The curious case of Sesto San Giovanni

Jon Van Housen

Soon after Europe’s most wanted man, the terrorist Anis Amri, was fatally shot by a rookie Italian policeman during a routine ID check, investigators found an intriguing connection.

Hunted across Europe, Amri met his demise in the working-class Milan suburb of Sesto San Giovanni, just a few kilometers from where the truck he used in a Berlin killing spree originated. Had the 24-year-old Tunisian refugee come full circle, returning to a support group of fellow terrorists?

The clues were compelling – and possibly alarming. Was the former factory town, once known as “Sestograd” for its Communist Party residents and local government, actually now home to a nest of terrorists?

The truck Amri used in the Dec. 19 attack on a Christmas market in Berlin originated in nearby Cinisello Balsamo. It was driven by Polish national Lukasz Urban, who was bringing a load of steel pipes from a small Italian producer to a customer in Germany.

Somehow Amri ended up driving the massive steel-laden tractor-trailer rig, smashing it into a crowd of Christmas shoppers at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 56. Had it all been an elaborate plan hatched in Sesto San Giovanni?
Anis Amri at Centrale, Milan
CCTV screenshot of Anis Amri outside Milan’s central train station at 1 am, Dec. 23. (image: Polizia di Stato)

The answer, after intensive police and intelligence agency work in Italy and Germany, was finally no.

Amri appears to have attacked the 37-year-old truckdriver as he waited to unload his shipment of steel at Freidrich-Krause-Ufer in the German capital. Authorities say he was shot with a 22-cal. handgun several hours before the fateful Christmas market carnage.

Investigations uncovered “no connections of Anis Amri to possible accomplices or supporters in Milan and in the Milan region”, said Antonio de Iesu, Milan’s police chief, who added that it was “only a coincidence”.

From witnesses, records and CCTV footage, investigators were able to follow Amri’s tracks from Germany to the Netherlands, to Lyon, and by bus to Chambery, France, where he boarded a slow train to Milan’s central train station. There he asked about train connections to Rome, but they all had left by his 1 am arrival. With few options, Amris boarded a bus to Sesto San Giovanni. He would have just two hours left to live.

Possible transport from there includes long-distance buses to southern Italy and on to north Africa. But Amri didn’t make it to any more stations. At 3 am, he was stopped by police during a routine check — the few people on the street in Sesto that time of night are bound to draw attention.

Instead of an ID, Amri brandished the same gun he used to kill Lukasz Urban and fired. The small-caliber bullet hit one officer in the shoulder. His partner then returned fire, killing Amri.

The dramatic story naturally caught the attention of the world, and also the inevitable conspiracy theorists. Yet in the end, truth can be stranger than fiction. The circle that began and ended in Sesto was all coincidence.

I was reminded a bit of the JFK assassination and all its myriad conspiracy theories. After all, trying to find a rational, even disturbing, explanation to that shocking series of events is normal. We search for patterns, for the thread that holds it all together. How could the President of the United States ride in a slow-moving open car precisely under the window where armed nutcase Lee Harvey Oswald worked? How then could an impulsive and emotional bar owner named Jack Ruby rub out the assassin less than two days later while in police custody? Surely there must be a dark hand behind it all.

But after decades of study and the thrill of considering a range of sinister forces at work, I like anti-establishment writer Norman Mailer, came to the reluctant conclusion that indeed it had all been a series of coincidences. Oswald and Ruby, each driven by their own strange impulses, had both perpetrated crimes of opportunity.

Truth might be stranger than fiction, but conspiracies are far more exciting than the bewildering, often banal, facts.

Amri’s fate led him back to the locale where his lethal weapon originated. Not human planning, but perhaps karma, brought him to the place he would pay for his crimes. There is indeed a circle in it all, but not one designed by the terrorist.