Why it’s so hard for Europe to stop terrorists — even when they’re under surveillance
An international manhunt is underway for Anis Amri, a 24-year-old Tunisian national whose ID and fingerprints were found in the truck that plowed through the crowds at a Berlin Christmas market Monday, leaving 12 dead and dozens injured. German authorities have offered a €100,000 reward for Amri, who they warn could be armed and dangerous, and has previously used a number of aliases and claimed various nationalities, including Lebanese and Egyptian.
Revelations that the prime suspect in Monday’s terror attack on Berlin’s popular Breitscheidplatz market was a known terror threat who was monitored but not deported have prompted anger and disbelief in Germany.
German security services are facing harsh questions over how Amri was able to remain in the country, as alarming details emerge about his background.
What we know about Anis Amri
Amri first registered as an asylum-seeker in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia in July last year, Ralf Jäger, the state’s interior minister, told reporters.
Jäger said his application was denied a year later due to concerns about his Islamist activities, including links to a prominent radical preacher known as Abu Walaa, and a probe had been launched against Amri earlier this year over suspicions he was preparing “a serious act of violence against the state.”
Citing security sources, German media outlets have reported that Amri was on a terror watch list, while Germany’s state prosecutor said his communications were under surveillance between March and September, following a tip that he may have been planning a burglary to finance the purchase of firearms.
But efforts to deport Amri after his asylum application was rejected were held up because of his lack of documentation, Jäger said. Tunisia had initially claimed that Amri was not one of its nationals – his Tunisian papers were not received by authorities until two days after the attack, Jäger said.
Amri had been highly mobile during his time in Germany, the interior minister said, moving between North Rhine-Westphalia and Berlin, before apparently dropping off the radar of the security services last month.
Amri hails from Tunisia, a North African country that, despite being regarded as one of the few democratic success stories of the Arab Spring, has in recent years become a major breeding ground for recruits to the Islamic State group. The Center for Strategic and International Studies says that an estimated 6,000-7,000 Tunisians have left home to join extremist groups abroad, making the country one of the largest contributors of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.
According to German and Italian media reports, Amri left after the uprising of 2011, and made his way to Italy. The Wall Street Journal reports that he was arrested and jailed for four years there for his involvement in a fire at a migrant detention center on the island of Lampedusa, and that Tunisia rejected Italian efforts to deport him.
In Tunisia, Amri’s family have called on him to turn himself in. “If he is watching me now, I just want to blame him for what he has done,” his brother Walid Amri told The Telegraph.
The brother of the Berlin truck attack suspect has urged him to turn himself in pic.twitter.com/YPodCyDdlJ
— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) December 22, 2016
The Islamic State group, which has explicitly called for its supporters to kill non-believers using vehicles, claimed responsibility for the attack by calling the attacker a “soldier,” but provided no further evidence to back up its claim. The statement mirrored language used in previous claims following vehicle-based attacks — most recently in Columbus, Ohio in November and Nice, France in July.
The attack on Berlin was not the first time that an individual monitored by security services has gone on to strike terror into the heart of Europe, and points to the growing challenges European intelligence services face in their attempts to keep the continent safe.
Why Europe struggles to share info on terror
Reports of terrorists carrying out attacks despite having been under surveillance are hardly new in Europe, as security services struggle to come to terms with each new threat.
A number of the IS militants who struck Paris in November last year had been on the radar of security services in Belgium before they carried out the attacks that killed 130. One of them, Salah Abdeslam, then managed to slip through the fingers of French authorities and remain at large for four months before he was finally caught in a suburb of nearby Brussels.
Faced with a changing landscape of online radicalization, homegrown jihadi fighters returning from battlefields in Syria and Iraq, and a wave of recent migrants, many of whose backgrounds are an unknown factor, coordination between European security services is not what it should be, say analysts.
“You need a lot more exchange of information within Europe,” Marc Pierini, an analyst at Carnegie Europe, told VICE News.
“These types of terrorists are highly mobile; they go from one side of Europe to the other and are very often undetected – some even slip through controls.”
Pierini said while there had been some improvements, European intelligence services were still struggling to share intelligence at a level necessary to combatting the movement of terrorists across Europe’s borderless Schengen zone.
“Intelligence services are still very much a national thing,” he said. “They trust some of their counterparts but not all.”
In some jurisdictions, intelligence-sharing even within national borders could be an issue, as appears to have been the case with Amri. Armin Laschet, a deputy chair of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, told German public radio on Thursday that the suspect may have slipped off the radar due to a lack of coordination between German regional authorities after he left North Rhine-Westphalia.
“So the attitude seems to be: He’s off to Berlin, so the case is closed for us here, now it’s Berlin’s turn,” Laschet told Deutschlandfunk radio, calling for better cooperation between security agencies.
But the challenge of identifying potential threats has also become greater in the face of the IS’s advanced online propaganda apparatus and grooming campaigns. As recent events elsewhere have shown, so-called “lone wolf” attackers, radicalized online, can be hard to detect.
“Someone who is not a jihadist can become one in a flash,” said Monica Duffy Toft, an Oxford University professor of public policy.
Pierini said that more broadly, Western European societies had failed to adjust to the fact “that we now have a new normal,” and structure their public life accordingly.
The truck attacks in Berlin and Nice follow with recent IS directives urging supporters to carry out unsophisticated attacks using whatever weapons are at hand.
“Any public gathering like a Christmas market now has to be physically protected by concrete barriers against trucks or cars,” he said. “This is where the whole of Europe’s at risk.”
Cover: (REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)