What terror attacks tell
where the experts come to talk

Rolf Tophoven

What terror attacks tell us: the German example

On Monday July 2, 2012 German security authorities were shocked, as the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, Heinz Fromm, resigned. His agency, the Verfassungsschutz located in Cologne, had made a series of errors in the investigation of a neo-Nazi terror cell in Thuringia.

Public pressure on Fromm had escalated after it emerged that his office had shredded important documents relating to the case of the so called NSU (National Socialist Underground) or ‘Zwickau cell’. They had killed 10 people and eluded authorities for over a decade. The cell’s existence came to light in November 2011 following a botched bank robbery.

The authorities, including the police, had to admit that their investigation was hampered by - amongst other things - a lack of coordination.

Fromm admitted serious mistakes. ‘This caused a severe loss of confidence and seriously damaged the reputation of the Verfassungsschutz,’ he said.

With two members dead and the third not talking, German analysts still do not know what drove the Zwickau cell to terrorism

The case is a serious embarrassment, especially considering the actions taken to increase coordination. Just three weeks after a failed plot by two Lebanese terrorists to blow up German regional trains in the summer of 2002, federal and state interior ministers had agreed to create a new database to help security officials catch potential terrorists. Names, birthdates and addresses would be placed in the database which would be accessible by law enforcement, intelligence and border agencies.

At the time, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, said: ‘The counter-terrorism database is an essential instrument in the fight against terror. Now each agency can enter the key information into the counter terrorism database, ensuring that all agencies have access to the most important background information for fighting terrorism and that they can contact each other quickly to get further information.’

But it didn’t stop the Zwickau cell. Its three members - Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt and Beate Tschäpe - are suspected of murdering nine immigrants and a policewoman as well as a series of bank robberies. Mundlos and Böhnhardt committed suicide. Tschäpe is now in prison awaiting trial.

So does the case of the neo terror cell of Zwickau points potentially to a new kind of right wing terrorism in Germany?

Neo–Nazis becoming militant and committing attacks isn’t a new phenomenon. The best known case till now had been that of Gundolf Köhler. He set off a bomb at the main entrance to the Munich Oktoberfest festival site on September 1980, killing himself and 12 other people. Köhler had been a member of ‘Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann’, a paramilitary group of right-wing extremists who dreamed of a civil war. The group had already been banned by the authorities before the Oktoberfest bombing.

Another right-wing terror plot in Munich was discovered by police 2003. Several neo-Nazis had planned to bomb a cornerstone-laying ceremony at a synagogue in the city.

Neo-Nazis have made terror attacks before in Germany, notably at the 1980 Munich Oktoberfest

But there is no precedent in German post-war history for an underground right-wing combat group that funds itself through bank robberies and commits deadly attacks. This sort of terrorism has until now only been associated with a group operating on the other side of the political spectrum – the Red Army Faction (RAF).

Mundlos, Böhnhardt and Tschäpe were close friends who were opposed to foreigners, people on the left and the police. They had regularly attended meetings of the right-wing extremist group ‘Thüringer Heimatschutz’ (HS) in the mid-1990s. The trio called itself the Kameradschaft Jena. The word ‘Kameradschaft’ is used by German neo-Nazis for small militant groups. The hard core consists of no more than eight people.

The question many experts in Germany are now asking is: were these people terrorists or criminals?

The authorities are saying ‘terrorism’. So is this a new kind of terrorism in Germany – because up to now the security authorities were confronted largely with threats from the left or militant Islamists?

The trio seemed content with the knowledge of what they had done. Maybe their personal ‘triumph’ was the fact that they could operate and kill innocent people for nearly 10 years undiscovered. The group’s silence was a sort of survival guarantee.

There are significant differences in the modus operandi between these groups. For each of its attacks, the Red Army Faction wrote long letters explaining why their assault on high-ranking political or business figures had been executed. Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden also regularly explained himself in video clips and justified operations against the ‘unbelievers’.

And Islamist terror attacks remain a threat too in Germany. In September 2007, three Islamists were arrested in Sauerland, North Rhine Westphalia. They were planning terror attacks against locations of US-Forces around Frankfurt. The group was recruited in Germany, sent to a Pakistan training camp of the ‘Islamic Jihad Union’, and received orders from this Union directly via internet communication. More recently, in April 2011 - one day before bin Laden was killed – members of an independent al Qaeda cell were arrested in Düsseldorf and Bochum .

But the Zwickau neo-Nazis never gave a political motivation for their crimes, and right-wing extremists were also kept out of the frame. As a result, there could be no copycats, no public supporters. And there was no way of gauging the public reaction to the attacks.

The trio seemed content with the knowledge of what they had done. Maybe their personal ‘triumph’ was the fact that they could operate and kill innocent people for nearly 10 years undiscovered. The group’s silence was a sort of survival guarantee.

Nobody knows if the trio had indeed gathered a group of supporters and was planning further attacks. The only person who could provide information about what happened is last surviving member of the Zwickau group, Beate Tschäpe.

But she isn’t talking.

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About
the Author

Rolf Tophoven is the Director of the Institute for terrorism research and security policy in Essen, Germany.

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