Is the Belgium government turning a blind eye to the rise of the far-right in the army?
When a serving neo-Nazi soldier went on the run more than one week ago – authorities in Belgium warned citizens to inform the police if they saw him.
What Belgian authorities didn’t expect was that the ordinary citizens and other serving military figures would show open support for the renegade neo-Nazi Jurgen Conings, 46, who is on an official terrorist watchlist in the country.
Conings is a weapons instructor and has military expertise in camouflage and marksmanship, making him difficult to find and potentially extremely dangerous.
Authorities discovered his abandoned car near a forest in Belgium with four rocket launchers inside, taken from an army base.
The whole episode raises a series of questions that, in time, officials will have to ask, in particular how a soldier on a terrorist watchlist holding far-right views was allowed to still be in the army, let alone walk out of an army base with working rocket launchers?
Some are already asking why once the military found out that Conings had links to the far-right, was he still allowed in the military and potentially radicalised others?
Before disappearing, Conings left behind a note saying that he had gone to “join the resistance and may not survive.” The serving soldier, according to authorities, is wearing a bulletproof vest, has a machine gun and a handgun.
Conings had railed against migrants and over the past year against the Covid-19 restrictions, which he believed was part of a grand conspiracy to take people’s freedoms away.
Those themes have resonated in wider Belgian society and the military.
A Facebook group supporting Conings within a few hours garnered almost 50,000 supporters – before the social media company took it down for violating its “dangerous individuals and organisations policy.”
The countries Defense Minister, Ludivine Dedonder, condemned supporters of the neo-Nazi soldiers.
“Supporting this man is supporting a man who threatens to wound and kill innocents,” she told a press conference.
“It is regrettable that some current or former military personnel have shown their support.”
Belgian authorities have admitted that Conings was one of 30 soldiers under surveillance for ties to the far-right.
Following the latest incident, the defence ministry said that 11 servicemen share similar violent extremist far-right views. However, they have been merely moved to other positions where they have little contact with weapons.
Against this backdrop, however, Belgian authorities are taking measures to stop hijabi Muslim women from serving as public officials, fearing that wearing a fabric on your head threatens the separation of church and state.
One campaigner warned that fans of Conings in Belgian society show that “political ideas are much more dangerous than fabric.”
A recent case of a woman applying for the Brussels public transport company has led politicians to warn that a woman wearing the hijab could prevent her from offering neutral advice to customers.
The contrast between the two cases offers an insight in how Belgian society views violent extremists on the run and Muslim women seeking employment opportunities in the country. And more pointedly, who the government considered the real threat.