WIESBADEN, Germany/BERLIN (REUTERS) – A Tunisian asylum-seeker arrested on Wednesday (Feb 1) on suspicion of planning an attack in Germany was also wanted in Tunis in connection with a deadly assault on the Bardo Museum there, German officials said.
The 36-year-old is suspected of recruiting for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Germany since August 2015, and building up a network of supporters with the aim of carrying out a terrorist attack, the Frankfurt prosecutor’s office said in statement.
The Tunisian had entered Germany as an asylum seeker that August, it said, five months after Islamist militant gunmen stormed the Bardo Museum and killed 21 foreign tourists. Tunisia suspects he was involved in that assault, it added.
The attack was the first major militant attack against Tunisia in the wake of the country’s 2011 “Arab Spring”uprising. Three months later, gunmen targeted a beachfront hotel, shooting dead 39 people, mostly British holidaymakers.
The German newspaper Die Welt identified the Tunisian as Haikel S. and said he had been known to German security agencies as a radical Salafist for the past decade.
“The main suspect is a 36-year-old Tunisian citizen strongly suspected of working for the foreign terrorist organisation that calls itself ‘Islamic State’ as a recruiter ... with the aim of carrying out a terrorist attack in Germany,” the statement said, referring to the group’s other name.
Tunisia suspected him “of having been involved in planning and carrying out the attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis” and an attack last year on a border town, it added.
According to Die Welt, investigators said he had been in contact with an ISIS cell responsible for “external operations” and had planned attacks in Europe. Reuters could not immediately independently verify the report.
Frankfurt’s prosecutor general said the suspect, who was arrested in Germany’s financial capital, had lived in Germany between 2003 and 2013 before leaving for two years.
How a Tunisian known to the intelligence agencies could return to Germany undetected will raise further questions for Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of September’s federal elections.
Merkel, who is seeking re-election, has come under heavy fire from right-wing opponents for allowing more than a million asylum-seekers into the country over the past two years.
A failed asylum-seeker ploughed his truck into a Berlin Christmas market in December, killing 12 people.
On Wednesday, the German cabinet approved allowing federal police to fit suspected militants with electronic tags, a step that will need final consent from the Bundestag lower house.
WANTED IN TUNISIA
A Tunisian magistrate issued an arrest warrant for the suspect in June last year in connection with the attack on the Bardo Museum, a major tourist attraction, and an ISIS attack in March on the border town of Ben Guerdan that killed at least 55 people.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere declined to say when authorities became aware that he was back in Germany.
The arrest was part of a major operation in which more than 1,100 German police raided 54 premises including homes, businesses and mosques in Frankfurt and other towns in the western state of Hesse. It came after four months of investigations.
Peter Beuth, interior minister of Hesse, said there had not been any immediate danger. “It was not about preventing an imminent attack – rather security forces in Hesse intervened early to protect citizens from the threat of harm,” he said.
Beuth said the raids had managed to “destroy an extensive Salafist network”. Salafism is an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam.
The Tunisian was seized in Germany in August last year in connection with a 2008 conviction for bodily harm, the Frankfurt prosecutor’s office said.
He was held in custody for extradition to Tunisia, but the transfer fell through when Tunisian authorities failed to provide the necessary paperwork. He was released in November and had been under surveillance since then, the prosecutor said.
Die Welt reported that he was arrested on suspicion of being an Islamist militant but was released due to insufficient evidence that he was a member of ISIS.