Secret Report on Investigators' Failures: How Neo-Nazi Terror Cell Gave Authorities the Slip

By Sven Röbel, Holger Stark and Steffen Winter

A secret report on the neo-Nazi terror cell which allegedly killed at least 10 people reveals a series of serious mistakes by Germany's law enforcement agencies. The authorities had the group under surveillance and could have stopped the murder spree before it even began, if they had only acted.

Photo Gallery: A Catalog of Failures Photos
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The photo was taken from a safe distance, from the other side of the street, opposite number 11 in Bernhardstrasse in the center of the eastern German city of Chemnitz. The man in the picture is wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. His hair is cropped short, with only the top a few millimeters longer, almost giving him the look of a punk with a Mohawk hairstyle. It could be Uwe Böhnhardt, but the officers weren't sure.

For several hours, agents of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence service, had been following a group of neo-Nazis from one mall to the next, and finally to Bernhardstrasse.

The address was known to be a safe house used by three neo-Nazis who had been in hiding for years: Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos and Beate Zschäpe. Two of their supporters lived there.

The photo shows the man who could be Böhnhardt in three-quarter profile. He's carrying a number of unidentifiable objects under his left arm. The date was Saturday, May 6, 2000. Four months later, the men would murder their first victim.

A Catalog of Failure

The picture can be found among a series of documents currently being evaluated by German investigators. Together they read like a catalog of failure. May 6, 2000 marks the low point in the investigation into what would later become the Zwickau cell. Rarely had the authorities made so many mistakes.

On that fateful Saturday 11 years ago, police officers and intelligence agents could have prevented an escalation of the violence that would eventually claim the lives of eight people of Turkish descent, a Greek man, and one female police officer, all allegedly shot by Böhnhardt and Mundlos between September 2000 and April 2007. The case, which came to light in early November after Mundlos shot Böhnhardt and himself in a recreational vehicle in Eisenach following a botched bank robbery, has shocked Germany. Now it turns out that the authorities could have stopped the killing spree of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), as the group dubbed itself, before it really got going.

But the officers didn't take action when they discovered that Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe were hiding in Chemnitz. The neo-Nazis were observed, but not arrested. They were therefore free to plan their murderous attacks.

The Office for the Protection of the Constitution detailed the failure of the surveillance operation in Chemnitz and other similar blunders in an around 30-page confidential report that was sent to the German government, the relevant committee of the German parliament and the federal states shortly before Christmas. In the document, which SPIEGEL has obtained, intelligence agents describe in detail the hunt for the three neo-Nazis. They list who collected money, who was responsible for procuring weapons, and who had contact to the underground. And they describe how the intelligence agency managed to get an informer close enough to the cell that he was eventually able to establish direct contact.

Lack of Trust

The classified report and research subsequently conducted by SPIEGEL in Saxony and Thuringia show that the authorities were very well informed about the fugitive neo-Nazis up until 2001. In fact the security services knew far more about the neo-Nazi trio than has been admitted to date. They even had evidence to suggest the neo-Nazis planned to carry out armed attacks once they had gone into hiding. The document also shows there was no truth to the claim that the German authorities hadn't kept a close enough eye on right-wing extremists.

Worse still, it paints the picture of a country whose security apparatus has failed. Information wasn't passed on to the relevant authorities soon enough, if at all, while the police, the intelligence agency, regional and federal authorities often simply didn't trust one another.

The state derives its monopoly on the legitimate use of force from the promise to protect its citizens. In the case of the nine immigrants and the police officer Michèle Kiesewetter who were allegedly murdered by the neo-Nazis, the state failed to keep its promise -- albeit out of incompetence rather than criminal intent. There is no evidence so far of any collusion between the intelligence services and the neo-Nazis.

Jörg Ziercke, the head of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), admits that public confidence in the rule of law has been "shaken to the core" by the killings. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich even worries about the "highly political" consequences for "Germany's image in the world." A central memorial service will be held for the victims, and people suspected of aiding and abetting the murderers are to be put on trial. The classified report submitted to parliament is only the first attempt to address the official blackout.

Suitcases with Swastikas

For all their mistakes, the authorities' instincts appear to have been good at the very outset. In the fall of 1997, Böhnhardt deposited several suitcases with swastikas on them and containing explosives somewhere in the eastern state of Thuringia. On Nov. 24 of that year, intelligence agents in Thuringia began their first surveillance operation. For a week they watched as Mundlos, Zschäpe and Böhnhardt carried pipes out of an apartment and purchased rubber rings and 2 liters (about half a gallon) of methylated spirits. Were they making a bomb?

The trio then surreptitiously transported the materials to a garage at a sewage treatment plant in the city of Jena. Böhnhardt parked his red Opel car a block from the garage and walked the rest of the way, constantly looking over his shoulder as he went. In official jargon, such excessive caution is known as "shaking," and Böhnhardt "shook" so hard that a single agent was able to follow the trio unnoticed all the way to the garage.

The files contain a hand-drawn sketch of the complex of garages in which the intelligence agency suspected the neo-Nazis had stashed a bomb. An arrow points to the relevant garage door. The findings were reported to the police, who searched the garage on Jan. 26, 1998 and discovered 1.4 kilograms (3 pounds) of explosives and ready-to-use pipe bombs. But the neo-Nazis themselves managed to flee.

Whereas the responsible prosecutor's office in the city of Gera underestimated the importance of the find and refused to recognize any reason to suspect terrorist activity, the intelligence agency launched an in-depth investigation, dubbed Operation Drilling. Agents began searching for more clues, but although the intelligence agency and detectives at the State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) cooperated, the two remained wary of one another. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution was aided by a high-level source whose identity it refused to divulge to the police: Tino Brandt, codename "Otto," the head of a far-right militant group called Thüringer Heimatschutz ("Thuringian Homeland Protection"), which numbered up to 170 members.

With his curly blond hair and square schoolboy's glasses, Brandt looked like a harmless kid. But he had charisma and the necessary ruthlessness to not only lead the local neo-Nazi scene but also betray it to the authorities at the same time. He knew Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe personally.

Links to NPD

It appears the three neo-Nazis were primarily supported by former associates from the Thüringer Heimatschutz and another right-wing extremist group called Kameradschaft Jena ("Jena Comradeship"), including Ralf Wohlleben -- a Heimatschutz activist who later became an official in the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) -- and André K., the head of the Kameradschaft Jena. Investigators now know that Wohlleben and K. played a key role in the history of the Zwickau cell.

On Feb. 12, 1998, two weeks after the trio went underground, K. allegedly traveled to Berlin where, according to "Otto," he met Frank Schwerdt, a member of the NPD's national executive. They apparently discussed addresses abroad where the trio could hide. That information is crucial because if it is true it would suggest a link between the NPD's leaders and the NSU's support network. Today, Schwerdt recalls that K. asked him to help the fugitives, but insists he turned the request down. "I neither wanted to, nor could have done so," Schwerdt says.

K. allegedly had another rendezvous in Berlin, this one with a far-right official who rented out recreational vehicles. Later on, Böhnhardt and Mundlos frequently fled in an RV after their murders or bank robberies. So was the idea for this hatched in February 1998?

K. was clearly one of the trio's earliest supporters, and probably the most important man in the months after they disappeared, especially in the attempt to help them escape abroad. In April, three months after the three neo-Nazis went into hiding, K. allegedly approached Claus Nordbruch on the sidelines of a conference organized by the far-right Society for Free Journalism. Nordbruch is a German citizen who now lives in South Africa, where he owns a farm. He has an illustrious reputation in the far-right scene.

The intelligence agency believes K. may also have spoken to him "about a possible hiding place on the farm." Indeed André K. and another right-wing extremist from Thuringia flew to South Africa on Aug. 8, 1998 for four weeks.

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