(Times) The Berlin market attacker fled 1,000 miles across three countries before he was stopped by a policeman’s bullet. Now Angela Merkel faces a backlash over German security.
A refugee from Syria, Ahmad al-Nadaf, was working in the back office of his Berlin supermarket on Monday evening when one of his employees came in to break the bad news.
A fellow asylum seeker had used a lorry as a lethal weapon, steering it into a bustling Christmas market and causing carnage.
Huddling around a television, the supermarket workers exchanged nervous glances.
Nadaf, 45, is one of dozens of entrepreneurial migrants to have opened shops, restaurants and other businesses that have transformed a trendy district of Berlin into “Little Syria”. Now they were wondering if terror would turn once-welcoming locals against them.
“I feel sad and angry,” said Nadaf. “I stand against this with all that I am.”
At the wheel of the lorry, Anis Amri, a Tunisian, had left 12 dead and almost 50 injured — some still in critical condition yesterday — in his bloody wake.
His attack could spell the end for chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open arms” welcome of migrants, more than 1m of whom arrived in Germany last year.
By the end of last week, the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market had reopened and Amri’s body lay in an Italian mortuary. But the fear and fury he engendered will not go away.
Besides anger at Merkel, there was growing outrage at the security failings that had allowed Europe’s most wanted man to cross the continent unhindered from Berlin to Milan, armed with a gun and without identity documents.
“We are clearly dealing with a failure of the state,” said Christian Lindner, head of the opposition Freie Demokraten, a centrist party and traditionally an ally of Merkel’s CDU. “And that cannot be tolerated.”
In a grimly familiar sequence of events, Isis claimed Amri as one of its “soldiers” and, shortly after his death, a video emerged showing him pledging allegiance to the “caliph” and vowing to slaughter infidels “like pigs”.
Like some of the other attackers to have terrorised Europe over the past two years, it turned out that Amri was a former convict and drug dealer who was suspected of having been radicalised behind bars.
There were other, more disturbing parallels with some of the men who brought carnage to Paris and Brussels.
Even before he hijacked the lorry, the Tunisian had been well known to German police. Not only that, he had been under surveillance for most of the year by Germany’s intelligence agency, whose agents had overheard him, on his bugged telephone, offering his services as a “martyr”.
They also knew he had been shopping for high-calibre weapons and Morocco’s secret police had twice warned their German colleagues, in September and October, that Amri was planning an attack.
Even America had put him on a watch list. Why were none of the warnings heeded?
From the Tunisian town of Oueslatia, Amri’s brother and father expressed “shock” at the news of his involvement in terror. But he had a long history of brushes with the law.
At 16, he had been sentenced to prison for theft. He fled on a smuggler’s boat from Tunisia to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he sought asylum as a juvenile refugee.
He was sent to school but after a string of offences, from violent attacks on teachers and classmates to setting fire to a migrant shelter, he was imprisoned in Sicily.
Freed four years later, he joined the flow of migrants entering Germany, where he was registered under various identities, pretending to be Egyptian or Lebanese. He topped up his welfare income by selling cocaine in Berlin, where he was involved in a string of violent incidents including a stabbing.
At the same time, however, he was consorting with jihadist sympathisers, including Abu Walaa, an Islamist preacher who was arrested in November for recruiting volunteers for Isis. As a result, Amri came onto the radar of the German security police.
He could have been deported after his request for asylum was turned down over the summer. But he did not have the right identity papers — and so he was set free. Tunisia ended up sending a new passport that arrived, with unfortunate timing, just after his attack on the Christmas market.
Amri’s target seemed symbolic — located in the very heart of Berlin. The market had been set up under the towers of the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church, which was bombed during the Second World War and preserved in ruins as a warning to future generations about the horrors of warfare.
People ran screaming as the 40-ton vehicle thundered towards them, leaving a trail of blood and devastation. Then it suddenly veered back into the main road and stopped.
Police believe that Lukasz Urban, the 37-year-old Polish driver who had been seized by Amri along with the lorry, prevented a much bigger massacre by grabbing the wheel and attacking the terrorist. He paid a high price: he was stabbed and shot dead.
If Urban has emerged as the hero of the attack, Germany’s security elite have come in for heavy criticism.
In the first of several blunders, police swiftly arrested a Pakistani asylum seeker who had been seen at the market and spent hours questioning him while the real culprit had plenty of time to escape.
It was not until at least 12 hours after the carnage that police discovered his wallet under the driver’s seat of the lorry, along with his mobile phone. The delay was apparently caused by the late arrival of sniffer dogs to check the lorry for explosives before it was searched.
“From the information we’ve been getting, it’s just shocking how the authorities have worked here,” said Armin Laschet, a deputy chairman in Merkel’s CDU party, referring to the police lapses.
There was no improvement in the public mood yesterday when soldiers were photographed guarding a Christmas market in Cologne with automatic weapons that appeared to contain no ammunition.
Amri made a mockery not only of police but of Europe’s borderless Schengen area: Europe’s most wanted man was left to travel unmolested for 1,000 miles through at least three countries, taking a train from Chambéry, in France, to Turin, in northern Italy, on Thursday before slipping into Milan.
Europe’s growing army of populists, from Nigel Farage to Marine Le Pen of France, were not alone in their outrage at the spectacle of another dangerous terrorist running rings around police.
“We must abolish Schengen, re-establish serious border controls and put all mosques and Islamic centres under surveillance,” said Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s Northern League yesterday.
He was speaking on the spot where Amri was shot dead by police at 3am on Friday outside a train station in the Sesto San Giovanni suburb of Milan. He had shot at police officers, injuring one in the shoulder, after being asked to show his papers in a routine identity check.
Amri was carrying several hundred euros and some personal belongings, but no documents other than his train ticket from Chambéry. “He was a ghost, he didn’t leave a trace,” said Antonio de Iesu, Milan’s chief of police.
There was speculation that Amri had been on his way to meet an Isis contact in the district, which has a large migrant community.
Security sources say a leading Isis recruiter in and around Milan is Moez Fezzani, also known as Abu Nassim — and also a Tunisian. He is believed to have been the producer of a slick Isis video glorifying the attacks in Brussels earlier this year.
As Amri steered the lorry towards his target on Monday, Merkel was attending a ceremony to honour an association for promoting integration of migrants.
“Diversity makes us richer, not poorer,” she said. Seconds later, an aide whispered ominous news in her ear.
Merkel is now under greater pressure than ever to abandon the “open arms” migrant policy. Even before the attack, her conservative Bavarian coalition partners had been threatening to abandon her unless she agreed to a cap on the number of asylum seekers Germany processes, throwing a question mark over her chances of re-election next year.
A poll yesterday showed that her CDU had dipped 1.5 percentage points since the attack. The Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigrant party, rose two points after Markus Pretzell, one of its leading figures, referred to the attack’s victims as “Merkel’s dead”.
But the criticism was not limited to the populist camp. Joachim Herrmann, Bavaria’s interior minister, reiterated calls for “transit centres” along the German border, where migrants would be vetted before being allowed into the country.
He said that many people who had slipped into the country posing as refugees were now “deemed to be dangerous”. Some had been “specifically sent as assassins”, he added. “We must not close our eyes to this.”
Merkel has responded with a show of defiant normality. After a press conference, in which she demanded a full review of state security measures, she was photographed out shopping for groceries — including a £3.50 box of chocolates — in a supermarket near her office.