Earlier this week, prominent Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst joined a chat group of supporters of the fugitive Jürgen Conings (46), the career soldier who threatened him, on the Telegram app.
Van Ranst has been in protective custody at a safe house with his family for over a week, after Conings made threats against his life before disappearing armed with military-grade weapons.
At around 2:30 AM on Wednesday night, Van Ranst joined the Telegram group ‘Als 1 man achter Jürgen’ (which means ‘As 1 man behind Jürgen’ in English), which counts just over 1,000 members supporting Conings, VRT NWS reports and Van Ranst confirmed.
“I thought I’d come and scout around to see what creativity bubbles up here,” Van Ranst said in the chat. “I have to say, I’m disappointed.”
A little later, two more messages followed: “And a lot of spelling mistakes!!!” and “No standards, but then again, what did we expect from a group of terrorist supporters.”
His messages were seen as provoking, and elicited strong disapproval from the group members who said to “Kick out that troll, man” before Van Ranst finished the conversation by saying “Goodnight fighters!”
In the meantime, Van Ranst gave a short reaction to VRT, saying that joining the group was “not smart.”
Earlier this week, a 45.000-member support group for Conings with a similar name was shut down by Facebook, but many supporters can still contact each other via the Telegram app, which is known for its encrypted messages and is positioning itself as an alternative to Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Messenger.
According to Dutch internet expert Henk van Ess, there has been “remarkable” interest in the support group for Conings coming from Russia, which “we should be worried about,” he told Het Laatste Nieuws.
“This is how the message is spread to thousands of people in Russia, among other countries,” said van Ess. “I think it also indicates that the Russians are keeping a close eye on what is happening in Belgium and that they are often in right-wing, authoritarian spheres, and are well connected to each other. Otherwise, the message would not be spread so quickly.”
Even though Van Ranst has been in a safe house since the beginning of last week, he did not stay absent from social media, where he had long discussions on Twitter with former Chamber President Siegfried Bracke, and Dutch ‘Viruswaarheid’ frontman Willem Engel.
In the meantime, police have also arrested another man, Koen J. (50), who is known to be a right-wing extremist, for aiming threats at Van Ranst as well, but it is not known whether he has any link to Conings.
In the ongoing manhunt for Conings, the army and police started a new search in the Hoge Kempen National Park on Thursday morning, in the area where the man’s car was found last week.
The Missing Persons Unit and tracking dogs have also been deployed, but the specific reasons for carrying out the new search are not clear.