Belgian State Security warns of new espionage methods
The face of espionage is changing, according to the latest annual report of the Belgian State Security. Intelligence officers are increasingly posing as journalists or NGO workers to gather information, and the recruitment of informal agents is on the rise.
With both EU institutions and Nato headquarters based in its capital, Belgium has long been a hotbed of espionage. The country's state security service is now seeing foreign intelligence services become more sophisticated in their efforts to gather information.
A sea change in international relations has prompted Russia to change tactics, explained Francisca Bostyn, administrator general of State Security, to De Standaard. For years, Russia operated with intelligence officers under diplomatic cover. "In the past two years, we have forced 60 of them to leave the country, which has dealt a serious blow to their capacity," she said.
"They no longer have diplomatic passports, but they may pretend to be journalists, NGO workers or representatives of Russian cultural associations"
But this does not mean that Russian espionage is on the wane. "We have made it harder for ourselves, because now they are starting to work under different covers," Bostyn said. "They no longer have diplomatic passports, but they may pretend to be journalists, NGO workers or representatives of Russian cultural associations."
Bostyn also sees Russia increasingly relying on informal intelligence officers. These "agents who are no longer career spies, but are here to provide information on top of their regular jobs" are harder to track.
Cyber activities and informal agents
China's intelligence operations have also undergone fundamental changes, according to the State Security report. Since the arrest of a Chinese intelligence officer in Belgium in 2018, the country has become much more cautious.
"The goal of Russia and China is to maintain their own systems and weaken others"
To avoid risks, China is now focusing on cyber activities, using cover or recruiting informal agents. The recently exposed recruitment of far-right politician Frank Creyelman is a "perfect illustration" of the latter, reads the report.
"The goal of Russia and China is to maintain their own systems and weaken others," Bostyn told De Standaard. "We cannot allow a foreign power to undermine the Belgian state. Any attempt to do so deserves our attention, regardless of whether their target is a small shrimp or not".
In addition to systemic actors such as Russia and China, Belgium's State Security also sees espionage efforts by non-systemic actors. These are countries that are not hostile to Western society, but engage in intelligence activities around specific issues of interest to the country. One example is the Qatargate scandal, which rocked the European Parliament at the end of 2022.
With only around 1,000 employees, Belgium's State Security is a relatively small service for a country that is so often in the crosshairs of foreign intelligence services. But that does not mean that foreign spies can have their way in Belgium, argues Bostyn.
"Whether it is Chinese interference, the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers or interference in the European Parliament, I think these cases show that other countries do not have a free hand here," she said.
A man walks on a footbridge at the NATO headquarters in Brussels © Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP