Jurgen Conings: far-right Belgian anti-vaccination soldier found dead
Fugitive extremist sparked manhunt after threat to kill high-profile virologist
The body of a heavily armed fugitive has been found by Belgian police after a month-long manhunt triggered by his threat to kill a prominent virologist.
The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office confirmed in a statement that Jurgen Conings had probably “died by suicide by firearm” after a body was discovered by people cycling in woods near the northeastern town of Dilsen-Stokkem.
Conings, who was on an anti-terrorism watchlist, disappeared from the military base where he was stationed with weapons – “including a rocket launcher, machine gun and several grenades” – in mid-May after making “assassination plans and singling out the country’s best-known virologist Marc Van Ranst as a target”, Politico reports.
Conings, 46, “had a three-decade career behind him as an expert marksman” in the Belgian military before he began “making threats and racist remarks on Facebook”, The Guardian reports. After being put on a terror watch list due to his far-right tendencies, he was “handed disciplinary sanctions but still allowed to work with weapons”.
Conings disappeared from his military barracks on 17 May, leaving “messages for his wife and police” outlining his plans to “kill health experts and politicians”, Politico says. According to the BBC, his letter claimed that “the so-called political elite and now also the virologists decide how you and I should live”, adding: “They sow hatred and frustration. I cannot live with the lies.”
He listed Van Ranst, a professor of virology at the Catholic University of Leuven’s Rega Institute for Medical Research, who has become a prominent public figure during the country’s pandemic response, as a target.
His decision to target a public advocate of coronavirus restrictions and vaccination made Conings “a hero among anti-lockdown campaigners and right-wing extremists”, Politico adds, with a Facebook page named “I love Jurgen Conings” gathering up to 50,000 members before being removed by the social media platform.
As well as massing online, supporters of Conings also gathered for marches, with Belgian newspaper De Standaard reporting that “one hundred to two hundred” people marched in support, carrying banners reading “Jurgen’s life matters” and “As 1 behind Jurgen”.
The search has “dominated newspaper headlines in the country”, The Guardian says, with Conings being called the “Belgian Rambo” in reference to the 1980s action film starring Sylvester Stallone.
In early June, Vice reported that officials had begun “working under the assumption that they may never find” the armed fugitive, with an unnamed police official telling the site that “after three weeks without any new information we can assume he is not alive”.
A body believed to be Conings was, however, found by Johan Tollenaere, the mayor of Maaseik, “while out cycling in a group”, Politico reports. Tollenaere said that the body was in an advanced state of decomposition, according to De Morgen, with the Belgian federal prosecutor's office adding that a “future forensic examination” would likely confirm death by suicide.
Following the threat to his life, Van Ranst was moved to a safehouse with his wife and 12-year-old son where they were guarded by security agents. Earlier this month, he told the BBC that “the threat was very real”, adding that Conings, an ex-military shooting instructor, “was on my street for three hours, right in front of my house, waiting for me to arrive home from work”.
“These are the kind of people that you would prefer not to have hunting you,” he added. “We’re not scared, we’re just being careful. And my 12-year-old son Milo, he’s pretty brave about it.
“It is pretty surreal, but knowing is better than not knowing, because at least I can take these precautions. The thing that makes me mad is that my son has been inside for almost three weeks. That, I really hate.”
After news broke about the discovery of Conings’ body, Van Ranst tweeted: “My thoughts go out to the relatives and children of Jurgen Conings. For them this is very sad news, because they lose a father, a relative or a friend.”
The search for Conings “sparked a small-scale culture war in Belgium”, Vice says, with Van Ranst telling the BBC that there “are real people, who really think this man is a hero and that I deserve to die. They are people, living in your neighbourhood, who wage bets on exactly when and with how many bullets he will murder me.”
Conings’ descent into far-right conspiracy theories and his eventual threat of violence “shows how the pandemic collides with far-right extremism”, writes Evelien Geerts, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham specialising in continental urban terrorist violence, in a piece on The Conversation.
It is a cautionary tale about how the “pandemic climate has proven to be an excellent breeding ground for extremists”, she adds, giving them “an excuse to go after what they see as the ‘freedom-destroying’ establishment”.