ISIS claims it inspired Berlin Christmas market assault
Berlin (CNN) — German authorities released a man and intensified their manhunt for the person who plowed a tractor-trailer truck into a crowd at a Berlin Christmas market, even as ISIS claimed on Tuesday that it inspired the attack.
Police said they didn’t have enough evidence to hold a man they’d earlier described as a suspect in the Monday night truck assault that left 12 people dead and 48 injured. The dead include a man found shot inside the truck.
There may be more than one suspect at large, armed and dangerous, Peter Frank, general prosecutor at Germany’s Federal Court of Justice, told journalists.
The ISIS-affiliated Amaq news agency released a statement saying Monday night’s attack was carried out by “a soldier of the Islamic State” in response to calls by the group’s leadership to target citizens of international coalition countries.
CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said ISIS often uses this terminology to refer to attacks by alleged sympathizers in the West.
“This should not be taken to mean the group is claiming it directed this attack,” Cruickshank said. “Investigators have not uncovered any links to ISIS.”
German authorities are investigating the attack as an act of terror. Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists that we must “assume this is a terrorist attack.”
Attacker at large?
Berlin police called on the public to remain alert as confusion swirled over who was driving when the truck barreled over a curb into the crowded market.
“They’re really back to square one in terms of this investigation. … It may well be a scenario of a manhunt, a race against time to arrest this individual before they can strike again,” Cruickshank said.
German authorities released the man they’d detained after the attack. “The results of the investigation thus far have not produced imminent suspicion against the accused,” the general prosecutor said in a statement.
Investigators had initially described the asylum seeker they detained as a suspect. But a day later, they seemed to be backing off that claim.
“We possibly need to assume that we have not arrested the right one,” Frank said.
“We do not know if there was one perpetrator or several perpetrators yet. We do not know if there was support given to the perpetrator.”
Authorities didn’t release the identity of the man they detained. De Maiziere said earlier that the man was “probably from Pakistan.” He entered Germany on December 31, 2015, Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere said, and his application for asylum had stalled.
So far, forensic tests haven’t linked the man to the truck’s cabin, the prosecutor said.
Berlin police turned to the public for help and tweeted that they’d received 508 leads. Police also asked citizens to upload any digital video and photos of the incident or possible suspects.
Stalls shuttered at normally busy market
While investigators searched for clues, the usually bustling Christmas market was eerily quiet, with stalls shuttered and nearby roads blocked off.
The sounds of a choir singing rang out as a terrorism expert spoke to CNN near the market.
“You have peace concerts, you have people laying down wreaths, you have people writing cards and people speaking silent prayers. This is completely unprecedented,” said Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. “I don’t think a lot of people are aware there’s an attacker on the loose, potentially.”
Thousands of people filled the nearby Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church to pay their respects to the victims Tuesday night.
Those unable to enter the packed building waited outside in the winter air, many hugging each other, crying, or silently clutching candles.
Polish citizen found dead
Police identified the man found shot to death inside the truck as the original driver from Poland, reported German state media ARD.
He was not driving when the truck came through the market, police said. The gun has not been recovered, De Maiziere said.
The truck, which was owned by a Polish company, “was steered deliberately into the crowd,” police said. It was carrying 25 tons of steel, according to Ariel Zurawski, the owner of the truck company. Zurawski told CNN affiliate TVN 24 the vehicle may have been hijacked.
Zurawski identified the slain man as his cousin, ARD said.
Top: Scene of the Christmas market attack in Berlin. Photo: CNN
Inset: German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives to give a statement the day after the Berlin attack. Photo: CNN
SOURCE: CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen, Angela Dewan, James Griffiths and Catherine E. Shoichet