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How German Authorities Bungled Arrest of Berlin Attacker

Lukasz Urban, a truck driver from Poland who was found dead in the truck’s cab, is thought to have struggled with the attacker. Photo Tobias Schwarz – Agence France-Presse

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BERLIN – Searching the cab of the tractor-trailer that plowed through a Christmas market in Berlin, the authorities made two startling discoveries: a badly bruised body with stab and gunshot wounds, and the wallet of a Tunisian labeled a security threat who was supposed to have been deported months ago.

The identity of the Tunisian, Anis Amri, immediately alarmed intelligence officials from Europe to Washington. German officials acknowledged that Mr. Amri was known to have links to a radical Salafist preacher and had been in their custody pending deportation proceedings after being caught with fake papers. He was freed, even though he was considered potentially dangerous by the authorities.

He also appeared on the radar of United States agencies, according to American officials. He had done online research on how to make explosive devices and had communicated with the Islamic State at least once, via Telegram Messenger, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigation. He was also on a United States no-fly list, the officials said on Wednesday evening.

As an intense hunt for the man who may be behind Germany’s worst terrorist attack since reunification took on even greater urgency, the authorities were being dogged by questions over what more they should have done to track or detain him. Mr. Amri remains on the run with a reward of 100,000 euros (about $104,000) for information leading to his arrest.

The failure to keep him in custody and deport him suggests that Germany, which prides itself on a can-do efficiency, is suffering the same breakdowns as France and Belgium in allowing people known to the authorities to carry out acts of horrific violence.

The aftermath has left Chancellor Angela Merkel even more isolated and embattled for her decision to allow nearly a million asylum seekers to come to Germany unchecked in 2015.

In July of that year, Mr. Amri entered Germany from Italy, according to the account given by the German authorities Wednesday. He applied for asylum in April, said Ralf Jäger, interior minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, where Mr. Amri lived for a time.

While there, Mr. Amri was placed under surveillance on suspicion of plotting an attack, Mr. Jäger said. When Mr. Amri moved to Berlin, the authorities there continued to monitor him until the inquiry was closed, he added, refusing to provide further details.

Mr. Amri had first come to the attention of the authorities for ties with the preacher, Abu Walaa, known as “the man with no face,” for his habit of preaching with his back to the camera, according to a German intelligence official who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the investigation.

Abu Walaa was arrested on Nov. 8 and charged with recruiting terrorists and openly supporting the Islamic State. The question now is whether Mr. Amri may have been one of them.

Though clearly known to the authorities in Germany, Mr. Amri apparently used several aliases and false documents.

Because he did not have a valid passport, and because Tunisia did not initially acknowledge he was a citizen, it was not possible to send him back, German officials said on Wednesday — the day, they added, that the Tunisian authorities finally did issue a passport.

The fact that German officials were still working to track someone who may now be responsible for the attack in Berlin and should have been deported months ago was “outrageous,” said Stephan Mayer, a spokesman for the conservative bloc in Parliament.

Worse, Mr. Mayer said, the man had spent a day in custody pending deportation, but was released because the authorities could not establish his identity “beyond doubt.”

“This is a person who apparently was known to be potentially dangerous and who apparently was to be deported,” he said.

The Tunisian was considered by security officials to be a gefährder, someone deemed likely to endanger the state.

There are 549 people listed as dangerous Islamists, not all living in Germany, an Interior Ministry official said on the condition of anonymity, which is habitual here when discussing such matters.

German intelligence and law enforcement authorities, like those in France and Belgium, say they are overwhelmed by what it would take to keep constant tabs on such large numbers of people. They are under various degrees of surveillance, but a full-time watch on all of them would require up to 40 officers per individual — impractical, security sources say.

Mr. Amri, who is believed to come from the hardscrabble south of Tunisia, appears to have had more than one brush with the law.

His father told a Tunisian radio station, Mosaique FM, that his son left Tunisia about seven years ago and served four years in prison in Italy after being accused of setting fire to a school. In Tunisia, he was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for violent robbery, the station reported.

After making his way to Germany, he was arrested in August in the southern city of Friedrichshafen with a fake Italian document and released shortly afterward, according to a law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a current investigation.

The German authorities say they connected him to the attack in Berlin by an identity document found in a wallet left on the floor of the black Scania tractor-trailer.

The wounds on the body of the truck’s dead driver, Lukasz Urban, who had wanted to return home to Poland early to spend Christmas with his family, suggested that he may have struggled with his assailant.

His wife and co-workers became concerned that something was wrong on Monday afternoon, hours before the attack.

His wife tried to call him in Berlin about 4 p.m. She could not get through. Data transmitted from the truck about 3:45 p.m. indicated that whoever tried to start it did not seem to know what to do.

Mr. Urban, 37, had been on the road for more than a week when he left Turin, Italy, on Sunday. On Monday morning, he arrived in Berlin to deliver 25 tons of steel beams to a warehouse owned by a subsidiary of ThyssenKrupp.

Mr. Urban had not been scheduled to deliver the steel until Tuesday, and was told to wait.

He parked on a street that runs along a canal opposite the warehouse. About noon, he called Ariel Zurawski, a cousin and the owner of the trucking company, based in the village of Sobiemysl, near the German border.

They discussed whether Mr. Urban could come home sooner. He had been scheduled to continue on to Denmark, and hoped to be back home by Thursday so he would have time to buy a present for his wife.

Two hours later, Mr. Urban sent Mr. Zurawski a photo of himself eating at a kebab shop.

At 3 p.m., Mr. Urban’s wife, with whom he had a child, called him, but they spoke only briefly because she was at work. It was 45 minutes later that the data transmitted from the truck turned strange.

“Someone tried to ignite the engine multiple times,” said Lukasz Wasik, the trucking company’s transport manager.

“It didn’t look like someone was trying to start the truck to warm it up,” he added. “It looked rather like clumsy attempts at starting it, like someone didn’t know how to do it and had to try a couple of times to work it out.”

Shortly after 7:30 p.m., the truck began heading west toward the center of Berlin. “We could see that the truck was on the move right away,” Mr. Zurawski said.

At Breitscheidplatz, in a bustling commercial neighborhood near the Zoological Garden, Berliners and tourists gathered at the annual Christmas market.

The wounds on the body of the truck’s dead driver, Lukasz Urban, who had wanted to return home to Poland early to spend Christmas with his family, suggested that he may have struggled with his assailant.

His wife and co-workers became concerned that something was wrong on Monday afternoon, hours before the attack.

His wife tried to call him in Berlin about 4 p.m. She could not get through. Data transmitted from the truck about 3:45 p.m. indicated that whoever tried to start it did not seem to know what to do.

Mr. Urban, 37, had been on the road for more than a week when he left Turin, Italy, on Sunday. On Monday morning, he arrived in Berlin to deliver 25 tons of steel beams to a warehouse owned by a subsidiary of ThyssenKrupp.

Mr. Urban had not been scheduled to deliver the steel until Tuesday, and was told to wait.

He parked on a street that runs along a canal opposite the warehouse. About noon, he called Ariel Zurawski, a cousin and the owner of the trucking company, based in the village of Sobiemysl, near the German border.

They discussed whether Mr. Urban could come home sooner. He had been scheduled to continue on to Denmark, and hoped to be back home by Thursday so he would have time to buy a present for his wife.

Two hours later, Mr. Urban sent Mr. Zurawski a photo of himself eating at a kebab shop.

At 3 p.m., Mr. Urban’s wife, with whom he had a child, called him, but they spoke only briefly because she was at work. It was 45 minutes later that the data transmitted from the truck turned strange.

“Someone tried to ignite the engine multiple times,” said Lukasz Wasik, the trucking company’s transport manager.

“It didn’t look like someone was trying to start the truck to warm it up,” he added. “It looked rather like clumsy attempts at starting it, like someone didn’t know how to do it and had to try a couple of times to work it out.”

Shortly after 7:30 p.m., the truck began heading west toward the center of Berlin. “We could see that the truck was on the move right away,” Mr. Zurawski said.

At Breitscheidplatz, in a bustling commercial neighborhood near the Zoological Garden, Berliners and tourists gathered at the annual Christmas market.

The market surrounds the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was badly damaged by bombs during World War II.

The market consists of rows of temporary wooden stalls with walls painted brown or dark red and roofs of red and white striped fabric, many with garlands of evergreens, with lights strung above.

One row, next to Budapester Strasse, was filled with stands serving sausage, fried potatoes and other food as well as glühwein, the mulled wine that is ubiquitous at German Christmas markets.

The attacker followed a route through Berlin that allowed him to approach the Christmas Market from the west.

Mr. Urban was still in the cab and may have been alive at that point, the German security official said Wednesday. At the intersection of Budapester Strasse and Kantstrasse, the attacker swerved from the street and steered the truck into the market.

Yvonne Albrecht, 52, was working at a stand that served glühwein, eggnog and soft drinks when the rampage began, two stands away. A friend of hers leapt out of the way.

The truck traveled at least 50 yards, mowing down scores of people, shattering stands and leaving a trail of dead and injured.

An artificial Christmas tree lay in the street next to the truck. Inside, Mr. Urban was dead.

According to Mr. Zurawski, photos suggested that Mr. Urban had struggled with the attacker. His face was badly bruised, and he had stab wounds as well as a gunshot wound to the head, Mr. Zurawski said.

German prosecutors said they are trying to determine when Mr. Urban suffered the wounds.

After the truck stopped, Ms. Albrecht opened the back door of her stand. The truck, its windshield shattered, was right behind her.

She said in a telephone interview that she had not been able to sleep since because she kept seeing the injured people in her mind.

On Tuesday, she attended a memorial service held among the shuttered stands. At some stalls, solitary candles were perched on countertops.

On Wednesday, the first stands opened their shutters. Ms. Albrecht said she hoped to go back to work at the market Friday.

Source: New York Times, Agence France-Presse


Melissa Eddy reported from Berlin, Jack Ewing from Frankfurt, Joanna Berendt from Warsaw and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Alison Smale and Franziska Reymann contributed reporting from Berlin, and Sewell Chan from London.

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