German federal prosecutors are due to take over the investigation into the hostage-taking at Cologne’s main train station on Monday in a sign it is being treated as a possible terrorist attack.
Authorities said they weren’t ruling out terrorism but are keeping an open mind after it emerged that the attacker, a 55-year-old Syrian asylum-seeker, may have been suffering from psychological problems, appeared dishevelled with unkempt long hair and a three-day beard, and was under the influence of alcohol.
Police said he lived in Cologne and had come to Germany at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015. His residence permit is valid until 2021. The suspect amassed a lengthy criminal record in just two short years for various crimes including theft and causing injury.
His wife lives in Syria but has twice been denied a family reunification visa. He also has a son, who lives in Offenbach near Frankfurt. The son was also questioned by police.
The attack began in the McDonald’s inside the station early on Monday afternoon after he poured a gasoline and the floor and set it alight. The resulting explosion was recorded by a video surveillance camera. A 14-year-old girl was seen fleeing the restaurant with her legs on fire and had to undergo an operation for burns. Police said other customers in the restaurant were lucky not to have been seriously injured.
When the sprinkler system turned on, the man ran into a pharmacy in the station and took a female employee hostage. In negotiations with the police he demanded the release of a Tunisian woman being held in jail as well as free passage. He also demanded a suitcase and a bag he had left behind in the McDonald’s.
The police said he told passersby he belonged to the “terror group Daesh,” which is the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Stable but in a coma
The suspect was armed with an air gun, camping gas canisters that were stuck together with adhesive tape as well as bottles of fire accelerant.
Police stormed the pharmacy after a two-hour standoff, shooting him three times when he attempted to set the hostage on fire. He was seriously injured and required surgery. Police said he was out of danger on Tuesday but in a coma.
The female hostage was slightly injured. A total of four people including the assailant were hurt in the attack which led to the closure of the station, a major hub in the German railway network, for several hours.
The interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Herbert Reul, said: “The police took determined and professional action that prevented worse from happening.”
The man has been charged with two counts of attempted murder and hostage taking, prosecutors said.
Police appealed on Twitter for eyewitnesses to upload photos and video footage that may help them. They said they were trying to establish whether he had accomplices. At present, there are no indications that he did.
David Crossland is an editor for Handelsblatt Global.