Planning for the worst as terror threat spreads

Candles burn between flowers in Berlin. Picture: AP

The authorities here will closely examine the latest terror attacks in a bid to learn lessons and hope to prevent a similar atrocity happening on our soil, writes Cormac O’Keeffe

In a recent document, the Department of Justice warned of an increased threat to the EU from Islamic State and calls from the terror group to sympathisers in Europe to use weapons such as cars to kill citizens.

It came just weeks before Monday’s outrage, in which a truck ploughed through a packed Berlin Christmas market, leaving 12 people dead and 48 injured, 16 of them seriously.

The attack highlights the threat to Europe on a range of fronts: from organised cells to unknown lone wolves, from groups directed by IS to individuals inspired by IS, from EU citizens to those using the asylum system, from attacks comprising assault rifles to ones involving trucks and blades.

It comes against the background of warnings of the ramifications of the military assault on IS in Syria and Iraq and the return of EU foreign fighters.

Speaking after the attack near the Kaiser Wilhelm church, Germany’s top prosecutor Peter Frank said a Christmas market was a “prominent and symbolic target” and that the “modus operandi mirrors at least past calls by jihadi terror organisations”.

Planning for the worst as terror threat spreads

Amaq, a news agency used by IS, said the person who carried out the truck attack in Berlin was “a solider of the Islamic State” who did so “in response to calls for targeting citizens of the Crusader coalition”.

A Pakistani asylum seeker was arrested but was later released after Berlin police came to the belief he was not the right person.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said it would be “very difficult” to learn that a human being who came to Germany to ask for refuge and asylum committed the attack.

“It would be terrible for all Germans who are very active, day by day, in helping asylum seekers and refugees.”

German police described the suspect as dangerous and most likely armed, given the Polish driver of the truck, believed to have been hijacked by the attacker, was found shot dead in the cabin.

Following a search of the cabin police discovered an immigration document, reportedly allowing a Tunisian man to stay in Germany pending deportation after being rejected for asylum.

He was named by police as Anis Amri, born in 1992 in Tataouine. His is thought to go by two aliases.

Spiegel news magazine reported that last February, he was noted by police as having “suspected ties with IS” and was subject to “intensive monitoring”. He was also classified as a “potential threat”.

Other reports stated he associated with a number of individuals, including a known Islamic preacher, arrested recently in Germany for recruiting radicals to IS.

The veracity of these reports has yet to be determined — as does the extent to which he was acting under direction or independently.

A security source here said that even if someone is a “person of interest”, it does not necessarily mean they are subject to constant surveillance — which is massively labour intensive — or that targets can’t dodge surveillance.

The source also stressed against leaping to judgments: “Until we know the facts of the [Berlin] case, it’s pointless to speculate. There’s always a danger in the rush for information to add two and two and get five.”

Both the use of the truck and the suspected nationality of the attacker in Berlin echo the terrible events in Nice on Bastille Day last July.

The scene from the Nice Attacks
The scene from the Nice Attacks

In that case, Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel killed 86 people, including 10 children, when he mowed through the famous promenade.

A Department of Justice document, detailed in the Irish Examiner last month, highlighted increased risks to Europe resulting from the military campaigns against the IS caliphate and calls from IS to supporters to use vehicles as weapons.

“The end of the Caliphate may result in the large displacement of former IS members, many of whom may seek to return to Europe,” said the document.

It said observers had noticed a change in IS rhetoric: “Where once there was glorification of its territorial conquests and ambitions, the message has now resorted to more ‘traditional’ messaging and in particular the idea of ‘personal jihad’ and the encouragement of self-motivated attacks on Europe and the West.”

The document quotes IS spokesman Mohammed AL-Adani: “If you kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian or a Canadian, or any of the other disbelievers waging war [against us], including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah and kill them in any manner or way however it may be. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife or run him over with your car.”

A Garda source said they have examined the use of a truck by a terrorist but pointed out it was “very difficult” to prevent someone driving a truck into crowded areas and killing people.

Last month, Europol said there was an “upward trend in the scale, frequency and impact of terrorist attacks” in the EU and that the success generated by such outrages “will encourage” more attacks.

The EU police agency said there could be an increase in the rate at which foreign fighters were returning home — and that given the high numbers involved this represented a “significant and long-term security challenge”.

A Garda source said: “There is certainly a fear [of more returned fighters]. It’s a fear right across Europe, for all police and security services.”

Rough estimates suggest some 30 Irish citizens have gone to fight in the region since 2012, though a significant number went to fight Assad or IS.

Last month, Irish convert to Islam Khalid Kelly was blown up by Iraqi forces as he was attempting to carry out a suicide bombing. While authorities don’t know for sure, he is thought to be the first Irish person to die with IS.

Terence ‘Khalid’ Kelly, the Dubliner who died in a suicide attack in Iraq is thought to be the first Irish person to die with IS.
Terence ‘Khalid’ Kelly, the Dubliner who died in a suicide attack in Iraq is thought to be the first Irish person to die with IS.

He had links to a Jordanian man deported from Ireland earlier this year after he was described as IS’ “foremost recruiter” here.

Gardaí have said it was impossible to determine how many people have gone out and how many have come back, but they monitor those they know about and who may be a threat.

Officers are also monitoring the reaction of known IS sympathisers here to the Berlin attack.

Garda HQ will conduct a review of their security strategies after they receive briefings from German police, as they previously got from Belgium and French authorities.

Sources said part of the purpose was to “learn lessons” from the attacks and any alterations in the modus operandi — such as the hijacking of the truck.

“Out of these briefings there are learnings and that’s put into our plans and our training,” said a source.

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