World News

Gunman in Belgium May Have Been Radicalized in Prison, Officials Say

Posted May 30, 2018 12:37 p.m. EDT

BRUSSELS — The prison inmate on 48-hour leave who fatally shot three people and took a woman hostage at a school in Belgium may have been radicalized while in prison, and he shouted “God is great!” in Arabic during the violent rampage, officials said Wednesday.

One day after the assault in the eastern Belgian city of Liège, which further unnerved a country that was already on edge after two deadly attacks in Brussels in 2016, officials confirmed that they were investigating the case as possible terrorism but cautioned that other factors were in play.

The assailant, identified as Benjamin Herman, a 35-year-old Belgian who was shot and killed by police as they rescued the hostage, is also suspected of killing a former criminal partner Monday night, hours after the start of his temporary leave.

“There are signs that allow us to speak of radicalization in prison,” Interior Minister Jan Jambon said about the assailant’s possible motives. “But it can also be because he had no prospects anymore in our society, as he also committed a murder the night before.”

Herman had been serving a continuous series of prison sentences for theft, assault and drug offenses since 2003. He was granted the short leave, his 14th, in preparation for his planned release in two years.

“There would also be signals that he might have been drugged,” Jambon continued, “or a combination of both, it’s always like that.”

Herman may have come in contact with extremist inmates, investigators say, and converted to Islam, although no firm connections to a militant terrorist organization that might have helped or encouraged him have been established.

But some experts have noted that the method used — attacking police officers in the streets with a knife and then taking possession of their weapons to kill them — closely mimicked the Islamic State’s recent calls to action in Europe and around the world.

He was not on a terrorism watch list, nor on a list of people suspected of being at risk of radicalization. But he was cited in two reports by Belgium’s civilian intelligence service, and one by the police, on a radicalized individual with whom Herman had been in contact.

Belgian prisons are notoriously dilapidated and overcrowded, and in recent years some have become breeding grounds for extremism.

Many of the terrorists who carried out violent attacks in Europe over the past three years had served short prison sentences for drug-related offenses and other crimes, some violent. And it was often in prison that they began adopting extremist views.

Belgium has one of the highest levels of prison overcrowding in Europe, according to the 2016 Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics report, with about 120 prisoners for every 100 places available, and has drawn criticism from the European Court of Human Rights.

The woman who was taken hostage at the school, who works as a cleaner there, spoke to Belgian state radio Wednesday, identifying herself only by her first name, Darifa.

She described screaming colleagues telling her that a gunman was approaching the school, and quickly closing several doors at the main entrance. But when she turned around, she stood face to face with the assailant, who was carrying two handguns.

“Are you Muslim? Do you observe Ramadan?” he asked, according to Darifa, who answered both questions affirmatively.

“Listen, what I tell you to do, do it,” he continued. “But don’t worry, I won’t do anything to you.”

When the assailant began shooting through a window looking on the schoolyard, Darifa started screaming, she said. The gunman told her to stop, to think of her Palestinian brothers and Syrian brothers, and to cry for them, she continued.

Unfazed, he then used Darifa as a human shield when police arrived at the scene.

“I’m here to make people simmer and to be shown by the police,” he told Darifa. “I want to make them boil.”

And then, expressing a wish to die as a “martyr,” he ran outside and into a hail of police gunfire.

In addition to the terrorism investigation, Koen Geens, the justice minister, said authorities were looking into the decisions that had led to Herman’s temporary release.

“I feel responsible,” Geens, who is responsible for prisons in the country, told state news outlets Wednesday.

“Should this man have been released?” Geens asked. “In his wish to kill himself, he took three totally innocent people with him.” Belgium will keep its terrorism threat at the same level — 2 out of 4 — Jambon, the interior minister, said.

“This was an isolated case,” he said. “It was someone who was not in a network, who did not receive instructions from someone else. So there is no reason to raise the threat level, because we have no qualified information at this point that there are other acts possible.”

Thousands of people gathered Wednesday afternoon at the Tivoli Square for a moment of silence, in the presence of police officers, local officials, and — in a rare show of unity — officials from the different regions and governments of Belgium. Flags flew at half-staff across the country.