Network of Evil Twenty People May Have Helped German Terrorists

While German police made one mistake after the next in their investigation of the Zwickau terrorist cell, the three neo-Nazis, who had gone underground, were able to rely on outside helpers. Authorities now believe up to 20 people may have been part of their support network.

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By SPIEGEL Staff


Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos were sitting in their camper. Their arsenal included two pump-action shotguns, a Mossberg and a Winchester, a Croatian-made Pleter submachine gun and a .38 Special revolver. And then there was the Ceska, not the one they used in the murders of Turks and another foreigner, which was in their apartment in Zwickau, but a Ceska 70. There were also a hand grenade and the two Heckler & Koch P2000 semi-automatic pistols, which they had stolen from the police officers they had shot in the head in Heilbronn, Michèle Kiesewetter, who was killed, and Martin A., who was seriously injured.

Sitting in their camper in Eisenach, a small city in the eastern German state of Thuringia, Böhnhardt and Mundlos had enough weapons to wage a small war. And yet they must have known that they were trapped, because of two other items they had that are now in the police inventory of exhibits found in the camper: a radio scanner, as well as a list of scanner codes for the police, fire department and emergency services.

This means that they also must have known that they wouldn't get away this time, and that none of their weapons would do them any good, nor would the forged passport made out to a Max B. but with Mundlos's photo inside. They could no longer count on police errors to save their skin, as had happened so often in the past, or on anyone in the support network they had relied on for so long. They knew it was over. As the post-mortem examination showed, Mundlos shot Böhnhardt in the left temple and then put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

An Indictment of the System

For years, a tight network had supported, protected and shielded the two men and their female accomplice, Beate Zschäpe. Now a different network, one comprised of law enforcement officials, was closing in. It had made many mistakes in the past -- sometimes turning up in the wrong place and sometimes striking too early -- and it was so full of holes that the trio was never caught.

Today, two weeks after the death of Böhnhardt and Mundlos, investigators with Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) have managed to reconstruct both networks. The BKA's "Trio" task force is asking itself the same questions that have perplexed many people throughout Germany, the answers to which are beginning to sound like an indictment of the system: Who, among the investigative authorities, failed so miserably? Was there even a secret alliance, a so-called "brown government scandal," as the German newspaper Die Zeit promptly claimed in reference to the color associated with neo-Nazis?

And who exactly belonged to the network of right-wing extremist supporters, a group that was never noticed or uncovered by police? Early in the game, the investigators ruled out the possibility that the three neo-Nazis, on the run from authorities since 1998, were somehow able to live in Germany for about 14 years, and even commit murders, bombings and bank robberies throughout the country, without a support network. Nevertheless, the number that the Thuringia state branch of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence service, cited internally last week does come as a surprise. It estimates that a protective ring of about 20 people had surrounded the terrorist cell that called itself the "National Socialist Underground," or NSU. Were they all just hangers-on, or were they also confidants and even accomplices, familiar with incriminating evidence like a video the trio had made in which they claimed responsibility for 10 murders, including the serial killings of nine immigrants? Whatever role they played, the fact that the support network was so large now makes the authorities' failures all the more humiliating.

More Suspects Expected

The German Federal Prosecutor's Office now officially lists five men and Zschäpe as defendants in the case. It is also investigating a number of their contacts, but it already seems clear that there will be other suspects.

It is becoming clear how closely affiliated the trio of terrorists and their supporters were with the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party (NPD). The authorities are now searching for Ralf Wohlleben, a former NPD deputy chairman in the Thuringia state chapter of the party, who they believe is a key figure. The investigations have also reignited a debate over banning the NPD. In addition, the alarming developments are also raising questions over the future of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which although it is the agency responsible for monitoring right-wing extremism in Germany failed to recognize what was brewing in Thuringia -- and this despite having placed at least three informants in circles tied to the terrorists.

The investigations now reach back well in the 1990s. Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe, despite living under the radar of the authorities, could rely on a solid support network. It consisted of fellow right-wing extremists, most of whom were members of a militant far-right group called Thüringer Heimatschutz (TSH), loosely translated as the Thuringia Homeland Protection, which modeled itself on the Nazi paramilitary organization SA.

Domestic intelligence agents noted that the THS had been holding meetings on a weekly basis since May 1995, and that the number of neo-Nazi thugs in the group had grown from 20 to 80. In August 1995, the agents first became aware of a local group affiliated with the TSH called the "Kameradschaft Jena," or "Jena Fellowship." In the same year, the State Office of Criminal Investigation formed the "Rex Special Commission," a task force of 15 to 20 members, which was headed by an experienced intelligence agent from the West and whose mission was to combat growing far right-wing violence.

'Everyone Knew He Was an Important Figure Among Neo-Nazis'

The task force soon had its sights set on Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe, as well as five others, at least four of whom are now playing a role in the search for the trio's support network: André K., the "Fuehrer" of the Jena Fellowship; Ralf Wohlleben, who investigators questioned on Thursday; Mark-Rüdiger H. and Holger G., who was arrested a week ago. The campers Mundlos and Böhnhardt had used in Eisenach and during the murder of a police officer in the southwestern city of Heilbronn were registered under Holger G.'s name. And, as authorities have recently learned, the getaway car that was used in connection with an April 2006 murder in the western city of Dortmund was also rented under his name.

Holger G. was from the Lobeda neighborhood in Jena, a small university city in Thuringia. Like Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe, he had grown up in one of the prefabricated Plattenbau housing projects where the prospects of living a decent life had vanished with the demise of East Germany. He lived there with his mother. Former neighbors remember G. as someone who dressed in combat boots and a bomber jacket, and who would get drunk with his friends and verbally abuse other residents.

"Everyone knew that he was an important figure among the neo-Nazis," a former teacher says today. When three fake letter bombs were sent in late 1996 and early 1997, including one to the police headquarters building in Jena, Holger G. was one of the 15 suspects, but the case was later closed.

A 1995 report by the state office of the BfV in the Thuringian capital city Erfurt concluded that there were "indications of the formation of right-wing extremist terrorist groups," although it lacked hard evidence. But by January 1998, it must have been clear to everyone involved that these Nazis in Jena were not only filled with murderous hatred, but that their rage was also a sufficiently powerful motivation to commit murder. When, on Jan. 26, 1998, the police raided a garage that Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos had rented, they found 1.4 kilograms (3.1 lbs.) of TNT.

A 1998 Warning of 'New Neo-Nazi Terrorist Threat'

A few months later, in May 1998, the BfV printed an excerpt from a local newspaper, the Thüringische Landeszeitung, in their in-house newsletter. The article, which cited anonymous sources within the agency, stated that Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe, who had since gone underground, were "indicative of the development of a new nationwide neo-Nazi terrorist threat." That warning, it turned out, was farsighted.

Thus, in 1998, it was already clear that agents with the state intelligence service were fully aware of the threat. They joined forces with their counterparts in the neighboring eastern state of Saxony and began tapping phone lines and observing members of radical groups. Meanwhile, the neo-Nazis seemed prepared to do anything, which included providing support to their friends underground. In other words, there were two networks. But why was it that the extremists' network was so much more effective than that established by the authorities? The investigators were making one mistake after the next. In some ways, the situation resembled a case involving another terrorist cell: the Hamburg group headed by Mohammed Atta, which went undetected for months while it planned its attack on the United States.

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