German authorities say that they are unsure if the man they’ve arrested on suspicion of plowing a truck through a popular outdoor Christmas market in Berlin Monday night is the perpetrator of the act.
The truck was traveling around 40 mph when it jumped the sidewalk and plowed into people around market stands, finally coming to a halt near Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a busy tourist site in western Berlin.
As of now, German authorities are treating the incident, which killed 12 and injured 48, as a “probable terrorist attack” — but the suspect denies involvement and no individual or group has claimed responsibility for it.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the detained suspect is an asylum-seeker and is “probably from Pakistan.” He was reportedly arrested about 1.5 miles from the crash site. Footage showed the suspect, with his head covered in a white sheet, being pushed into a police car shortly after the attack. German media reported that the man was known to police for minor crimes, but not terrorist links.
The truck was registered to a Polish trucking company, and a passenger who was found dead in the cabin of the truck is believed to have been the original driver of the truck, and possibly the attacker’s first victim.
The owner of the Polish trucking company, Ariel Zurawski, said the driver had been stabbed and shot to death in the cabin of his truck. Zurawski said German authorities asked him to identify the victim, Lukasz Urban, 37, from photos. “His face was swollen and bloodied. It was really clear that he was fighting for his life,” Zurawski said, speaking to Polish broadcaster TVN.
If the man in custody or another refugee does turn out to be involved with the incident, it is likely to further stoke anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment, which has been on the rise in Germany. Last year, the country took in over a million refugees, predominantly from Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia, and the policy has generated big political divisions.
“There is much we still do not know with sufficient certainty but we must, as things stand now, assume it was a terrorist attack," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said to reporters. "I know it would be especially hard for us all to bear if it were confirmed that the person who committed this act was someone who sought protection and asylum."
Despite uncertainty about the identity or motives of the driver of the truck, Germany’s nationalist party Alternative for Germany was quick to use the incident to attack refugee policy. "Under the cloak of helping people Merkel has surrendered our domestic security,” Frauke Petry, the chair of the party, wrote on Facebook.
The incident bears a strong resemblance to the attack in Nice, France, in July which a Tunisian-born French resident drove a 19-ton truck through crowds celebrating Bastille Day, murdering 86 people and injuring hundreds more. The attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, did not have material links to a known terrorist group and had a history of mental instability, but he showed interest in ISIS propaganda in the immediate run-up to his massacre.
ISIS has openly called for its supporters to use vehicles to kill civilians for years. ISIS spokesperson Mohammed al-Adnani told supporters in 2014: "If you can't detonate a bomb or fire a shot, manage by yourself ... run them over with your car."
After the Nice attack, ISIS’s online propaganda magazine Rumiyah ran an article praising the attack and calling for supporters to recreate it, specifically identifying “outdoor markets” as a prime target for driving a large truck into.
“Vehicles are like knives, as they are extremely easy to acquire. But unlike knives, which if found in one’s possession can be a cause for suspicion, vehicles arouse absolutely no doubts due to their widespread use throughout the world,” the magazine says.
“It is for this obvious reason that using a vehicle is one of the most comprehensive methods of attack, as it presents the opportunity for just terror for anyone possessing the ability to drive a vehicle,” it continues. “Likewise, it is one of the safest and easiest weapons one could employ against the kuffar [nonbelievers], while being from amongst the most lethal methods of attack and the most successful in harvesting large numbers of the kuffar.”
The State Department issued a travel alert calling for Americans to “exercise caution at holiday festivals, events, and outdoor markets” in Europe during the holiday season.