December 24, 2016
Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: the Berlin Christmas Market terrorist attack this past week came as the clearest example yet of the deadly mix of modern events and policies that have allowed Europe to become a new terrorist target. This exclusive report from Milan – where the fugitive terrorist was killed by police – brings together what is known until now with details from Italy that have not yet been reported, and anticipates future actions.
Anis Amri, the suspect in the deadly terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin this past week, was killed by the Italian police in a shootout outside Sesto San Giovanni railway station (on the outskirts of Milan) around 3 a.m on Friday 23 December. A reward of 100,000 euros had been offered for information leading to his capture. Speaking later in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel thanked the Italian police. ISIS has also released a video of the young Tunisian pledging his allegiance to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, explaining his actions as vengeance against “those who bomb Muslims every day.”
Anis Amri’s Escape Route to Italy, and Possible Motives
Having fled the crashed truck in Berlin, the terrorist managed to cross three borders – a fact that critics of the Schengen Zone are sure to bring up – before reaching Milan. It is still unclear how he left Berlin. French investigators have just opened an inquiry to understand the precise route that Amri took, after Italian authorities confirmed that he had entered their country from France.
After getting out of Germany, the terrorist had purchased a Chambéry-Milan ticket in Chambéry station. From Chambéry to Turin he was traveling alone. He left the French station at 5:15p.m. on 22 December and arrived in Turin at 8:18 p.m.. Italian newspaper Repubblica reports that (according to one important Italian anti-terrorism investigative source) the only possible reason why Amri would have decided to get off the train in Turin would be that he came across someone like a Polfer agent (the train station police) doing a routine ticket check. By 22 December, his photos had become widespread online. Anti-terrorism officials are now investigating whether Amri used the three hours he stayed in Turin to look for shelter, or if he was contacting someone in Milan.
Italy’s General Investigations and Special Operations Division (DIGOS), coordinated by the Milanese counter-terrorism chief, Alberto Nobili, had also stated that Amri arrived in Italy from France, and added that surveillance cameras in Milan train station recorded Amri’s movements around 1a.m. on 23 December.
However, a point of detail that most foreign media have missed is that it is still unclear how he managed to get to Sesto San Giovanni (by around 4 a.m) as there is a 7-kilometer distance between the two places. “How he traveled there and what he was doing there are subject to delicate investigations,” Antonio De Iesu, director of the Milan police, said. “We have to understand whether he was in transit or was awaiting someone.” The final results will be communicated only after accurate and probably lengthy in-depth analysis carried out by the intelligence services.
The most likely current hypothesis for Italian investigators is that Amri had arrived in Milan lacking any pre-planned safe house, and thus decided to spend the night looking for someone who could help him within the historic Tunisian Islamic community.
A second, but less probable motive would be that, in a desperate and irreversible decision for martyrdom, Amri had chosen Milan as his final destination, as a place for vengeance against a country that he had grown to hate and in whose jails he had felt humiliated. This (for now, less likely) scenario would have seen Amri attempt another attack in Italy. In whatever case, his behavior even before the Berlin attack marked Amri as a very dangerous individual, so it was great luck that the police managed to find him, almost completely by accident.
New Details from Italian Security Officials
In a formal note, Interior Minister Marco Minniti made it very clear that details of the operation cannot be discussed as investigations are still underway. At a press conference in Milan, Police Chief Antonio de Iesu and Gen. Tullio del Sette, the commander of the Carabinieri, tried to clarify facts and information.
According to the very first account provided by Mr de Iesu, Amri was standing alone on a piazza in Sesto San Giovanni, next to the northern terminus of the M1 subway line, when the officers stopped him and asked for identification. Amri was “aggressive, firm and determined” with the officers, Mr. De Iesu said.
Amri was carrying a small knife and a few hundred euros, but no cellphone. He apparently responded to police – in good Italian, with a North African accent – that he was not carrying any documents with him. They asked him to empty his pockets and backpack. That is when he pulled out the pistol.
“It was a regular patrol, under the new system of intensified police checks on the territory,” Mr. De Iesu said. “They had no perception that it could be him, otherwise they would have been more careful.” Amri is said to have shouted ‘police bastards,’ in Italian, after he was shot.
Items Gathered and Varying Identities
The police have announced finding on Amri the train tickets (only from Chambéry to Milan), euro notes, shower gel, a tooth brush and tooth paste, and a 22-caliber pistol. Repubblica.it added today that when killed, Amri was wearing three pair of trousers one on top of the other. This curious combination of items tends to support the likelihood of a relatively spontaneous and sudden attack in Berlin, and that he had planned to live after escaping.
Investigators are also looking into the Tunisian’s ‘digital life.’ Italian TV channel Rai News 24 has just said that he had 7 different Facebook profiles with fake identities but with the same family members and friends among his contacts.
A History of Violence and Evasion in Europe’s Migrant Detention System
Now investigations are underway to understand why Amri chose Italy and whether this was his final destination to seek refuge. If so, investigators are trying to determine whether he was trying to reach someone he knew. Otherwise, they are trying to determine whether Amri could have considered Italy as only a transit country.
His past link to Italy is apparent, making the former more likely. He left Tunisia in 2011, during the ‘Arab Spring,’ arriving on Italian shores. During his stay he was held responsible for burning down a reception center for migrants in Sicily.
Later, Amri was detained for four years in six Italian jails (Enna, Sciacca, Agrigento, Palermo and Caltanissetta). He was housed at the identification and expulsion center, judged as “a dangerous and violent inmate.” In his native Tunisia, Amri’s brother said earlier this week that he and his family were “shocked” by his alleged involvement in the attack. After coming out of the expulsion center, however, the deportation mandate was never carried out and Amri crossed into Germany in July 2015. He applied for asylum, but was rejected in July 2016.
Amri should have been deported from Germany after his asylum request was denied. He was even in police custody after being caught with fake papers. But he slipped through the hands of German law enforcement, and now officials are asking how that happened.
Further Indications of a Probably Spontaneous Attack Decision
One of Amri’s phones was found in the truck that he crashed in Berlin and the two SIM cards – according to the information coming from two important Italian investigative sources – appear to have not been in use at that time. This is another indicator that neither the Berlin attack nor the escape that followed were pre-planned. In this case, Islamic State may have been looking for a propaganda victory and had only a broad association with the terrorist- a much different situation than with its involvement in the Paris attacks of November 2015. Regardless, for the general public the result is still the same: more panic and fear about potential attacks.
Likelihood of the Terrorist’s Development in Migrant Centers and Jails
According to the reconstruction of facts made by the daily newspaper La Stampa it is very likely that Amri had previously made friends with radical Islamist prisoners in the Agrigento jail; authorities noticed “suspicious behavior conducive to radicalization.” In January 2015, he was transferred to the Ucciardone prison in Palermo, due to “serious and valid security reasons.”
Another Italian newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, reported that Amri’s behaviour was pointed out by the penitentiary prison administration department which soon informed the Anti-terrorism Strategic Analysis Committee; this body includes members from the judiciary, police and the intelligence services.
Further Radicalization in Germany?
Therefore, while in prison, Amri could have possibly been affected and influenced by the activity of proselytizers. However, Amri later established contacts with “the most important representative of ISIS in Germany,” Abu Walaa, an Iraqi preacher who was arrested only last month. German authorities claim that Abu Walaa was guilty of recruiting fighters for ISIS. Also, Amri had been ordered to be deported back to Tunisia, but bureaucratic obstacles prevented the authorities from following through on this. Further, last September the authorities stopped electronic monitoring of Amri, even though he had been identified as a security risk.
Recently, Italian media have also reported that German investigators believe that Amri also had another mentor among Walaa’s group: Boban Simeonovic, a 36-year-old Serbian-German from Dortmund (Westphalia), considered to be very radical. Simeonovic, arrested for terrorism last November together with Walaa, had provided direct links with different German members of the Islamic State in Syria.
CNN has added to the story now by referencing the focus placed on all three men in a 345-page German security report from November, when Simeonovic was arrested. “Anis spoke several times about committing attacks,” said CNN, citing a police informant who told this to German investigators, according to the files. “The informant said Simeonovic and another member of the network “were in favor of that and gave him a place to hide. Members of the Abu Walaa network also discussed driving a truck full of gasoline with a bomb into a crowd, the police informant told investigators, according to the documents.”
It thus seems likely from all the data available to us that Amri was personally and spontaneously carrying out a specific attack plan that his cell had generally discussed carrying out, before it was partially disbanded by German authorities. Therefore, while probably a ‘lone wolf’ attack, the Berlin attack has aspects of an organized jihadist operation, rather than simply the personal decision of one deranged individual.
Security Precautions in Milan Increase amidst Public Fears
Currently anti-terrorism efforts in Milan have increased. The Duomo Square (Piazza del Duomo) has been cordoned off by anti-truck barriers made of concrete to protect the Christmas markets and to increase the general level of security in the city.
The turbulence has affected public perception regarding local security too. The Sesto San Giovanni area is mostly a residential one, and people living there have a general perception of fear and insecurity, fearing that Lombardy could become soon an operational basis for “sleeper cells.”
ROS Carabinieri are indeed looking into a sleeper cell that could exist with links in Lombardy and bases in Bergamo, Lecco and Varese. In this area the control of the territory and the work of intelligence led to the expulsion and arrest of four radicalized people affiliated to ISIS in recent years. (Balkanalysis.com has already reported on some Northern Italy-based networks, in November 2015 and again in December 2015).
Furthermore, in the Sesto San Giovanni area the biggest mosque in northern Italy is under construction. It has been at the center of huge criticism lately. The local Islamic community there strongly condemned the attacks and dissociated with Amri’s behavior.
Yesterday, Milan mayor Giuseppe Sala planned to sign the already-agreed “Pact of Milan;” this 650-million-euro investment in urban security includes stepping up military and police staff in sensitive spots.
Moreover, while the Monza Prosecutor is investigating the shootout, the Milan Prosecutor opened a case to understand why the Berlin killer was in Italy at all, after crossing the borders of three countries without being recognized or stopped. According to the very first indiscretions, no hypothesis can be excluded, above all the possibility that he had some accomplices and support in Lombardy.
The Italian police are currently focusing on Amri’s life in Italy over the last few years and the radical contacts that he established once he entered Germany. It seems that he was not an Islamic extremist before coming to Europe, and that the idea of terrorist attacks only came later when he was in Germany, after being in contact with jihadi-Salafist members and mentors.
Possible Support Networks and Other Concerns
TGR Lombardia TV has announced that authorities are now investigating any possible support network that would have been prepared to help and offer shelter to Anis Amri. This network could be specifically located between the two cities of Sesto San Giovanni and Cinisello Balsamo. The reason for this is that Italian authorities confirmed that the Polish-owned truck that crashed into Berlin’s Christmas market on 19 December had departed for Germany from the Italian city of Cinisello Balsamo.
Another concern is officer safety from possible revenge attacks. The Interior Minister disclosed the names of the two young policemen who had to confront and kill Amri. This, together with the images of the two men spread widely in the media, raised criticism among the public and the security forces that their identities could potentially put their lives in jeopardy in future.
The Italian newswire Ansa quoted an excerpt from a new document released by the Head of State Police, Franco Gabrielli, which claimed that “after this shootout episode, much more attention must be paid, as actions in retaliation against policemen and state authorities cannot be excluded.”
Finally, the website Il Sole 24 ore.com it has just published an analysis by Middle East expert Alberto Negri, who attests that some parts of Milan and Lombardy have become logistic and recruiting bases for potential jihadists. Evidence cited for that includes arrests and inquiries last August, which dismantled important jihadi cells. Italy has been considered for a long time as the entry point towards Europe; the country has so far prevented jihadists from carrying out attacks locally. But, as the case of Anis Amri shows, luck is very desirable, but not something that can be counted on to tackle a persistent and constant threat.
The horror of the Berlin Christmas market attack, in the larger context of a Europe confronted by major political polarization over border, security and immigration policy, will have effects both for policing and larger political events. The use of a vehicle as a weapon of terror is hardly a new one, but the brazen attack on a crowded public space is going to cause a rethink for urban planners and leaders across Europe, as they grapple with emerging security threats.
Secondly, even if it is not followed by other similar events, the terrorist attack and its dramatic, cross-Continental end, are sure to affect the upcoming elections in France, Germany and other countries, intensify existing debates over border policies, and further create conditions for violent confrontations between rival political blocs on the far left and right, in which it can expected that migrants and Islamist actors will also play a part. If 2016 was an unpredictably dangerous year for Western Europe, it is likely that 2017 will be even more turbulent.