A Known 'Threat' Why Did Germany Fail to Stop Terrorist?
German authorities identified Anis Amri as a potential terrorist threat months ago. How did they fail to stop him from committing his deadly attack? These government failures are likely to haunt the country for months to come. By SPIEGEL Staff
Anis Amri chose his escape route as if he were trying to fool authorities one last time. As if he were playing a child's game, he crisscrossed Europe for hundreds of kilometers, first traveling to the Netherlands and then to France, a country where a state of emergency has been in effect since November 2015 to help authorities track down terrorists more effectively.
In Chambéry, a town near Lyon, the Tunisian national boarded a train to Turin, Italy, on the evening of Dec. 22. He was there for three hours before boarding another train at 10:54 p.m. at the Porta Nuova train station that would take him to the final station of his life.
The long journey of Anis Amri ended in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, in Milan's Sesto San Giovanni district, more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) from Berlin. After exchanging fire with two police officers, the 24-year-old Tunisian lay dead on Piazzi 1 Maggio. When they searched his body, investigators found several mobile phones, SIM cards and 1,005 euros ($1,048) in cash. His backpack, in which he probably hid his pistol, also contained a toothbrush, a plastic bottle of German shampoo and a few toiletries. The man who shocked Germany apparently wanted to look well-groomed right up to the very end.
The showdown in Sesto happened almost two weeks ago. And while there was a palpable sense of relief over the Christmas holidays that at least the man who had previously been listed by the German authorities as a "potential threat," was no longer on the loose, there was also growing apprehension over the question of why Amri could not have been stopped earlier.
Day after day, new details are emerging that reveal how easily the Tunisian strolled through the holes in the German asylum system. How he became radicalized under the eyes of German security officials. How he was able, with apparent ease, to shoot and kill a truck driver in Berlin, steal his truck and then use it to kill 11 random victims. And how quickly the presumed killer at a Christmas market in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church dissolved into thin air before resurfacing four days later in Milan.
All of this has the potential to shatter an already damaged confidence in the power of the government, one that in 2016 seemed helpless as it witnessed several terrorism firsts on German soil: In Würzburg, the first serious attack in the name of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS); in Ansbach, the first suicide attack on German soil; and now, in Berlin, the first attack in the name of IS to claim a large number of civilian victims.
And because the perpetrators in each case were refugees -- or rather, criminals masquerading as refugees -- the case has fueled the debate over whether the government should be warm-hearted or defensive in its handling of migrants and refugees. After the debates in a year in which a state of alert has become the norm, it no longer seems possible for both approaches to exist simultaneously.
It is not yet clear which chain of errors led to the deaths of 12 innocent people in Berlin shortly before Christmas. And it is unclear who bears the brunt of the responsibility for the attack. It is already emerging, however, that it will probably take a parliamentary investigative committee to figure out the chaos that led to the most devastating attack in Germany since the 1980 Oktoberfest terror attack. It could take months or even years.
But the political reflexes have already set in. Horst Seehofer and the party he heads -- the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- are calling for a new asylum system, one that would serve as more of a deterrent than a tool for helping people. They also want to see new security laws enacted as quickly as possible, as if the security packages of recent years had never existed. At the beginning of a year in which Germany will hold a parliamentary election, the fear of terror goes hand-in-hand with the fear of populists, and those fears threaten to obscure our vision.
If there is one thing that Amri's story shows, it is that laws only make sense when they are actually applied and that, in a federal state, there are many things that are often ineffective and even result in no one taking responsibility.
The core mission of the government is to investigate the errors and omissions in the Amri case and draw the necessary consequences, even though it is clear that people determined to use violence to achieve their aims can never be completely stopped.
A Criminal Career
Amri's long journey began in the spring of 2011. Fearing prosecution Amri, who was 18 at the time, made his way to Europe. In his case, the fear of prosecution was completely justified. He was being sought by police in his native Tunisia for allegedly stealing a truck.
He continued his criminal career in Italy. He was accepted into a hostel for underage refugees in the Sicilian town of Belpasso after stating his age falsely. On Oct. 24, 2011, Amri and four other Tunisians started a fire at the hostel and beat up an employee. He was convicted of the crime and sent to prison, where he remained for almost four years. In prison, he once said threateningly to a Christian inmate: "I'm going to cut your head off."
Even then, Italian authorities sensed that the man they had apprehended was no ordinary criminal. In an internal document, the police in Catania described Amri's Islamic fundamentalist beliefs and violent character.
During his imprisonment, details about Amri were sent to the Anti-Terrorism Strategic Analysis Committee (C.A.S.A.), which reports directly to the Italian interior minister. The authorities suspected that the Tunisian was capable of committing a terrorist attack.
The Italians wanted to get rid of Amri as quickly as possible. After his release from prison on May 18, 2015, he was placed at the Center for Inmates Awaiting Deportation in the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta. But because the Tunisian authorities refused to allow Amri to return to the country, he was released and told to leave Italy. Amri went into hiding and re-emerged in Germany about two months later.
It will probably never be entirely clear which path the young man chose at the time. Only one thing is certain, namely that he was registered with the Berlin State Office for Health and Social Affairs (Lageso) at the end of July 2015, under the name Ahmad Zaghoul. He soon attracted the attention of authorities when he allegedly punched a security guard in the face on the Lageso grounds. But the case against him had to be dropped because "Zaghoul" had disappeared.
In that summer of 2015, thousands of refugees were arriving in Germany every day, and in the fall as many as 10,000 a day. The influx overwhelmed federal police officers at the border to the point that they simply allowed large numbers of refugees to enter the country without properly completing normal identification procedures. In many cases, refugees were only registered by state or local authorities after they had entered the country.
These authorities issued the new arrivals, sometimes without any further scrutiny, a "Certificate of Registration as an Asylum-Seeker," known as the Büma. This piece of paper, sometimes even without a photo, was accepted by the authorities as a sort of substitute identification document, and was also temporarily deemed sufficient to identify recipients of social services.
A number of state and local authorities didn't even take fingerprints of the newcomers. And when they did, some of the computer systems they used were not compatible with one another. As a result, it was often impossible to match the data with information on file with the authorities in neighboring states or the fingerprint data files of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA).
Exploiting the System
Because of these shortcomings, it was possible to exploit the system by using different names to move from one refugee accommodation to another, keep applying for new Bümas and repeatedly receive benefits for asylum-seekers.
Amri apparently took advantage of the situation thoroughly. In the months following his arrival, he registered under at least nine different aliases in various cities, including Oberhausen, Dortmund, Karlsruhe and Freiburg. Because he sometimes failed to appear at initial reception centers, alerts were issued to investigate his whereabouts.
It was not until the spring of 2016 that German authorities managed to largely put an end to efforts to exploit the system by changing identities. From then on, all asylum-seekers were fingerprinted during their initial registration and their information was stored in a central core data system. The fingerprints were also sent to the BKA, which checked them against the European Union's EuroDac fingerprint database for asylum-seekers and irregular border-crossers. In Amri's case, the system had been introduced several months too late.
In April 2016, the district attorney's office in the western city of Duisburg initiated proceedings against him on allegations of fraud. Amri was accused of having collected social benefits twice in November 2015. The case was suspended in November 2016, a few weeks before the Berlin attack, because no one in Duisburg could track Amri's whereabouts.
It is astonishing to see how easily Amri managed to fool the immigration authorities in his first few months in Germany, but even more astonishing is the fact that he openly expressed his radical views, thereby quickly attracting the attention of German security officials.
In the summer of 2015, shortly after he had entered Germany, police in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia received a tip that Amri was in contact with the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Soon afterward, the Tunisian came to the attention of federal prosecutors, who were investigating Abu Walaa, a hate preacher in Hildesheim, a city in northern Germany. Amri allegedly played the role of a "disseminator of information" in his group -- that is, he passed messages from Abu Walaa to his followers.
But apparently the tips were not sufficient to initiate proceedings against the Tunisian. Instead, in the spring of 2016 federal investigators in Karlsruhe obtained a court order enabling them to monitor Amri's use of telecommunications. The task was assigned to the State Criminal Police Office (LKA) in North Rhine-Westphalia.
The investigators noted that Amri was gathering information on the internet on how to make pipe bombs. He also reportedly told an informant that he intended to obtain weapons in France to stage an attack. He apparently wanted to buy an AK-47, the same type of automatic rifle terrorists used to massacre dozens of people in Paris in November 2015.
In an internet chat, Amri wrote: "I want to get married, and I want to serve the religion of God." The investigators feared that it was in fact an encoded message to indicate that he was willing to commit a suicide attack.
In February 2016, the North Rhine-Westphalia LKA classified Amri as a potential Islamist threat, and as someone who could commit an attack at any time. In the official jargon, he was referred to as a "functional type: player." But the state police in North Rhine-Westphalia suddenly found their surveillance efforts hampered by a simple fact: Amri had moved to Berlin.
- Part 1: Why Did Germany Fail to Stop Terrorist?
- Part 2: Intention To Commit an Islamist Attack