The Cable

ISIS Claims Berlin Attack While Right-Wing Politicians Blast Merkel

Europe’s refugee crisis tinges political reaction to the Christmas market assault.

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On Tuesday, the Islamic State claimed credit for Monday evening’s attack in Berlin in which a truck drove through a Christmas market, killing twelve and injuring more than 50. Authorities are still scrambling to uncover all the details — starting with the perpetrator — of the attack. But even while details remain sketchy, many right-wing politicians inside and outside Germany were quick to blame refugees, and in particular, Germany’s refugee-friendly Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

German police on Tuesday released their initial suspect, a 23-year old asylum seeker from Pakistan, after preliminary investigations made it hard to place him at the scene of the crime. They warned that the perpetrator could still be on the loose, and could still be armed. The State Department has not released any travel alert or warning for Germany at the time of this writing.

Many in Europe, after a couple years buffeted by waves of migrants and a spate of terror attacks from Nice to Istanbul, are primed to pin the blame on asylum seekers they say are a potential Trojan horse. German Member of European Parliament Marcus Pretzell, who represents the far-right and anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutscheland (AfD) party, said on Monday that the victims of the attack were “Merkel’s dead.” AfD leader Frauke Petry, who once compared multicultural societies to compost heaps, attacked calls for “humanity” by the center-left SPD party as “political correctness.”

Marine le Pen, head of France’s National Front party and a presidential candidate, wasted no time reacting. “How many massacres and deaths will be necessary for our governments to stop bringing in a considerable number of migrants into our communities without borders, when we know that Islamist terrorists are among them?” she said in a statement released Monday night.

In the U.K., former UKIP leader and Brexiter champion Nigel Farage chimed in, saying “Terrible news from Berlin but no surprise. Events like these will be the Merkel legacy.”

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump painted the attack as an assault on Christians, even before it was clear who may have carried it out. “ISIS and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad,” he said in a statement released Monday night.

The Christmas market attack had other, if indirect, ripples in the United States, too. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, asked Trump in a letter Tuesday to give states more leeway in deciding how many refugees they accept from countries with ties to terrorism.

Last year, over a million refugees and migrants poured into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa; some politicians fear this open door allowed terrorist cells to sneak in and set up shop in Europe. The Islamic State claimed credit for two attacks in the German town of Ansbach in July, carried out by asylum seekers. And in August, a young Afghan asylum seeker attacked passengers on a train with an axe and knife before being shot dead by police.

Merkel’s Germany was the largest European recipient of refugees — and pushed other EU states to take in more migrants, creating a furious backlash in countries like Hungary. Though the refugee flow lessened this year, Merkel has paid a political price for her stance. As she girds for a shot at reelection as chancellor in 2017, a groundswell of opposition from anti-immigrant and populist parties have pushed her to the right.

In September, after her CDU party’s historic defeat in regional elections — colored by AfD’s surprising gains in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern — Merkel admitted her government handled the refugee influx poorly, and reportedly mulled tightening the country’s refugee policies. And earlier this month, she endorsed a public ban on full-face veils, a year after her party rejected such a ban, in an apparent move to win back support of a population wary of refugees.

That population isn’t the only one wary these days. “We have faced tremendous hardships on our way to reach Europe,” one Pakistani refugee in Bonn told Deutsche Welle. “And if it is proven that a Pakistani refugee has committed a terrorist act in Berlin, I’m afraid this will make things worse for us.”

Photo credit: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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