ROME—What started as a routine police check ended in the death of Europe’s most wanted man. Two police officers on a regular early morning patrol spotted a man acting suspiciously at 3:00 a.m. local time at a train station in Milan’s working class neighborhood of Sesto San Giovanni. They approached the man, unaware that he was Anis Amri, the Berlin truck terrorist, and asked for his documents. He reached into his backpack and instead of pulling out papers, he drew a .22-caliber pistol. Reportedly shouting “Cop bastards!” he shot one of the officers, who returned fire and killed him. The injured officer is expected to survive. He had been on the force just nine months.
Police later said that Amri had a “few hundred euro” in cash, but no cellphone. The station where he was found is just a few miles from where the truck Amri used as a weapon originated, though the head of Italy’s intelligence agency told reporters that they thought that might be a coincidence. There is no indication that Amri was in the area when the truck filled with steel pipes left Italy.
Police then surrounded the area and immediately matched the cadaver's fingerprints for a positive identification. He had a train ticket from France to Turin to Milan’s central station and another to the Sesto San Giovanni station in his backpack, implying that he had travelled to Italy under somewhat conventional circumstances, rather than using a network of accomplices to hide him. He was alone at the station and, so far, police do not believe anyone was meeting him.
ISIS mouthpiece Amaq published a three-minute clip today, in which a snugly dressed and headphone wearing Amri declares his loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, the leader of the so-called Islamic State. Standing by the harbor in Berlin Moabit, Amri vows to take revenge for the blood of Muslims that has been spilled at the hands of “crusaders”. The heaps of red and yellow leaves in the background suggest the video was made weeks ago, in autumn.
But the fact that Amri would return to Italy, the only country where he has ever lived for any length of time in Europe, should surprise no one. But the police judgment that he was not necessarily there to plan a new terror attack might surprise many. Despite the fact that he was alone, Italian authorities believe he was on his way to a safer hiding place. Just where that might have been, or whether he had met anyone in France, Turin, or Milan are priority questions right now.
The French connection is, of course, especially problematic given the well-known focus of the so-called Islamic State on attacking French targets. In November, police disrupted what appeared to be a serious plot to attack various targets including Disneyland Paris and, indeed, the Christmas market on the Champs Élysées, which is very similar to the Berlin market where Amri killed 12 people on Monday, 11 of them mowed down with a hijacked tractor-trailer truck whose usual driver had been stabbed and shot to death.
Milan’s anti-terrorism director Alberto Nobili confirmed that the Italians had been concerned that Amri might return to Italy, though he said that the early morning patrol was “not unusual.”
Indeed, while European governments have tried to play up the importance of international cooperation — and a €100,000 reward — it appears that the German services, at least, believed Amri was still in the Berlin area.
Tagesspiegel reported early Friday morning that the German police still assumed that Amri was hiding in Berlin. A witness had seen him fleeing the crime scene with a cut on his face, which would, according to the article, have made an attempted escape through Germany or Europe unlikely.
Also, surveillance tapes showed Amri standing in front of a mosque on the Perleberger Strasse in Berlin-Moabit very early on Tuesday morning. Amri was also filmed there on the 14th and 15th of this month. Security services know the site as “the mosque of Berlin’s ISIS people,” according to the report. But police did a search there on Tuesday morning and didn’t find anything.
Authorities in Milan and Turin are now checking surveillance footage to see if Amri met anyone to get money or other supplies along the way. They are also combing records to determine if anyone that he might have served time with in Italy is in the area. Amri is thought to have been radicalized during his imprisonment in Italy, where he was moved among as many as six different facilities.
Italy’s justice ministry says that it knows of at least 400 men who have been radicalized in Italy’s extensive and overcrowded prison system. Of those, 10 or more are kept in high security.
More than a dozen terrorist arrests have been carried out in Milan over the course of the last year, including many men who came to Italy long before the current wave of migrants. In May, three men were arrested who, like Amri, had also come to Italy in the spring of 2011.
Italy’s new prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, said that while the open border policy in which people can travel freely between Schengen countries makes it easier for terrorists to move, it is vital to keep Europe open. But as new details emerge about just how easily would-be terrorists who are under surveillance in every country they traverse, one might beg the question whether that is still the best approach.
With additional reporting by Josephine Hüetlin in Berlin and Christopher Dickey in Paris