A woman placing a flower at Breitscheidplatz memorial | Photo: Picture.alliance/dpa/B.Pedersen
A woman placing a flower at Breitscheidplatz memorial | Photo: Picture.alliance/dpa/B.Pedersen

Germany deported a key suspect in the 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack before he was questioned, according to leaked official documents. Bilel Ben Ammar is thought to have been an informant for Moroccan intelligence.

The German Interior Ministry deported a Moroccan secret agent to hide his involvement in the December 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin, according to an internal document leaked to the German magazine Focus.

It says that Bilel Ben Ammar, himself a "radical Islamist," who was once believed to be planning a separate attack in Berlin, was an associate of Anis Amri, the Tunisian man who drove a stolen truck into a crowded Christmas market in central Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 60 more. Amri himself was killed by police a few days later in Italy.

According to the document, Ammar met Amri a day before the attack, and took photos of the market in its aftermath, which he sent to an unknown phone number two hours later.

Ammar may have helped the attacker to escape; CCTV footage mentioned in the document showed a man "with the appearance of Ben Ammar" hit a man on the head with a piece of wood in order to clear a path for the escaping attacker. The man is still in a coma now, Focus reported.

Anis Amri killed 12 people in the Christmas market attack | Photo: Getty Images/AFP/F.Belaid

Investigation sabotaged

The report goes on to say that nine days later, the decision was made to get Ammar, an informant for the Moroccan intelligence agency, out of the country.

"From the security authorities and the Federal Interior Ministry there is a significant interest in making sure the deportation is successful," read an e-mail sent to federal police, and seen by Focus. Ammar was taken from a cell in Berlin and flown to Tunisia on February 1, 2017.

At the parliamentary committee hearing on Thursday, the Berlin state police director at the time of the attack, only referred to as Axel B., testified that Ben Ammar himself became a terrorist suspect in November 2015, over a year before Amri's attack.

Germany's central "terrorist defense center" (GTAZ), which coordinates federal and state police information, told Berlin police that Ben Ammar was planning an attack with another Islamist. But a subsequent raid, involving some 200 officers, could uncover no evidence, much to Axel B.'s consternation, he said.

The police director said he did not know why Ben Ammar was deported, but added that he did not believe Amri had acted alone.

Government: no comment

In Friday's regular government press conference, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Eleonore Petermann denied all knowledge of the CCTV footage, and, much to the incredulity of reporters, said she did not know what, or indeed if anything, was known in her department about the truth of the Focus report.

She did say that there certainly would have been "good reasons" for the deportation, and that Interior Minister Horst Seehofer had ordered an investigation into the information in the Focus report.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, would only say that information related to intelligence work would not be commented on by the government.

Angry reactions

The report has drawn anger from several members of the parliamentary committee investigating the attack, who are demanding Ben Ammar be brought back to Germany and questioned.

"This is an extremely disturbing case," said Martina Renner, the Left party parliamentarian on the committee. "At the time the investigations were not yet completed … which means the criminal prosecution and possibly the charge prosecution against this potential terrorist helper were essentially sabotaged."

Renner added that there were two indications that supported the Focus report. "For one thing we have evidence from the Moroccan secret service shortly before the attack, and they are very precise: they said, Amri was planning an attack," she told DW. "They say with which jihadis he was in contact, and there are photos. This would certainly support the theory that the source that gathered all this information was in Amri's circle, and may have been in contact with him in Berlin."

Author: Ben Knight

First published: February 22, 2019

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