The 2016 Würzburg Train Attack

Regionalbahn between Winterhausen and Würzburg-Heidingsfeld.
Regionalbahn between Winterhausen and Würzburg-Heidingsfeld.

On 18 July 2016, a 17-year-old Afghan refugee injured four people seriously, two critically, with a knife and hatchet on a train near Würzburg in Germany. A fifth person was injured outside. The state office of criminal investigations called it a terror attack with an Islamist religious motive.

The attack happened around 21:00 CEST on a train traveling between Treuchtlingen and Würzburg. The victims in the train (a husband, wife, their daughter and her boyfriend) are from Hong Kong, and the fifth victim, attacked outside the train, is a local woman. Fourteen witnesses were treated for shock. The attacker tried to flee and was shot dead by Special Deployment Commandos after they confronted him and he tried to attack them with the hatchet.

Details

Late on 18 July 2016, a youth with a hatchet and a knife injured four Hong Kongers on a train in Würzburg, Germany. A fifth person, a woman who was walking her dog, was “hit with the axe twice in the face” and seriously injured. The perpetrator was located by the police about 500 m (1,600 ft) from the train. As they approached him, he tried to attack and was shot dead. He reportedly yelled “Allahu Akbar!” during the attack, according to Oliver Platzer, a spokesman for the Bavarian Interior Ministry. Public prosecutor Erik Ohlenschlagern said police heard the attacker call out “Allahu Akbar!” in a recorded emergency call from a witness’ mobile phone.

On 20 July, it was announced the Attorney General Peter Frank has taken over the investigation, because it is believed “the assassin committed the offence as a member of the so-called Islamic State.”

Perpetrator

Riaz Khan Ahmadzai (Persian: ریاض خان احمدزی‎‎), also known as Muhammad Riyad, was reported to be a 17-year-old Afghan male who arrived in Germany as an unaccompanied child refugee in 2015. Some German media have said that his country of origin was actually Pakistan, and that he was older than 17 years. He first lived in a refugee camp, then with a foster family for two weeks, both in Ochsenfurt. Die Welt reported that “he was a devout Muslim,” but was not perceived as fanatical. Amaq News Agency published a two-and-a-half minute video, allegedly of him speaking in Pashto, proclaiming himself a soldier of the Caliphate, threatening further ISIL attacks in “every village, city and airport” and holding a knife. German officials were checking if the man in the video was in fact the attacker. The Chief of the German Chancellery, Peter Altmaier, told ZDF television: “The security authorities expect that this video is in all likelihood authentic”.

Police found a hand-painted ISIL flag at his foster family’s home, along with a letter he appeared to have written to his father, which they said read: “And now pray for me that I can get revenge on these non-believers, pray for me that I go to heaven.”

Reactions

Authorities temporarily closed the train line between Ochsenfurt and Würzburg-Heidingsfeld.

Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann said, “There are witnesses that suggest there may be an Islamic background to this but that is far from clear at this point.” Both he and Landeskriminalamt spokesman Fabian Hench declined to confirm the attacker said “Allahu Akbar”. Herrmann said it did not appear the victims were targeted for being Chinese. On 21 July, Joachim Herrmann demanded stricter control of the German borders. People without valid papers had to be adhered and checked at the border. “We can’t let it slide this way anymore”, Herrmann said. Hermann also criticised slow asylum proceedings. No fingerprints were taken of the perpetrator and no hearing of him took place.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the attack as an “incredibly cruel act” and promised that everything would be done by the authorities to prevent further attacks.

Rolf Tophoven, terrorism expert and director of the Crisis Prevention Institute in Essen told Le Monde that the perpetrator was “integrated” who wasn’t known to police or intelligence agencies. He said he appears to have radicalised overnight, perhaps through frustration, hopelessness and online ISIL propaganda, and that the case appeared similar to that of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who committed the 2016 Nice attack, or Omar Mateen of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, because of their lack of direct connection to ISIL.

Amaq News Agency, an online presence associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, citing an “inside source”, said the attacker was “a soldier of the Islamic State who executed the operation in response to calls to target nations in the coalition fighting the Islamic State”.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has condemned the attack as he dispatched a team of immigration officers to accompany the victims’ relatives to Germany. The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Berlin dispatched staff to visit the injured. Leung said he was saddened by the incident and expressed his sympathy.

The attack was linked to the European migrant crisis, and was reported to have raised more questions about Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy. The attack was compared to a knife attack at Hanover main station earlier that year on 26 February.

Former federal minister Renate Künast of the Green Party was ridiculed by police union chief Rainer Wendt as a “parliamentary smart aleck” for asking why the perpetrator was shot dead instead of arrested alive.

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