BERLIN—In the heat of the moment after Monday’s gruesome truck attack on Berlin’s Christmas Market, someone claimed to have followed the murderous driver on foot. Police following the tip tracked the suspect to the zoo, and there arrested a Pakistani migrant who must have looked guilty as hell to them just then.
Except he wasn’t the right man at all. And after grilling him for 24 hours, and after coming up with nothing to support their suspicions, and after realizing that they’d have to release him from custody—only then, it seems, did they find in the floor of the truck near the gas pedal what should have been their key evidence from the start: a dropped ID card. And, lo and behold, all over the outside of the truck’s cab, the fingerprints of the man the card belonged to.
We now know from the “wanted” notices posted on all the world’s media that the man most likely to have murdered the truck’s driver then raced the tractor-trailer through that festive holiday scene, killing 12 people and injuring about 50 more, is a 24-year-old Tunisian petty criminal and alleged “soldier” of the so-called Islamic State known by the alias Anis Amri.
The police dogs that sniffed through the cabin of the truck probably picked up the scent of the killer (they certainly had no interest in the Pakistani), but of course that trail has long since grown cold.
So on Wednesday night, after a SWAT team stormed two apartments in Berlin, and came up with nothing, at least one officer was forced to conclude Amri has gone “over the hills.”
Such are the latest lapses in a history of bureaucracy and bungled police work that goes back more than five years—the kind of story that has led to growing fears about security in the European Union, and growing calls for more controls and less tolerance even in the United States.
Soon after Amri’s identity was made public, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump reconfirmed his call for a ban of some sort on Muslims entering the United States and a possible registry for those already there.
“I’ve been proven to be right. One hundred percent correct,” Trump told reporters in his inimitable way. “What’s happening is disgraceful.”
On that last point, sadly, he appears to be quite right.
Anis Amri is like a poster-boy for all that is dysfunctional in European immigration and law enforcement: a two-bit thug and petty criminal with extensive Islamist ties, including to an infamous alleged ISIS recruiter, and even a record of being watched by police—but not watched quite closely enough.
It’s a pattern that Europe has seen again and again, most often in France, but also in Belgium, where suspected terrorists have been identified, been watched, been questioned, even been jailed—then released—only to drop out of sight until they reemerge to carry out ferocious killing sprees. We saw that pattern with Mohammed Merah who murdered French Muslim soldiers and Jewish civilians, including schoolchildren, in southern France in 2012. We saw it with the Kouachi brothers who slaughtered the staff of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, and with many members of the Brussels-based cell that carried out the savage attacks in Paris in November last year and in Belgium in March.
The Germans have a word for such people: a gefährder is a militant Islamist likely to commit a violent act, and Amri had been on that list since February. Now he’s on the loose after committing the biggest terror attack in Germany in recent history. What exactly went wrong?
Anis Amri was in trouble almost from the moment he arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011 with no documents whatsoever. He claimed he was a minor, but had no proof of anything that would guarantee him asylum—political, economic, or otherwise.
He had arrived with thousands of other men who had crossed from Tunisia and Libya in waves during the early days of the Arab Spring, many of them claiming political unrest was driving them into exile, although many, as well, had economic motives.
Back then, Italians were fairly new at the migrant game. (In all of 2011, 58,000 people arrived from the North African shores to Italy; the figure will reach 180,000 arrivals to Italy in all of 2016.) They had yet to send out active search and rescue missions, and the boats instead had to make it to Lampedusa on their own.
The Italians made a practice then of ordering deportations verbally, like reprimands for jaywalking, and were unwilling to spend any money to actually ship them home until a bilateral agreement was reached with Tunisia in 2012. The Italians rarely fingerprinted anyone, rarely detained anyone behind lock and key, and frequently turned a blind eye as the new arrivals crossed the northern borders to reach France, Germany, and Scandinavia.
Amri was documented because he was under age and resided for a time in the Belpasso center for minors housed in a former elementary school Lampedusa as authorities struggled to contain the many and mostly male arrivals.
Later, Amri was arrested along with three other Tunisians for trying to burn down the reception center. He was convicted of the arson in October 2011 and sentenced to four years in prison. He started serving his time in a detention center in Catania, but overcrowding meant that he was soon moved to a lower security center in Palermo from which he was released in 2015.
He was supposed to be expelled from Italy and sent home at the expense of the Tunisian government based on that 2012 accord, but he just didn’t leave, and Tunisia didn’t come to get him. No one in the Italian immigration system checked that his mandatory expulsion was carried out despite the fact that he had been incarcerated in Italy for four full years. Instead, he was given the possessions he came with and sent on his way.
An official with Italy’s judicial department told The Daily Beast that the burden for expulsions of Tunisians lies with Tunisia, which is obligated to make sure their nationals are repatriated as quickly as possible.
"This agreement was forged between Italy and Tunisia on the basis that Tunisia would repatriate its nationals and stop boats from embarking and, in return, Italy would invest in infrastructure in Tunisia," he said. "It worked for a while and boats from Tunisia no longer come."
But Tunisia stopped paying for repatriation when the bulk of the migrants who came in 2011 and 2012 were returned. “Because there are no more arrivals, there are no more repatriations and people like Amri fall through the cracks.”
In the meantime, he was able to secure fake documents and passage through a well oiled clandestine machine in Italy that relies on organized crime, human traffickers, and document forgers. Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam used the same network to move through Italy to Paris. In Amri’s case, authorities are concerned he may still have connections in Italy. They are actively searching for his last known contacts and those he may have known in prison in either Catania or Palermo.
In Germany, Amri’s 96 friends on Facebook would have seen that he had “liked” the Libyan terror group Ansar Al-Sharia, which was once in league with al Qaeda, and is now loosely linked to the so-called Islamic State.
But it seems that Amri’s dedication to the ISIS cause was not limited to admiration on social media—U.S. intelligence services reportedly believe he had direct contact with ISIS via the messenger app Telegram, much as we saw with other attackers and would-be terrorists over the last year. Even more importantly, Amri was part of the same North Rhein-Westphalia-based circle as Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah, better known as Abu Walaa, a man described by a returning ISIS fighter as “ISIS’s number one in Germany.”
Salafi circles in North Rhein-Westphalia were already chatting about a truck attack in Berlin in May this year, according to one report. Use of cars and trucks as weapons of terror has long been advocated by ISIS propagandists and handlers, whether directing or merely “inspiring” the killers, as appears to have been the case with the horrific slaughter on the beach front in Nice, France, last July 14.
Abu Walaa is currently in jail. So is Boban S., a man whom Amri is said to have stayed with when he was in Dortmund, a major city in North Rhein-Westphalia.
However, on an early morning in November, when 100 policemen came to pick up Abu Walaa, Boban S., and three other men accused of being in the pan-regional Salafist-jihadist network that Abu Walaa is accused of leading, they had no arrest warrant for Amri.
He was noted as one of the 25 people close to the dangerous preacher. There was evidence of him being active in suspicious-looking online chats. But that wasn’t enough.
While German law doesn’t allow authorities to arrest people on the central terror watch list when they haven’t committed a crime, it does allow for the gefährder, who generally come from abroad, to be deported back to their home countries.
Yesterday, the grim-faced minister of the interior for North Rhein-Westphalia, Ralf Jäger, gave a press conference in which he explained why Amri was still in the country on Monday, despite having his asylum application rejected in June this year.
According to Jäger, Amri couldn’t be deported “because he didn’t have valid identification papers,” and Tunisia denied that he was a citizen. New documents arrived “coincidentally today,” said Jäger.
In the past, in fact, Jäger has complained about the difficulty of deporting unsuccessful asylum seekers back to North Africa. “It cannot be possible that these countries do not take their citizens back. The German Federal Government must use every opportunity to change this attitude,” he said last summer.
In March, Amri was placed under covert surveillance in Berlin. Investigators were looking for evidence that he wanted to use a break-in to get money for a terror attack. But all they seemed to find was evidence that he was dealing drugs in Berlin’s Görlitzer Park (a kind of criminal activity so deeply rooted in Berlin’s culture that police have long given up on trying to prosecute it). In September, the investigation was closed.
“Imagine how many channels you communicate on daily—as a tracker you can barely keep up with all these constantly new channels,” one frustrated security service agent told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
With the added options of texting, chats, and encrypted messages, tracking phones has gotten more challenging since the days of wiretapping. And the German government is still unsure about how to deal with this increased workload for its intelligence services. (The very elderly and formidable conservative politician Wolfgang Schäuble suggested in 2007 that phones should just be forbidden for terror suspects.)
So German law enforcement tried to pin Amri down, and they got pretty close. But it’s also possible that the investigators underestimated one piece of serious information: a report by the state police in North Rhein-Westphalia, which is dated from July, shows that Amri was heard talking about carrying out attacks this summer. Whether this piece of evidence was judged insufficient or ignored is still unclear.
—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey in Paris