The man being sought in connection with Monday’s attack on a Berlin Christmas market had been under police surveillance for months on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack, but later fell off the authorities’ radar screen.
A manhunt was under way across Europe on Thursday after German authorities issued an appeal for information about the suspect, a 24-year-old Tunisian man, Anis Amri. Germany’s federal prosecutor put out a Europe-wide alert for him, warning that he could be armed and dangerous.
Mr Amri had long been known to the authorities as a potentially dangerous Islamist with links to the German jihadi scene, and had been monitored by the Berlin police from March to September this year. Officials said they tried to deport him but were unable to do so because Tunisia refused to recognise him as a citizen.
The hunt for Mr Amri began after documents identifying him were found in the cab of the truck used in Monday’s assault. The prosecutor is offering a €100,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.
Germany is still reeling from the attack, in which an articulated lorry was driven into a crowded Christmas market near the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church, one of Berlin’s best-known landmarks, smashing stalls and killing 12 people. Nearly 50 were injured, a number of them seriously.
The militant group Islamic State claimed responsibility for the assault, calling the perpetrator a “soldier of Isis”. If confirmed that Isis was behind the attack, it would be the first big terrorist act by the organisation in Germany involving significant casualties. The jihadi group was linked to two much smaller attacks carried out by refugees in Bavaria this summer that left 20 people injured.
German media said the truck, which belonged to a Polish haulage company, had been stolen on Monday afternoon. One of the dead was the original driver, a Polish citizen, whose body was found in the passenger seat. German media said there were signs of a struggle with the perpetrator, and it appeared he was still alive when the attack began. He died of gunshot wounds.
A Pakistani man arrested shortly after the attack was released on Tuesday due to a lack of evidence.
Officials across Europe were this week scrambling for information about Mr Amri, who appears to have come to the continent well before the peak of last year’s migrant crisis.
According to one Italian official, he arrived in Italy in the aftermath of the 2011 Tunisian revolution and spent as long as four years in a jail in Sicily.
German media said he was convicted of acts of violence, arson, battery and theft. In May 2015 he was released, earmarked for expulsion and ordered to leave the country. At that point he moved to Germany.
The suspect’s story illustrates the problems Germany has in keeping track of potential terrorists among the estimated 1m migrants who have arrived in the country, many of them from the Middle East, since the beginning of last year.
Security officials have long warned that militant groups such as Isis were smuggling operatives into Germany under cover of the migrant wave.
Angela Merkel, chancellor, said this week that it would be “particularly sickening” for the “many, many Germans who every day help refugees” if the perpetrator of Monday’s attack turned out to be an asylum seeker.
Ralf Jäger, interior minister for the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Mr Amri once lived, said Mr Amri arrived in Germany in July 2015. He had applied for asylum but his request was rejected in June this year.
However, authorities could not deport him because he lacked a valid passport. Germany asked the Tunisian authorities to issue him with one, but they initially refused, saying he was not Tunisian. Mr Jäger said Mr Amri’s papers were finally issued on Wednesday, two days after the Christmas market attack.
The suspect lived in various locations around Germany before moving to Berlin in February this year, and had six aliases, including four identifying him as an Egyptian national and one as a Libyan.
Mr Jäger said Mr Amri was on the radar of several German security agencies because of his apparent links to Islamic extremists. Prosecutors in Berlin had investigated him on suspicion he was planning a “serious state-endangering crime”, he said.
German media said he came to the attention of the authorities because of his connections to the radical Salafist Abu Walaa, alias Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah A, known as the “preacher without a face”, who was arrested in the northern town of Hildesheim in November. Police suspect the 32-year-old of leading a network that was recruiting men to fight with Isis in Syria.
Berlin prosecutors said they had information that Mr Amri was planning a break-in, with the aim of stealing money for automatic weapons which he would then use in an attack. A judge had then ordered the man to be put under surveillance. Police said that at this time he was selling drugs in Berlin’s Görlitzer Park, a notorious hangout for dealers.
Bild, the German newspaper, said that in July 2016 he was investigated on suspicion of assault, after reportedly attacking another man with a knife in a row about drugs.
But investigators ultimately found no evidence to suggest he was planning a terrorist act, and in September the surveillance was stopped. Since then, his whereabouts have been unknown.