Germany’s security services are under intense pressure to explain how a Tunisian man who was under covert surveillance for several months and known to multiple intelligence agencies for apparent ties to Islamic extremists appeared to fall through the cracks and allegedly carry out Monday night’s truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin.
A European arrest warrant was issued on Wednesday for Tunisian citizen Anis Amri, 24, two days after the attack in which at least 12 people were killed and dozens of others were injured. Amri is feared to be armed and dangerous, and appears to have used six different aliases and three different nationalities.
Berlin attack suspect Anis Amri had been on watchlist since January
According to a senior politician in the region where he registered as an asylum seeker in Germany in July 2015, an investigation had been launched earlier this year suspecting Amri of preparing “a serious act of violence against the state”. He had been added to the government’s central terror watchlist in January.
A wanted poster issued by Germany’s federal prosecutor offered a reward of up to €100,000 for members of the public who helped to locate Amri, who is described as having worn dark clothing, bright shoes and a white scarf on Monday night.
“Caution: he could be violent and armed,” the notice warned. “A reward of up to €100,000 ($104,000) has been issued for information leading to the suspect’s arrest.”
German authorities said they had found Amri’s identity card under the driver’s seat of the truck he allegedly drove into a crowd of people at the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market.
Thomas de Maizière, the interior minister, said that Amri was being sought in Germany and across Europe’s border-free travel zone. “This is a suspect, not necessarily the perpetrator,” he said, after briefing the German parliament’s domestic affairs committee. “We are still investigating in all directions.”
Amri’s parents were reportedly being questioned by Tunisian authorities.
The news that Amri is a suspect again raises difficult questions for the authorities. It follows an admission by German police that they had detained the wrong man in the immediate aftermath of the attack – releasing 23-year-old Pakistani asylum seeker on Tuesday after he spent hours in custody.
Amri, who arrived in Germany in July 2015 and had his request for asylum turned down in July this year, was already known to several security agencies because of his links to the radical Islamist scene, according to Ralf Jäger, the interior minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, where Amri had first registered. Before entering Germany he reportedly spent time in prison in Italy.
An investigation had been launched into whether Amri was preparing “a serious act of violence against the state,” Jäger said.
Amri reportedly had links to a Salafist circle around Ahmad Abdelazziz, also known as Abu Walaa, an Iraqi-born preacher based in the German town of Hildesheim who was arrested in November. Walaa is suspected by Germany’s state prosecutor of openly supporting Islamic State (Isis) and helping to recruit people for the terror group. The preacher denies having any links to Isis.
According to Amri’s watchlist file, extracts from which were quoted by broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, he was suspected of recruiting collaborators for “an attack with an Islamist motivation” and was trying to obtain large-calibre automatic rifles through contacts in France.
Germany’s state prosecutor said that Amri’s telecommunications had been under surveillance between March and September, after investigators had received information about a planned burglary, with the possible aim of acquiring funds to purchase arms.
However, the Tunisian suspect dropped off the security agencies’ radar in November this year, possibly because of miscommunication between authorities in Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia.
Though originally registered in Germany’s most populous state, Amri had reportedly been mainly based in Berlin since February 2016 and frequently changed location. Jäger said Amri had been highly mobile.
Newspapers were highly critical of the intelligence services. with the Süddeutsche Zeitung saying the authorities “had fallen asleep”, while Der Spiegel weekly said on its website that “they had him in their crosshairs and he still managed to vanish.
The best-selling Bild tabloid said in a commentary piece that in future such suspects had to be locked up and not allowed “to roam free”.
Amri’s asylum request, authorities failed to deport him. For much of this year, Amri was officially in a status of duldung – “temporary suspension of deportation”. Attempts to deport him to Tunisia failed because he did not have the required identification papers and the Tunisian authorities had disputed whether or not he was their national.
The documents required to deport Amri eventually arrived from Tunisia on Wednesday, Jäger noted.
The manhunt to find Amri comes as medical staff tend to survivors of Monday’s attack, 12 of whom remain in hospital. Several of the victims have yet to be formally identified, but among those confirmed killed were the truck’s registered driver, Łukasz Urban, a 37-year-old Polish national.
Citing anonymous investigators, the German tabloid Bild reported on Wednesday that Urban, who was found with gunshot and stab wounds, had been shot after the truck came to its final standstill, and may have fought with the driver until the moment the vehicle ploughed into a row of stands at the Christmas market.
“There must have been a struggle,” a source quoted by Bild said, speculating that the attacker could have stabbed Urban because he tried to grab the steering wheel to avert an even greater tragedy.
Family members fear that Italian woman Fabrizia di Lorenzo, 31, was among those killed. Missing since the attack, she did not turn up to work and her phone and travel card were found at the scene. Her father, Gaetano, told Italian media that he had given up hope of seeing her alive.
Isis has claimed responsibility for the attack, although there is no evidence yet for its claim. Through its Amaq news agency, the jihadi group claimed the attacker was a “soldier of the Islamic State”. The phrasing matches that used to claim previous attacks, such as the incident in Orlando, Florida, in June when 49 people were killed at a gay nightclub.
The Polish-registered truck careered into the Christmas market in Berlin off a main road at about 8pm on Monday. The vehicle is believed to have been laden with 20 tonnes of steel girders. It travelled for about 80 metres at a reported 45-50mph (70-80km/h) before coming to a halt outside the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church.
There are about 2,500 Christmas markets in Germany, including 60 in the capital, and questions are being asked about whether they are well enough protected from the threat of terrorism. Security experts have warned for years that they could be a target for terrorists because they are rarely cordoned off and have few or no bag checks.
In November, US authorities warned their citizens to avoid Germany’s Christmas markets, considering them to be a high risk. No such warning was issued by German authorities.
Source: Guardian, UK