Belgium gunman ’fought over sweets’ with baker

Abdesalem Lassoued’s actions have shocked his neighbourhood

Belgian Police patrol the Grand Place in central Brussels following the shooting of two Swedish football fans who were shot by a suspected Tunisian extremist on Monday night.  AP
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The main suspect behind the murder of two Swedish football fans in a taxi in Brussels on Monday got into a fight with his local bakery over whether the sweets on sale were permissible to eat in Islamic law.

“He was a bit strange but did not appear to be an extremist,” said baker Rachid El Hamli, who has owned a popular bakery in Schaerbeek for the past 43 years.

Last year, the two men quarrelled after Abdelsalam Lassoued, 45, walked into the shop one day berating its owner for not selling properly vetted halal sweets, according to Mr El Hamli.

After the incident, Lassoued would wait outside as his daughter bought bread, said the baker, who remembers that he would continue to say hello, albeit more coldly than before.

“Both were polite and smiling,” said Mr El Hamli.

“I am utterly shocked by what happened.”

Lassoued has been described as a “lone wolf” by local authorities who also deemed the murders to be terrorist acts. In a video widely shared on social media after the attacks, he says he was inspired by ISIS.

“Everybody says that he's a madman. He must have been brainwashed,” said Ben, a client at the bakery.

“We are shocked and disgusted,” said Mohamed, a volunteer at the Ahl Allah mosque, which the suspect occasionally visited.

The attacks committed by Lassoued, who was shot by police early on Tuesday morning a little more than 1km away from his family home in the neighbourhood of Schaerbeek, have led to an outpouring of grief both in Sweden and Belgium.

In Belgium, sadness was mixed with anger as local authorities came under attack for not having expelled Lassoued despite police having multiple reports about his extremist views in the past years. He was also able to stay in the country after his asylum application was rejected in 2020.

Bernard Clerfayt, a minister of the Brussels government responsible for employment, criticised the immigration office for its “failings in registering asylum seekers, in transfer to local authorities and in monitoring dangerous people”.

Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said on Tuesday that he believed that Lassoued had targeted Swedes due to recent controversies caused by Quran burnings. But Lassoued has also been reported to have written about the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas on his Facebook page shortly before the shootings.

“He mixed everything up, Palestine and Sweden. We don't understand. And it has nothing to do with religion,” said Ben, who, like most people interviewed by The National, declined to give his full name due to the sensitivity of the subject. “We're in shock. We don't know what to say.”

Mr de Croo also said that “conclusions must be drawn” about his prolonged illegal stay in Belgium and that orders of return to the country of origin needed to become “more binding.” The threat level for Brussels was reduced on Tuesday to level 3 from level 4, although the threat level for the country as a whole was kept at 3 – the second-highest level.

At the Ahl Allah mosque, there was also a general feeling of weariness when discussing Lassoued's actions.

The neighbourhood of Schaerbeek had previously hit headlines after previous terror attacks, including the ISIS-claimed double suicide bombing in Brussels in March 2016 which killed 35 people and wounded hundreds.

“Put yourself in our shoes,” said Mohamed, the volunteer. “People do monstrous things and we have to explain ourselves.”

Mohamed said that Lassoued was a discreet presence at the mosque, which first opened in the neighbourhood in 1969. He did not appear in the list of regular attendees who contribute a small amount every month for its upkeep. Many remember the alleged killer as only speaking Arabic and not mingling much with other participants.

“People just pray and leave. We are very keen to avoid gatherings,” said Abdelmajid, another volunteer at the mosque who stopped seeing him around four months ago, before the summer break. But he had no explanation for his absence.

“I have no idea what went on in his head.”

The public prosecutor's office has said that it cannot exclude a link between the attacks and the conflict in the Middle East. The investigation is expected to shed more light on the motivations of Lassoued, whose wife was interrogated by police on Tuesday.

Speaking under the pseudonym of Yasmina, she told local media that she fled her home to the local police station when she saw her husband's video claiming responsibility for the attack fearing that he would return home.

“I can barely speak about what he did. I don't have the courage,” she said.

Updated: October 19, 2023, 6:55 AM