It’s now more than three weeks since Belgian soldier Jurgen Conings stole two 5.7mm weapons, ammunition and four training rockets, made threats against multiple government and health officials, and disappeared. Despite a huge multinational operation to find him, no one knows where he is. But now officials are working under the assumption that they may never find him.
The latest search of a Flanders park for Conings turned up a backpack of ammunition on Wednesday night, but authorities said it was of a different calibre than the guns Conings, 46, is believed to be carrying.
Conings disappeared on the 17th of May after raiding an armoury. The training rockets he took were found the next day in his abandoned car near the 100 sq km Hoge Kempen National Park, close to the border with the Netherlands. His car was boobytrapped, authorities say, as part of a distraction by a highly trained soldier to throw trackers off his trail.
The manhunt has also sparked a small-scale culture war in Belgium, with hundreds of supporters holding vigils, while a 45,000-person Facebook fan page was eventually closed.
But after three weeks with no sign of Conings in the park, or anywhere else, authorities have begun to consider the possibility that Conings killed himself the first day and the searchers have yet to find his body.
“I can confirm we recovered a backpack and some ammunition that does not fit the weapons Conings is known to have stolen,” said a Belgian police official, who cannot be identified in the media. “And I can confirm that for the first time, the search at Hoge Kempen involved assets to search for dead bodies. Of course there was security but after three weeks without any new information we can assume he is not alive in the park.”
The police official said the recovered bag and ammunition could be part of Conings’ original misdirection efforts or it could have been abandoned or lost by someone else entirely. DNA testing is underway to determine if there’s a link to Conings.
That authorities have yet to find a trace of Conings during searches that have involved the elite counter-terrorism forces of four countries remains a great embarrassment to the national security forces, said the police official.
People hold signs in support of Jurgen Conings at a protest against COVID-related restrictions, in Brussels in May. Photo: HATIM KAGHAT/Belga/AFP via Getty Images
They said that reforms implemented in the wake of the 2015 Bataclan attack in Paris and the March 2016 follow-up attacks in Brussels by a cell of ISIS members that had evaded arrest for months have improved coordination between services, but still not helped to find Conings.
“The case of [Salah] Abdeslam taught us a lot about how to improve our coordination of these cases and searches,” said the police official. “And in this case it could be he did not escape but rather has been dead inside the search cordon waiting for us to find him. But it's also possible he evaded our search and has escaped. But is that because we are incompetent or is it because he’s very competent and once trained the units looking for him?”
While Conings, a highly trained soldier with multiple deployments abroad and specialised counterterrorism training, could be posing an challenge to searchers, Abdeslam was the opposite: an undisciplined teen who decided not to participate in the Bataclan attacks, dumped his suicide vest in the trash, called friends in Brussels for a ride home and waited for them in a Paris housing project, smoking cannabis and watching the coverage of the attacks.
But it took until March 2016 for Belgian police to find Abdeslam, who was hiding in a series of friends' homes in the same Brussels neighbourhood where he grew up. Belgian authorities became so frustrated that they enlisted the American FBI and NSA to use signal intercepts at the funerals of other Bataclan attackers to finally catch him.
“I think it's more of a concern how Conings was able to evade scrutiny for his increasingly unhinged beliefs about COVID considering he wasn’t just a soldier but a highly trained and trusted special forces trainer who was openly expressing anti-social and Neo-nazi views,” said a member of Belgian military intelligence, who works undercover and cannot be named.
“If he’s dead in the park that makes sense or if he distracted us so that he could escape to another country, these things make sense,” said the intelligence officer. “But that he was one of 100 soldiers roughly to draw concerns – more than 30 are being reassigned – and that he was merely demoted into a position where it was easy to steal weapons...that’s the issue for us.”