The man allegedly responsible for the Berlin Christmas market attack came from a small impoverished Tunisian town. His family and neighbours say the young man who left for Europe as a teenage delinquent was changed by his time in an Italian prison.
Hanen Amri, stood in disbelief as she heard her brother, Anis Amri, had been killed by police in Italy.
Anis’ death came only days after a December 19 attack on a Berlin Christmas market, for which he was named as the prime suspect.
“We tried to call him and urge him to turn himself in but we couldn’t reach him,” Hanen said as she sobbed.
“I can’t believe they killed him,” she said, clutching a large picture of her brother tightly.
The physical distance from the events — the attack and his death — made the news all the more difficult for the family, who had all gathered in front of their one-bedroom house in the small underdeveloped village of Oueslatia, 160 kilometres to the south of the Tunisian capital, Tunis.
On December 23, Amri was named as the prime suspect in the investigation into the attack that killed 12 people and injured 50.
After finding a wallet with his identity card, German authorities identified the Tunisian migrant as the probable driver who hijacked a truck and ploughed into the crowded, after killing its original driver.
German investigators said on Thursday that they had found Amri’s fingerprints on the door of the truck.
Amri had managed to escape the scene and drove more than 1,000 kilometres to Milan, Italy. There, he was approached by two Italian officers who asked him to show his papers for a routine police check on Friday. He opened fire, shooting one of the policemen, who responded by gunning him down.
Daesh claimed the Berlin attack through its Amaq news agency and attributed it to “a soldier of the Islamic state,” initially without naming the attack. Then, a few hours after Amri’s death on Friday, Daesh released a video showing Amri swearing allegiance to Daesh and its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
“My message to those infidels who bomb Muslims every day – we are going to slaughter you like pigs. We will avenge the Muslims you killed and continue to kill,” Amri said in the video message.
The people in tiny Oueslatia — overshadowed by a mountain and known for its pine tree economy — were stunned to find their small forgotten town making global headlines.
With few economic opportunities beyond the few dinars a day they can make cultivating pine trees, much of the youth is driven to migrate to the more developed coastal regions or to seek a better future overseas.
Amri’s family denied any knowledge of the young man’s involvement with Daesh or any other group preaching violence and hate.
“My son is a scapegoat. They killed him because they want to silence the truth, he is not a terrorist,” insisted Nour El Houda Hassani, Amri’s mother.
Soon after the emergence of the Daesh video, his family stopped speaking with media.
What they did know of the young man’s life in Europe was only what he had chosen to tell them in occasional phone calls. The last time they spoke with him was in November. Amri was 19 years old when he left his central Tunisian hometown, crossing the Mediterranean illegally in early 2011, shortly after Tunisia’s uprising.
Like so many other Tunisian youths who took advantage of the lax security of the maritime border during those chaotic months, Amri travelled to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a short boat ride away from the Tunisian coast. Most of those migrants were from impoverished regions such as Kairouan and Sidi Bouzid, where unemployment is notoriously high. Amri’s family says that Amri was no different and that he went to Europe in search of finding a job.
“My brother went to Italy because of poverty, he couldn’t find work here,” his sister said.
In Italy, he falsely claimed to be under 18, trying to take advantage of the better conditions offered to underage migrants. He was transferred to the Identification and Expulsion Centre in Belpasso, Catania, the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano reported. On October 24, 2011, he and four other detainees assaulted one of the centre’s guards and set mattresses on fire, in protest over the protracted detention and crowded conditions.
He was sentenced to four years in prison for threats, bodily harm and arson. Amri was initially imprisoned in Catania at a prison for under 18-year-olds, and was then transferred to a prison in Palermo.
A “changed person”
During his prison sentence, Amri was allowed to call only one phone number. His parents and eight siblings shared a SIM card between them to allow them to communicate with him on the number.
His family says he emerged from the prison as a very different person. During these sporadic conversations with his family, Amri told his family, after years of not being a practising Muslim, he intended to stop drinking alcohol, and that he had started to pray.
“He told me that he had quit drinking and we welcomed it,” Abdelkader Amri said. This change in attitude did not raise any particular suspicion for Abdelkader, who thought his brother quitting old habits, that had gotten him into trouble in the past, was a sign of maturity.
“He was not an extremist,” he insisted. “A few months ago, he sent us a gift of a digital camera and a mobile phone. Extremists do not believe in technology or photography.”
In May 2015, his family say he was expelled from Italy. Amri arrived in Germany in July 2015 — but only after spending three weeks in Switzerland, according to his family.
He applied for asylum but his application had been turned down in June 2016 by German authorities after consulting with security agencies. The German authorities admit that he was under surveillance by the Centre for Terror Defence (GTAZ) since January, and intelligence officers overheard the young Tunisian saying he intended to carry out a suicide attack (his phones were being tapped).
The death of Amri left an aura of mystery surrounding his character, and the support network behind him. It raised the question about how an ex-teenage criminal, under security watch of German authorities for being a possible threat, could carry out such attack, and then make a successful getaway across three borders — despite a European-wide arrest warrant.
He had even been arrested by German police earlier in the year on suspicion of trying to buy a weapon in a separate suspected plot to carry out an attack on German soil. The United States said Germany had notified it about Amri after adding his name to its terrorism watch list.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s critics on the right, who already oppose her immigration policy for being “too lenient,” have been quick to use the Berlin Christmas market attack as ammunition against her.
But to his family, the Anis Amri described in the German reports is not the man they knew.
“If he was radicalised, it happened in Europe, not here. Europe is to blame.”
– Anis Amri’s neighbour
As far as they could tell, he always seemed “normal,” his brother Abdelkader Amri said, choking back tears as he said about the final conversation he had with his brother:
“He called me and told me he found some work cleaning street drains in Berlin, he said his other Tunisian friends refused to do it but he didn’t care.”
“He was not a terrorist, he was a delinquent, he drunk alcohol and smoked weed,” his sister said.
From Teenage Deliquent to Alleged Attacker
According to the Tunisian authorities, Amri had tried to steal a car with his friends immediately before he left for Italy. He left before his trial and was sentenced in absentia to two years. His family says that Amri insisted that he was innocent of the theft. The prison sentence in Tunisia was the main reason he didn’t want to come back. With help from his family, he had hired a lawyer earlier this year and tried to have the conviction overturned, to allow him to come back without serving time in prison.
The 24-year-old’s death, however, means he will never stand trial over his alleged role in the attack in a German court, and troubling questions about the glaring security failures will likely never be fully answered in any substantive manner.
Thomas de Maizière, the German interior minister, told the Bild am Sonntag daily newspaper on Saturday that Germany will extend its tightened border security until beyond mid-February.
In a phone call a short time before the attack, Amri had told his older sister Hanen that he will return home soon.
His mother, Nour El Houda said that her son was so desperate to return to Tunisia that he had approached a local radio station a few years ago urging them to help him fix his legal situation in Tunisia.
Classmates of Amri who came to express their condolences to his family on Friday morning were also surprised by the news.
“He was like us, he was not an extremist,” said one classmate who refused to be named. “We are Facebook friends, he seemed very normal. I saw nothing on his [Facebook] profile that suggests extremism.”
Another friend argued that the general climate of police oppression, political disengagement and lack of economic development in regions like Kairouan were likely factors that contributed to his alienation.
“Anis studied with me, I have never expected to him to do something like that,” said Haithem Rahmouni, an unemployed 22-year-old.
“Youth here are oppressed, we are a lost generation, many like Anis who feel rejected go to Syria and Iraq to escape from oppression,” said another friend who refused to be named, referring to the disproportionately high number of Tunisians who have joined armed groups abroad.
The Tunisian interior ministry announced in a statement on Saturday that it had arrested three suspects linked to Amri.
The suspects had allegedly formed a cell in the region of Kairouan. The ministry did not say, however, whether or not the suspects were accused of direct involvement in the Christmas market attack.
One of the suspects was Amri’s 18-year-old nephew and reportedly confessed communicating with his uncle through Telegram, an encrypted mobile application widely used by Daesh. The Tunisian authorities allege that Amri convinced his nephew to swear allegiance to Daesh and sent him money to join a cell that he leads in Germany. Amri allegedly told his nephew that he is the “Emir” of a Daesh cell in Germany.
Meanwhile, the Spanish security services are investigating possible links between Amri and a resident in Spain who had allegedly been in contact with him for months, Juan Ignacio Zoido, the Spanish interior minister, said in an interview with the Spanish radio station COPE on Friday.
Amri’s mother and brother both said that the family would disown him if he was proven to be the perpetrator of the Berlin attack.
Locals here are upset that their village is being associated with the man who was, until his death, Europe’s most wanted terrorist.
“If he was radicalised, it happened in Europe, not here,” said the woman living in the house next door to Amri’s family. “Europe is to blame.”