World Europe First Look

ISIS claims attack on German Christmas tradition, as critics blame migrant policy

The manhunt continues for the perpetrator who drove a freight truck through a crowded Christmas market on Monday evening. Authorities are chasing a suspect after finding an identity document in the truck. 

Berliners and refugees gather to sing 'We Are The World' in front of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) in Berlin, Germany, December 21, 2016, after a truck plowed through a crowd at the Christmas market on Monday night.
Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters | Caption

The manhunt continued Wednesday for the driver of a truck that plowed through a crowded Christmas market in Berlin Monday evening in an attack claimed by the Islamic State militant group, striking at the heart of a German tradition and renewing populist calls against migrants.

Police are searching for a Tunisian man after finding an identity document under the driver’s seat of the 25-ton truck that killed 12 people and injured 48. A Pakistani man was detained based off a witness description of a suspect who jumped out of the truck and fled after the attack, but the man was released Tuesday because of a lack of evidence.

The attack has hit hard at the much-loved Christkindlmarkt, or Christmas market, celebrated by millions in Germany and replicated around the world. It has also further divided Chancellor Angela Merkel from the populist voices that demand she adopt a stricter stance on migrants, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana reported Tuesday:

Dismissed as kitschy by some and overly commercial in some instances, the Christmas market as a concept still has a powerful sway over German sentiment. Twinkling white lights, a capella music, trimmed huts selling wooden ornaments made by hand: they hail all the way back to 1434, to Dresden’s Striezelmarkt....

Amid rising nationalism and discomfort over immigration in many corners in the West, the attack is likely to provide an easy weapon against German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who opponents criticize for opening borders to crowds of immigrants without proper vetting. It could further bolster populists in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, all of which face elections in 2017. Already in Britain, Nigel Farage, a member of Parliament from the populist UKIP, tweeted "Terrible news from Berlin but no surprise. Events like these will be the Merkel legacy."

On Monday evening, the perpetrator drove the truck, which belonged to a Polish freight company, about 200 feet to 260 feet through wooden shop huts and crowds drinking mulled wine and eating sausages. After the truck came to a stop near the 19th-century Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church – left in ruins after World War II, but left standing as a memorial to the destruction of the war – the perpetrator jumped out and fled.

Police are now searching for Anis A., the name found on documents belonging to a Tunisian man that were found under the seat of the truck after the attack, although he is believed to use false names, according to Spiegel Online. The man was known to police as part of a large Islamist network, German newspaper Bild reported. Authorities have warned that the attacker may be armed.

The militant group that calls itself Islamist State (ISIS) claimed responsibility Tuesday for the attack. The group’s Amaq news agency described the man fleeing the truck as “a soldier of the Islamic State” who “carried out the attack in response to calls for targeting citizens of the Crusader coalition.”

Authorities said the truck attack was reminiscent of the attack in Nice, France, on Bastille Day earlier this year. The German attack appeared to follow instructions published by the terror group, according to Peter Frank, Germany’s top prosecutor.

The method "mirrors at least past calls by jihadi terror organizations," said Mr. Frank, according to the Associated Press. However, the terrorist nature of the attack has not been confirmed.

For terrorists, however, so-called soft targets, such as the Christmas market, may make especially attractive targets. But it is not necessarily because of their symbolic value, François-Bernard Huyghe, a senior researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris, told the Monitor on Tuesday.

“They want to kill as many people as they can. It is very logical that they would choose very crowded places when people are celebrating, like Bastille Day or Christmas, or it could be football or a rock concert,” he says.

Nevertheless, the attack has renewed populist calls against migrants and Ms. Merkel, whose migrant policy has allowed more than one million migrants into Germany in the past two years.

Anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany, which has won support recently as Merkel’s own popularity has waned, said Tuesday that Germany is no longer safe.

"Under the cloak of helping people Merkel has completely surrendered our domestic security," wrote Frauke Petry, the party's co-chairwoman.

Merkel said it would be particularly upsetting if it were confirmed that the person who committed the attack was an asylum seeker.

"This would be particularly sickening for the many, many Germans who work to help refugees every day and for the many people who really need our help and are making an effort to integrate in our country," she said in a nationally televised statement. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.