The hunt for renegade soldier Jürgen Conings may have ended, but the country’s quest for answers goes on
On Sunday a small-town Belgian mayor, out on a bike ride near the Dutch border, and a local hunter, did what hundreds of soldiers and police had been unable to achieve for more than a month.
They found Jürgen Conings, the army corporal who had been on the run since going AWOL from his barracks on May 17, taking with him a haul of weapons including rocket launchers, machine guns and grenades.
Conings had threatened to kill the health experts and politicians he blamed for Belgium’s Covid lockdowns, and the hunt for him has gripped the country and the continent for weeks.
He had apparently committed suicide deep in an area of woodland, called Dilserbos. The mayor and the hunter smelled him before they found him, suggesting the body had been there some time.
Conings’ death ended a harrowing period for Belgium’s best-known virologist, Marc Van Ranst, who had been singled out as the soldier’s main target. Conings is thought to have hovered around Van Ranst’s house for around two hours on the day he left his base at Leopoldsburg with his arsenal of weapons, and the scientist was moved to a safehouse with his wife and 12-year-old son.
But despite the violent threats and the terror he inspired, Conings had his supporters. While he was on the run, tens of thousands rallied online to back him, with the Facebook group “I love Jürgen Conings” gathering up to 50,000 members before being taken down. Fans organised marches, holding banners such as “Jürgen’s life matters” and “As 1 behind Jürgen”. So what does this curious story and the way it ended say about Belgium?
Conings had described himself on his Facebook profile (later taken down) as a trained sniper and he specialised in camouflage techniques. As the massive manhunt ramped up, officials were quoted as saying they may never find him.
Conings, 46, joined the army when he was 18. At the age of 19, he was sent on his first mission abroad, to the former Yugoslavia. Tours to Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan followed. In the media reporting of recent weeks little attention has been paid to the possible psychological consequences of his experiences there.
The focus was on the fact that in Afghanistan he served with Thomas Boutens, one of the leaders of the Flemish nationalist neo-Nazi group Blood, Soil, Honour and Loyalty, which has links with the British Combat 18. In 2014 Boutens was sentenced to five years in prison after plans were uncovered to kill a Flemish nationalist leader, blame Islamist terrorists and unleash civil strife.
Last year, Conings was himself arrested and interrogated by the police because of threats he made on Twitter against Van Ranst. He was released, but the incident cost him his job with the Military Police, and the security clearance that came with it, although he was not thrown out of the army. His last known job was to prepare weapons and ammunition for soldiers doing shooting practice.
Conings was a member of the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang party, which, with 25% of the vote, is the biggest in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium. The party has traditionally been anti-immigration, but during the pandemic many of its supporters have found a new target in the virologists who have advised the government on its various lockdown measures, especially Van Ranst, an outspoken character who was known to be no friend of Vlaams Belang even before the pandemic and did not feel the need to abide by political neutrality in his new, centre-stage role.
Conings also gave combat training to a fringe nationalist defence group called the Flemish Legion, the name used by volunteers fighting alongside the SS during the Second World War.
So, with all this on his record, were the Belgian authorities asleep on the job? Not entirely. In February, Conings was put on the Belgian CUTA (Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis) watchlist of potentially violent extremists. According to its latest analysis, 60% of the country’s terrorist threat is currently posed by jihadists, 30% the extreme right, and 10% the extreme left.
The intelligence services had been following Conings since last August and notified their military counterparts about the potential danger he posed. But the army didn’t act on it, giving priority instead to monitoring a soldier who was a member of a motor bike gang.
Intelligence services in Belgium – like elsewhere – have been reluctant to take the threat of home-grown terrorism seriously, not least because of the popularity of the far-right. State security has also been complaining for years about a lack of funding and personnel. The Conings debacle has galvanised ministers into action, promising a doubling of staff and an injection of cash to overhaul computer systems.
But what of the level of apparent support for Conings? While the vast majority of Belgians would certainly condemn him, many might also have experienced a mischievous, guilty pleasure in the way he managed to evade the authorities and ridiculed them. Belgians don’t like a strong government, let alone a strong army.
The sentiment has deep roots in centuries of foreign oppression of the Belgian and Flemish lands by Spanish, Austrian, French and Dutch rulers.
The Belgians – a motley crew – learned to resist, relishing the role of underdogs. It has defined the character of their national football team, for instance, until the likes of Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku came along and started to make it a world beater. While enjoying the success, they also struggle to come to terms with the notion of success.
I would characterise my countryfolk as mostly careful, well behaved, prone to quiet subterfuge but never to extravagance. The willingness to get vaccinated, for instance, is high. So far, of the 4.2 million people who have been invited to be vaccinated in Flanders, just 70,000 have refused, comprising a mere 1.66%.
In this sense, Conings’ fight with the virologists was not their fight. According to a recent survey the overall trust in the virologists is as high as 80% – compared to a 20% trust in politicians. The level of trust in the army stood in 2018 at 42%. It probably won’t have gone up.
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