Elite counterterror units from four NATO countries have spent a week trying to find a Belgian military instructor with links to the far-right who disappeared after making violent threats – but officials tell VICE World News they’ve been looking in the wrong place.
Jurgen Conings went missing a week ago, leading to a huge manhunt centred on a national park close to where investigators located an abandoned car and weapons cache. With Conings nowhere to be found, investigators have now concluded that the car and abandoned weapons were a ruse intended to distract law enforcement.
“We have looked for nearly a week with the tactical teams and found no real sign that he has ever been hiding in the park,” said a Belgian police official, who cannot be named talking about a national security manhunt involving multiple nations.
“There is great concern that his car was intended to be found along with the rockets making all the effort focus on that area,” said the official. “But the rockets were training rockets that cannot fire, he clearly stole them to use as a distraction, knowing that the public would call immediately if they saw rockets.”
The manhunt erupted on the 18th of May after a search by police of Coning’s home found letters threatening the state and its top COVID epidemiologist. It also emerged that Conings had stolen body armour, a pistol and a submachine gun, as well as four anti-tank rockets. By the end of the week, Belgian police and Special Forces had been joined by special operations troops from Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to search a park along the Dutch border after his car and the four rockets were discovered nearby.
That the four M72 light anti tank rockets were training demonstration devices was confirmed by a member of the Belgian military who served with Conings. The colleague – whose identity cannot be completely confirmed but whose account was described by investigators as “accurate” – said via Facebook that Conings, in his role as a weapons handler for a marksmanship training centre, had access only to bunkers with live small arms ammunition and weapons and training simulation devices for heavier weapons like the rockets.
“He did not have access to the bunkers with heavy weapons and ammunition,” said the Belgian Army source. “He had access to all of the light weapons and the ammunition he took in 5.7mm will be very real, but he did not have access to the working rockets, or I assume he would have taken them as well.”
Belgian officials said Monday that the rockets were indeed real but did not clarify if they were inert training devices as claimed by the two Belgian officials.
But the source said Comings poses a legitimate danger to the public with the weapons it is confirmed he stole as well as his extensive training, multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones on counterterrorism missions.
“He’s extremely proficient as a soldier but has had training and experience that he has been taught to adapt to irregular warfare,” said the colleague. “He will be comfortable operating alone and under great stress.”
By Sunday, Belgian authorities had reduced the presence of search teams in the park and began to focus on Conings’ known associates in the radical right community, of which he appears to have extensive ties after authorities raided about ten homes over the weekend.
Conings’ ability to operate under great stress as well as carefully plan missions now poses the greatest concern, said the Belgian police official.
“Maybe he’s very good at hiding and is in the woods but there’s nothing after a week,” said the official. “But it looks more like this was a decoy for him to escape the area and if that’s the case it means he planned this, but to what end? We are now concerned that this has all been carefully orchestrated for a reason and he plans to act violently.”
The vague nature of the threats means that security has been increased in multiple areas – around key public health officials, and mosques, for example, but Belgian authorities admit that “it's hard to protect a target from a threat when you don’t know the target.”
“We have to assume he has something in mind and we do not know what that is at this time,” said the official.