Revelation that authorities sought and failed to deport asylum seeker stokes criticism of Angela Merkel’s refugee policy
The Wall Street Journal
By ANTON TROIANOVSKI and RUTH BENDER
Updated Dec. 21, 2016 7:31 p.m. ET
BERLIN—Anis Amri, a Tunisian migrant whom authorities previously investigated for suspected terror ties and tried to deport, became Germany’s most wanted man as the new prime suspect in the capital’s deadly truck attack.
The revelation that the asylum seeker had been able to remain in Germany despite efforts to expel him stoked a furor over what many politicians called dangerous gaps in the country’s immigration policy and escalated the political crisis facing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.
The federal police issued a rare international wanted notice for Mr. Amri—who arrived in Germany last year after time in an Italian prison—and offered a €100,000 ($104,000) reward, warning that he could be armed and dangerous.
Officials cautioned that they weren’t certain that Mr. Amri had, in fact, committed the crime and that it was possible someone else had planted the man’s residency permit in the truck. It was discovered in the cab of the semitrailer Tuesday, the day after it rammed into a Berlin Christmas market, leaving 12 dead and dozens injured. But, they said, the man was currently their No. 1 suspect.
Details emerging about Mr. Amri’s biography showed the case’s potential to boost critics who have argued that Ms. Merkel wasn’t taking Germans’ safety seriously enough in her open-door refugee policy. It also raised questions about the effectiveness of Germany’s security apparatus and, more broadly, Europe’s, particularly since the onset of the continent’s migration crisis.
On Wednesday, it appeared that critics’ predictions had come true: Despite German authorities’ earlier suspicions that the suspect had links to Islamist extremism, they said they had been unable to deport him because he lacked documentation proving he was from Tunisia. Officials said Germany finally received the new papers from Tunisian authorities on Wednesday—two days after the Christmas market attack.
“There is clearly a connection between the refugee crisis and the elevated terror danger in Germany,” conservative lawmaker Stephan Mayer said after a closed-door briefing in parliament on the investigation.
German officials said Wednesday afternoon that they were optimistic that the suspect would soon be caught. But as night fell, there was no word of his capture, and the federal police issued the international wanted notice—a step that typically faces high legal hurdles in Germany because of privacy concerns. One official said a leak about the suspect to some German news outlets in the morning might have helped him evade capture.
Authorities had missed a chance to launch their manhunt for Mr. Amri earlier. On Tuesday, prosecutors released an initial suspect detained just after Monday evening’s attack after determining he was the wrong man. The same day, investigators found the residency document for Mr. Amri after missing it in an earlier search of the truck’s cab, a German security official said.
Mr. Amri, who according to Tunisian officials turns 24 on Thursday, arrived in Germany last year after making his way to Italy from Tunisia in 2011, officials said. That year he was arrested and imprisoned for four years after being involved in a fire set to a migrant detention center on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Once he was released, Italian authorities tried to send him back to his home country, but say Tunisia wouldn’t accept him, according to an Italian official.
Reached by phone in Tunisia, Mr. Amri’s 30-year-old brother, Walid Amri, said the prison sentence changed his brother. Anis Amri became more devout, Walid Amri said, though he said he didn’t know of clear extremist links.
“The people he spent time with in the prison affected his way of thinking,” said Walid Amri, who added that he last spoke to his brother 10 days ago and didn’t know whether he was still alive. “He started praying and he quit smoking.”
“I won’t say [he was influenced by] ISIS,” Walid Amri said, referring to Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for the Berlin attack. But, he added, it was possible that his brother was behind the truck rampage
Once in Germany, German officials say, Anis Amri applied for asylum in the western part of the country. He moved to Berlin in February. In March, Berlin prosecutors launched a probe after receiving a tip from federal security agencies that Mr. Amri might be preparing an attack. He was planning a burglary, the tip said, to fund the purchase of automatic weapons.
Authorities rejected his asylum application in June, but he couldn’t be deported because he lacked a valid passport and instead received temporary permission to stay.
Germany sought to procure new travel documents for him, but Tunisia initially challenged Mr. Amri’s status as a Tunisian citizen, said Ralf Jäger, the interior minister of the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Even as the negotiations with Tunisia dragged on, prosecutors and security officials across the country continued to investigate Mr. Amri for suspected links to Islamist extremism. A security official said he had connections to a fundamentalist Muslim preacher, known as Abu Walaa, whom German police took into custody in November for allegedly leading a network recruiting fighters for Islamic State.
Abu Walaa, identified by prosecutors also as Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah A., was arrested on suspicion of being the ringleader of the suspected jihadist network that managed to smuggle at least one young man with his family to Islamic State in Syria. The 32-year-old Iraqi is known for openly backing Islamic State including during events promoting the fundamentalist Salafi branch of Islam in Germany, according to federal prosecutors.
Shortly after starting the probe into Mr. Amri’s activities in the spring, Berlin prosecutors won court authority to monitor his communications and observe his movements. But months of surveillance failed to reveal any evidence to back up the security agencies’ tip, the Berlin general prosecutor’s office said Wednesday.
Instead, the surveillance, which ended in September, found Mr. Amri to be active as a small-time drug dealer in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood.
State and federal security authorities discussed Mr. Amri’s case in a meeting at the Joint Counterterrorism Center in Berlin in November. While agents from the domestic intelligence agency in North Rhine-Westphalia also saw links between Mr. Amri and Islamist extremists, the evidence that he might be planning an attack didn’t meet the burden of proof for launching 24-hour surveillance, an official familiar with that meeting recalled.
As a result, German authorities monitored Mr. Amri only sporadically in the weeks before the attack. Sometime in late November or early December, the official said, Mr. Amri disappeared from their radar. “This person attracted the attention of various security agencies in Germany because of contacts to a radical Islamist milieu,” Mr. Jäger said at a news conference.
Tunisia’s Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on the claim that the country initially refused to accept Mr. Amri, but said it was looking into the matter. Mr. Amri was a fugitive after a conviction for armed robbery, the country’s Interior Ministry said.
In Berlin, the growing challenge for Ms. Merkel became clear after senior security officials briefed the parliament’s internal-affairs committee on the investigation on Wednesday.
Mr. Mayer, who represents Bavaria’s Christian Social Union party that is allied with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said the case showed the connection between migration policy and the terror risk. Mr. Amri “clearly entered Germany through Italy in the context of the refugee crisis,” he said.
—Noam Raydan, Giada Zampano and Andrea Thomas contributed to this article.
Write to Anton Troianovski at firstname.lastname@example.org and Ruth Bender at Ruth.Bender@wsj.com