The German capital was on high alert Tuesday with one or more suspects still at large in the deadly truck assault on a Christmas market, even as the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an act that struck at the heart of Europe’s Christian traditions.
Chancellor Angela Merkel decried the assault — which left 12 dead and 52 injured after a truck carrying a payload of steel careened into festive stalls and fairgoers in Berlin — as a presumed “terror attack,” even as German police scrambled to find the culprit. The only suspect to date — a Pakistani asylum seeker taken into custody shortly after Monday’s bloodshed — was released by police late Tuesday because of insufficient evidence.
Late Tuesday, the Islamic State, through the Amaq news agency linked to the group, claimed the attacker was a “soldier” responding to its call to target coalition nations. The group has wielded the term before to describe lone wolves inspired by its rhetoric, and it remained unclear its level of involvement, if any, in coordinating the attack.
In Germany and across Europe, revulsion and angst over the strike at a joyous symbol of the region’s Christmas traditions sparked governments to act. The holiday spirit was being replaced by muscle.
Italy said it would ramp up security for Christmas events, including Pope Francis’s appearance at St. Peter’s Square. The Czechs pledged “massive” security at public events on Christmas and as the country rings in the new year. French officials said security at Christmas markets were immediately reinforced even as its lawmakers observed a minute of silence for the all-too-familiar tragedy in Germany.
In Berlin, meanwhile, the release of their only suspect left police scrambling for fresh leads in the assault. German police accelerated efforts to study forensic evidence, including analysis of blood stains within the cabin of the truck — turned into a weapon in a tactic used just five months earlier in a similar holiday rampage on France’s southern coast.
Investigation teams moved to piece together what they described as “circumstantial evidence,” including witness descriptions and video footage. But no criminal sketches were released to the public, suggesting how much remained unknown. And as night settled on the gritty German capital, Berliners were cautioned to stay on guard.
“It is the case that we possibly still have a dangerous offender in our area,” warned Berlin’s police chief, Klaus Kandt. “These days it is necessary to be vigilant.”
The attack, officials concluded by Tuesday, was almost certainly deliberate.
A Polish national was driving the truck when it left Poland en route to deliver a cargo of steel in Berlin. The driver was found shot dead in the passenger seat.
Holger Münch, president of the Federal Office for Criminal Investigation, said police were “highly alarmed” because they did not know who was behind the attack and the gun used on the victim in the truck had not been found.
The modus operandi and target, officials said, indicated — but offered no confirmation — that Islamist extremists may have been involved.
The Islamic State has previously cited traditional Christmas markets as viable marks in their wave of terror in Europe, and the Berlin assault was reminiscent of the truck-on-sidewalk tactic used by a self-proclaimed Islamic State adherent in Nice, France, last July. That attack resulted in the deaths of 86 people on the Promenade des Anglais on Bastille Day, another festive moment.
German authorities beefed up security at important sites in Berlin and elsewhere, while a false bomb scare caused the evacuation of the train station in Cologne. Flags were flown at half-staff across Germany, even as the city’s markets shut down for the day out of respect for the dead.
Across Europe, nations raised their terror alerts and put more police on the streets. London’s Metropolitan Police department, for instance, said Tuesday that it would review its plans for securing Christmas and New Year’s celebrations following the Berlin attacks.
The plans, the department said in a statement, “already recognize that the threat level is at ‘severe,’ meaning an attack is highly likely, and have considered a range of threats, including the use of large vehicles.”