Belgian spy agencies say radical groups trying to exploit COVID-19 to sow chaos

VSSE GISS BelgiumThe two main intelligence agencies of Belgium have published a declassified report in which they warn that domestic groups on the far left and far right of the political spectrum are using the COVID-19 pandemic to destabilize society. Among other things, these groups are spreading disinformation in order to incite violence and spread disillusionment with the Belgian authorities’ response to the coronavirus, according to the report.

The report (pdf) was published on Wednesday on the website of the State Security Service (VSSE), Belgium’s primary civilian intelligence agency. The agency said it co-authored the report with the General Intelligence and Security Service (GISS), which is the main military intelligence service of Belgium. The document warns that political extremists are spreading disinformation —some of it produced and distributed online by foreign intelligence agencies— that propagates unfounded conspiracy theories. The disinformation is designed to turn groups of people against each other, undermine the state and spread hatred against medical experts.

Among the most active distributors of disinformation is the Brussels page of the worldwide anarchist website Indymedia, says the report. Earlier this month, posts on the page urged Belgians to commit acts of violence targeting police officers, and to sabotage infrastructure such as telecommunications, which can disrupt the work of first responders and other emergency workers. Posts on the page also urged readers to act quickly “while law enforcement is busy” with the pandemic.

Groups from the far-right are also active in spreading race-themed disinformation online, according to the VSSE/GISS report. For example, a white nationalist group calling itself the Knights of Flanders has been promoting conspiracy theories that connect COVID-19 with flu vaccines. Other groups have posted information claiming that Muslims have been instructed by religious figures to “cough in the faces of infidels”. Some far-right groups are claiming that personal protective equipment is deliberately being made scarce as part of a secret government plan to intimidate the population and exterminate elderly people.

Finally, a small number of —mostly far-right— groups is spreading messages that criticize Western responses to the coronavirus pandemic and praise the Russian government’s efforts to combat the disease. Among them is a new organization known as “Squadra Europa”, which has branches in several European countries, including Belgium, said the report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 April 2020 | Permalink

Belgian university shuts down Chinese-funded institute due to espionage claims

Xinning SongOne of Belgium’s leading universities has decided to shut down a research institute funded by the Chinese government, after the Belgian intelligence service accused its director of spying on behalf of Beijing. The news was announced on Wednesday by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), one of Belgium’s leading higher-education institutions. The Confucius Institute has been operated at VUB since 2006. But the university’s board of directors now says that it will not be renewing its contact with the Institute in 2020.

The Confucius Institute at VUB is one of more than 500 such research bodies that the government of China has funded around the world since 2004. Their mission is to promote the language and culture of China to the world. However, numerous academic institutions in Japan, Canada, and a number of European countries, have recently shut down Confucius Institute branches, following allegations that their staff members carried out espionage tasks, or tried to stifle academic research critical of China. In Europe alone, the University of Lyon in France, Stockholm University in Sweden, and Holland’s University of Leiden have all recently terminated their cooperation with the Confucius Institute.

In October of this year, Belgium’s State Security Service (VSSE) concluded that the VUB Confucius Institute director, Dr. Song Xinning, carried out espionage tasks on behalf of the Chinese government. As a result, the Belgian government refused to renew the work visa of Dr. Song, who had lived in Belgium for over a decade. Additionally, the Chinese academic was barred from entering the European Union’s Schengen Area —which comprises 26 European countries— for eight years.

Dr. Song alleges that his work visa was revoked after he refused to cooperate with an American diplomat stationed in Brussels. He also denies that he was ever in the service of Chinese intelligence or the Chinese state. But the VUB appears to have sided with the Belgian government in this dispute. The university annulled its contract with Dr. Song and, as of January, will be terminating its relationship with the Confucius Institute. In a press statement published online, VUB Rector Caroline Pauwels said that the work of the Confucius Institute did not meet the “current policy objectives” of the university.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 12 December 2019 | Permalink