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Berlin terror attack could inspire copycats

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Terrorism experts said Tuesday there will likely be more incidents like the presumed terror attack in Berlin, where a tractor-trailer plowed through a Christmas market and killed 12 people and injuring dozens more.

The Islamic State released a statement on Tuesday through its Amaq news agency claiming responsibility for the attack, according to news reports.

Gordon Woo, a catastrophe risk expert at cat modeler Risk Management Solutions Inc. in London, said terrorists copy what has succeeded in the past, noting the similarity between this attack and the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, France, in July of this year that killed 86 people.

Mr. Woo said in a statement that “ramming with a truck can be a very effective mode of terrorist attack and so unfortunately it seems we can expect more of these.”

“The physical damage from such attacks is far less than for a bomb,” Mr. Woo said, “but they score highly in two prized terrorist objectives: causing public fear and generating publicity.”

Mr. Woo said that terrorists are quick to adapt to changing security measures, taking the path of least resistance and striking in some other way.

“We see this now with the use of trucks as weapons,” Mr. Woo said. “Acquiring explosive material for making bombs is difficult. It is easier to rent or steal a truck and use it as a ramming weapon. Such plots may be perpetrated by lone actors, with a minimal surveillance footprint.”

German authorities on Monday night had arrested a 23-year-old Pakistani asylum seeker who arrived in Germany last December, but later released him. The attack occurred on the same day the Russian ambassador to Turkey was gunned down at an art exhibition in Ankara and a gunman opened fire in a Muslim prayer center in Zurich.

Louise Shelley, a university professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government and the founder and Director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, said in an email that “unfortunately this type of attack appears to be part of a pattern of ISIS-affiliated attack.”

“The method is certainly one we have seen before,” she said.  “Without knowing the identity of the perpetrator we do not know if he has a criminal past like so many of the terrorists operating In Europe. But it is likely as many of the terrorists in Europe have pasts in crime.”

Colin Clarke, Pittsburgh-based political scientist with the Rand Corp., wrote in a Dec. 15 commentary on the Rand website that terrorists and criminals in Europe “now recruit from the same milieu.” He noted that many terrorists have been involved in various types of criminality before becoming jihadists. 

"One major concern for European law enforcement and counter-terrorism officials is that just as the threat from a crime-terror nexus in Europe is growing, the forces of anti-globalism are strengthening," Mr. Clarke wrote.

Regarding the Berlin attack, Mr. Clarke said that while no one has yet to claim responsibility for the incident, the terrorist group ISIS has encouraged more so-called “lone wolf” attacks.

“None of this should come as a surprise,” Mr. Clarke said. “Whether it’s directed by ISIS or merely inspired, it doesn’t matter that much. The fact is that it’s happening.”

RMS, which has a terrorism risk model, said the risk of terrorist attacks at European Christmas events, including markets, was highlighted in a U.S. State Department warning in November.

Germany reportedly has about 2,500 Christmas markets around the country and has experienced several small-scale terrorist attacks this year. The majority of these were by armed individuals attacking the public, RMS said.

“Christmas markets in particular have been prime targets,” Mr. Clarke said. “You’re striking at the heart of a very symbolic aspect of Christianity.”

Mr. Clarke said he also believes there will be similar terrorist incidents.

“I’m always waiting for the next shoe to drop,” he said, noting that the perpetrator of the Berlin attack is still at large.

“There is no shortage of people willing to do this.  ISIS is under pressure and is directing followers in the West to even the playing field. So I would be on high alert and I think European authorities certainly are.”