BERLIN — On a drab, graffiti-sprayed square on the outskirts of Milan, two Italian police officers — one of them a trainee — spotted a suspicious young man with a backpack. It was 3:15 a.m. Friday. A thief? Possibly. They pulled him aside for an identity check.
The officers did not know that the man had already fled hundreds of miles across the heart of Europe, evading an international dragnet. They confronted the 24-year old, who — using street slang Italian picked up in Sicilian jails — insisted that he was a traveler from Italy’s deep south.
They told him to empty his backpack. Instead, Italian officials say, he pulled a gun.
Anis Amri, a self-proclaimed soldier of the Islamic State, rapidly shot one officer in the shoulder before ducking behind a car.
“Poliziotti bastardi!” — police bastards! — Amri shouted.
The second patrolman — trainee Luca Scatà, now an instant national hero — fired back, killing the suspect.
The shootout would end the violent arc of Amri’s life, marking another salvo in a relentless new wave of Islamist terrorism in Europe that has vexed the ability of nations to thwart it. German authorities say they believe that the Tunisian national is the same man who hijacked a truck with a payload of steel on Monday, shot its Polish driver and then rammed it into a Berlin Christmas market.
“He was the most-wanted man in Europe,” said Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti.
The market attack has sparked an outcry for sweeping reforms and bolstered security while raising serious questions about German police and intelligence lapses as well as Europe’s handling of criminal migrants. As a result, in a country that cherishes personal privacy, new laws are being pushed in Germany that could ramp up surveillance and extend judicial powers.
Chancellor Angela Merkel thanked Italian authorities Friday while adding that “the Amri case raises a number of questions. . . . We will now press ahead and look into how far state measures need to be changed.”
Hours after the shootout, the Islamic State’s Amaq news agency released a video of Amri that was tauntingly filmed only 1.5 miles from the German Chancellery in Berlin. He seemed calm, yet certain in a black-hooded windbreaker on an iron bridge as he called on Muslims in Europe to rise up and strike at “crusaders.”
“God willing, we will slaughter you like pigs,” he said in the video, whose date and location was not given but looked as if it was filmed under wintry skies.
He added: “To my brothers everywhere, fight for the sake of Allah. Protect our religion. Everyone can do this in their own way. People who can fight should fight, even in Europe.”
The authenticity of the video could not be independently confirmed, but previous material released by Amaq has been credible. Earlier, a statement carried on Amaq described Amri as inspired by the Islamic State.
In Oueslatia, Amri’s bleak home town in Tunisia, news of his death had reached his mother, five sisters and three brothers, who until the end held hopes that the German authorities were after the wrong guy.
His 30-year-old brother, Walid Amri, sounded distressed and was struggling to speak over the phone. Women were wailing in the background.
“This is a very difficult time for the entire family,” he said, before his voice broke.
While Anis Amri’s death ended the hunt for the suspect who drove a truck into a teeming Christmas market on Monday, killing 12 and wounding dozens, it also suggested the security risks inherent to Europe’s open borders as well as structural flaws with its deportation and migrant systems.
In Germany, Federal Attorney General Peter Frank said fingerprints confirmed that Amri was the man killed. But German and European authorities grappled with how Amri — who Italian authorities say traveled at least part of the way by train through France — managed to slip out of Berlin and make it to Milan almost three days after he was identified as the prime suspect.
His death in Italy put a harsh light on the handling of the case. German investigators only uncovered their single-biggest clue — his wallet with identification left in the truck’s cabin — the day after the attack, suggesting the delay may have facilitated his flight.
Amri then traveled right under the noses of European authorities through a circuitous route.
After leaving Berlin, Amri is believed to have traveled, at least part way by train, through the French city of Chambery. Speeding through the Alps, he appears to have stopped in Turin, Italy, before arriving in Milan, said Alberto Nobili, coordinator of the anti-terrorism department at the district attorney’s office in Milan. Milan police say they have surveillance video placing Amri at Milan’s train station about 1 a.m.
“We need to increase international collaboration against terrorism,” Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni told reporters in Rome.
German officials said their investigation would now accelerate toward possible accomplices.
“If there are others who are guilty or accomplices, we will hold them accountable,” Merkel said.
Amri — a fugitive in his native Tunisia for a van hijacking — arrived in Italy by boat in April 2011. He was dangerously radicalized while serving time in Sicily for arson and assault. His family noted that the boy they knew — who once drank alcohol and never went to mosque — suddenly got religion.
He began to pray, asking his family to send him religious books. The Italian Bureau of Prisons submitted a report to a government anti-terrorism commission on Amri’s rapid radicalization, warning that he was embracing dangerous ideas of Islamist extremism and had threatened Christian inmates, according to an Italian government official with knowledge of the situation. The dossier was first reported by ANSA, the state-run Italian news service.
The Tunisians, however, would not take Amri back. So the Italians simply released him in 2014.
He made his way to Germany a year later and would apply for asylum. Rejected, the Germans could not deport him, either, because he had no passport and the Tunisians refused his repatriation for months.
The Germans had linked him to a German-based recruiter for the Islamic State, and Amri was the subject of a terrorism probe. He once tried to buy a gun on the Internet. Officials intercepted a communication between Amri and hate preachers that in retrospect appeared to foreshadow his assault.
But officials felt they never had enough evidence to detain him.
In Germany, the case was already having serious repercussions. Earlier this week, the German government passed a draft law — albeit one in the works before Monday’s attack — that would allow improved video surveillance in public spaces, such as train stations and shopping centers. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière is also seeking to accelerate approval of an existing plan that would make it possible to detain rejected asylum seekers who constitute a “danger to public safety.”
The Germans are especially seeking to deport North Africans with rejected asylum claims and whose countries of origin have refused to take them back. Many of those nations — especially Tunisia — are themselves facing a serious radicalization problem, with thousands of their nationals rushing to join the Islamic State.
Merkel said Wednesday that she had earlier spoken on the phone with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.
“I told the president that we have to significantly speed up the return process and continue to increase the number of returnees.” she said. “We can be relieved at the end of this week that an acute danger has ended. The general threat of terrorism, however, continues to exist, as it has for many years.”
Pitrelli reported from Rome. Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Naveena Kottoor in Tunis contributed to this report.