Hunting the Berlin Terrorist in Mafia Country

Italian police raid a home deep in Camorra territory as they search for accomplices of the Berlin truck terrorist.

CASERTA, Italy—The smell of exotic spices hangs in the air around the Via Virgilio in the rundown periphery of Aprilia north of Naples. The area is made up of low, flat houses and apartment blocks, dimly lit coffee bars and gambling halls along pot-holed streets where groups of Tunisian and Moroccan men often gather to wait for local vegetable farmers to come looking for undocumented workers for their fields and hothouses.

More than 200 Tunisians live along this small stretch of road, according to the local head of the intercultural association La Palma Del Sud. This is also where Anis Amri, the author of the gruesome Christmas market attack that killed 12 in Berlin Dec. 20, is thought to have spent his first four months of freedom with fellow Tunisian Yakoubi Montassar, a man he met in Lampedusa and with whom anti-mafia authorities say he stayed in contact with after being released from prison in Sicily in 2015.

Amri was shot and killed during a routine document check in Sesto San Giovanni train station outside of Milan last week, with just $150 in his pocket and two bullets in his 22-caliber pistol. He was wearing three pairs of pants and two sweatshirts, presumably so he could quickly change clothes if someone spotted him.

Authorities now believe he took a bus from the Netherlands to Lyon, France, likely because passengers are rarely checked for documents on buses like they can be on trains. Then, according to surveillance camera footage that picked him up in Lyon, he took a train to Turin and then on to Milan’s central station where he may have used an internet point, apparently to reach out to a yet-unknown contact. In Italy, all internet point users are supposed to show a document to log on, but it would appear that whoever was on the night shift in Milan didn’t follow the rules if, in fact, Amri used the internet at all.

The house Montassar reportedly rented with other Tunisians, along with another home nearby and an apartment in suburban Rome to the north, were searched in early morning raids on Thursday as authorities in Italy try to piece together Amri’s troubled past and failed plans for his future. A dozen Italian contacts were found on the phone he abandoned in the truck he used for his killing spree in Berlin, which led investigators to the houses they searched on Thursday.

Montassar wasn’t home, having been apparently hauled to prison in July on what is being described as “earlier offenses.” But Gianlorenzo Bernini, a self-described local councilman in the area, has taken on the role of fielding questions to journalists to assure the public that the area is not a haven for criminals. “There are no terrorist cells here,” he says, assuredly. “The Tunisians who live here are peaceful and not troublemakers.”

It is unknown if Amri was planning to return to the somewhat squalid suburb of Aprilia to find shelter once again, or if he was planning to head to elsewhere. Authorities also believe he had spent time with a woman he met in Rome when he left prison, who may or may not be connected to the searched houses. Buses from the Sesto San Giovanni station where Amri was killed could easily have taken him all the way to Morocco and Tunisia with little more than a glance at a document. They could have also taken him straight to Rome or Aprilia with even less notice. When he was stopped he said he was from Calabria. Buses from Sesto San Giovanni were also headed there.

Italy’s anti-mafia authorities (who double as the country’s anti-terrorism detectives) told reporters on Thursday that they believe Amri was in dire need of support, including falsified documents, a specialty of the Neapolitan Camorra that has lately been connected to a number of terrorists carrying out attacks in Europe. Italy has deported 66 people on terrorism suspicion, including a Tunisian man who was deported from the northern town of Brescia the same day police searched the house where Amri stayed.

Speaking to La Repubblica, Franco Roberti, Italy’s chief anti-terrorism prosecutor, said that Italy is incredibly useful for terrorists. Not only is Italy a “center for producing false documents” the country’s criminal gangs and mafia have ample opportunities for terrorists to raise money through the drug trade or spend it through the illegal arms racket. He says there are also plenty of safe houses and underground networks to hide and move people undetected. “We are not just a transit country,” he said. “Those who want to carry out attacks can find a support system in our country.”

He says that Italy’s thriving organized crime network lends itself to both lone-wolf attackers and those who are part of larger terrorist cells. He also said that the immigration crisis gripping the country continues to provide fertile ground for radicalization. “Terrorists don’t arrive on the boats,” he said. “But after years in the system, desperation and isolation and marginalization lead to radicalization.”

Amri, who was radicalized during his four years in prison in Sicily, is a prime example of what can go wrong. But Roberti warns that he is not the only example. Italy’s Justice Ministry estimates that there are at least 400 men in Italian prisons who have been radicalized during their incarceration. Whether they act on their new ideology once they are released is what worries Roberti most. And with limited resources, there seems little anyone can do to stop it.