December 21, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Terror by Truck in Berlin
Two days after one of the worst terror attacks Germany has seen in years, authorities are still looking for the driver of a large truck that was intentionally driven into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin. The attacked killed 12 people and wounded at least 49 more. On December 21, there were unconfirmed press reports that police were looking for a 21-year-old Tunisian citizen whose ID was reportedly found in the truck. Tunisia has long had a reputation as an extremist incubator. At least 6,000 Tunisians have traveled to join the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the attacker in the July 2016 Nice attack—who also used a large truck to plow through a crowded promenade—was Tunisian as well. A previous suspect in the Berlin attack who had been detained at the scene was released on December 20 after police determined he was not involved. As the investigation widens, the repercussions of the attack will widen as well, likely impacting the security of similar gatherings worldwide, as well as further inflaming politics in Germany and elsewhere.
Though the Berlin attack was similar in style to the July massacre in Nice that killed 86 people, there were also some curious differences. While the Islamic State has specifically called for attacks on crowded pedestrian areas using vehicles, it is unusual that there was no suspect found at or near the scene, yet identification papers left behind. Adding to the unusualness was that the truck’s original driver—a Polish citizen delivering a load of steel from Poland to Germany—was found murdered in the truck, a scene more akin to criminal gangs than an inspired terror attack. The attack was clearly planned in stages, and at some point the truck was commandeered and the driver murdered—a level of complication not seen in Nice.
Despite the fact that one of its alleged soldiers was on the run, the Islamic State-affiliated media outlet ‘Amaq’ claimed the attack as yet another in a string of attacks answering the group’s call to terror; the announcement used similar language as previous claims, and contained no information about the suspect or the attack beyond the basic details known to the public. Islamic State claims of an attacker’s affiliation with the group after an apparent inspired attack have tended to provide minimal details. In each previous attack claimed by the group, however, the perpetrator has been found to have some connection—however tenuous—with the Islamic State and its messaging.
Putting aside what will likely be significant and widespread political repercussions stemming from this attack, it is highly difficult to provide an effective measure of security in open, outdoor venues such as the Christmas market in Berlin. It is impossible to harden an entire city—nor is it desirable, even though the natural reaction in the aftermath of such an attack is to try. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda have urged their supporters to use trucks and other vehicles for attacks precisely because they are easily obtained, arouse no suspicions, and can cause tremendous damage. Christmas markets are popular throughout western Europe, and are important cultural symbols as well as places of enjoyment. The choice of target was clearly deliberate. Among the many counterterrorism challenges European authorities face, they will now face even greater pressure to secure venues that were not designed to be secure, against a weapon that was not designed to be a weapon.
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