On 17 February 2016, 17 men and women gathered in the Berlin district of Treptow for a secret meeting. They talked about the terrorist threat in Germany, about possible attacks. Had their meeting run a different course, twelve people might still be alive.
The meeting took place at 10:30 am in a former Prussian barracks, on the second floor in A242, a generic meeting room. This is the address of the Joint Counterterrorism Center (GTAZ), Germany's response to September 11, 2001: a coordination center for all German authorities who are fighting terrorism. The GTAZ is the heart and brains of German anti-terrorism efforts. These officials make decisions about life and death, going through lists of potential assassins. On one such list that morning was the name Anis Amri.
Amri was 24 years old, an asylum seeker from Tunisia. The photos in the files showed a young adult with dark curls. In the past few years, hundreds of thousands of men from Arab countries had come to Europe, most of whom are peaceful. Was Amri different, a terrorist? That was the question the officials were asking.
Amri had spoken out loud about "launching Islamic attacks" and said he planned to procure "large-caliber automatic weapons" in France. Citing these statements, an undercover agent from North Rhine-Westphalia had warned investigators a few days earlier. "They kill Muslims every day, so I have to kill them," Amri was reported to have said.
Four policemen from North Rhine-Westphalia also took part in the GTAZ meeting in Berlin. They were worried; they believed their informer. "On the basis of the available findings, it can presently be assumed that Amri will carry out his attack plans on a persistent and long-term basis," they noted in a memo after the Berlin meeting.
Their colleagues from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), on the other hand, reacted more coolly to the warning. The group merely agreed to take the case "seriously." The BKA concluded: "The occurrence of a dangerous event in the form of an attack by Amri" is "rather unlikely." In other words: no imminent danger. From this moment on, this was the official assessment of the GTAZ. The document was five pages long, dated February 29, 2016, and is still today classified as "secret," even though ZEIT was able to see it. Two authorities, two views.
The tragedy is that the wrong view prevailed, and was never corrected.
The North Rhine-Westphalian analysis, on the other hand, was very close to reality. Ten months later, on 19 December 2016, Anis Amri shot a Polish trucker in Berlin, and drove his truck across the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz, perpetrating a bloodbath. Twelve people died. Amri claimed responsibility in the name of the "Islamic State (IS)."
With the Berlin attack, a phase of relative comfort came to an end in the Federal Republic. While bombs exploded in the United Kingdom, Spain, France, and Belgium, and terrorists shot or ran down people down with trucks, Germany was until then spared major Islamist attacks. Assassination plans did exist, like those of the Sauerland group, which wanted to detonate a bomb at Frankfurt airport. There was also a terror cell that planned to throw hand grenades into the Jewish Museum in Berlin. And there were Al Qaeda members who wanted to detonate a bomb in Düsseldorf. But there was also then the GTAZ, in room A242, where police and Germany's domestic security agency, the Office for Protection of the Constitution, gathered and intervened in time.