Berlin Truck Attack

Germany’s Right-Wing AfD Party Blames Merkel’s Immigration Policy for Berlin Attack

Berlin officials: Fingerprints found in cab of truck 2:01

MUNICH — Jörg Sobolewski could almost smell the roasted almonds and mulled wine wafting from the Christmas market on Monday. He considered going with his girlfriend, but with so much work to do before the holidays, decided he would stay in his Berlin apartment and go another day.

A few hours later, he heard the news: A truck had plowed through the market, killing 12 people and injuring 56 others. While German officials didn't declare the attack an act of terror until the following day, it was obvious to Sobolewski from that very moment.

"It actually didn't surprise me at all," Sobolewski, 27, said. "Even though we were basically importing people from terror-stricken countries, many Germans believed that we would be spared because we are so nice and welcoming. It was clear to me from the beginning that at one point this would happen, and it did."

Sobolewski is Berlin regional manager of the right-wing political party Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, a new group that is steadily gaining ground in Germany — a country that has essentially shunned right-wing politics since World War II.

Similar to the Trump movement in its hard-line stance on immigration and political correctness, the AfD has been emboldened by the Berlin attack, seeing it as evidence of the party's apocalyptic vision of the future under Germany's current leader, Angela Merkel. In interviews, AfD members expressed fear for what they refer to as the Islamization of Europe.

Germans angry at EU's anti-terror tactics 2:33

The suspect in the rampage, a 24-year-old Tunisian man, was killed in a shootout with police early Friday. He was living in Germany legally, despite being under investigation for suspected terrorist activity in the country, because his deportation papers had not yet been processed. And yet Sobolewski puts the blame squarely on one German citizen: Chancellor Merkel.

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"Her policy of open doors made this possible," he said, referring to Merkel's decision, announced in August 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, that Germany would welcome all migrants seeking asylum from war and violence.

While most European countries have held onto the Dublin Regulation, a European law requiring that asylum applications be processed in the first country a person enters, Merkel decided that Germany would accept refugees no matter where they'd landed first. Her policy has been heralded as a beacon of humanitarian liberalism in an increasingly conservative Europe. But it's also earned her scorn from some of her own people.

According to Kai Arzheimer, a political science professor at the University of Mainz and an expert on the AfD, many of the party's members and supporters previously backed Merkel.

Berlin Terror Attack: Tunisian Man Focus of Europe-Wide Manhunt 2:08

Within a year of Merkel's announcement that Germany would welcome an unlimited number of refugees, nearly 1 million people took her up on the offer, entering Germany without background checks, and being met with generous social benefits. One of them was the alleged perpetrator of the Berlin attack, who first fled Tunisia for Italy, where he was imprisoned for four years, according to German media reports, before arriving in Germany.

The AfD has been accused of exploiting a tragic event for political gain, after party leaders issued statements immediately following the attack criticizing Merkel.

"When will the German rule of law strike back? When will this cursed hypocrisy end? These are Merkel's dead!" tweeted AfD politician Marcus Pretzell, a member of parliament and the domestic partner of AfD chairwoman Frauke Petry.

Related: Suspect in Berlin Truck Attack Was Deemed 'Potential Risk,' Ordered Deported

Even members of Merkel's own coalition are criticizing her immigration policy. On Tuesday, Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer, chairman of the Christian Social Union (CSU), declared in Munich: "We owe it to the victims, their families and the entire populace to rethink and readjust our entire immigration and security policy."

Yet it's not just right-wing Germans who are angry at their government. Frustration is growing across the political spectrum over the government's apparent bungling of the alleged suspect's case.

"The authorities had him in their crosshairs and he still managed to vanish," read a headline in the respected liberal German news magazine Der Spiegel.

The AfD is hoping to capitalize on this anger, as it has done over the past two years.

Since the party's establishment in 2013, their voice has been the loudest opposition against three-term Merkel, who is seeking re-election in 2017. When the AfD first emerged, it couldn't even reach the 5 percent mark needed to enter German parliament in that year's elections.

That was before the refugee crisis of 2015 sent millions of migrants across European borders.

According to the latest polls, if federal elections were held today, the AfD would receive approximately 12 percent of the national vote, making it Germany's third largest political party.

While much has been said about the rise of right-wing parties across Europe, the ascent of the AfD stands out as particularly remarkable due to Germany's tragic history with populist politics, and the fact that it has accomplished in three short years what other European nationalist parties have taken decades to achieve.

The latest polls were conducted before the Berlin attack. Now, some analysts predict, support for the AfD will grow even stronger.

"The Berlin attack will mean a weakening of Merkel and a strengthening of the AfD," said Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at the Technical University of Dresden. "Her policy of mass immigration without border control was highly risky. There is a price to be paid for that, and this will further decrease her credibility and her support among the population."

Other analysts caution that it is too soon to say what the implications are. After all, federal elections are still eight months away — a lifetime in German politics, where major campaigning only begins about two months before votes are cast.

"I really don't see this as a game changer," Arzheimer said. "I think in the short term, perhaps it will give them a couple of points, but their support is not going to double because of this. Unless there is a sustained string of attacks on Germany, then it will be a couple of blips in the polls that will fade away in a matter of months."

While political fallout is mere speculation at this point, what is certain is that German security policies will change in the aftermath of this attack.

The search for the attacker on Monday in a sea of Christmas market shoppers and holiday tourists was made that much more difficult by the lack of surveillance footage — the kind of footage that helped track down the perpetrator of the Boston marathon bombings in 2013, and the shooter in the deadly New Year's attack in Tel Aviv earlier this year.

On Wednesday, while authorities searched for the suspect, German ministers approved proposals to introduce more video surveillance of public areas and public transportation networks. The new measures also allow police officers to wear body cameras.

And while Merkel's refugee policy has been popular with the German public until now — except of course among AfD supporters — analysts predict the German public will become less supportive in the wake of an attack by someone who allegedly took advantage of that policy.

"Until now, we have had a majority for open immigration," Patzelt said. Following this attack, he said, "We will end up with a majority opposing this kind of policy."