What US intel knows about Anis Amri's relation to IS in Libya - and their relation to IS Central

March 1st, 2019 - I recently had a chance to study a secret three page memo produced by German domestic intelligence agency BfV (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz) in January of 2017. The document contains notes from an analysis authored by their US intelligence counterparts on "the role of IS Libya in regard to the attack of December 19th 2016 in Berlin", which of course is the van attack on a Christmas market in the German capital by Tunisian citizen Anis Amri that killed twelve people.

Together with my colleagues at DIE ZEIT, I have published extensively on Anis Amri, his background, his attack and it's preparation (see here and here, e.g., both articles in German).

But the BfV memo does contain some new information that is actually quite interesting, especially as it sheds some light on the hitherto speculative nature of the relationship between IS in Libya and IS central in Syria.

Original IS central claim of responsibility for Berlin attack

What we knew until now was that Anis Amri in his attempt to join up with IS resorted to contacting Tunisian extremists, some of which he very likely knew from back home. More than once Amri made it clear in his messages that he was willing to conduct a terror attack in Germany but felt he needed guidance. The Tunisian IS members he corresponded with, some of whom were fighting with IS Libya in Libya at the time, promised him they would put him in touch with an authorized handler.

Finally found: Some missing pieces of the Puzzle

In the end, they managed to do just that: A mysterious man with the nickname "Moumou1" got in touch with Amri, supplied him with a pdf brochure addressing willing terrorists and chatted with him until and even during the day of the attack. Amri even sent "Moumou1" a picture from inside the van after he had taken control of it and killed the driver, only moments before he crashed it into the crowd at the Christmas market.

"Moumou1" has since been identified somewhat confidently by German and Tunisian investigators as a Tunisian citizen who was and likely still is involved with IS Libya in Libya. So we know for a fact that Amri had a relation with IS Libya. But in fact, we also only know for sure that he had a relation with IS Libya. We do not know that he ever had a personal connection with IS central in Syria, even though IS central claimed responsibility for his attack a day after it happened and published a video taped by Amri prior to the attack in which he offered his Bai'a to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on December 23rd. We had, until very recently, no idea whatsoever how it came about that IS central got to claim the attack and publish the video.

Now some of the missing pieces of the puzzle are available through the secret memo:

According to the document, US intel informed their German colleagues that a media representative of IS Libya named "Rashid" "informed core IS about the role of IS Libya in the attack and co-ordinated the public claim of responsibility by IS". This means that IS Libya got in touch with HQ in Syria right after the attack and offered to IS central that HQ take credit for it (rather than claim it for themselves).

In addition to this, the memo states that according to US intel, IS central in Syria was expecting more attacks by IS Libya since "requirements for media post-production for future attacks were addressed" between the two IS structures.

US intelligence, according to the Germans, believed that IS central in Syria interpreted the Berlin attack as proof that IS Libya way capable of their own external operations planning.

(If you allow me a little aside here: To me, this relation between HQ and an aspiring branch is strikingly reminiscent of the kind of relation that AQ central had with AQAP for a while.)

Amri sent a second video to IS Libya 

A last piece of detail in the memo that deserves our attention is about a hitherto unknown second video by Anis Amri. I already mentioned the video that we all know and that was published by IS central on December 23rd 2016. But the memo states that according to US intelligence a second video was received by IS Libya on October 23rd, 2016.

Unfortunately, US intel doesn't seem to know what's on that video, but clearly the assumption is that it might be similar in intent, meaning that Amri may have made up his mind about wanting to actually commit an attack by that date at the latest.

Until know, German investigators assumed the earliest date they could establish for Amri having decided upon an attack was either October 31st or November 1st, 2016: the dates on which according to their technical investigation Amri's other video must have been taped.

I for one am very curious if we will ever get to see that second video. Maybe it was not up to the standards that Amri's comrades expected, and in that case it will never be shown. But maybe they will publish it on the occasion of some anniversary of the attack - like AQ did with previously unknown video testimony of members of the 9/11 cell even years after the attack.

They mystery of Amri's friend Bilel B. 

Be that as it may, but let me conclude by bringing you up to date on a few aspects of the Amri saga that have recently been debated in Germany and have led to some confusion in the media.

One German magazine recently ran an article claiming that Amri's friend Bilel B., who was a suspected co-conspirator for almost a year and sent back to Tunisia in Februar 2017 in spite of that fact, was in fact an asset of Moroccan intelligence. It went on to suggest that Bilel B. was spirited away to Tunisia in order to cover this all up.

No proof was offered to back up this proposition. So what to make of it?

I will put it this way: I have read around a hundred thousand pages of documents relating to the investigation and no-where was there any indication that this might be the case. Also, German officials said on and off the record they have no information to that effect.

Another allegation was that a video existed that allegedly shows Bilel B. as a knocks down a bystander with a wooden two-by-four in the immediate aftermath of Amri's attack in order to open up the way for Amri to flee. And that this tape was also being hidden.

While a bystander was in fact hurt (and is still in a coma), German officials have stated very clearly that no footage exists that would place Bilel B. at the scene at that time.

I concur with that in that I am also not aware of any such footage.

This is not to say Bilel B. didn't know anything about the attack. He very well may have: He met Amri on the evening before for dinner. He is a hardened Jihadist. He took pictures of the exact place that Amri drove through with his van - but months earlier.

But there is no proof that Bilel B. was a co-conspirator. I am afraid, we may never know for certain. Maybe German authorities should not have shipped him to Tunisia in such a hurry but spent a little more time looking into him. But that's another story. (And one that I might well come back to.)

Anyway, thanks for stopping by and bye-bye!

PS: Here is the link to my story about the BfV Memo for ZEIT ONLINE (German). 

Edit: Due to a spelling mistake, it said that there was "now" proof that Bilel B. was a co-conspirator, but it should have said "no" and was corrected. 



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