Berlin market attack: German authorities under fire as they hunt for Tunisian suspect with known terror links

Anis Amri became the most wanted man in Europe on Wednesday as Germany offered a S$150,000 reward for information leading to his capture.
Anis Amri became the most wanted man in Europe on Wednesday as Germany offered a S$150,000 reward for information leading to his capture.PHOTO: ST GRAPHICS
Anis Amri became the most wanted man in Europe on Wednesday as Germany offered a S$150,000 reward for information leading to his capture.
Anis Amri became the most wanted man in Europe on Wednesday as Germany offered a S$150,000 reward for information leading to his capture. PHOTO: FACEBOOK
A police record with the title, "Urgent Distribution" (top) and "Very dangerous individual who could be armed" (bottom) shows suspect Anis Amri who is sought in relation with truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin.
A police record with the title, "Urgent Distribution" (top) and "Very dangerous individual who could be armed" (bottom) shows suspect Anis Amri who is sought in relation with truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin. - PHOTO: REUTERS
 German police on Wednesday (Dec 21) stepped up their hunt for the driver of a truck that ploughed through a Berlin Christmas market, in a deadly assault claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group.
German police on Wednesday (Dec 21) stepped up their hunt for the driver of a truck that ploughed through a Berlin Christmas market, in a deadly assault claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group.PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST, AFP) – Germany’s chief federal prosecutor has confirmed the arrests of four people who had contact with the Tunisian suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack, German newspaper Bild said on Thursday (Dec 22). 

A spokesman for the German chief federal prosecutor denied the media reports and said he would give no further details on the operation to avoid jeopardising it.

German authorities are facing growing pressure after it emerged that the suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack had been under police surveillance and had contact with an ISIS recruiter, and he was not deported although his asylum bid was rejected. 

Anis Amri, 24, was under police surveillance for several months until September this year because he was suspected of planning a burglary in Berlin to finance the purchase of weapons, said Ms Karen Müller, spokesman of the Berlin prosecutor. But the surveillance was lifted because of a lack of evidence. 

Authorities also knew that Amri had interacted with Abu Walaa, a 32-year-old of Iraqi descent arrested in November on charges of recruiting and sending fighters from Germany to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Key evidence in Walaa’s case came from an ISIS defector who had returned to Germany and accused Walaa of helping to recruit him and arrange his travel to Syria. 

“The authorities had him in their crosshairs and he still managed to vanish,” said Der Spiegel weekly on its website.

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung criticised police for wasting time focusing on a Pakistani suspect immediately after the truck assault, in what turned out to be a false lead. “It took a while before the federal police turned to Amri as a suspect,” it said. 

Amri is suspected of involvement in the Berlin market attack where a truck ploughed into the crowds on Monday (Dec 19), killing 12 people and injuring 48 others. Authorities found his identity papers inside the cabin of the truck.

“Beware: He could be violent and armed!” the prosecutor’s office said in a statement, in which it described 24-year-old Anis Amri as 1.78-m tall, with black hair and brown eyes.

The prosecutor’s office offered a reward of up to 100,000 euros (S$150,000) for information leading to the capture of the suspect.

German police commandos raided two apartments in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg late on Wednesday but did not find Amri, Die Welt newspaper reported, citing investigators.

The leaking of the suspect’s name and photograph in the press, authorities said, may have upset attempts to find him. Germany’s  Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière would only tell reporters in Berlin that Germany had registered “a  suspect” as wanted in European data bases. He refused to give further details.

DEPORTATION DELAYED DUE TO MISSING PASSPORT

Amri’s father and security sources told Tunisia’s Radio Mosaique that he had left Tunisia seven years ago as an illegal immigrant and had spent time in prison in Italy for arson.

In Duesseldorf, Mr Ralf Jaeger, interior minister of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), said the Tunisian appeared to have arrived in Germany in July 2015 and his asylum application was rejected.

He had lived mainly in Berlin since February, but was recently in NRW, Mr Jaeger said.  

 
 
 
 

After being turned down for asylum, he should have been deported but could not be returned to Tunisia because his documents were missing, the minister said.

Though authorities have sought to accelerate the deportation of rejected asylum-seekers this year, there is still a backlog in Germany of tens of thousands, many of whom are able to resist because their countries of origin refuse to take them back. 

Amri, Mr Jäger said, was one of them. He  had not been deported because – like many asylum seekers in Germany – he did not have a passport. 

“Tunisia at first denied that this person was its citizen,” said Mr Jaeger, adding that German authorities started the process of getting new identity papers in August 2016. “The papers weren’t issued for a long time. They arrived today (Wednesday, Dec 21).”  

QUESTIONS ON WHETHER ATTACK COULD HAVE BEEN PREVENTED

The new details have added to a growing list of questions about whether security forces missed opportunities to prevent the attack, in which a 25-tonne truck mowed down shoppers and smashed through wooden huts selling gifts, mulled wine and sausages in the deadliest attack on German soil since 1980.

The Polish driver of the hijacked truck was found shot dead in the cabin of the vehicle. Bild newspaper said he had been alive until the attack took place. It also quoted an investigator as saying there must have been a struggle with the attacker, who may have been injured.

Christmas markets have been a known potential target for Islamist militants since at least 2000, when authorities thwarted a plot to attack one in Strasbourg, France. And the modus operandi in Berlin was identical to that of a Bastille Day attack in the French city of Nice in July, when a Tunisian-born man rammed a lorry through a seaside crowd and killed 86 people.

The market at the scene of Monday’s attack, at the foot of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church, stayed shut on Wednesday, but more than 60 other Christmas markets across the German capital re-opened under tightened security. “We don’t want to let the terrorists win. If everyone stays away, they are winning,” said tourist Nicki Anning at the Gendarmenmarkt Square in central Berlin.

Berlin authorities said 12 people seriously injured in Monday’s attack were still being treated in hospital.

The pre-Christmas carnage at a symbolic site – under the ruined spire of a church bombed in World War II – has shocked Germans and prompted security reviews across Europe, already on high alert after attacks this year in Belgium and France.

The possible – though unproven – involvement of a migrant or refugee has revived a bitter debate about security and immigration, with Chancellor Angela Merkel facing calls to clamp down after allowing more than a million newcomers into Germany in the past two years.

Merkel, who will run for a fourth term next year, has said it would be particularly repugnant if a refugee seeking protection in Germany was the perpetrator.

US President-elect Donald Trump condemned the Berlin attack on Wednesday, blaming “Islamist terrorists (who) continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad”. 

“It’s an attack on humanity and it’s gotta be stopped,” he told reporters in Palm Beach, Florida.

Police initially arrested a Pakistani asylum-seeker near the scene, but released him without charge on Tuesday.

ISIS CLAIMS ATTACK

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility, as it did for the Nice attack.

The Passauer Neue Presse newspaper quoted the head of the group of interior ministers from Germany’s 16 federal states, Klaus Bouillon, as saying tougher security measures were needed. 

“We want to raise the police presence and strengthen the protection of Christmas markets. We will have more patrols. Officers will have machine guns. We want to make access to markets more difficult, with vehicles parked across them,” Bouillon told the paper.

Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann told German radio there was a higher risk of Islamist attacks because of the influx of migrants in the past two years, many of whom have fled conflicts in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The task of tracking the suspects and the movements of the truck may be complicated by the relative scarcity of security cameras in public places in Germany, compared with countries such as Britain.

The German Cabinet on Wednesday approved a draft law to broaden video surveillance in public and commercial areas, a measure agreed by political parties last month after violent attacks and sexual assaults on women.

State surveillance is a sensitive issue in Germany because of extensive snooping by the Stasi secret police in Communist East Germany and by the Gestapo in the Nazi era.