In the aftermath of the Liege Shooting on 29 May 2018, Belgium's counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization policies are yet again under public scrutiny. The expert Florian Lang comments on the implications of a case that raises questions in Belgium and beyond.

On 29 May 2018, the 31-year-old Belgian national Benjamin Herman stabbed two police officers and took their service weapons in the Belgian city of Liege, approximately 90km east of Brussels. In the following minutes, the two officers and one bystander lost their lives. Herman wounded several others and took a woman hostage at a nearby school before he was killed by police. At that moment, Herman was serving a 12-year sentence for robbery and drug offenses and granted two days’ leave as part of a reintegration program. This temporary release was one of thirteen Herman had enjoyed as part of this program.

The incident is being treated as terrorist attack by Belgian authorities, after it emerged that Herman, albeit not being involved in pertinent networks, was a convert who meticulously observed religious obligations and entertained close contacts with known radicalized individuals in prison. Consequently, Herman’s name also appeared in a database of the Belgian Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (CUTA), which coordinates the country’s counter-radicalization policy ‘Plan R’.

The exact circumstances of the case remain somewhat nebulous. There is still no satisfying answer to why Herman was granted unsupervised leave albeit being named in CUTA’s list of radicalized individuals, demonstrating a history of violent behavior and being in psychological care.

Still, in the two weeks after the attack more disturbing details of the case emerged. The most bizarre of which was probably the interview with and consequent arrest of Fouad B., a former inmate of Lantine prison in which also Herman served his sentence, and a known jihadi extremist.

On 5 June, DeMorgen-journalist Bruo Struys spoke with an apparently intoxicated Fouad B. close to the Liege Station, in which B. claimed that he had radicalized Benjamin Herman in prison and announced that another attack in Liege was imminent. After Struys informed the police of the content of the interview, Fouad B. was arrested the following day, close to his home in Verviers, East Belgium.

The Mayor of Verviers only learned from the media, that Fouad B. had been freed under probation conditions, including following a de-radicalization trajectory and lamented that the Local Integral Security Cell (a mechanism established in Plan R that aims to increase information exchange between all stakeholders in counter-radicalization on the local level) did not inform her.

Undoubtedly, the case casts a slur at the day-to-day implementation of Belgium’s national counter-radicalization policy. It opened up the old wounds of 2015 and 2016, when Belgium, after the attacks in Paris and Brussels, was discredited internationally for its failing counter-radicalization policies and a striking lack in multi-agency coordination and information exchange. And it inflicted new wounds, in the sense that even with the Action Plan on Radicalization in Prisons from 2015 and the revamped Plan R now being in effect; such an inconceivable course of events could take place.

In re-structuring its counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization policies, Belgium definitely asked the right questions and made significant progress in finding the right answers to these questions as well. However, it still requires a true professionalization of all associated processes, practices and policies targeting the prevention, suppression and curation of radicalization in prisons while ensuring that fundamental rights and freedoms of prisoners, due legal process and evidence-based measures form the core of such professionalization. In essence, this means:

Substantial investment into Belgian’s notoriously flawed prison system, to elevate living conditions in prisons to the extent that possible grievances against the state cease to be unnecessarily nourished.
A vast expansion of psycho-social care, particularly tailored towards the specific needs of prisoners vulnerable to radicalization and appropriate follow-up mechanisms.
– The establishment of comprehensive and judicialized processes in risk-assessment, monitoring and follow-up procedures that replace the current system of improvised, ad-hoc administrative processes.
– An increase effort in the implementation of already established coordination and information exchange bodies, such as the Local Integral Security Cells and other formats under Plan R

Most importantly, and this might be one of the obstacles in the prison environment, there needs to be a political openness towards a marginalized and stigmatized part of society with very few interest groups speaking and fighting on their behalf. In this sense, the immediate reactions to the shooting in Liege cast doubt on if that message came across, as calls for the hollowing of procedural rights of prisoners dominated the public debate in the recent days.

However, only such new vision for the penitentiary system as a whole, that takes into account the plethora of factors that make prisons such high risk environments for radicalization, has the potential to meaningfully address this issue and to produce tangible results from which inmates as well as the society as whole, can truly benefit.

 

This article is based on an interview the Austrian public broadcaster ORF conducted with Florian Lang which aired on 30 May 2018.