NSU Aftermath: German Investigators Sharpen Focus on Far Right

For years, German federal law-enforcement officials hesitated to launch terrorism investigations against right-wing extremists. But the NSU debacle has prompted them to launch an unprecedented number of cases and to employ controversial means in an effort to avoid accusations of inaction.

Weapons confiscated during a raid on a neo-Nazi group in western Germany last year. Zoom
DPA

Weapons confiscated during a raid on a neo-Nazi group in western Germany last year.

The operation was blanketed under the strictest secrecy. On Aug. 27, 2012, terrorism investigators in the German states of Bavaria and Saxony quietly fanned out to execute search warrants issued by the Federal Court of Justice. One of the targeted individuals visited by state authorities that Monday was extremely well known to experts involved in combating right-wing extremists: Martin Wiese, 37, one of the most notorious neo-Nazis in Germany.

Wiese, the former leader of a far-right militant Kameradschaft group, had been arrested in 2003 on suspicion of involvement in plans to detonate a bomb during the groundbreaking ceremony for a Jewish center in Munich. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for being the ringleader of a terrorist group.

Wiese once again came to the attention of the authorities due to information provided by a fellow far-right extremist, Mario K. (editor's note: German privacy laws prevent his surname from being published). K. had told them about obscure Nazi circles, old networks and new militants, incriminating both Wiese and himself in the process. The Federal Prosecutor's Office then took charge of the investigation and issued search warrants. Although the searches didn't turn up weapons or attack plans, investigators did stumble upon encoded communications.

Before the neo-Nazi terrorist cell known as the National Socialist Underground (NSU) was uncovered in November 2011, these clues probably wouldn't have prompted Germany's highest investigative body to take such actions. But much has changed since Germany was shocked by the revelation of the NSU's series of racist murders. Believing that there are grounds for suspicion that a "terrorist association" was founded in Bavaria, federal prosecutors are investigating a number of individuals, including Wiese, who denies the allegations against him.

His case is one of 14 investigations that Federal Prosecutor General Harald Range is conducting against suspected neo-Nazi terrorists and their accomplices. This number was released in response to an official request for government information filed by the opposition Left Party. The number sounds dramatic because it is higher than the total of all other investigations into right-wing terror conducted over the last decade. And it raises a number of questions: Must Germany brace itself for more attacks and possibly even murders committed by neo-Nazis? Are imitators of the NSU trio already hatching new plans for strikes?

A 'Paradigm Change'

In fact, this high figure does have something to do with a change in thinking on the part of authorities. They are now taking a closer at the extreme right - and, when in doubt, they now prefer to investigate sooner rather than later. "We have sharpened our focus on indications that could point to the emergence of right-wing terrorist structures," says Hans-Georg Maassen, the president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency.

Manfred Murch, the head of the organization's state branch in the northern city-state of Hamburg, speaks of a "paradigm change." While authorities used to primarily investigate right-wing extremism in the wake of concrete crimes, Murch says that investigators are now also looking into "networks and clandestine associations in the neo-Nazi scene" and that the tipping point for this change was the NSU affair.

Clemens Binninger, a domestic policy expert with the parliamentary group of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), concurs, saying that the many new investigations are most likely owed to "the acknowledgement of having done too little in the past."

A glance at the statistics reveals the continued importance of getting to the bottom of the NSU's crimes, including the murders of 10 people -- eight men of Turkish descent, one Greek and one German policewoman - as well as other attacks and a series of unsolved robberies. Of the 14 new investigations, 10 share ties with the broader NSU case. They are directed at alleged supporters of the group, but do not involve the five individuals who will be tried beginning on May 6 in the Munich Higher Regional Court for alleged involvement in the crimes of the NSU terror cell. In addition, there is the investigation against Wiese, for which the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) is currently evaluating the evidence.

Yet another series of investigations revolves around Meinolf Schönborn, the former head of the "Nationalist Front," banned in 1992 because of its plans to establish paramilitary units. Schönborn has been among the best-known German neo-Nazis since the 1980s. He and three accomplices are now suspected of having built up a new far-right extremist group called "Neue Ordnung" ("New Order"), though he has contested the allegations to SPIEGEL.

Investigators got on Schönborn's trail in the summer of 2012 after finding a dead neo-Nazi in a guesthouse in Herzberg, a village in the eastern state of Brandenburg roughly 60 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Berlin (#843430). On the property of the building, which had been leased by Schönborn's girlfriend, investigators found an arsenal of weapons in addition to a mass of partially encrypted computer data that they are still analyzing.

In northern Germany, federal prosecutors are also investigating a handful of neo-Nazis suspected of having planned to obtain weapons to be used in attacks. But it remains unclear how much progress their most recent attempts had made.

Employing 'Fundamentally Questionable Means'

The last case involves a measure that is both atypical and daring in legal terms. The investigations do not focus on particular individuals or a certain grouping, such as the NSU. Instead, federal prosecutors are compiling their own set of files on any clues related to militant right-wing activities, a sort of grab bag to be filled with information about the neo-Nazi scene. Investigators assume that they will at some point be able to fill it with facts pointing toward right-wing terrorist crimes. This new strategy comes as another result of the NSU debacle, in which authorities made a series of embarrassing blunders and failed to see any terrorism. Indeed, it wasn't until an NSU video claiming responsibility for one of the killings was found in November 2011 that officials went from believing the crimes were committed by a Turkish criminal gang to a neo-Nazi terrorist organization, thereby allowing federal authorities to step in.

Still, just how meaningful such clues will be for the new cases remains an open question. Indeed, there are many indications that law-enforcement officials are planning to put the controversial Section 129a of the German Penal Code into use in their battle against right-wing extremism, much like they did for decades while fighting the left-wing extremism of groups such as the Red Army Faction (RAF). The section makes it a punishable offense to be a member of a domestic terrorist organization. But investigators would most likely use it less to gather indictments and more as leverage to illuminate the right-wing extremist scene.

Ulla Jelpke, the domestic policy spokeswomen for the Left Party's parliamentary faction, senses that an effort to exert political influence on the judiciary lies behind this new strategy. "The federal government denied the mere existence of neo-fascist terrorists for much too long and labeled them as confused individual perpetrators," she says. "After the uncovering of the NSU, it is now seeing to it that the terrorism stick of Section 129a is being eagerly brandished against the right." Nevertheless, she adds, this approach remains questionable.

Wolfgang Kaleck, general secretary of the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, agrees. "The fact that the section is being used against the far right doesn't make it any prettier," says the criminal law expert. It has often been the case, he adds, that Germany's highest court has ruled that state authorities have used "fundamentally questionable means" in cases involving Section 129a.

Indeed, the state can avail itself of an entire arsenal of surveillance means when investigating individuals suspected of forming a terrorist association. Investigators are allowed to wiretap the telephones of suspects, sometimes for years, as well as store huge amounts of computer data. They can place tracking devices on cars and bugs in homes, install cameras on house doors, analyze DNA and test odor samples. The section provides an expedited method of placing indicted individuals in pre-trial detention, and it also allows for prison sentences of up to 10 years.

Reintroducing Restricted Practices

But despite the massive expenses, the results have ultimately been paltry: Sooner or later, almost all cases involving Section 129a have petered out. This results from a groundbreaking decision handed down by the Federal Court of Justice in the fall of 2007 that curbed the use of Section 129. The court reminded investigators that the law on the formation of a terrorist organization states that the stipulated offenses must be "intended to seriously intimidate the population" and that terrorism is defined as when a group uses violence "to significantly impair or destroy the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a state or an international organization."

In the wake of this decision, Section 129a was limited to playing a niche role. Between 2008 and 2011, federal prosecutors only launched five related investigations -- three against left-wing extremists and two against right-wing ones. But then the NSU case exploded in November 2011. And, since then, everything is different again.

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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