World Europe First Look

Italy offers Germans closure with news that Berlin attack suspect has been killed

The news brings a Europe-wide manhunt to an end after Monday's attack, which killed 12 people. Meanwhile, German authorities detained two brothers on suspicion of plotting a separate attack. 

Milan Police Chief Antonio de Iesu, left, and Milan vice chief Roberto Guida attend a news conference in Milan, Italy, on Friday, Dec. 23, 2016. The Tunisian man, Anis Amri, suspected of driving a truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin was killed early Friday in a shootout with police in Milan, ending a Europe-wide manhunt, Italy’s interior minister said.
Luca Bruno/ AP | Caption

A suspect of the Berlin Christmas market attack was killed in a shootout with police in Milan on Friday morning, according to Italian authorities, ending a Europe-wide manhunt that began on Wednesday.

Anis Amri, a Tunisian who served three and a half years in prison in Italy for crimes including setting a fire at a refugee center and making threats, was stopped by two police officers in the Sesto San Giovanni neighborhood of Milan early on Friday. When asked to show his identity papers, Mr. Amri drew a gun from his backpack and wounded one of the officers – who remains in the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries – before the other officer shot and killed him.

German authorities were still waiting for official confirmation of the suspect’s identity, though Italian interior minister Marco Minniti told reporters that an identity check conducted after the shootout matched the suspect “without a shadow of a doubt,” according to the Associated Press.

The news brings an initial sense of closure to what was Germany’s worst terror attack in decades, one that promises to challenge an already-weakened political status quo in a country that has mostly been a redoubt of stability amid a roiling Europe.

The fact that the attack targeted a traditional Christkindlmarkt struck a particular nerve with Germans, as The Christian Science Monitor's Sara Miller Llana reported this week:

[P]olitics has entered new territory. Britain voted to leave the European Union in June; Donald Trump has been elected US president, in part on pledges to sharply curtail immigration; and populism is on the rise. The yearning for a calmer time is powerful.

That speaks to the allure of the Christmas market. Stephen Nissenbaum, author of "The Battle for Christmas," told me that type of longing has always underpinned the “Christmas spirit.” People have always looked backward at the magical hold Christmas had over them as children, or generally to a time they perceive as simpler, he says. "People have always been looking for something real in a changing modern world," Mr. Nissenbaum told me. "People have been feeling that and saying that at least since the 1830s."

One longtime producer of Christmas markets in Germany, reached by phone, said he was too shaken to talk.

Hitting a Christmas market is powerfully symbolic for Germans, just as attacking Bastille Day festivities was for the French, or hitting cafes for Parisians, as terrorists did Nov. 13, 2015.

Tobias Plate, a spokesman for Germany’s interior ministry, told the AP that if Italian authorities’ announcement were true, the ministry would be “relieved that this person doesn’t pose a threat anymore.” However, Friday also brought fresh worries: Two Kosovo-born brothers were detained shortly after midnight in Duisburg on suspicion of planning to carry out attacks at a nearby shopping mall, in an incident thought to be unconnected to the Christmas market killings.

It’s unclear how Amri, who left Tunisia for Italy during the 2011 Arab Spring and arrived in Germany last year, traveled to Milan from Berlin, but authorities said he made use of at least six different names and three nationalities in traveling around the continent. Italian police had not detected signs of radicalization, though German authorities had long treated him as a potential threat, even putting him under covert surveillance for several months this year. After his petition for asylum was denied, they were unable to deport him because of a lack of valid identity papers and because Tunisia denied he was a citizen.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.