Network of Evil Twenty People May Have Helped German Terrorists



Part 2: Investigative Mistakes

The first mistake was made when the rented garage was searched. During their surveillance of Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, 1997, the BfV agents observed the trio taking pipes out of an apartment, as well as buying a canister of denatured alcohol and rubber rings. They took the materials to the garage. But the agents were still not entirely certain that the three neo-Nazis were actually building bombs. To investigate the garage, the State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) served Böhnhardt with a search warrant, to which he responded by disappearing, unhindered.

What is even more astounding, in retrospect, is that the public prosecutor's office did not investigate the extremists for forming a terrorist organization, which would have kept up the pressure on law enforcement to find the trio in the course of the next decade. Instead, arrest warrants were issued against them for preparing an attack with explosives -- a crime that comes under the statute of limitations after only five years.

The next blunder came in the fall of 1999, when there was still no trace of the trio. This time it happened in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony. Officials at the BfV branch in Thuringia had requested assistance from their counterparts in Lower Saxony, because Holger G., the neo-Nazi from Jena, had moved to the state capital Hanover with his mother in 1997. He was still shouting radical right-wing slogans and marching through cities with his fellow extremists. The agents in Thuringia suspected that Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe, who were at large, would try to establish contact with Holger G. They also speculated that the trio might contact Thorsten Heise, a neo-Nazi in Northeim south of Hanover, to help them establish ties to right-wing radicals abroad. In their written request, the agents in Thuringia made specific mention of "right-wing terrorists."

When the intelligence agents in Lower Saxony placed Holger G. under surveillance, they noticed that he was making calls from a public pay phone even though he was carrying a mobile phone. They suspended the surveillance after three days and classified G. as a "supporter." It was a serious mistake, as Hans-Werner Wargel, the head of Lower Saxony's state BfV office, admitted last week. It would soon become apparent that Holger G. was clearly more than a casual supporter.

By 2005, the intelligence agents had lost track of Holger G. He moved in with his wife, who had two children of her own, and worked as a forklift operator and occasionally at a gas station. In 2009, his file was deleted from NADIS, the German domestic intelligence database. It wasn't until two weeks ago that the state intelligence agents in Hanover realized that by deleting Holger G.'s file they had lost sight of a man who is believed to have actively supported a terrorist group.

The Biggest Mistake Yet

But the biggest mistake was made in 2000, by the agents in Thuringia. Böhnhardt and Mundlos, both avowed xenophobes, had not yet begun a killing spree that would claim the lives of nine immigrants -- a series of crimes that would have investigators scratching their heads for years. That was when the BfV and the State Office of Criminal Investigation requested the assistance of their counterparts in Saxony. Soon after, the agents in Saxony presented them with a surveillance photo that they had taken near the city of Chemnitz in the state. But their counterparts in Thuringia were still unconvinced and decided to contact the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation. According to a letter in the BfV files, the BKA noted that the man in the surveillance photo was "probably" Böhnhardt.

At the time, everyone -- from the state intelligence agency to the BfV's national headquarters in Cologne, which was involved in the manhunt for the trio and had periodically had their friends Ralf Wohlleben and André K. under surveillance -- was waiting for the lead agency in the case, the state police in Thuringia, to take action. But, amazingly enough, nothing happened, and even today no one can explain why.

Although many are now pointing their fingers at the BfV state branch in Erfurt, others also made mistakes. But given the way the agency operated at the time, it was practically predestined to fail. The former head of the agency, Helmut Roewer, assured the Thuringia state Interior Ministry in writing that the individuals involved were "not sources for the agency." However, under Roewer, an import to Thuringia from a western German state with a goatee and a maverick reputation, there appeared to be few gray zones into which the intelligence service would not have ventured. Roewer himself took on an alias, "Stephan Seeberg," and he sometimes had up to 60,000 deutsche marks in his safe, the purpose of which was unclear. And as far as sources were concerned, he had few inhibitions until he was let go in 2000.

The most important source within the neo-Nazi environment was Tino Brandt, now 36, the then deputy state chairman of the NPD and head of the Thüringer Heimatschutz (THS) -- and, starting in 1994, Roewer's key informant. His code name was "Otto." In addition to being well connected with the NPD leadership in Berlin, Brandt also had close ties to the Jena Fellowship.

The next informant was also no minor player, but rather the head of the Thuringian section of the neo-Nazi music network Blood & Honour. For the state intelligence agency, having him and Brandt, two of the most important neo-Nazis in Thuringia at the time, on its payroll was a coup.

According to sources within the Thuringian state government, in addition to these two key contacts there was a third informant associated with the neo-Nazis in Jena. In no other German state did the intelligence agency have such high-level access to the right-wing extremist scene as in Thuringia, and still it had such a poor grasp of what was happening before its own eyes.

Of course, these informants were constantly providing their handlers with all manner of gossip, as well as a few hard facts. But none of it did any good, nor did the telephone surveillance. One intelligence report, for example, stated that the telephone surveillance of André K. with the Jena Fellowship had revealed that Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe had intended to flee to South Africa. But to this date, the investigators have no evidence whatsoever that the trio actually traveled to South Africa.

A Deep Divide Between Police and Intelligence Agency

Now it is also becoming clear how deep the divide between the police and the state intelligence agency was in Thuringia. According to individuals involved in the case at the time, they were more likely to operate at cross-purposes than to cooperate. A senior official on the Rex task force says today that Roewer had in fact thwarted their efforts by telling them that the crimes committed by the radical right-wingers were no longer that significant. Perhaps Roewer was trying to protect his top sources. The police had noted several times that when questioned, neo-Nazi leader Tino Brandt, who was being watched by the state police office, had revealed internal aspects of the investigation. "There were apparently political reasons for disbanding the Rex task force," claims the former senior member of the group. "At the time, the state police office also completely underestimated the threat posed by Böhnhardt, Mundlos, Zschäpe and those associated with them."

Roewer takes a different view of the intelligence breakdown, saying that back then there were suspicions of a leak within the police force. For this reason, he explains, the state interior minister had instructed the intelligence service to search for the neo-Nazi trio with a targeted manhunt, in addition to identifying the possible leak within the police force. This, according to Roewer, required tremendous resources and drove the agency to the limits of its capabilities.

An independent commission headed by Gerhard Schäfer, a former federal judge, will now investigate whether Roewer's accusations or those of the police are true.

An internal memorandum from the state intelligence agency, written in 2001, reveals how close the agents repeatedly came to the terrorist cell, despite the many breakdowns. It states that Jena Fellowship member Ralf Wohlleben had told an informant that the group's contact to the parents of the trio was "impaired" at the time. For the agents, this meant that the three suspects, despite being in hiding, were apparently still in touch with relatives, possibly with the assistance of couriers within the right-wing extremist communities. But why was nothing done with this information?

Was it because the agents, at some point, stopped caring where Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe were, just as long as they didn't resurface? When the statute of limitations expired in 2003, and the police took down the wanted posters in their precincts, the case was also more or less settled for both the BfV in Cologne and the state intelligence agency in Thuringia. They had lost their last leads, but even worse was the fact that they had lost their sense of proper analysis.

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