The suspect in Berlin holiday market attack was shot dead near Milan, according to Italian officials, bringing an end to an international manhunt for the 24-year old Tunisian that had kept the continent on edge as the holidays fast approached.
Anis Amri was killed, Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said, after a dramatic 3:30 a.m. encounter at a routine checkpoint in the Piazza I Maggio in the Sesto San Giovanni area of greater Milan. When encountered by police, Amri pulled a gun and shot one officer, before being shot dead. His identity was confirmed via a fingerprint match.
“He was the most wanted man in Europe,” said Minniti. “There is absolutely no doubt that the person killed is Anis Amri.”
The news comes as German police said they had thwarted a new terror attack planned against a shopping mall and arrested two brothers from Kosovo, as Germany and Europe are on high alert for the holidays.
Authorities detained the brothers, aged 28 and 31, after receiving an intelligence tip-off, according to North Rhine Westphalia police. Security at the Centro Mall in the western German city of Oberhausen has been beefed up.
Just prior to Amri’s death, new details emerged about his movements. Local broadcaster RBB published stills from surveillance footage allegedly showing him coming out of a mosque in Berlin’s Moabit neighborhood on the Wednesday and Thursday before the attack.
The outlet said other footage had also placed him at the mosque a few hours after Monday’s attack.
Amri had a criminal record in Europe and his native Tunisia. He washed up on European shores in a migrant boat in April 2011, landing on the windswept Italian island of Lampedusa already a fugitive. Sought in his native Tunisia for hijacking a van with a gang of thieves, the Italians jailed him for arson and violent assault at his migrant reception center for minors on the isle of Sicily.
There, his family noted, the boy who once drank alcohol – and never went to mosque – suddenly got religion.
He began to pray, asking his family to send him religious books. The Italian Bureau of Prisons submitted a report to a government anti-terrorism commission on Amri’s rapid radicalization, warning that he was embracing dangerous ideas of Islamist extremism and had threatened Christian inmates, according to an Italian government official with knowledge of the situation. The dossier was first reported by ANSA, the Italian news service.
The Italians tried to deport Amri but couldn’t. They sent his fingerprints and photo to the Tunisian consulate, but the authorities there refused to recognize Amri as a citizen. The Italians, officials there say, could not even establish his true identity. Italy’s solution: After four years in jail, they released him anyway – giving him seven days to leave the country.
German police believe he drove the massive black truck plowed into a Christmas market teeming with holiday revelers in Berlin on Dec. 19, killing at least 12 and wounding dozens more. He had previously known links to Islamist extremists, and German efforts to deport him also failed because Tunisia had initially refused to take him back.
The night before the attack, Amri called his family in Tunisia, as he would nearly every weekend. His birthday – on Thursday – was fast approaching, and he seemed animated.
“What’s the weather like? Is it raining? What are you having for dinner?” his sister, Sayida Amri, 36, in his bleak home town of Oueslatia, Tunisia, recalled him asking Sunday. He asked her, she said, to pass the phone to his youngest niece, Zeinab – 4 years old.
“Do you even know who I am?” he asked her.
His case suggests two critical realities of modern terrorism that present major new challenges, especially in Europe. The cumbersome, sometimes flawed system of deportation and asylum – mixed with open borders – has made it exceedingly easy for radicalized Islamists to operate on the continent.
Yet Amri is also the latest suspect to have emerged from a disconcerting counterterrorism gap in both Europe and the United States.
In case after case – including that of the German Christmas market attack – authorities have come forward after the fact to say that they had enough cause to place the suspect under surveillance well before the violence. But never enough to move in for an arrest.
This has been true of the majority of lone-wolf terrorism plots over the past several years. The Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, had been under FBI investigation for 10 months.
The bureau had also tracked but had been unable to build a case against the Boston Marathon bombers or the plotters who targeted a contest to draw cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
The same was true with Amri.
Several months ago, during a surveillance operation monitoring radical Islamic preachers, German authorities intercepted a communication, which, in retrospect, appeared to forecast Amri’s violent intent. They would not disclose the precise wording, but two German officials with knowledge of the investigation said the intercept was not straightforward enough to directly indicate an imminent threat.
“He never made such a clear statement during this interaction, which could have led to the conclusion that he would become a martyr,” one of the officials said.
Amri fell into a dangerous gray zone – he was on the U.S. no-fly list a month ago, and Germans had linked him to a radical network led by Abu Walaa, a 32-year-old of Iraqi descent arrested in November on charges of recruiting and sending fighters from Germany to the Islamic State.
Amri had also been under police surveillance for several months until September of this year, because he was suspected of planning a burglary in Berlin to finance the purchase of weapons. The suspicion wasn’t confirmed, however, and authorities found him guilty only of being a small-time drug dealer.
“This kind of super-low-tech, improvised thing is hard,” said Rafael Bossong, research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “The guy didn’t buy any weapons. He didn’t give off absolutely clear signals. The question is, how do you definitely prevent that?”
Amri appears to have attempted to manipulate the German asylum system – an inundated bureaucracy clogged with a backlog of more than 400,000 cases following the arrival of 1.2 million asylum seekers over the course of the past two years.
According to Der Spiegel, he claimed to be Egyptian and to have suffered persecution there when applying for asylum in Germany in April. When officials questioned him, he could not answer basic questions about his alleged home country. They checked their data system and found that he had been registered under several aliases and birthdays. By July, his asylum request was rejected.
And yet, they could not deport him, because Tunisia initially refused to take him – issuing him a passport only last Monday, the same day as the attack.
The way the system is designed, even had Amri fully cooperated, however, the Germans would not have had access to his criminal record in Italy. The computer databases used in Europe to vet migrants in the first instance does not include such data.
European law enforcement officials say that sharing information across borders has sharply increased in the 13 months since the Bataclan attack in Paris. But just because information is in a database does not always mean that it gets used, they say.
“I’m not sure it’s that we don’t have enough information,” said Brian Donald, the chief of staff of Europol, the pan-European police agency. “I think it’s more about ensuring that law enforcement has access to the information we have.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Anthony Faiola, Souad Mekhennet