Europe braces for tense holiday season after Berlin attack
London - European countries were on high alert following a terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market in which a stolen truck mowed down shoppers, killing at least 12 and injuring many more.
Following the attack, Italy said it would ramp up security for Christmas events, particularly Pope Francis’s Christmas appearance at Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City. France, which has been the victim of several terrorist attacks in 2016, announced an immediate increase of security at Christmas markets.
British police announced a review of security plans following the Berlin attack on December 19th with the threat level in London remaining at “severe” — meaning an attack is considered highly likely. Spanish authorities installed bollards and posts outside high-risk locations to mitigate against similar attacks.
A stolen truck was used to mow down shoppers at a street market serving Christmas-themed food and beverages at the foot of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. “The truck was deliberately driven into people who intended to spend a peaceful and happy evening at a Christmas market,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said.
The attack was reminiscent of the Bastille Day attack in Nice on July 14th in which 86 people celebrating the French holiday were killed when a Tunisian resident of France ploughed a 19-tonne truck into crowds.
European countries expressed increasing concern this kind of low-tech terrorism, which seemingly requires less planning and preparation than conventional terrorist attacks and that can be carried out by lone-wolf attackers with only loose affiliation to the Islamic State (ISIS) or other terrorist groups.
There was confusion after the Berlin attack. A 23-year-old Pakistani refugee was taken into custody before being cleared and released. Berlin police later announced they were seeking 24-year-old Tunisian — identified by the media as Anis Amri — after finding identity documents and fingerprints of the suspect in the cab of the stolen vehicle. Amri was shot dead by Italian police in Milan on December 23rd but the German capital remained on high alert amid fears of more attacks.
The suspect reportedly had links to Islamist preacher Ahmed Abdelaziz, AKA as Abu Walaa, an Iraqi suspected militant leader who was arrested by German authorities in November. He was not initially thought to have fought in Iraq or Syria. The Bastille Day attacker in Nice, France, was similarly known not to have fought in Iraq or Syria nor been a direct member of ISIS or any other terrorist group.
In both instances, ISIS claimed the attack had been carried out by a “soldier of the Islamic State”. However, observers have been keen to differentiate between those attacks actually carried out by the group and so-called lone-wolf attackers inspired by ISIS ideology but with little or no actual contact with the group itself.
ISIS had called on supporters to attack “disbelieving Americans or Europeans” by whatever means necessary in a 2014 statement by official spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.
“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European… or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then kill him in any manner or way, however it may be,” the statement said.
“Smash his head with a rock or slaughter him with a knife or run him over with your car or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him,” the senior ISIS leader advised. Adnani was killed in a US air strike in Aleppo in August.
A recent issue of ISIS’s Rumiyah magazine included an article that explicitly called for attacks similar to the Bastille Day massacre, including advice on which vehicle was likely to cause the highest death toll.
“Though being an essential part of modern life, very few actually comprehend the deadly and destructive capability of the motor vehicle and its capacity of reaping large numbers of casualties if used in a premeditated manner,” the article said, which called on supporters “stationed behind enemy lines” to take “action”.
“Vehicles are like knives as they are extremely easy to acquire but unlike knives, which if found in one’s possession can be a cause for suspicion, vehicles arouse absolutely no doubt,” the article added.
It is the unconventional threat posed by ISIS and lone-wolf attackers who can be radicalised online with little or no direct contact with the group that have proved so difficult for Western countries to guard against. A crisis that has involved unprecedented numbers of refugees coming to Europe from North Africa and the Middle East throughout 2015 and 2016 has only served to exacerbate fears of an ISIS fifth column.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has particularly been criticised for her open-door policy towards refugees and faces a tough election fight in 2017. While she has struck a more conciliatory line on immigration over the past few months, Merkel was defiant following the Berlin attack.
“We do not want to live paralysed by the fear of evil. Even if it is difficult in these hours, we will find the strength for the life we want to live in Germany — free, together and open,” she said.