Summary

Key Details

Date of Incident: 15 October 2018
Location: Cologne, Germany
Type: Hostage Incident
Severity: Moderate

Overview

  • A man lit a Molotov Cocktail at a restaurant inside Cologne Central Station, injuring a 14-year-old female before holding a woman hostage inside a pharmacy.
  • The suspect has been identified as Mohammad A.R, a 55-year-old man, of Syrian descent that had initially applied for asylum in the Czech Republic in 2015 before travelling to Germany.
  • During the incident, unconfirmed reports suggest that the suspect said he was a member of the Islamic State (IS) and had wanted to join the group in Syria. No obvious links to IS have been identified by authorities but there are indications that there was a ‘radical Islamist’ motive.
  • The suspect was shot 3 times and seriously wounded by police after a 2-hour heist. As of 19 October 2018, the suspect remains in a coma.

Incident Details

Cologne (Germany) Hostage Incident Location - 15 October 2018

On 15th October 2018, a man poured a large quantity of petrol on the floor inside a McDonald’s restaurant located within Cologne Central Station in Germany before lighting a Molotov cocktail. A 14-year-old girl was injured in the initial incident which triggered a fire alert, resulting in the deployment of the Cologne City fire department. The man fled the restaurant leaving behind a suitcase and a briefcase containing gas cartridges that had been packed with steel balls and fire accelerant.

The man then entered a pharmacy and took a female employee hostage using an airgun. Unconfirmed reports suggest the man spoke in Arabic, said he wanted to travel to Syria to join IS and demanded the release of a Tunisian from prison – we do not currently have any further information on the identity of the prisoner. After a two-hour heist during which the man poured petrol over the woman and attempted to set her on fire, police stormed the pharmacy and shot the assailant three times, seriously injuring him. The female hostage suffered shock but was otherwise uninjured.

As of October 19, the man remains in a coma in hospital, but he will be charged with attempted murder and serious bodily harm. The man has been identified as Mohammad A.R. and was previously due to be deported to the Czech Republic in 2015, since he first applied for asylum there before travelling to Germany. Germany’s Federal Officer of Migration and Refugees (BAMF) missed a deadline to deport Mohammad back and granted him permission to stay in Germany until at least 2021.

After searching Mohammad’s home in the Neuehrenfeld part of Cologne, police found more petrol and Arabic text on the wall, which referred to Islam, but could not be linked to IS. Mohammad had previously been imprisoned in Syria for opposing the regime (no further information). The building manager at his apartment block said that in Syria Mohammad had been ‘tortured with electric shocks, with water, with light, that made him psychologically unwell. He was in Cologne for treatment’.

According to police Mohammad suffers from mental illness and was intoxicated at the time of the incident. Mohammad appeared dishevelled with unkempt long hair and a 3-day beard. German authorities say Mohammad has a lengthy criminal record for various crimes including theft and causing injury.

Analyst Comment

If the suspect had managed to cause the gas cartridges to explode, the damage and potential casualty number would have been considerable; it is clear that he had planned to cause maximum damage at a busy central station. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and we note that IS are often quick to claim attacks even if they are not responsible. Primarily, they do this in order to increase their public profile, demonstrate their ability to move freely and strike at will, which both allows them to strike fear into the local populace and acts as inspiration other individuals to conduct similar acts of terrorism. There has been no reliable further information released to clarify what was said by Mohammad during the siege.

With authorities suggesting that there was a ‘radical Islamist’ motive’, Mohammad may have been inspired by IS, but not necessarily have direct links / contact with IS members. Incidents involving lone individuals or lone wolves are extremely difficult to prevent and detect, even close family members may not be aware of the individual’s intentions. Terrorism ordered, guided or inspired by IS organisations remains a real threat, with lone wolf attacks using simple, widely available equipment expected to continue to predominate. Future similar attacks will almost certainly continue to occur in Europe and other areas. While these attacks are very difficult to detect and prevent, the simplicity of the equipment used is indicative of security services’ success in controlling firearms and explosives, which would be highly effective for mass casualty attacks.

We note that the incident bears similarities to the Berlin terror attack in December 2016, where German authorities had failed to deport the suspect. The truck attack left 12 people dead and 56 others injured. Anis Amri who conducted the attack had had his asylum application rejected months before he carried out the attack at the Christmas market. German authorities were initially unable to deport him and slow to react to secure alternative documents. Therefore, German authorities may receive a backlash over failings in the system following the incident in Cologne.

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