Wednesday, May 30, 2018

30-May-18: In Belgium, another murderous "lone-wolf" attack by a criminal already on the police watch list

Soraya Belkacemi, left, and Lucille Garcia, right,
the two police officers murdered in the attack [Image Source]
In Belgium, a pointless act of terror inspired by one man's religious fervor resulted in the deaths on Tuesday of several innocents and some questions that don't seem likely to be properly answered quickly.

The basic facts as gleaned from Irish Times and Standard UK:
  • Benjamin Herman, a Belgian man of 36 described in reports as a petty criminal and drug dealer who was serving time in prison, was let out Monday on what some reports have called a day-release for "family leave". (Reuters calls it a two-day pass.) One source says he "was due to travel back to his home town of Rochfort, just 40 miles from Liege". But didn't.
  • Instead he attacked two police officers, women of 45 and 53, from behind about at about 10.30am on a lovely late spring morning on a pleasant boulevard in the centre of Liege, Belgium’s third city. Those two victims are Soraya Belkacemi, 53, and Lucille Garcia, 45. Their work involved checking parking meters. Soraya Belkacemi was the mother of 13-year-old twin daughters who earlier lost their father, also a police officer, and are now tragically orphaned of both parents.
  • First slashing their throats from behind, he then stabbed them both and succeeded in seizing their handguns. (Evidently parking meter officers carry guns in Belgium.)
  • A young man sitting in a car nearby was his next victim: he shot him dead too. He is Cyril Vangriecken, 22.
  • The armed attacker then rushed into a high school building about 100 meters away and took two female employees hostage; one of them was a cleaner. He used her as a human shield in the subsequent confrontation with armed authorities. (He also, it is reported, "spared the life of the high school janitor he took hostage because she is Muslim, according to the woman, who was hailed Wednesday for her courage as she faced off with the madman.")
  • Police were called. The school's children were evacuated as a gun battle erupted in which the prisoner managed to wound four of the police officers before they shot him dead.
  • La Libre Belgique newspaper quoting police source says the Moslem attacker shouted “Allahu Akbar” – “God is greatest” in Arabic. Irish Times says Beaupère declined to comment when asked about that.
  • According to De Standaard, a Flemish-language newspaper in Belgium, police suspect he also carried out the murder a day earlier of "a criminal associate whose body was found south of Liege".
  • So is he a terrorist? The authorities are being cagey. "Prime Minister Charles Michel says Herman was indirectly mentioned in state security reports on radicalization, but did not have his name on a list maintained by an anti-terror assessment group" according to USNews.
Cyril Vangriecken, 22, shot dead while sitting in a parked car
[Image Source]
Some questions that come to mind:
  • According to state broadcaster RTBF Herman, who was born in 1982, had a criminal record that included a number of convictions for theft, assault and drugs offences.
  • A Belgian politician, Georges Dallemagne, quoted by Irish Times, said Herman was already on a police watch-list arising from his radicalization in jail and his conversion there to Islam. So why was he freed unsupervised? How realistic was it that he would peacefully come back to his prison cell?
  • There's more disturbing background according to one newspaper source. He "had been jailed numerous times"; he "appeared in national security documents"; he was "extremely violent" according to prison officers. Does this amount to a profile? Does it trigger any defensive measures on behalf of society?
  • Liege police chief Christian Beaupère told a news conference “The goal of the assassin was to target the police”. Is this based on something they knew ahead of time? Were precautions taken? Did the two murdered officers know he was nearby? And is that a full and complete statement of the motivation for this cowardly, worthless explosion of lethal violence?
  • The police chief was asked to confirm that the killer shouted “Allahu Akbar” in the course of his moments in the sun. M. Beaupère declined to comment on the question.
  • These are not the first murders of innocents carried out by petty criminals inspired to Islamist violence while incarcerated. 
  • Reuters: "The national crisis centre, on high alert since attacks by Islamic State in Paris and Brussels in recent years, said it had not raised its alert level – an indication the man was acting alone and follow-up attacks were not expected." So does Belgium have a strategy for dealing with lone-wolf attacks? They're not entirely mysterious, after all - they have some glaring factors in common. Do the authorities know this? No one ought to subscribe to the view that all members of any specific faith community are plotting to murder people, but are there any patterns worth taking into account when safe-guarding cities and populations?
  • The politician Georges Dallemagne, who evidently [Irish Times] sits on several Belgian parliamentary security committees, tweeted: “The supervision of radicalised prisoners remains tragically flawed.” How concerned are Belgians to change that dangerous state of affairs?
After the murders [Image Source]
The phenomenon of the lone wolf is not a new one [click for past "Lone Wolf" posts of ours] and no more mysterious than any other aspect of criminology. Too often, public officials seem to use the term after criminal attacks have thrust them into the news by implying that if it's a "lone wolf" attack, what do you want from us? And if radicalization - to use the polite and somewhat vague term that most of the news industry does - is a factor, why aren't there more indications in the media of what's being done to identify individuals who have undergone it? 

Which is more problematic: avoiding any public discussion of it? Or burying its victims and comforting their families?

And let's agree that Belgium, with its vast problems involving terror and lone wolves acting individually as well as in large, well-organized packs, is only slightly different from most of Europe. And not only Europe.

UPDATE Wednesday May 30, 2018 at 11:00 pm: According to this report, ISIS, the Islamic State terror group today claimed one of its “soldiers” carried out the murder of the two policewomen and a student in Liege, quoting the jihadists' Amaq propaganda agency. “The author of the attack on the city of Liege in Belgium is a soldier of the Islamic State,” IS said in a statement published on Amaq’s Telegram account a day after the attack. It said “he led the attack in response to calls to target the countries of the US-led international coalition” which is fighting the jihadist group mainly in Syria.

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