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Why Milan? Investigators probe Berlin suspect’s Italy links

© Daniele Bennati, AFP | Italian police and forensics experts gather around the body of suspected Berlin truck attacker Anis Amri after he was shot dead in the Milan suburb of Sesto San Giovanni on December 23, 2016.

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-12-26

Investigators are searching for clues as to why Anis Amri returned to Italy, his port of entry in Europe, days after allegedly carrying out the deadly attack on a Christmas Market in Berlin.

Amri, a self-proclaimed soldier of the Islamic State group, was shot dead by a rookie police officer early on Friday after he was stopped by chance for a routine check in the Milan suburb of Sesto San Giovanni, and opened fire first.

But the drab, working-class suburb of Milan, with its 80,000 inhabitants, is not the type of place where one ends up by chance.

The last stop on a Milan metro line, Sesto San Giovanni has a busy bus terminal where buses leave for Spain, the Balkans and southern Italy.

As a transport hub it attracts many migrant workers, and police controls are particularly thorough.

"I get checked by police every day getting off the bus," Aziz, a young Moroccan worker, told AFP.

"At night this place is deserted, which would explain why somebody alone here would be immediately spotted by a police patrol," he said.

Investigators are now scrambling to explain how the 24-year-old Tunisian was able to reach Sesto despite a Europe-wide arrest warrant, and what he was hoping to find there.

Was he looking for a getaway, hoping to catch one of the long-haul bus rides that depart from Sesto? Did he have contacts among the town’s sizeable North African community, and if so of what nature? Or did he have unfinished business with Italy, the country that had jailed him for over three years?

‘The country he knew best’

“After Tunisia, Italy was the country he knew best,” a member of the ROS counter-terrorism unit told Italian media, referring to Amri’s troubled four-year spell in the country.

Amri landed in the southern island of Lampedusa illegally in 2011, claiming to be a minor, and was quickly jailed after setting fire to a migrant centre.

While in prison he received 12 warnings for violent behaviour, said a spokeswoman for the Italian Justice Ministry.

After his release, efforts to deport him back to Tunisia failed for bureaucratic reasons, and he drifted northward to Germany.

Video: Berlin attack suspect killed in Milan shoot-out

Officials said there was no evidence that he had ever been in or around Milan prior to Friday’s shootout.

But the ROS agent said several factors could have lured Europe’s most wanted man to Italy’s economic capital.

“Milan is at the heart of a triangle with Germany and France,” he said. “From here one can easily reach Switzerland, Austria and the Balkans. It is a crucial link in communication channels and escape routes.

Jihadist contacts or petty criminals?

The Italian agent said Amri had “become radicalised” while in jail, during which time he learnt Italian and made friends.

Investigators were trying to determine whether some of those friends included IS group sympathisers who later moved up to northern Italy.

Over the past two years, four people from the Milan area have been either arrested or expelled for their links to the jihadist network. They include Italy’s first female fighter to have joined the IS group in Syria.

In August, Italian media reported that Libyan authorities had warned Rome about the presence of an IS group cell in Lombardy, with links to one of the organisation’s commanders in Libya.

But while Amri has been linked to a German-based recruitment network that orbited around a radical preacher named Abu Walaa, there have been no reports of ties to suspected jihadists in Italy.

The Corriere della Sera newspaper said it was more likely the alleged Berlin attacker had contacts “among the milieu of petty criminals involving members of Sesto’s North African community”.

Ansa, Italy’s main news agency, said police had recently uncovered a fake ID ring close to the Milan suburb. It noted that Amri had been caught by German police earlier this year carrying fake Italian documents.

One source close to the investigation pointed to possible links with Tunisians in the Bergamo area east of Milan, all of whom had arrived in Italy, like Amri, following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.

Amri’s journey

The fact that the chief suspect in the Berlin attack was able to return to Italy unhindered despite a Europe-wide arrest warrant has raised uncomfortable questions for intelligence agencies.

The security lapse is particularly embarrassing for France, which the suspect was able to enter, travel across and leave, despite a state of emergency.

Investigators said train tickets found on Amri had been bought at Lyon and Chambéry stations in southeastern France.

The fugitive appears to have made more stops than was required, opting, where possible, for regional trains rather than the high-speed service that would have taken him directly from Lyon to Milan.

He is believed to have stopped for three hours in Turin, where police were checking video surveillance footage for clues as to any contact with accomplices, before taking a regional train to Milan and a night bus on to Sesto.

Authorities were also investigating the apparent coincidence that the truck from a Polish shipping company used in the Berlin attack had been loaded with machinery in the neighboring Milan suburb of Cinisello Balsamo three days before the attack.

Milan Police Chief Antonio de Iesu acknowledged the connection was “suggestive”.

But he told reporters there was no evidence yet of a link, emphasising that the Polish truck driver who was the terrorist's first victim had spoken to his wife by phone from Berlin hours before the Monday night attack and did not appear to be under duress.

Date created : 2016-12-26

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