What began as a peaceful night on patrol ended with a rare casualty for Belgian law enforcement. On Thursday night, November 10th, two young police officers were knifed in the Brussels district of Schaerbeek. One succumbed to his injuries, received to the abdomen and neck; his colleague came away with his life.
According to reports, their assailant, 32-year-old Yassine Mahi, was subsequently fired upon by a squad of reinforcements, called in by the surviving patrolman. Belgian police managed to hit the perpetrator in the leg and abdomen before taking him into their custody. Mahi is currently in hospital, healing from his wounds.
The attack came unprovoked. Two police officers were waiting at a red light in a minivan when Mahi opened the door and fatally stabbed the driver, Thomas M. (29). He then ran over to the passenger’s side and wounded the other officer, Jason P. (23), on his right arm. Jason P. testified that the perpetrator yelled “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great) as he performed these acts.
The federal prosecutor’s office has launched an official terror investigation and will question Mahi as soon as his health permits.
According to De Standaard, Mahi is an ex-convict who had been put on the OCAD watch list—the OCAD is a Belgian government agency that maps out all relevant information and intelligence on “terrorism, extremism, and problematic radicalisation.” Mahi is a person of interest, and is considered “radicalised.” Currently, about 700 individuals are on that list.
Mahi had been in prison from 2013-2019 for common law offences. During that time, there were allegedly several incidents with the jailers. Later, the man spent time in the Deradex ward, which houses dangerous radicalised people who could influence others.
The tragedy of the murder is heightened by Mahi’s odd behavior on the day of the crime. That very morning, Mahi had turned himself in at a local police station in Evere. Police reports state he was incoherent, as he shouted that he “hated police,” and pleaded to receive psychological assistance to prevent him from killing officers.
Police then contacted the magistrate of the Brussels prosecutor’s office, asking that a “psychiatric observation procedure” be initiated. But because the man had agreed to undergo psychological treatment on a voluntary basis already, legal conditions were not met to hold him.
At the magistrate’s request, he was taken to a psychiatric unit of the Saint-Luc University Hospital, from which he was released mere hours later.
On the morning following the attack, Minister of the Interior Annelies Verlinden (CD&V) expressed her sympathy for the victims and relatives on Twitter.
During a Friday noon interview on the Flemish state television station VRT NWS, Verlinden reiterated her condolences, and that “we really have to wait for the investigation to get all the facts exactly right.”
When pressed on why a person like Mahi was not detained at the police office in Evere, Verlinded responded that “not all persons on [such] a list are immediately detained.”
“There is a system of follow-up in place for those people who are radicalised, and which happens in close cooperation with all security services, prevention services, and local governments following a specific set of measures. In this case, that person was not arrested,” she concluded, opaquely.
On the issue of his release from the psychiatric unit, Verlinden remained vague. “Police services accompanied him to the hospital and put him in the hands of medical staff there. We will have to see what exactly occurred afterwards.”
She added that “we have to assume that everyone made decisions in good conscience at every moment based on the information at hand. No one wanted this dramatic outcome. There is no question about that. We now have to see if those decisions were correct and what we can improve on, but it is too early to make accusations.”
Police unions are distraught and angry over the event and feel—partly due to lack of initiative from the government to implement a new pay agreement—underappreciated. They want a zero-tolerance policy to be implemented, so that police officers can be more secure in performing their duties. Their ire, then, is squarely aimed at the government—and Minister Verlinden.
To demonstrate these grievances, the police unions are intending to strike on November 28th. On a make-shift poster announcing the event, they demand “more respect” from the government and the Justice Department for police.
The minister shares “their anger and indignation,” and vows to make violence against police officers and other security forces a priority. “We have put a number of things in place to deal with that in a stricter fashion: tougher sentencing, and making sure people are trained and guided correctly. We now need to look at areas for improvements,” she said, adding that “obviously we have to protect our police officers as best we can, but are never going to be able to fully eliminate such incidents.”
When pressed on how new police officers might be found, since the job appears not too enticing at the moment, Verlinden responded that she had been working on providing “additional resources” and attracting new recruits. It had been her ambition to “bring the pay agreement into force earlier,” she declared, but the “budgetary context is not easy,” explaining why the government did not follow through on it at present. She stressed that she remains “300% committed to police officers who risk their lives day in and day out for the safety of us all.”
To address the unanswered questions surrounding the Thursday knife attack, the ministers of the Interior (Verlinden) and Justice (Vincent Van Quickenborne, Open VLD) will be attending a special committee, due to be held in the House on Monday. It had been called by the opposition party N-VA, together with others.
Both ministers “have remained very quiet until now. There is an urgent need for answers,” N-VA Minister of Parliament Yngvild Ingels demanded in a tweet, which displayed the letter she had sent out.
Each day, 28 violent acts against Belgian police are recorded, but deadly violence remains exceedingly rare. In 2021, 10,095 violent acts occurred, a drop by nearly a quarter from the previous year, when there were 13,343.