Apparent terrorist attack on a christmas market in Berlin: What is known
On the evening of Monday, December 19, 2016, around 8 p.m. local time, a heavy truck-trailer combination plowed through the christmas market at Breitscheidplatz, Berlin. It came from Kantstraße, went straight ahead into the alley between two rows of stalls, killing 11 people and injuring at least 48, some of them severely, destroying a number of and exited about half way through the market onto Budapester Straße. Emergency services responded quickly, bringing the injured to surrounding hospitals, most of them to Charité, which started its emergency program. Another dead person was found in the passenger’s seat of the truck.
What is known about the driver
The driver ran away from the scene. An eyewittness followed a person who ran away from the scene, keeping contact with the police by his cell phone. Due to this information, the police detained the suspect near Siegessäule, about 2 km away. According to reports, the suspect is allegedly a 23 year-old man from Pakistan, who came to Germany in February 2016, crossing the border from Austria near Passau. It is not finally determined whether this is his real identity. He is known to the police for a number of offenses. He was living in a refugee shelter in a former hangar of the defunct Tempelhof Airport building. Later that night, the police searched that refugee shelter and questioned occupants. Latest news report that the police has serious doubt that the detained suspect is the actual perpetrator. In particular, there is no evidence that he fired shots as any trace of explosives or blood could not be found on the suspect. The person who actually drove the truck through the christmas market may be still at large, may be armed and may still be dangerous.
What is known about the truck
The truck was registered in Poland and belonged to a small Polish business. It came from Italy that day, carrying iron beams. Due to late arrival, unloading was postponed until the next day, so the truck had to be parked off site. The dead person on the passenger’s seat was identified as the cousin of the business owner, who drove the truck from Poland to Berlin that day. It was determined that he died from shots. The truck and the driver were apparently hijacked around 4 p.m. According to GPS data provided by the owner, the truck was repeatedly started and stopped after 4 p.m. and finally left its parking site in Berlin around 4.45 p.m.
How did the officials respond
Emergency service was swiftly on the scene. The nearby Charité hospital activated its emergency plan. Police evacuated and cordoned off the area. People were advised to stay away as far as possible from the area and to keep all access roads clear. Witnesses who have captured the scene on mobile devices are asked to hand in their photos or video material to the Federal Criminal Office, using the website bka-hinweisportal.de. They were asked to refrain from publishing their material on social media.
High officials reacted shocked. The mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller, came to visit the scene soon after. Also the chancellor, the interoir minister and other federal officials released statements of shock, bemoaning the dead, and extending their best wishes to the injured. Oftentimes, the statements warned against premature conclusions.
Security measures at christmas markets throughout the country were increased further. The operators of the Christmas markets in Berlin were asked to keep the markets closed on Tuesday out of respect for the victims.
How did the media respond
Initial reports were purely factual, but soon a terrorist attack was suspected. The police and officials warned to draw premature conclusions, saying that an unfortulate accident could not be excluded. Police statements were quickly published and the public was warned against any inconsiderate response.
Thoughtful commentaries remarked that it was only a matter of time until such acts would happen given that Germany was not in control of immigration at its borders and unable to filter the incoming people for a period of time, whilst the majority of immigrants certainly came without any bad intention. Others referred to the – now seriously doubted – suspect who was still living in an improvised shelter in a defunct airport hangar, pointing out that these circumstances of living for a prolonged time and the failure of Berlin to provide appropriate accomodation may contribute to a radicalization of formerly blameless individuals.
How did the public respond
The general public response was calm and prudent. There was no sign of panic. Populist voices remained a minor opinion, and attacks against minorities have not happened so far. As there was a general warning that christmas markets, being soft targets difficult to defend, may be the target of attacks, the incident was not a big surprise to the Germans. Also the mode of attack using a truck to drive into the middle of a crowded place was already known from a previous incident in Nice, France. Occasional reports of defeated bomb plots had made the public aware of a potential danger, but did not scare them away from the christmas markets. The general feeling is that the Germans refuse to let their Christmas spirit be spoiled by terrorism.