European authorities piecing together Anis Amri’s escape route believe he fled from Berlin to the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, then to Nijmegen in the Netherlands and then by budget coach to France.
The ease with which Europe’s most wanted man crossed European borders has sparked criticism of the police and of Europe’s Schengen passport-free travel system. Amri, a 24-year-old Tunisian who had been on a German watch list and whose asylum request had been rejected in June, murdered 12 people and injured around 50 on December 19 when he drove a truck into a Christmas market on Breitscheidplatz in west Berlin. He was killed 79 hours later, early on Friday morning in a shootout with an Italian police patrol during a routine control in Milan.
Germany’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office said on Thursday it had released a 40 year-old Tunisian man arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of having been in contact with Amri shortly before the attack. The man’s cellphone number was stored in Amri’s phone, found in the cab of the Polish truck he hijacked for the attack, but the office said there was no evidence that he was involved in the atrocity.
“The investigation has shown that the detained person was not the possible contact person of Anis Amri and he was therefore released from custody,” a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office said.
Investigations following the attack in Berlin have revealed that Amri sent text messages and made calls minutes before the attack to Islamists in Berlin and the Ruhr region of western Germany where he had lived for a time after coming to Germany in summer 2015, Focus magazine reported, citing security sources. Süddeutsche Zeitung, citing investigators, reported that he wrote in one of the text messages: “My brother, everything is all right if God wills it. I am in the car now, pray for me my brother, pray for me.” He also sent a selfie of himself in the truck.
Lukasz Urban, the Polish man from whom Amri hijacked the truck earlier in the day, was found dead in the passenger seat of the truck after Amri escaped. Investigators initially thought he might still have been alive during the attack and grabbed the wheel to force the truck to veer left out of the market, thereby saving many lives.
It now looks more likely that Amri killed him before the attack with a gunshot to the head. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office said the truck’s automatic braking system had brought the vehicle to a standstill after about 70 to 80 meters. “For this reason even worse consequences were avoided,” the spokeswoman said.
According to Focus magazine, GPS records of the truck’s movements indicate that Amri circled Breitscheidplatz square in the truck three times before striking.
It’s still unclear where exactly Amri fled after the attack, but he had contacts in North Rhine-Westphalia where he had visited dozens of mosques in the past. According to an unconfirmed report by Bild newspaper, his email and Facebook accounts were accessed in an Internet café in Emmerich at around 11 a.m. on December 20, the day after the attack.
He had lived in a migrant hostel in Emmerich, which is in North Rhine-Westphalia. It’s unclear if Amri was the person in the Internet café. But Emmerich is close to the Dutch border, and Dutch prosecutors in Nijmegen on Wednesday said it was “very probable” that a man spotted in security cameras at Nijmegen station at 11.30 a.m. on Wednesday was Amri.
“Our investigations have shown that he traveled via the Netherlands to France and Italy,” the spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office said. “A train ticket was found on Anis Amri that shows a route from Chambéry to Milan. In addition a SIM card was found on him, such SIM cards were handed out free of charge in the Netherlands in the days before Christmas, which is why we believe he may have traveled via the Netherlands.”
French broadcaster TF1 reported that Amri took a bus from the Netherlands to Lyon in east-central, a 15-hour trip. French investigators said security cameras filmed Amri at Part-Dieu station in Lyon, almost 100 kilometers from Chambéry, from where he took local trains to travel to Turin and then onto Milan and the Milanese suburb of Sesto San Giovanni.
In a square outside the station, he ran into a police patrol by chance. When asked to show his ID, he immediately pulled a pistol out of his rucksack and opened fire, injuring one police officer. The second officer returned fire and shot him dead.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said there was no evidence thus that Amri had a support network in Italy.
“The protection of Europe’s external borders only works in theory at the moment.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel, seeking a fourth term in the fall 2017 general election amid criticism that her open-door refugee policy has made Germany more vulnerable, has pledged a thorough review of what went wrong in the Amri case.
According to Süddeutsche and broadcasters NDR and WDR, German anti-terrorism officers discussed Amri on at least seven occasions this year in their Joint Extremism and Terrorism Defense Center, a working group consisting of more than 40 national and regional authorities.
Amri searched the Internet for instructions on how to make a bomb and also tried to make contact with Islamic State, according to state documents obtained by Süddeutsche, NDR and WDR. He tried to volunteer as a suicide attacker for the terrorist group. On at least two occasions, the Joint Extremism and Terrorism Defense Center discussed whether or not Amri was planning a concrete attack. Both times, the defense center concluded that was unlikely.
Spiegel magazine reported on Thursday that German authorities knew early on that Amri used several aliases to fraudulently obtain multiple welfare benefits. A spokesperson for the state prosecutor’s office in the western German city of Duisburg confirmed that the office had launched an investigation into Amri in April 2016 on suspicion of benefits fraud. Prosecutors in Berlin investigated him after he punched a security guard in the face outside the Berlin Office of Health and Social Affairs in 2015. He was using the alias Ahmad Zaghoul at the time. The case was closed because Zaghoul could not be found, Spiegel reported.
It added that the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees later deliberately registered Amri under a false name, Ahmed Almasri, after being asked to do so by the security authorities in March. The aim was to give him a false sense of security while he was under covert surveillance.
A leading German police officer said on Thursday that the case could be “disastrous” for the security authorities, but also blamed Europe’s open borders.
“Since the removal of all interior borders we have suffered a partial loss of control,” Andre Schulz, chairman of the German Association of Criminal Police, told Die Welt newspaper. “For years, we no longer know who exactly has come to Germany and Europe and what the people are doing here. Especially with the high immigration in recent years we’ve seen that many security measures only exist on paper.”
“The protection of Europe’s external borders only works in theory at the moment. The escape of Anis Amri has shown us that an armed terrorism suspect who is the subject of a manhunt can travel relatively freely through half of Europe without being stopped anywhere. The control in Italy was pure coincidence.”
Mr. Schulz added that Germany would “at least” have to launch a parliamentary inquiry into whether security authorities committed avoidable mistakes in Amri’s case.
“Fundamentally the attack in Berlin and the way authorities dealt with Amri has the potential to turn into a disaster for the security authorities on the scale of their failure to recognize the NSU terror cell.”
He was referring to the failure of the police and intelligence authorities to stop a neo-Nazi terrorist cell, the National Socialist Underground, from murdering 10 people, most of them Turkish immigrants, and committing nail bomb attacks in a nationwide killing spree over a seven-year period from 2000 to 2006.
Police in the various cities where the murders happened, from Munich in the south to Rostock in the north, didn’t share their findings which prevented them from even realizing that racist killers were at work until 2011 when they stumbled across the cell by chance.
The case shocked Germany and led to the establishment of the Joint Extremism and Terrorism Defense Center to improve coordination and information sharing across borders — meaning Germany’s many regional borders.
David Crossland is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: email@example.com