The man was named by public broadcaster RTBF as a 36-year-old petty criminal and drug dealer who was let out on day-release just on Monday.
A Belgian lawmaker said he had been on an anti-terrorist police watchlist after being radicalized in jail, apparently as a convert to Islam – raising questions about why he seems to have been freed unsupervised and expected to return.
Officials said the man attacked the policewomen, aged 45 and 53, from behind with a knife – described as a box-cutter by RTBF – around 10:30 a.m. (0830 GMT) on a boulevard in the centre of Belgium’s third city, near the German border.
After slashing the officers, the man seized their handguns and shot both. He shot dead a 22-year-old trainee teacher who was sitting in a car before entering a high school about 100 metres (yards) away and taking two female employees hostage.
That triggered a major intervention by armed police. Pupils were moved to safety as a gunbattle broke out that sent people in the street racing for cover. Four police officers were wounded before the attacker was finally killed.
“The goal of the assassin was to target the police,” Liege police chief Christian Beaupere told a news conference.
The attacker’s profile showed up concerns about the risks of petty criminals, including those not from Muslim backgrounds, being inspired to Islamist violence while incarcerated. Convicts have been behind several recent attacks in Europe, including some using little more weaponry than a knife or rental truck.
The national crisis centre, on high alert since attacks by Islamic State in Paris and Brussels in the past three years, said it had not raised its alert level – an indication the man was acting alone and so follow-up attacks were not expected.
La Libre Belgique newspaper quoted a police source as saying the gunman shouted “Allahu Akbar” – God is greatest in Arabic. Beaupere declined to comment when asked about that.
A Koran and prayer rug were found during a search of his cell, Paris-Match magazine said. Belgian media said he had been put on the radical watchlist last year. De Standaard newspaper said police also suspected him of the murder late on Monday of a criminal associate whose body was found south of Liege.
Confirming that the attacker was on the police watchlist, lawmaker George Dallemagne, who sits on several Belgian parliamentary security committees, tweeted: “The supervision of radicalized prisoners remains tragically flawed.”
Images posted on social media showed elements of the drama:
What appeared to be the bodies of the two police officers, arms bare on a hot sunny morning, wearing protective vests and lying in pools of blood a couple of metres apart outside a cafe; the gunman, dressed in black, waving a pistol in each hand, standing in the middle of the road; and finally the assailant emerging from the school onto the street, firing on police, who gun him down.
Prime Minister Charles Michel and King Philippe visited Liege, the biggest city in Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region. An industrial hub on the Meuse river, it was the scene of a mass shooting in 2011, when a man killed four people and wounded over 100 others before turning his gun on himself.
A Brussels-based Islamic State cell was involved in attacks on Paris in 2015 that killed 130 people and on Brussels in 2016 in which 32 died.
The Brussels IS cell had links to militants in Verviers, another industrial town close to Liege, where in early 2015 police raided a safe house and killed two men who had returned from fighting with radical Islamists in Syria.
Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek, Alissa de Carbonnel and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Andrew Roche