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The Cable

Berlin Attacker’s Past Spurs New Questions on Old Controversies in Europe

Meanwhile, the death toll for refugees trying to make it to Europe has hit 5,000.


The suspect in Monday’s Berlin Christmas market attack reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before dying in a police shoot-out in Milan early Friday morning.

The extremist group’s Amaq News Agency released a video claiming to show the suspect, Tunisian-born Anis Amri, pledging allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the video, which was translated by the online jihadi monitoring SITE Intelligence Group but has not yet been verified, Amri also vowed to avenge Muslims killed in airstrikes in Syria.

Police believe Amri drove a truck into the crowded Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 and injuring dozens more. He fled to Milan, Italy, via France after the attack amid a frantic Europe-wide manhunt. When Milan police stopped him to ask for his papers, he reportedly pulled out a gun, wounding one police officer before being shot dead.

The market attack and suspect’s subsequent flight to Italy underscores brewing concerns about Europe’s security that have already been raised — and raised again — as leaders across the continent take stock of terrorism threats and the refugee crisis.

Anti-EU political figures were quick to pin part of the blame of the attack on Europe’s open borders, the so-called Schengen Zone.  “This escapade in at least two or three countries is symptomatic of the total security catastrophe that is the Schengen agreement,” France’s far-right and anti-immigrant presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said Friday.

“If the man shot in Milan is the Berlin killer, then the Schengen Area is proven to be a risk to public safety. It must go,” British politician and Brexiteer Nigel Farage tweeted.

The attack also raises questions about Amri’s suspected road to radicalization. His story could become a microcosm of Europe’s dual struggle with rising extremism and an influx of refugees. Amri reportedly arrived in Italy from Tunisia in 2011, and spent four years in Italian prison after alleged involvement in robbery and arson. He was radicalized while he was in prison, according to his father in an interview with The Times of London.

Prison radicalization is a top concern for law enforcement officials worldwide, but particularly in Europe, said Frank J. Cilluffo, the White House homeland security adviser to former President George W. Bush.

“Prisons have long served as breeding grounds and incubators for extremist ideologies,” Cilluffo told Foreign Policy on Friday. “In prison, radicalized leaders have an audience more predisposed to violence and more susceptible to extremist views.”

In France, for example, researchers believe that 50 to 60 percent of the country’s total 67,000 inmates are Muslim, and government officials fear they could be recruited for Islamic extremism. “We’re sitting on a time bomb,” a French state prison auditing agency told the Wall Street Journal.

It’s a concern for the United States, too, where hundreds of federal prison inmates are serving times for terrorism-related offenses. “We have never been faced with such a large number of terror inmates before,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in 2015.

It’s not a new phenomenon for either the United States or Europe, says Cilluffo, but the scale and scope of the problem has become much bigger — particularly in Europe’s overcrowded prisons.

Meanwhile, terrorism has colored the debate on the European Union’s controversial refugee policy, fueling fears extremists are slipping into the Schengen Zone by hiding among genuine refugees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is posturing for re-election in 2017 against a growing wave of far-right and anti-immigrant political movements, came under fire for her refugee-friendly policies after Monday’s attack.

Though Europe is cracking down on its refugee intake, some in the Middle East and North Africa are still risking it all to make the dangerous journey. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees announced that 100 more people have likely drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on Friday, attempting to cross to Europe. That brings the death toll on Mediterranean crossings in 2016 to over 5,000. “This is the worst annual death toll ever seen,” the UNHCR said.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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