OUESLATIA, Tunisia/BERLIN/ROME (Reuters) - In his impoverished Tunisian hometown, Anis Amri drank alcohol and never prayed, his brothers say. Then after joining the wave of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, he ended up in an Italian jail, only to emerge an utterly changed man.
Now he is prime suspect in this week’s attack on a Berlin Christmas market and two of his brothers, Walid and Abdelkader, fear the failed asylum seeker may have been radicalized by radical Islamists while he spent almost four years behind bars.
“He doesn’t represent us or our family,” Abdelkader told Sky News Arabia. “He went into prison with one mentality and when he came out he had a totally different mentality.”
German police have yet to establish who drove a truck into the market stalls on Monday, killing 12 people, though the interior minister said there was a “high probability” it was Amri. Abdelkader however said he was sure his brother - who turned 24 on Thursday - was innocent of the crime.
Whether or when Amri was radicalized has also yet to be proved. But in Oueslatia, a rural town that lives mostly off agriculture, the brothers said something had profoundly changed Amri after he made the dangerous sea crossing to Italy five years ago as a teenager.
“When he left Tunisia he was a normal person. He drank alcohol and didn’t even pray,” Walid told the TV channel. “He had no religious beliefs. My dad, my brother and I all used to pray and he didn’t.”
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said on Thursday that investigators had found the fingerprints of Amri, who is being hunted across Europe, on the truck’s door.
“If he did this, it is a dishonor to us. But I am sure that he did not do it. He went to Europe because of social reasons, to work and to help our family,” Abdelkader told reporters.
A weeping Walid said their last contact had been 10 days ago. “We were in touch with him through Facebook and by telephone and he has no relation to terrorism,” he said.
A senior Italian police source told Reuters that Amri arrived on the island of Lampedusa, probably after being rescued at sea, in February 2011. Amri’s crossing, made shortly after the overthrow of Tunisia’s autocratic president in the first of the “Arab Spring” revolts, followed a route that tens of thousands of other boat migrants have since taken.
Amri was at a shelter on Lampedusa when migrants started a fire, destroying parts of it to protest against being held there. He told authorities he was a minor, though documents now indicate he was not, and he was transferred to the Sicilian city of Catania, where he was enrolled in school.
In October 2011 he was arrested after attempts to set fire to a building, the source said, and later convicted of vandalism, threats and theft.
Amri served his term in at least two different prisons in Sicily, first in Catania and then in Palermo, before being sent in May 2015 to a detention center to await deportation.
Asked whether Amri had been radicalized in prison, the police source said he did not know about this period, while the director of the penitentiary system did not respond to Reuters queries.
Palermo’s court opened an investigation on Thursday into his time in prison in Sicily to collect information on his time behind bars, according to a senior magistrate.
Walid pointed a finger of blame for Amri’s change on fellow inmates. “Maybe he got into this when he was in prison where he met Algerians, Egyptians and Syrians,” he said.
Italy tried to deport Amri to Tunisia, but authorities there refused to take him back, saying they could not be sure he was Tunisian, and so he was released after 60 days and merely asked to leave the country.
Tunisian police were stationed outside the family home in a poor district of Oueslatia on Thursday, where Amri’s father worked with a donkey cart. Counter-terrorism investigators had been talking to the father and brothers.
Oueslatia, near the historic religious city of Kairouan, is typical of small towns in central and southern Tunisia that offer little opportunity for young men and became fertile ground for jihadist recruiters.
Residents say in 2014 several families in Oueslatia had sons leave to fight for Islamist militant groups and die in Syria, Iraq and neighboring Libya.
According to Walid, Amri had indeed left Italy in 2015 and headed to Germany, joining a tide of migrants, via Switzerland.
Amri applied for asylum in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia but this was rejected in June this year. Again he could not be deported as he did not have identification papers, so Tunisia would not take him.
While in Germany, he came to the attention of security officials. Berlin authorities put him under surveillance this year over suspicions that he had been planning a robbery to fund the purchase of automatic weapons, and was seeking accomplices for a possible attack.
Ralf Jaeger, interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, said on Wednesday that German security agencies had shared information on him with the Joint Counter-Terrorism Centre in November, weeks before the attack.
Mass-circulation newspaper Bild quoted an unnamed counter-terrorism official as saying: “It became clear in the spring that he was looking for accomplices for an attack and was interested in weapons.”
Amri, however, was not arrested. Security officials stopped their surveillance in September after their suspicions that he had been planning an attack did not firm up.
During his time in Germany he moved between North Rhine-Westphalia and Berlin. In July this year, police opened an investigation against him in connection with a knife brawl in the capital, Bild said.
German media reported that in North Rhine-Westphalia, Amri had contact with an Islamist network led by a man known as Abu Walaa (“Father of Loyalty”), who was arrested with four other men in November. They faced charges of setting up a “jihadist network” that tried to recruit Muslims to go to Syria and fight alongside Islamic State militants.
Abu Walaa, identified in German court papers as 32-year-old Iraqi Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah A., is awaiting trial.
Bild also reported that Amri had expressed willingness to carry out a suicide attack in online chats in jihadist forums.
Tunisian authorities estimate nearly 4,000 citizens have left to fight overseas with jihadist groups, ranging from middle-class students, army dropouts and a top-flight professional footballer to young men from poor, rural areas.
Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber in Berlin and Patrick Markey in Algiers; Writing by David Stamp; Editing by Pravin Char