Germany’s most wanted jihadist will spend his 24th birthday on the run.
Anis Amri, who turns 24 on Thursday, was named on Wednesday as the lead suspect in Monday’s deadly attack on a Berlin Christmas Market. He was reportedly identified from official documents left behind in the truck’s cab.
But German authorities also say the Tunisian man had ties to a notorious group of local ISIS sympathizers led by a man named Abu Walaa, who was arrested in November alongside four others accused of operating an ISIS recruitment network.
Der Spiegel, citing local officials, said that Amri and Abu Walaa were in “regular contact.”
If that’s the case, what first was considered to be a “lone wolf” attack in Germany—the first successful terrorist operation there since the 9/11 attacks—could instead be the work of an ISIS cell.
Abu Walaa—whose real name is Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah—is an Iraqi-born preacher who serves a mosque in Hildesheim, about three hours from Berlin. The 32-year-old had styled himself as a sheikh who gives religious and marital advice, often in videos that never show his visage. iPhone and Android stores even offer an “Abu Walaa” app. A Facebook page devoted to the “sheikh,” featuring videos of him sermonizing in German and Arabic, has 25,000 followers. Only ever photographed or filmed from behind, and dressed in a hooded black cloak, he is known popularly as the “preacher without a face.”
Abu Walaa reportedly gave sermons urging his listeners to join the jihad, and his mosque was raided by police during the summer. Among other things, he is suspected of links to an attack on a Sikh temple in April of this year.
But that may have been just the start. Germany’s intelligence community suggests Abu Walaa is actually “the worst of all” thanks to information coming from conversations with returning ISIS fighters. (Upward of 800 Germans have gone off to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq, authorities say.) A 22-year-old defector from the terrorist group told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung that Abu Walaa was an ISIS recruiter and the group’s top leader in Germany.
He was arrested in a raid in Lower Saxony in early November, owing to information obtained by authorities from “debriefings” of returning foreign ISIS fighters.
(“The five accused formed a pan-regional Salafist-jihadist network, with the accused Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah A. taking on the leading role,” the federal prosecutor’s office said in a statement after the arrest.)
One of them, a man identified as 22-year-old Anil O., was interviewed by Sueddeutsche Zeitung in Turkey after he defected from the terrorist group. Anil O. claimed to have renounced ISIS’s ideology, then identified Abu Walaa as his original recruiter. The Iraqi, he said, is ISIS’s “number one in Germany.”
German police infiltrated the preacher’s entourage and gleaned vital intelligence about its activities and intentions. According to details from the prosecutor’s office files, the cell around Abu Walaa was planning to attack police stations in 2015. It also considered laying traps for law enforcement, for instance by phoning in false emergencies and then killing the responding officers when they arrived on scene.
Most ominously, the use of trucks loaded with explosives and the targeting of large crowds was also part of the cell’s planning. Agents in the network had gone so far as to buy silencers with the money stolen from various robberies.
Anis Amri, the man accused of the Berlin truck attack, had been under observation by local authorities for more than six months, from March to September 2016. He was suspected of planning to commit robberies to get money in order to buy automatic weapons.
According to German magazine Focus, Amri was radicalized by two particular followers of Abu Walaa: Boban S. from Dortmund and another named Hasan S. in Duisburg, both towns in North Rhine-Westphalia. Boban S., a Serbian-German, ran an ad hoc Islamic center out of his apartment, along with his German girlfriend. Genders were segregated at these pro-ISIS “conferences,” with the women veiled and the men in long beards and robes. There is as yet no evidence that Amri visited Boban S.’s apartment.
Amri is said to have been given two options for carrying out jihadist operations: He could either leave for Syria or Iraq and fight for ISIS on the Middle Eastern battlefield, or he could perpetrate an attack on German soil. This proposal is said to have been signed off by Abu Walaa personally.
The role allegedly played by Abu Walaa in recruiting German-based jihadists bears a striking similarity to that played by another prominent ISIS recruiter in Europe, a portly 42-year-old named Khalid Zerkani.
A Moroccan-born native of the Brussels district of Molenbeek and nicknamed “Papa Noel”—or Father Christmas—owing to his penchant for doling out cash disbursements to young radicals eager to emigrate to Syria, Zerkani was arrested by Belgian police in 2014 and sentenced last year to 12 years in prison. The New York Times reported after the Brussels bombings that when Zerkani’s apartment was raided, texts entitled “Thirty-Eight Ways to Participate in Jihad” and “Sixteen Indispensable Objects to Own Before Going to Syria” were discovered on his computer.
His talent was for turning wayward teenagers of North African descent from petty gangsters into fully trained terrorists. He was a mentor to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the operational head of the 10-man Paris attackers ring and believed to be affiliated with Najim Laachraoui, the bomb maker for both that ISIS atrocity and the one that followed months later in Brussels. Between 2012 and 2014, an estimated 18 people in contact with Zerkani traveled to Syria including Souleymane Abrini, the brother of one of the Brussels attackers. Phone records retrieved by Belgian authorities also show that he made dozens of calls to known ISIS figures in the country.
Amri, the suspected Berlin attacker, was likewise drawn to a life of crime. He was under investigation over suspicions that he was planning robberies to fund his purchase of automatic weapons earlier in 2016, but that investigation was dropped due to lack of evidence. Instead, authorities found he was a small-time drug dealer, and weren’t able to keep him under full-time surveillance. Eventually, Amri managed to slip off their radar, perhaps using one of his many aliases.
The last time he’d been seen before the attack was late November or early December.
The Italian newspaper La Stampa claims that Amri arrived at the island of Lampedusa in 2011, under the guise of being a refugee. He committed various crimes there and was arrested by Italian police. He served four years in prison and then, after his release, headed directly to Germany.
Amri’s father told a local Tunisian radio station that Amri served four years in an Italian prison after setting a school on fire. He was also sentenced in absentia in Tunisia for violent crimes.
“When I saw the picture of my brother in the media, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’m in shock, and can’t believe it’s him who committed this crime,” Amri’s brother, Abdelkader, told Agence-France Press. “If he’s guilty, he deserves every condemnation. We reject terrorism and terrorists—we have no dealings with terrorists.”
But Amri was able to stay in Germany even after the country rejected his application for asylum. He claimed to not have travel documents, and Tunisia denied he was a citizen.
According to AFP, the country finally confirmed his citizenship two days after the Berlin attack.