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Berlin Islamist terror attack: A deadly story of failure

December 18, 2020

Anis Amri committed the worst Islamist attack in Germany to date when he drove into the Christmas market on Breitscheidplatz. Four years later many questions are unanswered. And many fear such an event could be repeated.

Police cars at the scene of the attack by Berlin's Gedächtnis church
The attack on the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz killed 11 and injured 60Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Eleven people died and 60 were seriously injured when the Islamist Anis Amri drove a stolen truck into a Christmas market in central Berlin on December 19, 2016.

The 24-year-old Tunisian national whose application for asylum had been rejected had hijacked the semi-trailer truck, killing Polish driver Lukasz Robert Urban.

The attacker managed to escape and travel through Europe until he was shot dead by Italian police on December 23 after an altercation in Milan.

The stolen and damaged truck
Islamist terrorist Anis Amri drove a stolen truck into the crowd at the Christmas marketImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

The attack on the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market was the most serious Islamist terror attack in Germany to date. And it was "preventable," according to Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the domestic intelligence agency at the time.

Maassen made his testimony in October this year before the Bundestag's parliamentary inquiry committee, set up in March 2018 to establish who was responsible for the many mistakes in the course of the investigation.

It turned out the police had been aware that Amri was more than just a small-scale drug vendor and failed asylum-seeker. Still, they failed to prevent the attack.

"This didn't need to happen, and that for me is the real tragedy," Maassen conceded four years after the attack. But he refused to admit that he personally had made mistakes or that the agency he headed until 2018 had done anything wrong. 

"Mistakes are only ever made by others," was the summary liberal democrat MP Benjamin Strasser gave to DW after Maassen's testimony. "It's about time to come clean on who is responsible for the authorities' failure," he said.

Who was Anis Amri?

Intelligence agencies admit failure

The ball did get rolling after Maassen's controversial appearance before the committee. 

The heads of the German Intelligence Agency (BND) and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) were subsequently questioned by the committee.

BKA chief Holger Münch freely admitted to major shortcomings concerning the exchange of information between German security agencies — and also on a European level. BND chief Bruno Kahl echoed this assessment.

In September and October of 2016, just a few months before the attack, the Moroccan secret service had contacted both the BND and BKA seeking to convey information on Anis Amri's Islamist extremist activities. This information, however, did not get passed on to the domestic intelligence agency (Verfassungsschutz) immediately. Kahl conceded that this was a mistake and should prompt a closer and more critical look at procedures within the organization. The inquiry committee saw this admission as a promising first step.

Experts had warned of attacks on Christmas markets

Four years after the attack we have not learned any lessons, says parliamentarian Strasser (Free Democrats). He sees a lack of real commitment from the ruling parties.

Fellow committee member Fritz Felgentreu from the junior coalition partner SPD refuses to go that far. But he, too, sees serious failures. "A series of errors made it possible for Anis Amri to somehow fall through the cracks of our system," he admits.

Anis Amri was even on the radar of the central anti-terror center GTAZ in Berlin. That is where the federal intelligence agencies and those of the 16 German states pool their resources and share information. Amri was discussed there several times. In retrospect, the coordinator for the intelligence agencies, Klaus-Dieter Fritsche, admitted before the inquiry committee that one had to know that the situation was extremely dangerous. The agencies were aware that the so-called Islamic State (IS) was planning attacks on year-end festivities in Europe.

The scene of the attack in Nice with police cars and ambulances
On July 14, 2016 a Tunisian Islamist drove a truck into a crowd in Nice, FranceImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Goldsmith

Parallels to attack in Nice

The Interior Ministry was also in the picture back then: An expert for international terrorism within the ministry even explicitly mentioned Christmas markets as "especially attractive" targets for Islamist terror, because of the Christian symbolism involved.

Despite all the warnings, there were no special safety precautions, which could have stopped Amri from driving the truck at full speed into the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market.

Half a year before, in July 2016, an Islamist terrorist had driven into a crowd of people who were celebrating the French national holiday in the southern city of Nice, killing 80 people. Like Amri, the perpetrator was a Tunisian national.

After the attack in Nice, German authorities discussed the likelihood of something similar happening in Germany too, and started thinking about "sensible" measures that could be taken to prevent it, a terrorism expert with the Interior Ministry told the inquiry committee.

Setting up concrete barricades at the entrance of pedestrian areas was one of the ideas up for discussion. They were set up everywhere – but only after the Christmas market attack.

But what consequences were there on the political level? Berlin Interior senator Andreas Geisel quickly named a special investigator, who presented his findings in autumn 2017: The security agencies had failed on all levels, he found.

A week before Christmas 2020, Geisel has been called as a witness by the inquiry committee. One of the questions put to him is why the Berlin intelligence agency actually stopped the surveillance of Amri weeks before his attack. This was due to a personnel shortage, Geisel explained. "It was clearly a mistake," he concluded. The personnel shortage has been addressed: Berlin's police force has hired an additional 1,000 officers. But, Geisel added, "there can never be absolute security."

Thomas de Maiziere entering the committee room wearing a face mask
Former Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere was the last witness before the inquiry committeeImage: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

The buck stops with the interior minister

Thomas de Maizière, who was Germany's federal interior minister in 2016, was the last witness to be heard by the committee.

He began by talking about his feelings at the time. He felt "endless sorrow" and "great anger," he felt reminded of the events in Nice, and he asked himself whether the attack in Berlin could have been prevented. But, he said, he couldn't find a convincing answer to that and believes all that can be done is to learn from the mistakes. As interior minister, he stressed, he accepts full responsibility.

The attack revealed weaknesses in the system, de Maiziére said. But he also came out in support of the security agencies. Finally, he recalled speaking to survivors of the attack and said that this was the most moving encounter in his whole time in office.

This article was translated from German.

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.