BERLIN — The prime suspect sought in the deadly attack on a Berlin Christmas market — a 24-year old Tunisian migrant — was the subject of a terror probe in Germany earlier this year and was not deported following his rejection for asylum because Tunisia initially refused to take him back, a senior official said Wednesday.
The suspect — who went by numerous aliases, but was identified by German authorities as Anis Amri — became the subject of a national manhunt after investigators discovered a wallet with his identity documents in the truck used in Monday’s attack that left 12 dead, two law enforcement officials told The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, a clearer portrait took shape of the suspect, including accusations that he had contact with a prominent Islamic State recruiter in Germany and once tried to obtain a gun.
German authorities issued a 100,000 euro ($105,000) reward for information leading to his capture, warning citizens not to approach the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Amri, who they described as “violent and armed.”
His past record, however, further deepened the political fallout from Monday’s bloodshed — pointing to flaws in the German deportation system and putting a harsh light on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s humanitarian bid to open the nation’s doors to nearly 1 million asylum seekers last year.
Although the vast majority of those who flooded into Europe were on the move to escape war and unrest, dozens of terror suspects have slipped into Germany and neighboring nations posing as migrants. Amri, officials said, was not part of the surge of migrants who entered Europe via the one-time main route from Turkey and Greece — a path that has been now largely cut off.
Rather, he came to Germany last year via Italy, where he apparently had entered as early as 2012. He applied for German asylum, but was rejected in June and later faced deportation.
Amri was the subject of a terror probe on suspicion of “preparing a serious act of violent subversion,” and had known links to Islamist extremists, authorities said.
Why a failed asylum-seeker with such links and no passport was walking German streets is “the question 82 million Germans probably want an answer to,” said Rainer Wendt, Chairman of the German Police Union.
He added: “How many more ticking time bombs are roaming around here? . . . We saw how much damage one person can do with a truck.”
The dragnet for the suspect appeared to initially focus on the German state of North Rhine Westphalia as well as Berlin, both places where the Tunisian suspect once lived, and where police units moved in for possible raids.
The interior minister in North Rhine Westphalia, Ralf Jäger, said the Tunisian man had bounced around Germany since arriving in July 2015, living in the southern city of Freiburg, and later in Berlin.
Though authorities have sought to accelerate the deportation of rejected asylum-seekers this year, there is still a backlog in Germany of tens of thousands, many of whom are able to resist because their countries of origin refuse to take them back. Amri, Jäger said, was one of them.
Amri had not been deported because — like many asylum seekers in Germany — he did not have a passport. The Tunisian government, Jäger explained, initially denied he was their national, and delayed issuing his passport. Pending his deportation, Amri had received a “toleration” status from the government.
Amri’s new Tunisian passport, Jäger said, finally arrived Wednesday.
“I don’t want to comment further on that circumstance,” said a visibly angered Jäger.
According a German security official with knowledge of the case, Amri earlier this year tried to buy a gun from an informant for the German authorities in the state of North Rhine Westphalia.
Importantly, authorities knew that Amri had “interacted” with Abu Walaa, a 32-year old of Iraqi descent arrested in November on charges of recruiting and sending fighters from Germany to the Islamic State. Key evidence in Walaa’s case came from an Islamic State defector who had returned to Germany and accused Walaa helping to recruit him and arrange his travel to Syria.
A 12-year-old boy of Iraqi decent arrested this month for plotting to plant bombs at Christmas markets in the city of Ludwigshafen, had posted remarks on his Facebook page calling for the release of Abu Walaa. It is unclear yet, if the boy had been in direct contact with him or not.
“Anis Amri was engaging with extremist salafist circles in Germany,” the official said.
The leaking of the suspect’s name and photograph in the press, authorities said, may have upset attempts to find him. Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, would only tell reporters in Berlin that Germany had registered “a suspect” as wanted European data bases. He refused to give further details.
The two German law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive case, said investigators discovered the man’s documents in the cabin of the truck that barreled into the market.
It remained unclear whether authorities believe the Tunisian man drove the truck, but police nevertheless made tracking him a priority.
Revelation of the asylum seeker’s background sparked outrage among conservative politicians, and seemed set to damage Merkel, who is running for reelection next year.
“There is a connection between the refugee crisis and the heightened terror threat in Germany,” said Stefan Mayer, parliamentary spokesperson for the Christian Social Union party on domestic affairs told reporters. “This can also be seen in the case of this Tunisian.”
Germany’s Bild newspaper said Amri had several aliases and was apparently born in the southern Tunisian desert town of Tataouine in 1992.
Witnesses described one man fleeing the scene after the truck — packed with a cargo of steel — roared into revelers at a traditional Christmas market. One suspect, a Pakistani asylum-seeker, was arrested on Monday night, but authorities later released him due to lack of evidence.
The new information emerged as German investigators raced for clues in the hunt for Amri and any other possible suspects in the deadly assault that left 12 dead and dozens injured. They pored over forensic evidence and GPS data as they sought to retrace the steps of the runway attacker. They were re-questioning witnesses and analyzing DNA traces found in the truck, and well as on the body of a dead Polish man in the passenger seat.
The Pole worked for a trucking company and was delivering a payload of steel to Berlin. Investigators are currently going on the assumption that he was taken hostage by the assailant — and may even have died a hero. Jörg Radek deputy chairman of the German Trade Union of the Police, said evidence suggested that “a fight took place in the driver’s cabin.” As it careened toward the crowded market, the truck was not driving straight, but “in a zigzag line,” he noted.
Bild also quoted an investigator as saying the Polish man — who was shot dead — also had received multiple stab wounds in a manner that suggested he may have tried to grab the steering wheel to stop the assault as it happened.
The Islamic State on Tuesday claimed responsibility for inspiring the unknown attacker — a claim as yet unproven and possibly just opportunistic — leading some politicians to quickly point the finger at Merkel’s humanitarian move last year to open Germany’s door to asylum seekers from the war-torn Middle East.
Yet others quickly pushed back, calling the accusations a politicizing of tragedy that had no place in progressive Germany.
On Tuesday, Horst Seehofer, chairman of the Christian Social Union, sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats said: “We owe it to the victims, those affected and the entire population to rethink and readjust our entire immigration and security policy.”
On Wednesday, Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann defended Seehofer from a barrage of critics claiming he and others were seizing on the attack to further their anti-migrant stance.
“This is no sweeping judgment of refugees,” he said. “Compared to the high number of refugees, these are only very few, but the risks are obvious and we must not close our eyes.”
There were also growing calls for the deployment of more police on the streets with military-style weapons — a frequent sight in France and Belgium, for instance, but far more unusual in pacifist Germany.
Klaus Bouillon, head of a conference of interior ministers from German states, declared on Tuesday that the country was now “in a state of war.” He called for beefed up security at public events.
At the normally quaint and picturesque Christmas markets in at least three German cities — Mainz, Magdeburg and Dresden — concrete barriers were quickly erected for added security. In Magdeburg, police officers armed with automatic weapons were guarding the entrance.
Yet others argued that living a free society was perhaps more important, and that Germans were willing to accept a certain measure of risk to preserve that openness.
“If we want to maintain the freedom of our society, we simply have to live with the risk contained in this decision,” Die Tageszeitung added in its editorial.