BERLIN/TUNIS • The Tunisian suspect in the Berlin truck attack, 24-year-old Anis Amri, was long watched as a potentially dangerous terrorist but managed to avoid both arrest and deportation from Germany.
The authorities suspect that the man with a history of petty crime and drug dealing is the killer praised in the ISIS-linked Amaq news agency as the "soldier of the Islamic State" behind the carnage.
Amri's asylum-office papers for a stay of deportation were found in the cab of the 40-tonne lorry that cut a swathe of death and destruction through the festive crowd.
The warrant said the dark-haired, brown-eyed and possibly bearded suspect had used six false names as he dodged security services and mingled with radical Islamist preachers, some of whom are now in custody.
He had already been in the crosshairs of counter-terrorism agencies, and was suspected of planning an attack.
FAMILY IN SHOCK
When I saw the picture of my brother in the media, I couldn't believe my eyes. I am in shock, and can't believe it is him who committed this crime...
If he is guilty, he deserves every condemnation. We reject terrorism and terrorists - we have no dealings with terrorists.
MR ABDELKADER, Anis Amri's brother.
Surveillance had then, however, shown that Amri was working as a small-time drug dealer in Berlin and once had a bar fight with another dealer, a statement said, adding that the surveillance had ceased in September.
Bild newspaper reported that Amri had repeatedly contacted Islamist "hate preachers", including Iraqi Ahmad Abdelazziz A., alias Abu Walaa, who has since been arrested for allegedly supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.
Amri had searched for people to join him in an attack as early as spring this year, and once tried to buy a pistol from an undercover police officer, an investigator was quoted as telling Bild.
He had used different identities to travel between German states, said an unnamed investigator, "but apparently there was never sufficient evidence to arrest him".
Amri's family lives in the central Tunisian town of Oueslatia, near Kairouan, a holy city of Islam which became a Salafist stronghold for a time after the 2011 revolution that overthrew long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
A Tunisian security official told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that Amri had been arrested several times there for alleged drug use.
He fled Tunisia for Italy after the 2011 revolution. Media reports in Italy said Amri, then an unaccompanied minor, was jailed for several years there after being accused of starting a fire in a school.
Amri arrived in Germany in July last year, at a time when tens of thousands of migrants and refugees were also flocking to the top European Union economy.
Germany rejected his asylum request in June this year but was unable to deport him as Amri claimed to have no travel documents.
His deportation then got caught up in red tape with Tunisia, which had long denied that he was a citizen. The documents arrived only on Wednesday, two days after the Berlin attack, said Mr Ralf Jaeger, Interior Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia state.
In Tunisia, Amri's family expressed shock on Wednesday when they were questioned by antiterrorism police and learnt that Amri was wanted across Europe.
"I can't believe my brother could do such a thing," his sister Najoua told Agence France-Presse.
"He never made us feel there was anything wrong. We were in touch through Facebook, and he was always smiling and cheerful."
His brother Abdelkader said: "When I saw the picture of my brother in the media, I couldn't believe my eyes. I am in shock, and can't believe it is him who committed this crime."
But he added: "If he is guilty, he deserves every condemnation. We reject terrorism and terrorists - we have no dealings with terrorists."