German police launched a European-wide manhunt Wednesday for a Tunisian man suspected of deliberately driving a truck into a crowd of Christmas revelers in the center of Berlin, killing 12, in the country’s worst terror attack in decades.
The federal prosecutor’s office identified the suspect as Anis Amri, 24, and described him as possibly armed and dangerous. The prosecutors also offered an unusually large 100,000-euro reward (about $104,000) for information leading to his capture.
Amri’s picture was widely broadcast on national television news bulletins and online after police officials said that identification and a wallet belonging to him were found in the wreckage of the cab of the truck that crashed into the crowded outdoor Christmas market Monday evening.
“Do not do anything to endanger yourself because this person could be armed and dangerous,” the federal prosecutor’s office said in its statement.
The Tunisian man’s application for asylum in Germany had been rejected in April, authorities said, but he had managed to avoid being deported, taking advantage of liberal German laws that make it difficult to quickly repatriate someone, even though he was considered to be a security threat.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack, the worst in Germany since the end of the leftist Red Army Faction wave of terror that ended in the early 1990s.
The prosecutors’ office said it had started an investigation into Amri in March after getting a tip that he was planning a burglary to get cash to pay for automatic weapons. During the course of its investigation, it emerged that Amri had been observed dealing drugs in a local park in Berlin.
“We’ve got a new suspect, and we’ve put out a warrant for him across Europe,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told a news conference, but warned that the wanted man might not have been the assailant. A first suspect arrested Monday, a 23-year-old refugee from Pakistan, was released Tuesday after investigators failed to find any evidence linking him to the attack.
Ralf Jaeger, the interior minister in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said the Tunisian man is wanted on charges of committing a “serious act of violent subversion.”
He added that Amri had used several aliases.
Amri is believed to have been linked with Salafi Muslims in Germany, adherents of an ultraconservative school of thought within Sunni Islam. The group has been growing rapidly and is boosting the ranks of jihadist recruits, top German security officials said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who threw open Germany’s borders 16 months ago to more than a million refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, has faced mounting criticism this week from the Alternative for Germany party for allowing in so many foreigners fleeing war and poverty. The far-right group blames her policies for the 12 people killed and 48 injured in Monday’s attack.
Political analysts, party allies and foreign diplomats have cautioned that Merkel’s chances of winning a fourth term in September’s election could be damaged by precisely such a large-scale terror attack if it emerges that a refugee or refugees were involved. Merkel said she was sickened by the notion that a refugee could have been responsible for the attack.
Many of the victims in Monday’s attack were crushed by the truck, which police said had been hijacked about four hours earlier. The assailant first injured the Polish driver of the truck with a knife during a skirmish in the cab and drove the truck about 80 yards through a packed crowd at the market, police said. He is then believed to have shot the Polish man to death before fleeing.
The attack at the popular Christmas market outside the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the heart of west Berlin revived memories of a similar low-tech attack in July in Nice, France, when a driver plowed through a national holiday crowd there and killed more than 80 people.
Amri was born in the southern Tunisian city of Tataouine, German officials said.
According to an Italian government source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, Amri arrived in Italy in 2011, a year in which thousands of young Tunisians sailed there in the wake of the Arab Spring.
He was granted a “humanitarian” permit to stay, but wound up sentenced to four years in prison for vandalizing a migrant reception center, the source said. Released after three and a half years, he was ordered out of the country and placed in a specialized expulsion center.
“You are meant to be held for no more than 30 days in these centers by law, and expelled within that time,” said the source. “The problem is that Tunisia did not recognize him within the time, so after 30 days he could not be expelled to Tunisia.”
Instead, Amri was released and traveled to Germany. “He was, however, placed on a European list of people who should not be allowed to stay in the Schengen area, something which Germany has access to,” the source said.
The Schengen area refers to a zone of 26 European countries, including both Italy and Germany, that have effectively abolished borders with one another.
He arrived in Germany in July 2015 and applied for asylum in April. That was rejected in July, but he could not immediately be deported, German officials said, because he did not have a passport or an ID.
Jaeger said that Tunisia had refused to take him back.
“Tunisia initially denied that he was a citizen of Tunisia,” Jaeger told reporters. German officials started the process of getting him ID papers in August in order to be able to deport him.
“It took a while for the documents to be processed. They were completed today. I won’t make any further comment on that,” he said.
Amri had been living in Berlin since February and for a time in North Rhine-Westphalia, but he had gone underground in July after a police investigation over his suspected involvement in a knife attack over a drug dispute, according to a report in Bild newspaper’s online edition.
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Tom Kington in Rome contributed to this report.
2:50 p.m.: Updated with information about suspect’s time in Italy.
11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with added details about suspect.
11 a.m.: This article was updated with the full name of the suspect and details about him.
8:10 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.
This article was originally posted at 4:45 a.m.