How We Allow Terrorist Attacks to Happen
The terrorist attack in Berlin earlier this month by radical Islamist Anis Amri is leading to continued questions about what authorities knew and when they knew it.
Amri was on German security’s radar — and his asylum claim was rejected, due to concerns that he was radicalized. Yet he somehow managed to stay free and make a video pledging allegiance to ISIS before he crashed a truck into a Christmas market, killing at least 12 civilians and injuring many more.
The search for answers to prevent such an attack from happening again requires solid data from reliable sources. As the layers of this case are peeled back and the process of drilling down on the facts of Amri’s life continues, we find more and more of what was already known — and we ask, “Did authorities miss something?”
Amri was an illegal immigrant from Italy, originally from Tunisia. He was disenfranchised and isolated from his family. He had a prior propensity for violent behavior, with prior arrests for assault. He also had a history of petty criminal behavior and spent time in prison. He was radicalized while incarcerated. He was previously known to Counter-terrorism authorities and was on a German watch list. His method of attack had been sanctioned and encouraged by ISIS.
We’ve heard these facts before: the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, the Paris/Brussels attacks, the Toulouse shootings, the Orlando nightclub attack, the Chelsea bombing — unfortunately the list goes on and on. The vast majority of the most recent vicious attacks carried out in the name of Islam against society shared many of the same indicators.
So if the information was there, then what went wrong?
We live in a time that has been dubbed the “information age” — where enormous amounts of data flow freely over the Internet and other media outlets. And yet I’m reminded of a line from a 1965 Rolling Stones’ song:
And the man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
So what exactly is useless information?
We get up in the morning and listen to the traffic report so that we know the best way to travel to work and avoid jams. We listen to the weather report to determine how to dress appropriately for conditions like rain or snow. If we listen to those reports but don’t apply that information, we put ourselves in an uncomfortable situation with predictable consequences.
In the arena of counter-terrorism, however, that neglect can be deadly.
Information that is obtained and not used (in a timely fashion) is useless.
We learned this lesson the hard way after September 11. The 9/11 Commission described incidents of “missed opportunities,” and said one of the reasons was the failure to share information between agencies. Another reason was the inability to collect and analyze data. New intelligence-gathering systems necessary to fight terrorism were designed and put in place. Yet radical Islamists are still able to carry out isolated incidents of terror. Why?
The information was there prior to the Berlin incident. It was shared. And yet the attack still occurred. What was lacking was resolve.
Amri should have been deported immediately after his first arrest in Italy for two separate incidents of arson. He was sentenced to jail for four years. While in the Palermo prison in 2014, he had a fight with his Christian cellmate, and attempted to cut his head off.
When Amri was released from prison, Italian authorities tried to send him back to Tunisia and failed. He was then allowed to migrate to Germany because of its lenient immigration policies. German officials tried to deport him, but again were thwarted by the Tunisian government’s refusal to accept him.
Following that, he was again released from jail and allowed to move about the country. Surveillance was suspended and Amri then carried out his attack. Why? Law enforcement officials tell us they lack the resources to track every terror suspect every hour of every day.
The European Union’s dilemma since the migration of millions from war-torn areas of the Middle East pits compassionate open borders versus national security.
The United States is facing a similar situation. Two critical components must be in place before we open our doors. The entry vetting process must be exhaustive, and the deportation process must have a backbone fortified with the resolve to send back illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes committed while here.
There must also be a deep resolve to take the battle to radical Islamic groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Absent those requirements, all the information in the world will not prevent another Islamist terrorist attack from happening here or in Europe.
IPT Senior Fellow Patrick Dunleavy is the former Deputy Inspector General for New York State Department of Corrections and author of The Fertile Soil of Jihad. He currently teaches a class on terrorism for the United States Military Special Operations School.