The prime suspect sought in the deadly attack on a Berlin market – a Tunisian asylum-seeker – had been the subject of a terror probe in Germany earlier this year but was not deported because Tunisia initially refused to take him back, a senior official said Wednesday.
The suspect – who went by numerous aliases, but had a Facebook page under the name Anis Amri – became the subject of a national manhunt Wednesday after investigators discovered a wallet with his identity documents in the truck used in Monday’s attack, two law enforcement officials told The Washington Post.
His record, however, further deepened the political fallout from the bloodshed – pointing to flaws in the deportation system and putting a harsh light on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s humanitarian bid to open the nation’s doors to nearly 1 million asylum seekers last year.
Although the vast majority of those who flooded into Europe were on the move to escape war and unrest, dozens of terror suspects have slipped into Germany and other nations posing as migrants.
The dragnet for the suspect appeared to initially focus on the German state of North Rhine Westphalia, where the Tunisian suspect once lived and police moved in units for possible raids.
The interior minister there, Ralf Jäger, said the man had bounced around Germany since arriving in July 2015, living in the southern city of Freiburg, and later in Berlin.
He applied for asylum, but was rejected in June of this year and became the subject of deportation proceedings on suspicion of “preparing a serious act of violent subversion.” But Jäger said the Tunisian had not been deported because – like many asylum seekers in Germany – he did not have a passport.
The Tunisian government, Jäger explained, initially denied he was their national, and delayed issuing his passport. The passport, he said, finally arrived on Wednesday.
“I don’t want to comment further on that circumstance,” said a visibly angered Jäger.
Officials suggested that the leaking of the suspect’s name and photograph in the press may have upset attempts to find him. Germany’s Interior minister Thomas de Maizière would only tell reporters in Berlin that Germany had registered “a suspect” as wanted European data bases since midnight last night. He refused to give further details.
The two German law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive case, said investigators discovered the man’s documents in the cabin of the truck that barreled into the market, killing 12 people, wounding dozens and reigniting debates about security and immigration.
One of the two officials said the man, in his early 20s, had left his wallet in the vehicle, and his asylum documents were found inside. It remained unclear whether authorities believe the Tunisian man drove the truck, but police nevertheless made tracking him a priority.
The asylum seeker had at first received a “toleration” status from the government, meaning he was not granted full asylum but permitted to remain in Germany legally.
Germany’s Bild newspaper ran a photo of the suspect, who had several aliases and was apparently born in the southern Tunisian desert town of Tataouine in 1992. Bild reported that the suspect was known by the police for alleged physical assault, but was never charged, because he had disappeared.
Witnesses described one man fleeing the scene after the truck – packed with a cargo of steel – roared into revelers at a traditional market. Although one suspect – a Pakistani asylum seeker – was arrested on Monday night, authorities later released him due to lack of evidence.
According to the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Tunisian suspect arrived in Italy in 2012, but moved to Germany in July 2015. In April 2016, he applied for asylum, but disappeared earlier this month. The paper said he had been using eight different names.
The revelation sparked outrage among conservative politicians, and seemed set to damage Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is running for reelection next year.
“There is a connection between the refugee crisis and the heightened terror threat in Germany,” said Stefan Mayer, parliamentary spokesperson for the Christian Social Union party on domestic affairs told reporters. “This can also be seen in the case of this Tunisian.”
Süddeutsche Zeitung, along with other German media outlets, added that the man had contacts with a network run by a radical Islamist known as Abu Walaa, who was arrested last month for allegedly recruiting Islamic State fighters. According to the report, police were searching all area hospitals as part of the manhunt.
The new information emerged as German investigators raced for clues in the hunt for suspects in the deadly assault, poring over forensic evidence and GPS data as they sought to retrace the steps of the runway attacker. They were re-questioning witnesses and analyzing DNA traces found in the truck, and well as on the body of a dead Polish man in the passenger seat.
The Pole worked for a trucking company and was delivering a payload of steel to Berlin. Investigators are currently going on the assumption that he was taken hostage by the assailant – and may even have died a hero. Jörg Radek deputy chairman of the German Trade Union of the Police, said evidence suggested that “a fight took place in the driver’s cabin.” As it careened toward the crowded market, the truck was not driving straight, but “in a zigzag line,” he noted.
Bild also quoted an investigator as saying the Polish man – who was shot dead – also had received multiple stab wounds in a manner that suggested he may have tried to grab the steering wheel to stop the assault as it happened.
Amid these latest revelations, the country has been convulsed in a national debate and political blame trading.
The Islamic State on Tuesday claimed responsibility for inspiring the unknown attacker – a claim as yet unproven and possibly just opportunistic – leading some politicians to quickly point the finger at Merkel’s humanitarian move last year to open Germany’s door to asylum seekers from the war-torn Middle East.
Yet others quickly pushed back, calling the accusations a politicizing of tragedy that had no place in progressive Germany.
On Tuesday, Horst Seehofer, chairman of the Christian Social Union, sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats said: “We owe it to the victims, those affected and the entire population to rethink and readjust our entire immigration and security policy.”
On Wednesday, Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann defended Seehofer from a barrage of critics claiming he and others were seizing on the attack to further their anti-migrant stance.
“This is no sweeping judgment of refugees,” he said. “Compared to the high number of refugees, these are only very few, but the risks are obvious and we must not close our eyes.”
A number of newspaper editorials and other politicians on Wednesday criticized Herrman’s remarks and similar statements as premature and lacking in respect for the victims.
Commentator Jürgen Kaube in the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said such comments risked over-generalizing Muslim migrants and were implicitly turning the hateful views of the Islamic State into “the true representative of the Muslim world.”
“It is appalling if there are now calls to reconsider the refugee policy as a whole,” the paper Die Tageszeitung wrote in an editorial. “Why for heaven’s sake? . . . What happened in Berlin was long feared. An act of brutal violence. The only effective defense: to keep calm.”
There were also growing calls for the deployment of more police on the streets with heavy weapons, including automatic ones – a frequent sight in France and Belgium, for instance, but far more unusual in pacifist Germany.
Klaus Bouillon, head of a conference of interior ministers from German states, declared on Tuesday that the country was now “in a state of war.” He called for beefed up security at public events.
At the normally quaint and picturesque Christmas markets in at least three German cities – Mainz, Magdeburg and Dresden – concrete barriers were quickly erected for added security. In Magdeburg, police officers armed with automatic weapons were guarding the entrance.
Yet others argued that living a free and open society was perhaps more important, and that Germans were willing to accept a certain measure of risk to preserve that openness.
“If we want to maintain the freedom of our society, we simply have to live with the risk contained in this decision,” Die Tageszeitung added in its editorial.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Anthony Faiola, Stephanie Kirchner