Soldiers in the streets: necessary security or a fearful reminder?

The soldiers in the streets have become a familiar sight for the community of Brussels. The military presence serves as a safety reassurance for citizens and a deterrent for possible aggressors in the face of the continued terror threat in European cities. Belgian authorities expanded public security measures after the Charlie Hebdo and subsequent related terror attacks in Paris of January 2015. A military raid in the Wallonian city of Verviers to dismantle a terrorist cell linked to the Paris attacks marked a pivot in Belgian security services. Operation ‘Vigilant Guardian’ was established thereafter on January 16th, deploying 150 soldiers to the cities of Antwerp and Brussels. The deployment of soldiers in Belgian streets to improve public security is the first of its kind since WWII. Operation Vigilant Guardian has since expanded greatly to counter increased terror threats such as the Bataclan and French national stadium attacks in Paris in November 2015 and the coordinated Brussels airport and metro attacks of March 22nd 2016.

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More than two and a half years have passed since the launch of operation Vigilant Guardian, and yet there is no clear end in sight to the military presence in Belgium’s capital. The Belgian Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA) maintains its evaluation of the terror threat as ‘level 3’ or ‘serious’, indicating that the threat of an attack is both possible and probable, but not imminent. The threat level has not been reduced below level 3 for the entire country since the terror attacks in Paris of November 2015, whilst it was increased to level 4 for the region of Brussels in the aftermath of the Paris attacks and for the whole country during the Brussels attacks of March 22nd 2016.

The Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis’ threat levels 

  • Level 1, or low: When the person, group or event, subject to the analysis is not threatened.
  • Level 2 or moderate: When the threat to the person, group or event, subject to the analysis is unlikely.
  • Level 3 or serious: When the threat to the person, group or event, subject to the analysis is possible and likely.
  • Level 4 or very serious When the threat to the person, group or event, subject to the analysis is serious and imminent.

The Belgian military shares the assessment of the threat analysis, with defense planning expecting operation Vigilant Guardian to continue til at least the year 2020.

The tightened security has definitely made an impact on Brussels. Stabbing attacks in 2016 and 2017 did not culminate in civilian deaths, and soldiers were able to neutralize a threat involving explosives at the central train station in June this year without further casualties. Whilst the military deployment has been effective in the execution of its mandate to improve public security, concerns are raised both inside the army and the public.

Soldiers often spend three to four weeks on psychologically taxing patrolling duties, during which they miss scheduled training and other assignments. The operations under Vigilant Guardian have cost over a 100 million euros in the period of January 17th 2015 and April 18th 2017 at a time of cuts in the military budget that some perceive to restrict expenditure to either staff or equipment. The Belgian army aims to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of operation Vigilant Guardian by changing from static to mobile patrols and teaming up with police agents to enable searching capabilities. Mobile patrols, which are more in line with Belgian military practice, should allow soldiers to cover more ground with fewer soldiers, whilst police-military cooperation should complement each other’s mandates.

The terror attacks in Paris and Belgium have shaken up the city of Brussels. The city of plenty with its endless cultural events has witnessed a change in its image and mood. The soldiers in the streets are the physical embodiment of the duality of the issue at hand. Security should be omnipresent, yet through the continuation of a military presence in a civilian context, the boundaries are blurred between what is safe and what is not. The soldiers in the streets provide a necessary security, yet they form a daily reminder of the threat they protect us from.

With no definitive end in sight for the military presence in the streets of Brussels, one question remains on everyone’s mind: is this the new normal?