BERLIN, Dec. 21 (UPI) — The man wanted by police as the lead suspect in the Berlin holiday market attack is an African migrant who was ordered months ago to be kicked out of the country for unrelated suspicion of terrorism, a German government official revealed Wednesday.
Investigators on Wednesday said they are looking for a Tunisian national by the name of Anis Amri, who police believe was inside a hijacked Polish delivery truck when it crashed into the holiday market in the Breitscheidplatz district of Berlin on Monday. The act killed 12 people and wounded dozens more.
The suspect fled the scene immediately after the crash and hasn’t been seen since. Police, who are treating the crash as an act of terrorism, are offering a $105,000 reward for Amri’s capture. He should be considered armed and dangerous, they warned.
“If you see the person being sought, notify the police,” officials said. “Do not put yourself in danger, because the person could be violent and armed.”
According to authorities, Amri, 24, was the subject of a previous terror investigation by Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office earlier this year — and that officials knew he was a terror threat, but failed to detain him.
Federal and local German officials, in fact, shared information regarding Amri just last month — but could not remove him from the country because he didn’t have a passport, and the North African nation initially refused to claim him as a citizen.
“The man could not be deported because he had no valid identification papers,” German interior official Ralf Jäger said at a news conference Wednesday, noting that the government asked for those documents in August but didn’t receive them until Wednesday, two days after the attack.
When asked why Amri was not detained or removed from the country, an interior spokesperson told The Independent, “I don’t know, ask Berlin.”
The earlier terror investigation involving Amri was closed in September after officials concluded that they didn’t have enough evidence to charge him with anything.
Officials said Amri arrived in Germany in July 2015 and lived in multiple locations around the country for 17 months. He was refused asylum from the German government in June because he was facing deportation on suspicion of “preparing a serious act of violent subversion.” He was, however, granted “toleration” status to remain in Germany legally.
Amri became the primary suspect in Monday’s attack after investigators said a wallet was found in the cab of the stolen truck that contained his identification. Allgemeine Zeitung reported the identification document found was from an asylum office announcing a stay of deportation for a man identified as Anis A., born in Tataouine, Tunisia, in 1992.
People lay flowers and light candles near the scene of Monday’s attack in Breitscheidplatz Square in Berlin, Germany, on Wednesday. Investigators said they are looking for a 24-year-old Tunisian man as the primary suspect in the case. Photo by Britta Pedersen/European Pressphoto Agency
Officials, though, did not clarify why it took two days to zero in on Amri if his identification was found in the stolen truck. Another man, a 23-year-old Pakistani migrant, was initially arrested while leaving the scene but released later after police decided he wasn’t their suspect.
An investigator told Die Welt the perpetrator stabbed the truck’s rightful driver during the hijacking, officials believe possibly because the 37-year-old Polish citizen made a last-second effort to steer the vehicle away from people at the market. The driver was also reportedly shot.
Investigators said Amri has a criminal record and first emigrated from Tunisia in 2011, and spent three years in Italy. He is believed to be a supporter of the Islamic State, but likely not a true member. AMri, though, may have had contact with an Islamic State recruiter in Germany in recent months.
The terror group took credit for the attack on Tuesday, but authorities are at least somewhat skeptical of the claim — due to similar statements by the group in previous attacks that police believe it had no real involvement with.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed concern that the perpetrator of the crash may be a migrant seeking political asylum in Germany — one of nearly a million she let into the country last year.
Europe has been rattled for more than a year by the migrant crisis, which has seen millions of refugees risk their lives to flee violence and war in their home countries in the Middle East — notably Syria and Yemen, where civil wars are being fought.
In addition to legitimate refugees seeking safety, however, the crisis has been aggravated by scheming militants posing as migrants who intend to use the newly-opened borders to advance their jihadist causes.
Amri’s failed deportation and migrant status are sure to punctuate critics’ claims that Merkel’s humanitarian efforts, while respectable, have largely served to make Germans less safe.
“She is certainly not the only one to blame. But many people in the country project their anger, their fear, on Angela Merkel, on her personally,” German commentator Nikolaus Blome said. “So it will become her toughest test. And the end is wide open.”
“We cannot allow ourselves to be unsettled by this,” Merkel said recently. “We must simply know that this exists, and learn to live with it.”