Belgian prosecuters say an inmate who killed four people while out of prison on furlough committed a “terrorist murder’ and likely intended to cause more harm.
The attack, which took place on May 29th in the industrial town of Liege, left four people dead. Two police officers were stabbed and the suspect used their firearms to kill the wounded officers. A bystander was also shot during the attack. A fourth person was shot and killed away from the scene of the initial attack.
The suspect, who has been identified as Benjamin Herman (31), is now at the centre of a terrorism investigation as police officers look for a link to the extremist group ISIS. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying Herman was a "soldier of the caliphate," in a brief statement on the site of its Aamaq news agency. The wording is typical of the extremist group, which has a history of claiming responsibility for attacks that were not connected to it. Belgian
authorities have not yet confirmed a link between Herman and the group, but investigators are searching for any possible accomplices in the attack.
Interior Minister Jan Jambon has noted that Herman is a Belgian national who was known to local authorities for being a repeat offender who dabbled in petty crime and drugs. He has spent most of his time in prison since 2003 and was out on a two-day leave when he launched his attack. The attack finally halted when responding police officers shot and killed Herman.
According to The Associated Press, officials believe the death toll from the attack could have been much higher had it not been for the bravery of a bar owner and a cleaning lady. Herman launched his attack on the police officers by first stabbing them from behind. Then, as the two lay wounded on the ground, he removed their service pistols and shot both officers. The café owner quickly removed patrons from his establishment and ensured they were out of sight as the gunman went in and out of the café. Herman then crossed the road and shot another person who was a passenger in a car. Following this, Herman then took a cleaning woman hostage at a nearby school. Imaankaf Darifa, the hostage, told The Associated Press she tried to keep him away from the children. "I told him, 'You are in a school here, you cannot come in a school, it is not right what you are doing,' Darifa recalled. Darifa said Herman then asked if she was Muslim and if she was observing the holy month of Ramadan. When she answered in the affirmative he released her, saying he would not harm her. Herman then told her to ask the police officers outside to leave. When they refused, he first threw his identity card outside before he also walked out. Darifa said, "He walked out and I left. Then there was the guns and they killed him."
Prime Minister Charles Michel and King Philippe visited her in hospital, where she was being treated for shock. The Belgian population has also been in shock following the attack. In the wake of an attack on the country’s airport and subway system that left 32 people dead in 2016, police and the military have worked overtime to ensure the public’s safety.
The slain police officers have been identified as Soraya Belkacemi (44) and Lucile Garcia (54). The passenger in the car who was shot was identified as Cyril Vangriecken (22), who was studying to become a primary school teacher.
In Liege, Belkacemi's mother, Bernadette Hennart, kissed a necklace and laid it over flowers placed at the scene. She said it was important for her and the victim’s brother to be able to visit the site where her daughter spent her final moments alive. Flags on public buildings were flown at half-mast across the city and people gathered to sign a book of condolences and to lay flowers in memory of the victims. "Every morning I am scared that something like this will happen, and every day it happens closer to home," Melissa Lamny said after wrapping flowers around a lamppost at the scene of the killings.
Belgian federal magistrate Wenke Roggen said on Wednesday May 30th that the crimes are being treated as "terrorist murder and attempted terrorist murder." She said the assessment was based Herman's actions, which she says mirrors the Islamic State group's videotaped calls for supporters to attack police with knives and steal their weapons. His shouts of "Allahu akbar" and contact with people considered radicalised also were factors, the magistrate said.
Local prosecuters say Herman has had several run-ins with the law before was out on a furlough. He was meant to be back in prison on Tuesday evening. "He also committed a murder the night before," Jambon, the interior minister, told broadcaster RTL. Jambon said the fourth victim was a former inmate who spent time in prison with Herman. It is alleged that Herman killed him on Monday evening by hitting him over the head with a blunt object. Jambon said Herman "wasn't part of a network, he didn't receive instructions from anyone else, so there is no need to raise the terror threat alert level," which currently stands at 2 of a possible 4 in Belgium.