By Hubert Gude and Sven Roebel
The investigation into the National Socialist Underground (NSU) neo-Nazi terrorist cell, which is believed to have murdered at least 10 people between 2000 and 2007, has been marked by a series of embarrassing gaffes and mistakes on the part of law enforcement agencies. Several top officials from the domestic intelligence agency have already resigned over the affair. But if new allegations turn out to be true, then the fallout will exceed anything seen so far.
The German Interior Ministry announced Tuesday evening that it is investigating suspicions that one of the terror cell's alleged helpers worked for German domestic intelligence as an informant within the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). The ministry said there was evidence that one of the suspects in the NSU investigation "could possibly have been an informer for a law enforcement agency around 10 years ago."
According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, the man in question is Rolf Wohlleben, a former NPD official who is currently in custody on suspicion of having aided and abetted the NSU. He is believed to have supplied the terrorist cell with the weapon its members used to kill nine men of Turkish and Greek origin between 2000 and 2006.
Investigators believe that the NSU had an outer circle of helpers who provided them with financial and logistical support. Wohlleben is regarded as the cell's most important helper. The authorities have consistently denied that he worked as an informer for German domestic intelligence. If the opposite now turns out to be the case, it could trigger a major political scandal. The already battered reputation of the domestic intelligence agency will be further damaged, and additional resignations will be likely. It will also raise uncomfortable questions about how much the authorities knew about the activities of the terrorist cell and why the government failed uncover it.
Remembering the Name
The suggestion that an NSU helper may have been an informer came from the German Federal Prosecutor's Office in Karlsruhe. According to sources, one of the prosecutors there had previously held a senior position in the German Interior Ministry. He had apparently worked on a government attempt to ban the far-right NPD, which the federal domestic intelligence agency considers to be anti-Semitic, xenophobic and revisionist, in the period between 2001 and 2003. That attempt collapsed in 2003 after the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled that it was possible that the NPD's policies might have been partly shaped by officials who were also working as informers for the intelligence agencies.
The federal prosecutor apparently remembers either seeing or hearing the name Wohlleben mentioned in connection with members of the NPD who were believed to be working as informants at the time.
According to sources, the Federal Prosecutor's Office told the German Interior Ministry about the prosecutor's suspicions last Friday. Since then, the Interior Ministry has reportedly asked all the federal and state-level domestic intelligence agencies to submit written statements responding to the allegations.
The investigative committee of the German parliament, which is looking into the scandal surrounding the flawed investigation, has also been informed. In a statement issued Wednesday, the committee said it had been told of the suspicions on Friday. It has since discussed the allegations with German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich and his deputy as well as with Hans-Georg Maassen, the president of the national domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
Responding to the allegations that an NSU helper might have worked for domestic intelligence, Interior Minister Friedrich has ordered a comprehensive investigation. He has reportedly ordered that all relevant documents from the ban proceedings against the NPD should be checked, and employees who are familiar with the proceedings should be interviewed to see if the federal prosecutor's recollections are accurate.
Series of Failures
The new information comes on top of an existing allegation that another man who is suspected of helping the NSU had also worked for a law enforcement agency. Around two weeks ago, it was revealed that Thomas S., who is suspected of delivering explosives to the trio, had worked as an informer for the Berlin Office of Criminal Investigation for over 10 years, from November 2000 to January 2011. That revelation represented the biggest blunder to date in the investigation, which has been marked by a series of embarrassing failures and gaffes. The federal prosecutor's office has now charged Thomas S. with aiding and abetting terrorists.
It was the revelations about Thomas S.'s past that prompted the federal prosecutor in Karlsruhe to act on his belief that another person close to the NSU might have been working for the authorities. The prosecutor wrote a statement describing his suspicion, which was then passed on to the Interior Ministry.
It is, however, unclear whether the prosecutor's vague recollections correspond to the truth. So far, federal investigators have been unable to find any evidence to support his claims.
But the mere prospect of there having been another informant in the circle of people close to the NSU is politically explosive. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, the Federal Prosecutor's Office had already provided the names of all 13 suspects in the NSU case to the relevant law enforcement agencies -- including the national German domestic intelligence agency, all the state-level domestic intelligence agencies and state offices of criminal investigation -- in March and explicitly asked them to check if any of the suspects had worked as informants.
All the authorities reported at the time that they could find no such evidence -- with the exception of Berlin. The police in the German capital were forced to admit that they had run Thomas S. as an informer codenamed "VP 562." Prior to his recruitment as an informer, the well-known former neo-Nazi had been in a relationship with Beate Zschäpe, one of the three NSU members, for a time and had procured around a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the explosive TNT for the group before it went underground in 1998.
If the indications that Ralf Wohlleben may also have been an informer are now confirmed, it will open up a whole new dimension in the ongoing scandal about errors in the NSU investigation. Wohlleben, a 37-year-old right-wing extremist from Jena, is considered to be the most important supporter of the Zwickau terror cell. He is the only suspect who is currently in custody apart from Beate Zschäpe, the lone surviving member of the NSU trio. Federal prosecutors accuse Wohlleben of nothing less than aiding and abetting multiple cases of murder.
Wohlleben, a longtime member of the NPD, is believed to have played a central role in obtaining the Ceska 83 pistol with which the terror cell is believed to have killed nine people between September 2000 and April 2006.
Wohlleben's lawyer, Nicole Schneiders, told SPIEGEL that she had spoken with her client about the allegations by telephone on Wednesday morning. "He denies that he ever worked for the intelligence service or another law enforcement agency," Schneiders said. Wohlleben, who has been in custody since Nov. 29, 2011, is currently refusing to make any statements on the case.
Investigators have learned that Wohlleben was a member of a far-right militant group called the Kameradschaft Jena ("Jena Comradeship") in the 1990s. The three NSU members -- Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos and Zschäpe -- were also members of the group before they went underground in early 1998.
Help with Logistics
According to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), Wohlleben helped the NSU with "logistics, contacts and finances" as an intermediary during their first years living underground. He had contact to the trio at least until 2001.
After that, Wohlleben reportedly distanced himself from the cell. According to Holger G., another suspect in the case, Wohlleben "knew more" and did not want to jeopardize his political career in the NPD, which was just beginning.
Other suspects in the case have told federal investigators that Wohlleben had helped broker a deal to buy the silencer-equipped Ceska pistol that was used in the murder series. He allegedly provided the money to buy the gun, a total of 2,500 deutsche marks (1,280 or $1,650), as well as organizing for the weapon to be transported to the eastern German city of Chemnitz, where the trio was in hiding.
The activities of the NSU came to light in November 2011 after Uwe Mundlos apparently shot Uwe Böhnhardt and himself following a botched bank robbery. The revelations shocked Germany and prompted a far-reaching debate on right-wing extremism and raised the question of whether a new attempt to ban the NPD should be made.
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