GERAARDSBERGEN, Belgium—The rising threat of well-armed Islamic terrorists in Europe is forcing police forces here to consider adopting American-style tactics in a mass-shooting scenario.
Belgian law enforcement has long focused on the judicious use of force, using nonlethal rounds to disable fleeing suspects like Salah Abdeslam, an accused assailant in the Paris attacks who was shot in the leg during a house raid in March. Shooting in such scenarios wasn’t meant to kill suspects, according to Belgian officials.
Police forces are now working with U.S. law enforcement to draw on lessons painfully learned in America, where officers are trained to enter quickly—with whatever they have on hand—to take down a shooter as quickly as possible.
“It is a whole new ballgame for the Belgian police,” said Geert Luypaert, the chief of police in the town of Heusden-Zolder. “There are not a lot of guns here. But the bad people always get the guns, so we need to teach our people.”
Federal Bureau of Investigation trainers recently held a series of exercises with Belgian police designed to hone their expertise at stopping active shooters. U.S. officials hope they can expand the program to other European countries, as part of a stepped-up effort to exchange counterterrorism techniques between U.S. and European officials. European and U.S. experts on explosives met separately in Brussels recently to discuss techniques to detect bombs and improvised explosives.
In an empty high school here, a group of Belgian police officers moved down the hallway, two facing forward, one to the rear. An FBI trainer shouted “threat rear, threat rear”; the officers spun around, aiming their blue, plastic replica pistols down the hallway.
The FBI trainers said the shooting and bomb attack at Bataclan in Paris in November, in which 90 people died, showed that terrorists loyal to Islamic State would continue to shoot victims until they were killed. The trainers emphasized bringing as much firepower as possible, as quickly as possible, against an assailant shooting people.
“The fight has come to you…the question is, are you ready?” one FBI trainer told the classroom. “In Paris, in the Bataclan, they were going to continue killing people until they got stopped. Who is going to stop them? We are.”
Gib Wilson, the FBI’s attaché in Belgium, said the program is meant to help both countries develop better approaches to active shooters. “We all know that it is a very scary crime problem, something that is increasing in number,” he said. “The FBI is just sharing its information with the Belgians and vice versa.”
Belgium is a fractured country, with multiple police forces in the capital of Brussels, overlapping jurisdiction between federal and local police, and poor coordination between French- and Dutch-speaking regions.
Members of Belgium’s Federal Parliament, in their examination of the March terror attacks that killed 32 people, have faulted the lack of coordination and argued the existence of 20 different police databases has contributed to intelligence failures. FBI trainers said their program is specifically designed to allow different forces with varying training to work together instantly.
Brice De Ruyver, a criminology professor at Ghent University in Belgium, said many Belgian cities have built up their special-tactics units to better prepare for terror attacks or other mass shootings. But getting training from the FBI is a good idea, he said.
“You need to search for the expertise where you can find it, and in that sense I am absolutely convinced forces can learn from each other,” he said. “It is in line with the internationalization of the threats.”
Some of the 20-or-so Belgian officers attending the course said the terror threats in Belgium now more closely resemble mass shootings in the U.S.
“In the United States, they have far more experience with attacks with a higher caliber of firearms,” said Vico Cockx, a superintendent with the Brussels airport police. “Before we had shootouts with someone who had small amounts of ammunition. Now, we are seeing another level in Europe.”
Human-rights groups in Belgium said there are mandatory legal reviews whenever a police officer uses firearms in the line of duty, requirements that so far have helped ensure authorities are careful when they deploy maximum firepower.
The training doesn’t mean Belgium is going to give up its emphasis on the restrained use of force and on bringing suspects in alive, said Jurgen De Landsheer, chief of police in Geraardsbergen who helped organize the training session. But he said they must adapt to the reality that the mass shootings more common in America are now coming to Belgium.
“This is not a different world. We have the same problem,” he said. “It is not that we need completely new things, but other ways of thinking.”