There are growing calls for political accountability in Germany as the public emerges from the shock and trauma of the country’s most deadly terrorist attack in recent memory. A western German state, hundreds of miles from where the Berlin attack took place, is bearing the brunt ot it.
The political opposition in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia called a special session of the regional parliament on Thursday to question Interior Minister Ralf Jaeger about why authorities failed to prevent the truck attack that killed 12 people at a Berlin Christmas market in December.
Anis Amri, the 24-year-old Tunisian perpetrator, was under police surveillance as a potential terrorist threat months prior to the Berlin attack. Amri had arrived in Germany as a refugee in 2015 and lived at a shelter in North Rhine-Westphalia, where he made connections with local Islamists.
Though Amri’s application for asylum was rejected, authorities were unable to deport him because he didn’t have any papers. Mr. Jäger said there also wasn’t enough concrete evidence to convict him on terrorism charges before a court of law.
“The attack was committed by a man whom security services nationwide knew a lot about,” Mr. Jäger admitted to the parliamentary session. “Authorities did everything they could and should do legally.”
For the political opposition in North Rhine-Westphalia and many people across the Germany, Mr. Jaeger’s answer simply isn’t good enough. Joachim Stamp, a regional parliamentarian, called for Mr. Jäger to “have the courage to take political responsibility,” in effect demanding his resignation.
“The legal grounds to take Amri out of circulation were certainly there.”
It’s not the first time that Mr. Jäger has faced scrutiny for a security failure. The interior minister came under fire last year for the failure of state authorities to stop a wave of sexual assaults against women by North African migrants and refugees during New Year’s eve celebrations in the city of Cologne.
When challenged by Mr. Stamp during Thursday’s parliamentary, Mr. Jäger shook his head and looked to the ceiling in frustration. Lessons have to be learned from the case of Amri, he said, but the authorities didn’t fail in North Rhine-Westphalia.
“In Germany, there’s no prison for beliefs,” Mr. Jäger said.
The evidence collected by authorities, however, has suggested that Amri was intent on acting violently in the name of his radical beliefs. The Tunisian searched the Internet for bomb-making instructions and even tried to buy a firearm from an undercover police agent.
Amri visited 12 different mosques that are considered meeting points for Islamic radicals, and he volunteered in the Internet to become a suicide attacker, though the language he used was cryptic. North African security services also warned that Amri posed a threat.
“The legal grounds to take Amri out of circulation were certainly there,” said Cem Özdemir, the national head of the opposition Green Party.
Amri was known to authorities under 14 different identities, according to a report from North Rhine-Westphalia’s justice ministry. Yet even after the attack, he still managed to escape Germany and travel to Italy, even though he was recorded by a security camera during a stop in Belgium.
German authorities continue to have difficulties pursuing leads in the case. Police have detained a Tunisian national who met with Amri for dinner the night before that attack. Yet they don’t have evidence to hold him on those suspicions. Instead, the suspect is currently being held in jail on separate charges of welfare fraud.
In the wake of the attack, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has proposed centralizing Germany’s security services so suspects don’t fall through the cracks of a complex and layered federal system. Mr. Özdemir, a leading opposition figure at the national level, has expressed openness to the idea, but many states have rejected the plans.
The head of the conservatives in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, has called for an obligatory, transnational system in the European Union to share data about terrorist suspects. And Bavaria’s interior minister, Joachim Hermann, has renewed calls to extend the amount of time that migrants can be held in deportation detention. Individuals without a right to stay in German who are classified as a threat should remain in detention until they are deported, he said.
Frank Specht is a political correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org