgium's mayors? What was the responsibility of schools and social services. How could the efforts of local bodies, national bodies, and the intelligence services be coordinated?
In Belgium, we now have the local task forces and the national task forces where all the security services, intelligence services, political-level social services come together to discuss the way forward and the best approach.
And for all involved, the key priority is preventing terrorist attacks. At the national level, after some time, we were able to get a good overview of the threat landscape. Carrying out risk assessments of those posing the greatest threat and then following up was vital.
A very big game changer and lesson learned in police practice and police habits in Belgium during this period was our deployment of special units in cases of terrorism. Organized crime groups were afraid of our special units because they were well trained and equipped and performed very well. What we saw with the jihadi terrorists is that they were not afraid of losing their lives. So when you called the special units to enter a building, they blew themselves up. We saw that in the Saint-Denis raid shortly after the November
(2015) Paris attacks when police officers were injured in the shootout between French special units and jihadist terrorists, and we saw it during the manhunt for Salah Abdeslam in Belgium. This was a new threat we had not faced before, and it created quite a lot of shock. Our people got injured. So you have to change the tactics. You have to change the police training program. And for the special units, it was also a big game changer.
CTC: Given the scale of the counterterrorism challenge faced by Belgium, particularly in the period before and after the March
(2016) Brussels attacks, and given the fact that Belgium is only a small country with limited resources compared to larger countries, there were very significant strains placed on Belgian police with long hours and a great deal of stress. What did you come to learn was essential to motivate and get the best out your organization?
De Bolle: We found it was important for our police force to be able to speak about their experiences. So you really have to invest in psychologists to support them. You have to get rid of the attitude of "I am a police officer. I am strong. I hide my feelings." You have to talk about it. When you have people who are injured in your own organization, you have to do everything for them so they are supported. What was a big game changer for us, too, was that as a police force, we were used to being an open house. You didn't have to call or make an appointment to come to see us. But we then had to close our buildings because we were under threat, too. This meant that not only did we have to work to prevent more attacks and arrest those involved in terrorism and make sure we had strong cases to bring to court to secure convictions, but we also had to be sure that our own people were protected and felt safe in the police environment because without them, we wouldn't have had the resources anymore to tackle and to disrupt further attacks. When we had the [March 2016 Brussels] attacks, it was a blow to the morale of the people working in the counterterrorist unit. They felt that they failed. And that made it even more important to talk to them and to motivate them to continue.
So every morning, I was there for the general briefing. Every morning, we went over all the suspects we had to deal with that day. The full spectrum of our people working on counterterrorism needed to be very involved in those discussions. We also had the support of our Ministers of Justice and Interior, our Prime Minister, who often came by to visit. We even had the King stopping by. These were very small things which helped the morale of people working as hard as they could to protect the public. You have to recognize you work with people, and when you work with people, you also...