Region 5 combats terrorism in Western Europe (Part 1)

  • Published
  • By SA Christopher Scheib
  • AFOSI Detachment 540, American Embassy Berlin

On Dec. 19, 2016, radicalized Tunisian terrorist and common-street criminal Anis Amri mercilessly steered a stolen semi-truck filled with steel construction beams toward a Berlin Christmas market packed with men, women and children enjoying the holiday season in Germany’s capital city. In the cab of the stolen vehicle lay its owner, a deceased Polish truck driver, shot and killed by Amri at a highway rest stop.


Twelve innocent people died that fateful evening and scores injured when Amri plowed the semi through the crowd.


Amri calmly walked away from the carnage he created to the nearest Berlin Underground Metro Station. As the city’s 4 million inhabitants feared terrorists were on the loose in their home town, Amri executed his escape plan, seemingly without any complication, boarding long distance trains, traveling half of Western Europe completely and utterly undetected by authorities.


For Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agents Mark Ryan and myself, and Intelligence Specialist Cara Kaiser with Seat of Government Detachment at American Embassy Berlin, the holiday-inspired evening started out innocently enough. I took my children to a Christmas Market ice skating rink at Berlin's Potsdamer Platz.


Afterwards I overhead workers at the Christmas Market stalls talking about a radio broadcast. “Someone drove a truck through a Christmas Market at Breitscheidplatz!” said one worker.  Another said in German, “You’re crazy!” I glanced at a network news outlet on my detachment iPhone and the horrible news was confirmed. I gathered my family and raced back home as the deafening sounds of police sirens, ambulances and helicopters filled the air. Berlin just joined Paris, London and Brussels as cities targeted by terrorists.


Once back in my Embassy quarters, I immediately channeled into a frenzy of Embassy Country Team coordination via email, phone calls and chats. The embassy’s Emergency Action Committee, of which OSI is a member, activated to confirm critical information such as the location of the attacker or attackers, if any Embassy personnel were involved in the attack and if any American citizens were killed or injured.


Simultaneously, Detachment 540 members were relaying valuable real-time information from the Embassy Country Team, the Regional Security Office, Berlin Police and allied security services back to the largest concentration of Americans outside of the United States of America at Ramstein Air Base in Western Germany. This task had to be handled delicately as agents must always be sensitive to their trusted German partners who have little time for liaison while they are actively working to resolve ongoing situations.


Det. 540 members did what they could to obtain and relay critical threat information to Air Force leaders at Ramstein to provide early warning to more than 60,000 U.S. military at the base. Then, it happened. One of Det. 540’s most trusted security partners texted me a picture of the terrorist responsible for the attack – Anis Amri. Det. 540 was the first Embassy country team member to obtain Amri’s photo thanks to its outstanding liaison relationships. Intel Specialist Kaiser and I transmitted it to Ramstein to post at all DOD facility entrances. In less than two hours, Det. 540, through its aggressive management of the crisis and engagement with security partners, ensured Amri couldn’t make DOD Germany his next target.


He was now Europe’s most wanted man and on the run from every security service across the continent. Amri died of gunshot wounds inflicted by Italian police in Milan during a routine traffic stop he tried to shoot his way out of.


This was not my or Det. 540’s first experience with Islamic terrorism in Germany.


On March 2, 2011, Kosovo-Albanian immigrant Arid Uka shot and killed two U.S. Airmen and critically wounded three others at Frankfurt International Airport. Special Agents Tracy Bunch, Chris Buckley, Kimberly Crowell, myself and a first-class team of OSI first responders from Det. 515 (now the 13th Field Investigations Squadron) coordinated the OSI response to what the German judge who later sentenced Uka to life in person called, the “First radical Islamic attack on Germany soil.”


The Uka attack at the airport was a watershed event for military force protection in Europe and specifically the Ramstein area. Not since the leftist extremist group, the Red Army Faction, exploded a car bomb at the United States Air Forces in Europe Headquarters at Ramstein had such violence against the U.S. military occurred.


Positive change did result from the tragedy. Air Force Security Forces member, Staff Sgt. Travis Brewer, who chased Uka into the Frankfurt Airport after the incident, was awarded Germany’s highest award for bravery, the Bundesverdienstkreuz, by the German Interior Minister at a special ceremony in Berlin.


OSI’s charter of protecting our Air Force now had renewed license in Germany and the sentencing of Uka in a packed Frankfurt court room in front of a brother of one of the fallen Airmen, was at that time, the most rewarding moment in my career. The opportunity to ensure justice duly served was the reason I joined AFOSI in 2005.


Terror attacks have continued to plague Western Europe since 2014. The Syrian Civil War and the rise of the Islamic State eventually spilled into Western Europe, making it the new battlefield in the West’s fight against terror and a significant pivot for OSI Region 5 Europe and Africa. The men and women of Region 5 have been up to the challenge.


Viewing the downward spiral of the threat landscape in Europe was Region 5 Counterintelligence Director SA Lance Wega who coordinated OSI’s counter terrorism and counterintelligence activities in the European theatre during what some began to call “The New Normal,” a seemingly endless barrage of terrorist attacks from Germany to the UK. 


While the Region 5 CI directorate skillfully managed OSI threat reporting from across the region, SA Wega and his team logged painstakingly long hours, having to deal with sensitivities arising from complicated host nation security relationships, and the no-fail mission of keeping USAFE leaders informed on the ever-changing threat their personnel face.


It became the new job description for a Region 5 OSI Special Agent.