At least 12 people were killed and 48 others injured—many seriously—when a truck drove into a crowd at a Christmas market in western Berlin on 19 December in an apparent terrorist attack. At approximately 20:00 local time, the tractor-trailer truck drove off of Budapester Strasse and into the market, located at Breitscheidplatz near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. It was initially reported that the driver of the truck fled the scene after the attack and was later arrested by authorities; however, authorities released the suspect on 20 December after concluding that there was not sufficient evidence to prove that he was involved in the attack. Authorities suspect the attacker is at large and armed. Additionally, authorities have indicated that it is unclear whether multiple suspects were involved in the attack. A passenger in the truck, a Polish national who is believed to have been the original driver of the truck, was found dead inside the truck’s cab. The truck reportedly belonged to a Polish delivery company. On 20 December, the Islamic State (IS) reportedly claimed that the attack was carried out by "a soldier of the Islamic State," but it remains unclear whether the attack was conducted under direction from the group's leadership.
The area around Breitscheidplatz remained cordoned off by security forces on 20 December and all Christmas markets in Berlin remained closed on 20 December as a precaution. Concrete barriers have been erected around other Christmas markets nationwide to prevent similar vehicular attacks.
The attack comes less than a month after the US Department of State (DoS) issued a Travel Alert on 21 November warning US citizens of the heightened risk of terrorist attacks throughout Europe during the holiday season. According to the message, there is credible information that IS, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates continue to plan terrorist attacks, with a focus on the holiday season and associated events. The DoS advised US citizens traveling to Europe to exercise vigilance, particularly when attending holiday festivals and events, using public transportation, and visiting outdoor markets, tourist sites, places of worship, and hotels. The alert warned that terrorists could use both conventional and non-conventional weapons in their attacks.
The attack bears many similarities to the attack in Nice, France on 14 July in which a truck plowed into a crowd on the Promenade des Anglais seaside walk, killing more than 80 people and injuring over 250 others. IS claimed that the driver of the truck was its “soldier.” In November, an IS magazine referenced the attack in Nice as an example of how devastating an attack using a motor vehicle can be and provided a guide on how to maximize casualties using a truck. In 2010, al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen published similar material in its magazine, urging followers to use trucks as weapons and called them “The Ultimate Mowing Machine.” In addition to France, previous attacks involving the use of trucks and motor vehicles have occurred in Israel, Canada, the United States, and Scotland.
Germany continues to be a target of violent extremists, including those inspired by IS. The country has witnessed a number of smaller-scale terrorist attacks this year, but none have caused as many casualties as this most recent attack in Berlin. Two other attacks in Germany this year that have been claimed by IS include an axe attack on a train in Würzburg on 18 July that injured four people, and a suicide bombing in Ansbach on 24 July that killed the attacker and injured 15 others. In April, the US Director of National Intelligence confirmed that IS has groups in the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, and Italy, similar to the groups that carried out attacks in Paris and Brussels. He also confirmed that intelligence officials continue to see evidence of IS plotting attacks in these countries. A report by Europol, the law enforcement agency of the European Union (EU), released in December also said that the pattern of recent terrorist attacks in Europe suggests that IS has adopted new tactics and that further attacks within the EU, by lone actors and groups, are likely to be attempted. The report highlighted the apparent preference for soft targets and noted that as IS faces losses in Syria and Iraq, foreign fighters may return from the region to Europe at an increased rate.
The latest attack should remind travelers that the threat of terrorism continues to exist in Europe. The likelihood of being directly affected in one of these incidents remains statistically low; however, travelers should conduct good planning and remain aware of the threat.
The most important piece of advice for travelers will be to practice patience and account for longer wait times at airports, train stations, and large events. In order to reduce the amount of wait time spent outside of security, travelers should:
- Arrive early during non-peak times and avoid rush hour.
- Conduct early check-in at the airport, if available.
- Only pack enough luggage that can be comfortably carried or rolled. If possible, try to pack carry-on only.
While traveling within a city, consider using a taxi or a ride sharing service (like Uber) to reduce exposure to crowds and large gatherings. Always have local currency and an ATM or credit card available. This will allow you to pay for transportation and other needs in the event of an emergency. Also, always have a paper map available to use in the event cellular and/or internet connection is limited and you need to navigate across the city. Ensure your travel companions are using the same maps with rally points clearly marked. Local maps are often provided by hotels.
Have a plan to communicate with someone back home, in case of emergency or in the event of a crisis or attack. Cellular networks can become quickly overwhelmed, as was the case in Brussels and Paris immediately following the attacks, so having alternate means of communication is critical.
- A satellite phone is a great option.
- Utilize an internet connection to communicate via email, messaging app, or social media.
- Leave an itinerary and hotel information with someone back home, and communicate any changes to travel plans.
- Establish and review rally points with your travel companions each day (such as your hotel or a well-known landmark). If you are separated for whatever reason and cannot communicate with one another, meet at that location.