Brussels is a nest of spies

by Aleksandar Nacev

Espionage and counterespionage have been essential tools of statecraft for centuries and intelligence agencies have been battling one another for decades. But what recent espionage cases suggest is that the intelligence war is escalating – that a number of countries have increased both the scope and the sophistication of their efforts not just to steal secrets from their adversaries, but also from their allies.

As a country advances economically and technologically, its spy services are keeping pace: their intelligence officers are more sophisticated, the tools at their disposal are more powerful, and they are engaged in an intensifying array of espionage operations, ranging from cyber attacks against databases, stealing trade secrets from private sector companies, using venture-capital investment to acquire sensitive technology, and targeting universities and research institutions.

By their nature, espionage wars are conducted in the shadows and hard to see clearly, and many espionage cases do not enter the public domain. Just a fraction of them see the light of a courtroom, not just because there is classified material that governments are not willing to risk, but also public shame and the additional scrutiny and criticism of the work of the intelligence agencies. Most of the cases are not charged at all and are handled through other means.

Many European capitals have been “spy centres”, such as Berlin during the Cold War, and Vienna after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nowadays, it seems that Brussels is the centre of the spy world, and apparently there is a lot of action going around the city, which is the EU’s de facto capital, and also home to NATO. For some foreign intelligence agencies, Brussels is a target because it hosts both the European Union and NATO. For others, like some African and Middle Eastern security services, the focus is on the large diasporas residing in Belgium that influence politics back home.

While spying was always a given in Brussels, as the EU’s importance grew along with the number of embassies in the city, so did the number of spies. In 2003, bugging devices were discovered in the European Council’s Justus Lipsius building, with an official Belgian inquiry later pointing the finger of suspicion at the Israeli government. In 2013, “Der Spiegel” reported that documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden indicated the U.S. had run an electronic eavesdropping operation on EU institutions in Brussels — and also bugged EU diplomatic missions in Washington and the United Nations.

2020 has begun with further news on the involvement of former EU officials who have been spying for China, and then a few months ago Belgium’s intelligence services confirmed that they have been investigating suspicions that Beijing has been spying from Malta’s embassy, which is located opposite the European commission’s headquarters in Brussels. Furthermore, European diplomats are being warned by the internal security service of the European External Action Service (EEAS) against Russian and Chinese espionage. According to this security service, there are about “250 Chinese spies and 200 Russian spies” active in Brussels.

These latest stories, including espionage coming from Brussels, just fortify the need to be vigilant and security aware, and provide just a small glimpse of the growing intelligence war that is playing out in the shadows of the struggle for global or regional dominance, and of the aggressiveness and skilfulness with which some countries are waging it.

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