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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.

Damaged Confidence

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.

Political Reflexes

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.

Under Surveillance

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.

Intention To Commit an Islamist Attack

In Berlin, Amri was monitored by the Joint Counter-Terrorism Center (GTAZ). The center, created in 2004, enables state and federal police and intelligence services to collaborate in their efforts to stem Islamist terrorism.

The various authorities always meet in the context of different groups. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the BKA and the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) are usually involved, and depending on the severity of the situation, representatives of the German states also attend meetings. In Amri's case, which the GTAZ would revisit several times, the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Berlin were involved. In addition, officials with the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees (BAMF) participated in the so-called Status Working Group.

40 Agencies

cooperate as part of the Joint Counter-Terrorism Center (GTAZ), which focuses on fighting Islamist terror
Federal Criminal Police Office
Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution
Federal Intelligence Service
Federal Police
Central Office of the German Customs Investigation Service
Military Counter-Intelligence Service
Federal Office for Migration and Refugees
Federal Public Prosecutor General
16 state criminal police offices
16 state intelligence services

The group studied the details that the state police in North Rhine-Westphalia had compiled in Amri's file. The record explicitly states that he had voiced the intention to commit an Islamist attack.

However, there was no solid evidence at the time, says a senior investigator, and almost every one of the roughly 550 individuals classified as potential Islamist threats could be accused of bluster. The difficulty, he adds, is to "recognize the difference between bluster and real intent," and it is impossible to closely monitor each individual on the list.

And even if motives of a potentially threatening person seem clear, the counter-terrorism experts at GTAZ do not always agree on the consequences. By removing a potential terrorist from circulation too early, authorities may lose access to valuable information about networks, backers and plans. Being too late can lead to disaster. Either way, it's a balancing act.

Ticking Time Bomb

In the spring of 2016, the GTAZ task force met in Berlin's Treptow district and concluded that terrorism suspicions against Amri were still too vague. Because he was now spending most of his time in the German capital, the federal prosecutor's office sent the information from North Rhine-Westphalia to the Berlin public prosecutor' office, together with the "suggestion" that it launch investigative proceedings against Amri.

On March 14, the Berlin prosecutor's office initiated proceedings against Amri for attempted participation in a homicide. As of April 5, Amri was allegedly placed under "tight" surveillance in the capital. But authorities there received no indications of any terrorist plans.

What they did notice, however, was that Amri, the supposed fundamentalist, was involved in a knifing at Novoline, a cocktail bar in the Neukölln neighborhood, and that he was a "typical minor dealer" who consumed cocaine and Ecstasy, and who didn't observe the fast during Ramadan.

Was all of this for show, to conceal his true intentions? The intelligence experts believed this was possible but had no proof. As a precaution, they notified drug enforcement authorities, who launched a formal investigation in late October.

The Berlin investigators noticed that the Tunisian returned to North Rhine-Westphalia several times by bus or train. On May 6, after Amri had filed an application for asylum at a BAMF field office in the western city of Dortmund, the Berlin authorities removed him from the list of potential threats without further ado. Four days later, their counterparts in North Rhine-Westphalia placed his name back on it. Once again, the authorities were being inconsistent in their treatment of a man everyone believed was a ticking time bomb.

Stonewalling Deportations

Still, employees at BAMF were aware that Amri's account was fabricated. On June 30, the agency denied his asylum application as "clearly unfounded" and declared that he could now be deported. But even that assessment was tentative. Replacement identity documents from Tunisia were required for his deportation, but the Tunisian government was unresponsive, just as it had been in May 2015, when Amri was detained pending deportation in Italy.

It was the same exasperating game that German immigration authorities have confronted for years: More than 70 percent of asylum-seekers arrive in Germany without passports, and the embassies of their native countries are often hesitant to issue replacement documents, or they claim that the person isn't one of their citizens.

In the past, German authorities spent seemingly endless hours determining whether someone was a Tunisian citizen. "A lengthy procedure (lasting from three months to several years)" has been "the rule" until now, according to an internal Foreign Ministry report issued at the beginning of the year.

This has only gradually begun to change, following a visit in February by German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière to Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. Tunisia, in particular, has become somewhat more accommodating to the Germans recently -- so much so that Germany was able to deport 117 rejected asylum-seekers to Tunisia by the end of November 2016, seven times as many as in 2015.

But Amri was not one of them.

One of the best opportunities to get rid of Amri was wasted on July 30. During a routine check on a long-distance bus to Italy, police detained the man in the southern German city of Friedrichshafen with forged travel documents. A local court in nearby Ravensburg issued a warrant for his arrest, but Amri was released two days later because, once again, the necessary documents were missing.

In principle, the law allows for substantially more latitude in such cases. It is permissible to place someone in detention pending deportation for a longer period of time if the person is "responsible" for the delays, perhaps because he has destroyed his documents or refuses to cooperate.

The detention period can even be extended by up to 18 months. In the Amri case, however, authorities may have missed the opportunity to detain him under the newly implemented German Aliens Act. This suggests that even enacting new laws may not be sufficient, says Daniel Thym, a professor and noted expert on asylum law at the University of Konstanz. Instead, he explains, the aim should be to enforce existing laws. "The law may provide many options already, and there is plenty that could be done" he says.

The operative words here are "may" and "could."

Once again, Amri was free to go. About two weeks later, he received a certificate of toleration allowing him to remain in the country temporarily from the immigration authority in the western city of Kleve, issued to him under an alias: Ahmed Almasri. Apparently this was not a mistake but a calculated move. "So as not to jeopardize the ongoing investigation and surveillance of Amri," says a senior security official, "the aim was to lull him into a false sense of security." At the request of security authorities, BAMF employees led the Tunisian to believe that they didn't know his real name.

A Warning from Moroccan Intelligence

On Sept. 9, it became clear, once again, that Amri had not abandoned his plans to stage an attack. The Moroccan intelligence service, DST, contacted its counterparts at the BND and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) with an unusually concrete message. It stated that Tunisian national Anis Amri intended to commit a terrorist attack in Germany. The Moroccans also allegedly named some of his contacts, but apparently none of them was in Germany.

One of the many questions involved in investigating the case is how the BND and the BKA treated the dispatch from the Moroccans, who contacted the Germans again on Oct. 11 -- and whether they forwarded the warning to authorities in Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia. Doubts are warranted, especially given that the Berlin authorities insist that they were not informed.

On Sept. 21, two days after the intelligence warning from Morocco, the Federal Public Prosecutor General discontinued surveillance of Amri. The investigators believed that it would have been pointless to submit a request for another extension of the surveillance order with the relevant court. According to the justice authorities, law enforcement and intelligence agencies "could no longer locate Amri in Berlin at this point or monitor connections to his earlier contacts, nor could he be surveilled at known contact points, especially a particular mosque." In other words, about three weeks before his attack, Berlin authorities, at any rate, had lost track of Amri's whereabouts.

But did this also apply to other security authorities? The Tunisian was still a person of great interest nationwide. In October, security authorities were asked to report all observations concerning Amri to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's anti-extremism intelligence agency.

'Pray for Me Brother, Pray!'

In early November, shortly before Abu Walaa and several of his associates were arrested, Amri was placed on the so-called info board at GTAZ in Berlin once again. In that meeting, officials from North Rhine-Westphalia reportedly insisted that authorities continue to keep tabs on the Tunisian. If this is true, were at least some members of the group aware of Amri's whereabouts at the time? German public broadcaster WDR has reported that an official profile of Amri kept by security authorities, which was last updated on Dec. 14, suggests this may have been the case. According to the profile, the Tunisian was "currently" residing at two addresses in Berlin.

Five days later, on the evening of Dec. 19, Amri plowed a 40-ton truck into the Christmas market. Before that, he managed to find the time to use the Telegram messaging service to send a photo from the truck's cab and the following voice message to a confidant: "My brother, everything is fine. I am in the car now. Did you understand me? Pray for me, brother, pray for me!" After the attack, Amri disappeared without being recognized.

One of the key questions investigators are now asking is who Amri communicated with before his insane act. Did anyone help him? In Berlin or elsewhere? Where did he stay during the last few days of his long journey? And why did he choose such an unusual route to get to Milan?

Initial investigation results suggest that he traveled to North Rhine-Westphalia from Berlin one last time. From there, someone logged in to the Tunisian's Facebook account on Dec. 20 and deleted it. The investigators speculate that Amri may have used the opportunity to send a three-minute video he had made to IS's Amaq news agency, in which he threatens to inflict a bloodbath on the infidels of the West, referred to as kuffar.

From North Rhine-Westphalia, it's a stone's throw to the Netherlands, where it is highly likely that Amri spent some time. Italian investigators found a SIM card, still in its original packaging, in his backpack that could only have been issued in one of the Dutch cities of Zwolle, Nijmegen or Breda. Night busses travel regularly from Nijmegen to Lyon, where Amri walked in front of a surveillance camera on the afternoon of Dec. 22.

It is still unclear whether Amri used the last few days of his escape to get in touch with contacts. It is also unclear why he spent three hours in Turin on his way to Milan.

Blame Game

Where was Amri trying to go on his journey through Europe? Who helped him execute his plan to hijack a semi-truck and turn into it a murder weapon? Who directed him? In the end, how close were authorities to catching him? And who is responsible for the decisions that allowed a person who was deemed a threat and was under surveillance to become a mass murderer? There are many questions, but there are only few reliable answers. And it will still take months to solve some of the mysteries of Breitscheidplatz.

Of course, politicians are unwilling to wait that long. The blame game has already begun in Germany, and no major politician is as good at it as Horst Seehofer. A peace summit between Seehofer's CSU and Merkel's CDU has been planned for months, and Angela Merkel is expected to be declared the two parties' joint candidate for the chancellorship at the event. Now Seehofer has issued the caveat that CDU head Merkel must comply with his party's security policy demands.

"The meeting in early February only makes sense if we can agree on the basic elements of security and refugee policy by then," says Seehofer. "The CSU wants a summit of clarity and not of conflict."

This week, the CSU's national committee plans to approve a document at a party conference at Cloister Seeon in Bavaria in which it will call for the enactment of a long list of tougher laws, ranging from the expansion of video surveillance to the demand that potential threats like Amri can be detained prior to deportation, as well as expanding pre-deportation custody to four weeks.

Stephan Weil, governor of the northern state of Lower Saxony, doesn't think much of these proposals. "We need to create security and not simulate it," says Weil, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). He characterizes the CSU's proposals as "an economic stimulus for the AfD," the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. In light of the terrorism situation, others in the SPD are not entirely opposed to tightening existing laws. SPD deputy leader Olaf Scholz, for example, says: "It has to be possible to place potentially threatening individuals whose asylum applications have been denied into detention pending deportation, and then to deport them directly from detention."

Merkel Forced to the Right

Merkel, who has long pushed to modernize the CDU, is being forced to the right. She is still fighting the demand to introduce an upper ceiling on the number of refugees Germany takes in each year, partly because it would come across as a win for Seehofer. But his supporters are not backing down. "It was never a problem for a politician to change his views after a critical incident," says a CSU cabinet minister in Berlin. "It only creates a problem when lawmakers don't draw any consequences from such incidents."

Merkel would prefer to keep the issue of refugees and the security debate out of the 2017 election campaign. She believes it is not a winning topic for the CDU or the CSU, and that it will only benefit the AfD in the end. Seehofer, on the other hand, wants to fight the AfD offensively, and that includes confronting it with its own issues. "It is completely clear that immigration to Germany raises questions relating to security policy," he says. "We need to answer these questions and realign our policy, especially after the Berlin attack. It's what voters expect from us."

There are also others who are interested in the public's reaction. Officials with the Federal Criminal Police Office now fear that the attack will boost all those forces in the country who believe that every politician is dishonest and that every law is too lax. It is "to be assumed that asylum-seekers, or those viewed as such by right-wing extremists, will increasingly be targeted in acts of violence," reads an internal BKA document. The document also notes that it is to be feared "that the agitation will continue, to the detriment of those who are believed to be politically responsible, and that it will be further intensified in response to incidents."

Shortly after the Berlin attack, it became clear in Islamist internet forums that this is precisely what criminals like Amri are trying to achieve. There have been calls on these sites to commit further terrorist attacks with trucks or cars, so as to continue to terrorize the "enemy." In fact, according to these sites, "any public gathering of kuffar is a target," not just Christmas markets.

By Matthias Bartsch, Maik Baumgärtner, Sven Böll, Jörg Diehl, Hubert Gude, Dietmar Hipp, Walter Mayr, Sven Röbel, René Pfister, Jörg Schindler, Fidelius Schmid, Andreas Ulrich, Andreas Wassermann and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan