Berlin (CNSNews.com) – Monday night’s deadly truck attack at a Christmas market here is the latest in a series of attacks that have shaken Europe over the last two years, as governments try to balance security concerns with a humanitarianism response to the flood of displaced people from war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) claimed credit Tuesday for the attack that killed 12 people and injured at least 48 others. It said in a statement released through its Amaq “news agency” that the perpetrator – who it did not name – had responded to its call to carry out attacks against “nationals of countries in the international coalition.”
Germany has reconnaissance and refueling aircraft based at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase and a frigate deployed in the Mediterranean as part of the anti-ISIS coalition.
Even before the claim of credit, the similarities to an ISIS-claimed truck attack in Nice last July led to assumptions that it was a terror attack rather than an accident, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said earlier Tuesday, “at the moment we have to assume it was a terrorist attack.”
A man arrested near the site of the attack and suspected of being the perpetrator – a 23-year-old refugee from Pakistan – was later released for lack of evidence, as police investigations continued.
Merkel said that if the perpetrator turns out to be a refugee, it “would be extremely hard for us to bear.” She said it “would be particularly despicable, for all those Germans who work to help refugees every day … who are genuinely trying to integrate into our country.”
Attacks in Paris in November 2015 and in Belgium last March triggered an outcry about border controls and stoked debate about the place of Islam in Europe.
In Germany, an axe attack in Würzburg in July and a suicide attack in Ansbach a week later were both claimed by ISIS. In October, a young student was raped and murdered in Freiburg by a 17-year-old migrant who was later found to have a criminal record for attempted murder in Greece, where he pushed a woman off a cliff.
The attacks are growing concern for Merkel, who recently announced that she will run for a fourth term in elections next year.
Of all European countries confronting mass arrivals of migrants and refugees, Merkel’s “open door” policy was the most ambitious, a symbolic gesture by a country still mired by its Nazi past.
She introduced her refugee policy with a rallying cry of “wir schaffen das” (we can do it) but the horrific attacks have led her to admit the need for tougher controls and faster deportations of those rejected for asylum.
Several new measures have been introduced this year, such as requiring new arrivals to be immediately photographed and fingerprinted, and shorter timeframes for rejected asylum applicants to leave the country, with further revisions continually being proposed.
After being re-elected as party leader a fortnight ago, Merkel positioned herself as protector of both German values and domestic security – but did not rescind on her refugee policy despite admitting the need for further tightened controls.
The tensions have seen the right-wing anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) become the nation’s third largest party, ahead of next year’s elections.
AfD co-chair Frauke Petry was quick to link the Berlin attack to the immigration issue.
“It is not only an attack on our freedom and our way of life, but on our Christian tradition,” she said. “Germany is a country which is divided over the immigration question.”
One AfD politician, Marcus Pretzell, went as far as to describe the victims in Berlin as “Merkel’s dead,” prompting a sharp response from a senior leader in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, Armin Schuster.
“It would be a total nonsense to confuse terrorism with the refugee crisis,” Schuster told Die Welt. “Even without the high immigration, IS[IS] would find ways to commit attacks.”
He noted that there have also been cases of German-born citizens being suspected of planning ISIS-motivated attacks.
As for Pretzell’s characterization of the Berlin victims as “Merkel’s dead,” Schuster accused him of “becoming an accomplice to the terrorists.”
“This is exactly what the IS[IS] wants.”