Berlin on high alert as suspect in Christmas market attack still on the loose
BERLIN (WASHINGTON POST) - The German capital is on high alert with one or more suspects still at large after a deadly truck assault on a Christmas market, even as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for an act that struck at the heart of Europe's Christian traditions.
Chancellor Angela Merkel decried the assault – which left 12 dead and 52 injured after a truck carrying a payload of steel careened into festive stalls and fairgoers in Berlin on Monday (Dec 19) – as a presumed "terror attack," even as German police scrambled to find the culprit.
The only suspect to date – a Pakistani asylum seeker taken into custody shortly after Monday's bloodshed – was released by police late Tuesday because of insufficient evidence.
This left police scrambling for fresh leads in the assault. German police accelerated efforts to study forensic evidence, including analysis of blood stains within the cabin of the truck – turned into a weapon in a tactic used just five months earlier in a similar holiday rampage on France's southern coast.
Investigation teams moved to piece together what they described as "circumstantial evidence," including witness descriptions and video footage. But no criminal sketches were released to the public, suggesting how much remained unknown.
Late Tuesday, the ISIS, through the Amaq news agency linked to the group, claimed the attacker was a "soldier" responding to its call to target coalition nations. The group has wielded the term before to describe lone wolves inspired by its rhetoric, and it remained unclear its level of involvement, if any, in coordinating the attack.
And as night settled on the gritty German capital, Berliners were cautioned to stay on guard.
"It is the case that we possibly still have a dangerous offender in our area," warned Berlin's police chief, Klaus Kandt. "These days it is necessary to be vigilant."
In Germany and across Europe, revulsion and angst over the strike at a joyous symbol of the region's Christmas traditions sparked governments to act. The holiday spirit was being replaced by muscle.
Italy said it would ramp up security for Christmas events, including Pope Francis's appearance at St. Peter's Square. The Czechs pledged "massive" security at public events on Christmas and as the country rings in the new year.
French officials said security at Christmas markets were immediately reinforced even as its lawmakers observed a minute of silence for the all-too-familiar tragedy in Germany.
MODUS OPERANDI, TARGET SUGGEST ISLAMIST EXTREMISM
The attack in Berlin, officials concluded by Tuesday, was almost certainly deliberate. A Polish national was driving the truck when it left Poland en route to deliver a cargo of steel in Berlin. The driver was found shot dead in the passenger seat.
Holger Münch, president of the Federal Office for Criminal Investigation, said police were "highly alarmed" because they did not know who was behind the attack and the gun used on the victim in the truck had not been found.
The modus operandi and target, officials said, indicated – but offered no confirmation – that Islamist extremists may have been involved.
The ISIS has previously cited traditional Christmas markets as viable marks in their wave of terror in Europe, and the Berlin assault was reminiscent of the truck-on-sidewalk tactic used by a self-proclaimed ISIS adherent in Nice, France, last July. That attack resulted in the deaths of 86 people on the Promenade des Anglais on Bastille Day, another festive moment.
German authorities beefed up security at important sites in Berlin and elsewhere, while a false bomb scare caused the evacuation of the train station in Cologne. Flags were flown at half-staff across Germany, even as the city's markets shut down for the day out of respect for the dead.
Across Europe, nations raised their terror alerts and put more police on the streets. London's Metropolitan Police department, for instance, said on Tuesday that it would review its plans for securing Christmas and New Year's celebrations following the Berlin attacks.
The plans, the department said in a statement, "already recognise that the threat level is at 'severe,' meaning an attack is highly likely, and have considered a range of threats, including the use of large vehicles."
Dr Merkel – who laid white roses at the attack site at the normally bustling plaza at Breitscheidplatz in a chic shopping district in west Berlin – called on Germans not to give into fear as the holidays approached.
"We don't want to live with the fear of evil paralyzing us," said Dr Merkel, dressed in black as she spoke in Berlin. "We will find the strength for a life as we want to live it in Germany: free, united, and open."
Earlier, she spoke to President Obama by phone, and he pledged US aid in the German investigation. As of late Tuesday, only seven of the bodies had been identified – that of the Polish driver and six Germans killed at the market.
QUESTIONS OVER LAX SECURITY
German authorities – accused of mishandling other terror-related cases this year – were under mounting pressure to catch the culprit even as questions arose about security measures at the market.
That a threat existed was well known. The State Department issued a specific travel warning to Americans that "credible information indicates the (ISIS), Al-Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan terrorist attacks in Europe, with a focus on the upcoming holiday season and associated events."
Yet the Christmas market attacked on Monday appeared to lack basic protections, such as concrete barriers, to warn off a Nice-like attack."We cannot turn Christmas markets into fortresses," police chief Kandt countered.
By midday on Tuesday, German authorities were losing confidence that they had caught the right suspect.
The 23-year-old Pakistani had first arrived in Germany last December, before coming to Berlin in February. Police knew him, officials said, although they would not say precisely for what.
During their investigation into the man, German police raided a refugee shelter housed in Berlin's old Tempelhof airport, where the suspect appears to have lived. Following the raid, officials began to backtrack until prosecutors issued orders to release him.
"The forensic examinations that were carried out could not prove the presence of the accused in the driver's cab of the truck at the time of the crime so far," the prosecutors said in a statement.
CHANCELLOR MERKEL UNDER PRESSURE
But the mere prospect of an asylum seeker's involvement fuelled the debate in Germany over Dr Merkel's decision to allow in nearly a million migrants last year, many of them fleeing war in the Middle East. The chancellor was coming under fire by critics on Tuesday for opening Germany's door to asylum seekers, as well as to risk.
European asylum procedures have been criticised as lacking in robust vetting. On Tuesday, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière described a chaotic processing of the Pakistani suspect's asylum case. Several attempts to hear his claim failed, the minister said, "because he did not appear" for assessment.
A later hearing ended in failure when the suspect claimed he spoke Balochi, a language for which German officials did not have a translator.
Dr Merkel, acknowledging the possibility that a migrant might yet be involved, said it would be "particularly appalling to the many, many Germans who are actively helping refugees every day and to the many people who are indeed needing our protection and are making an effort to integrate in our country." Political pundits were already speculating whether the latest attack could damage Dr Merkel's re-election bid next year.
Mr Marcus Pretzell, chairman of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany, tweeted: "When will the German legal state strike back? When will this damned hypocrisy finally stop? These are Merkel's dead!"
Mr Pretzell also shared a tweet by Justice Minister Heiko Maas announcing that flags at the ministry would fly at half-staff alongside the comment: "If the government doesn't act soon, you can soon saw the masts in half."
The incident occurred as Germans have had to endure a growing threat of terrorism – including two small-scale attacks in July.
German prosecutors last week said they were investigating an incident in which a 12-year-old boy allegedly plotted a nail-bomb attack at a Christmas market in the southern city of Ludwigshafen. According to German media, investigators said that they think a member of the ISIS guided the boy, who holds dual German and Iraqi citizenship.
German officials, however, appeared to bungle at least one major case. In October, Germans were shocked when Jaber Albakr, a 22-year Syrian asylum seeker suspected of plotting a bomb attack on a Berlin airport, managed to evade police for two days.
After being caught, he managed to hang himself in his jail cell despite being placed on a 24-hour suicide watch.
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