The unsolved mysteries of the 2016 terror attack
The Bundestag committee on the Breitscheidplatz terror attack has concluded its investigation. Many questions remain unanswered.
Berlin-On 19 December 2016, Anis Amri, a Tunesian man with a criminal record and whose application for asylum had been rejected, shot a Polish truck driver and then drove the victim's truck through the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market, killing 11 and injuring 170, some of them seriously. Though Amri had no residency permit in Europe he was able to effortlessly cross national borders using 14 different identities.
Lack of communication between approximately 40 federal and state security authorities in Germany and erroneous assessments of the Islamic extremist, who had been pigeonholed as a simple drug dealer, caused the authorities to remain passive, making it possible for Amri to commit the terrorist attack in Berlin. That's the conclusion of the 1,873-page report put together by the parliamentary committee charged with investigating the case. The Bundestag discussed the report on Thursday. Victims' relatives watched from the visitors' gallery.
The probe on why the attack couldn't be prevented went on for three years. The committee reviewed thousands of files and listened to the testimony of 180 experts and witnesses.
Mystery DNA, deported witness, mysterious video
Crucial questions remain unanswered. Who helped Amri prepare the crime and then escape from the scene. The origin of the pistol he used to shoot the truck driver is unclear as are the origins of DNA traces left by an unknown person in the cab of the truck. And why was Amri's accomplice Bilel Ben Ammar, with whom he is said to have scouted out the crime scene beforehand, deported to Tunisia shortly after the attack without being questioned and why wasn't his mobile phone checked for evidence? Now his whereabouts are unknown.
Another mystery is the video footage from a BVG camera at Bahnhof Zoo, which, according to the time stamp, shows Amri not running away from Breitscheidplatz a few minutes after the crime, but leisurely walking towards it. AfD chairman Stefan Keuter, who brought up these unanswered questions, said there was a lack of political will to investigate. He blamed the "open borders policy" for the attack.
Members of opposition parties sitting on the committee complained repeatedly about what they saw as a lack of cooperation from the authorities. Files were delivered too late or not at all. Reports were massively redacted. Time and again reference was made to the protection of sources and secrecy. They were refused access to important witnesses, such as police informants who had infiltrated the Islamist scene. Benjamin Strasser of the FDP called the situation "clarification with the handbrake on".
"The federal government's attitude of refusal led to the fact that we could not turn over every stone," Strasser added. What the committee brought to light, however, raised fundamental questions about the organisation of the state security apparatus. "At Breitscheidplatz, it was not individuals who failed, it was a structure that failed," Strasser said.
Amri was surrounded by informers
Martina Renner of Die Linke found that Germany's domestic secret services had more information than they admitted. But they resisted cooperating with parliamentarians. "The assassin was surrounded by informers, as we also know from rightwing terrorist systems. The informant system can't be reformed, it must be abolished."
Like Renner, Irene Mihalic of Die Grünen believes Amri belonged to a network. Moreover, the Amri case is not a pure police case, she said, even if the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) has repeatedly claimed this. "Shortly before the end of this investigating committee's work, files were found in the BfV which should have been delivered to us three years ago. The BfV had been on Amri since 2015, even shortly before the attack."
Fresh witnesses needed
According to Volker Ullrich (CSU), lessons have been learned from all the investigative mishaps. He said organisation of the Joint Counter-Terrorism Centre had been improved. New approaches on how to assess Islamist extremist threats had been developed.
"Now, threat assessment is based not on nine, but on 73 criteria, where the context is also included," he said. The fact that Amri was not imprisoned for assault and drug trafficking was due to the fact that each offence was too small on its own, he said. "But in the meantime, proceedings can be bundled together so that pre-trial detention and sentencing are possible. That is also a result of this investigative committee."
Numerous weaknesses that Amri exploited have now been remedied, finds Fritz Felgentreu (SPD). "How Amri fled Berlin and where he got his murder weapon won't be solved. All substantial leads have been investigated," Felgentreu said. "Only fresh witnesses could bring a breakthrough, but none are expected to surface."