BRUSSELS — The Belgian authorities said on Friday that the suspect in a knife attack that killed a police officer the night before in Brussels was on the government’s watch list of potential extremists, and that they were treating the assault as a possible terrorist attack.
The deadly terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 were organized in Belgium, and it was the site of several attacks linked to Islamic extremists starting in 2016, but such assaults have been increasingly rare in the country and across the European Union in the past few years.
The officer who was killed was patrolling a central area of Brussels, Belgium’s capital, in a vehicle with a partner, the authorities said. When they stopped at a red light, they were attacked by a man who stabbed both of them.
The assailant shouted “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase for “God is great,” according to one of the officers. He was then shot by another police patrol, the authorities said, and he will be questioned as soon as his condition allows it.
One of the officers, who was identified only as Thomas M., 29, died in the hospital later on Thursday from knife wounds to his neck. The second officer, Jason P., 23, underwent surgery after having been stabbed in the arm, but his life is no longer in danger.
The attack comes as Belgium is readying itself for the trial over the 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, which killed 32 people, left hundreds injured and sent shock waves across the multilingual and multiethnic Belgian society. The trial, the biggest in the country’s history, is set to open later this month.
The street where the knife attack took place on Thursday is less than a mile from the Molenbeek neighborhood, which was home to the terrorist cell that planned the 2016 attacks in Brussels and the 2015 attacks in Paris.
The suspect was identified by the Belgian police as Yassine M., a 32-year-old Belgian citizen born in Brussels. They said he had served six years in prison for crimes other than terrorism, and was released in 2019.
The authorities said the suspect had been monitored by the security services and was on the government’s watch list of potential extremists.
On Friday, Belgian and European politicians expressed their shock and sent condolences to the family of the murdered police officer.
Annelies Verlinden, the country’s interior minister, said on Twitter that the attack “broke her heart.” She added: “This violence is unacceptable.”
Belgium’s police trade union, ACV Politie, expressed anger over the killing, writing on Facebook that according to their information, the assailant told the police earlier that he was planning an attack. “But justice did not consider it necessary to arrest him,” the trade union wrote. “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” Referring to the country’s justice minister, they added: “Hello Vincent Van Quickenborne?”
Following the Paris and Brussels attacks, Belgium’s security services were heavily criticized for their lack of effective action against Islamic extremists. Belgium is a nation of just 11.5 million, divided linguistically and politically between the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and Brussels, which is one of Europe’s richest cities and home to the European Union’s main institutions. Each region has its own government, and although national security is a federal responsibility, those divisions effectively weaken it.
Despite vows of reforms, Belgium’s security services have drawn continued accusations of incompetence, most recently following an unsuccessful 35-day manhunt for an armed soldier with links to the far right. The soldier, who was also on the government’s extremism watch list, threatened the government and virologists responsible for the country’s coronavirus policy. But despite using helicopters, armored vehicles and 400 soldiers and police officers, the authorities failed to locate him for over a month. His body was found in a forest, and he was determined to have killed himself.