Terror can be terribly banal. For example when people with screen names like Ninepin Karl, Gypsy Philli, Cookie, Buddy, Riot-Rico and Cuckoo join forces to fire off Dum Bum-brand fireworks in the middle of the night. Or when they complain in a chat service called Kakao Talk that they are having trouble getting ahold of the fruit.
But terror can also be terribly concrete -- if you know, for example, that "fruit" is a code word for "explosives." And when you realize that an elderly care worker, two bus drivers, a railway trainee, a warehouse worker and an unemployed person were preparing to launch a wave of right-wing terror attacks across Saxony.
The eastern German state had already given birth to one neo-Nazi terror cell. Between the years of 2000 and 2006, the National Socialist Underground (NSU) murdered nine people across Germany, eight of Turkish background and one from Greece. The group got its start in Saxony.
Now, police investigators believe that another right-wing extremist cell was developing in the state. And early on Tuesday morning, the crack German police unit GSG 9 arrested five suspected members of the cell in Freital, a town just southwest of Dresden. They joined others who were already behind bars.
Federal prosecutors are calling the cell the "Freital Group" and have labeled it a terrorist organization. They believe that it formed in July 2015, or perhaps earlier, and that it sought to "violently promulgate its right-extremist ideology by way of attacks against asylum-seekers and those of a different political orientation."
The group is believed to have carried out three attacks thus far. In one of the attacks, the suspected terror group is thought to have at least accepted that its actions might result in the deaths of four asylum-seekers. Currently, prosecutors are investigating whether additional attacks might be attributable to the accused. According to the arrest warrants, the suspected group members could face life sentences in prison.
Unhindered By Police
The case shows a shift in the approach to far-right violence in Germany. The German judiciary long declined to view attacks on refugees, particularly those committed on refugee hostels, as being part of organized, right-wing terror.
New attacks on asylum-seeker hostels in Germany are reported on a regular basis. But police officials nevertheless did not approach the wave of right-wing violence as a national problem. In some regions, it seemed as though law enforcement didn't exist at all and that right-wing extremists could attack asylum-seekers and intimidate residents at will, unhindered by the police.
Germany's chief federal prosecutor, Peter Frank, told SPIEGEL in a February interview that the far right was splintered. He added, however, that if it became apparent that far-right associations were carrying out attacks on refugee shelters, he would take charge of the investigation. "In such a case, we would have to send a message," he said. That is what happened in Saxony on Tuesday.
The operation in Freital isn't just emblematic of the state's long-overdue resolve. It also sheds light on what has gone wrong up until now.
Logs of intercepted telephone conversations and online chats suggest that Saxon police were well informed early on of the motives and plans of the Freital Group. Furthermore, a secret witness has appeared who may have been an undercover police investigator placed inside the group. Which raises the question: Could the attacks have been prevented? Both police officials and local prosecutors in Saxony have been reticent and have been disinclined to believe that the right-wing group intended to kill.
Xenophobes could hardly find a better place to live than Freital, population 40,000. It is just down the road from Dresden, where the anti-immigrant group Pegida has been staging demonstrations for over a year now, and it has also been a hotspot of anti-refugee protests. When a former hotel in the city was to be transformed into an initial reception center for refugees, enraged locals protested for days, with hundreds of police struggling to keep the situation under control. Pegida head Lutz Bachmann supported the protest, visited a local citizens' initiative and exhorted on Facebook: "To the streets, people! Defend yourselves!" It was at a Freital hairdresser where the notorious photo of Bachmann-as-Hitler was taken.
Connections to the Vigilante Group
Freital also had a group that named itself after a city bus route: FTL/360. It was founded in early 2015 after two Moroccans allegedly harassed schoolchildren in a public bus. Members of the vigilante group wanted to patrol in buses and ensure order. A picture of the group on the internet is accompanied by a motto that in hindsight speaks volumes: "In the east, there is a tradition of fireworks going off before New Year's."
Investigators believe that FTL/360 could be the embryo of the Freital Group. Several of the eight terror suspects had connections to the vigilante group.
When they weren't riding around on city buses as self-anointed security guards, they spent their time in the "Blue Lagoon." That was their name for an Aral service station in Freital, located directly across the street from the police station. It is a place where young people met, stoked up on liquid courage, bad-mouthed foreigners and developed plans to stop them.
They also sent each other chat messages of the most disgusting sort: "We are Nazis to the bitter end!" Or threats: "Hang 'em on the next light post with a note, wrong time wrong place, or Kanacke didn't want to leave, now he's hanging here." Kanacke is a disparaging and racist German term for foreigners. In another instance, one of the suspects wrote that "Kanacken" are "defective biological entities that must be annihilated." Or: "Niggers! Each one more disgusting than the last! Kill all of them, these miserable parasites!"
The right-wingers used several chat channels for internal communication. There was one for inconsequential discussions, a "Pyrochat" for more radical group members and an encrypted "Black Chat," open to just 16 participants. That is where the attack plans were discussed. One person involved says that "only the terrorists" used the "Black Chat" channel.
The group quickly became focused on explosives. Investigators believe that the group experimented with illegal fireworks from the Czech Republic and Poland with names like La Bomba, Flash Bangers, Viper 12, Cobra 12, Red Crosette Mine and Dum Bum. Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has examined the fireworks, made of potassium perchlorate, aluminum and sulfur, and come to the conclusion that they could be deadly. The experts concluded that each firework has the explosive power of 30 grams of TNT. Deadly lung injuries could result from standing too close during an explosion and shrapnel could also lead to death.
The Freital-based anti-asylum group apparently had a lot of fun with their experiments. Gypsy Philli, a regional bus driver whose real name is Philipp W., wrote: "Just set off a firework at the intersection in front of a shelter. Nasty explosion." Ninepin Karl, an old-age caregiver, responded: "We heard the boom, you rogue." Gypsy Philli: "Sickly cool, when I walk home after work at night, I can always combine it with smaller attacks."
The group gradually escalated to the point that, as federal prosecutors believe, they carried out their first attack in Freital, on the night of September 19. A multi-family house located at Bahnhofstrasse 26 had been made available to refugees. Patrick F. alias Cookie, a pizza delivery man and a suspected member of the Dresden hooligan group "Fist of the East" ("Faust des Ostens"), is suspected of having placed an explosive on the sill of a ground-floor kitchen window and lit the fuse. There were eight refugees inside. The resulting explosion shattered the window, destroyed the frame and crumbled part of the wall. Shrapnel impacted a wall four meters (13 feet) away. There were no injuries, owing to the fact that no one was in the kitchen at the time.
Chat records lead investigators to believe that other members of the group knew about F.'s impending attack on the apartment. They discussed the purchase of fireworks in the Czech Republic and Gypsy Philli exulted: "Soon we'll have enough together to really create a ruckus in Freital."
But something went amiss: Just a few hours after the explosion, police ran into two members of the group at the site of the attack and took down their personal details.
For a month, the neo-Nazis kept quiet, but then came the next incident. On Oct. 18, unknown perpetrators attacked a left-wing residential project, called "Mangelwirtschaft," or Economy of Scarcity, in the Übigau neighborhood of Dresden, a site right-wingers from Freital visited regularly.
The city of Dresden had wanted to make an Übigau gymnasium available to refugees, but angry locals blocked the entrance to the site. The resulting standoff lasted for 20 days, before police were able to drive off the protesters. Investigators believe that members of the suspected right-wing terror group saw themselves as "protectors" of the protesters. Officials say that group members regularly met in front of the Übigau gymnasium.
On Oct. 17, a demonstrator was injured at the site by two unidentified persons. The "protectors" immediately suspected that the left-wingers from "Mangelwirtschaft" were responsible and they wanted revenge. One wrote: "I'm going crazy tonight!" Another replied: "They'll get what's coming to them!"
Storming the Cesspool
"Mangelwirtschaft" was attacked from both the front and the back. Explosives were thrown, attached to plastic bottles filled with butyric acid, but nobody was injured. In chat, the attack was celebrated: "The washing up is finished. Thanks for the great evening. Hope that we can repeat such a fruit fest or party."
What the budding terrorists didn't know: They had long since landed on the police radar. There are records of monitored telephone calls made on the day of the attack on "Mangelwirtschaft." Three hours before the event, at 8:42 p.m., police officers in Leipzig listened to a call made by suspect Mike S. The subject of the conversation was Übigau and he asked what he should bring aside from a pot and BS. BS stands for the German word for butyric acid, "Buttersäure," and the pot was likely for the explosives. The next call was made at 9:44 p.m. The pot was once again discussed as was the fact that four bottles of butyric acid were needed. Fourteen minutes later, at 9:58 p.m., the suspects spoke of the fireworks Super Cobra 6 and Cobra 12. Then, at 10:05 p.m., came a clear reference to the target. Mike S. asked if he could get a Cobra: "Because of Übigau, we want to storm the cesspool."
The tools for the attack were clear and the site had been named. Yet nobody did anything to stop the perpetrators. It could be that the recording was made electronically and only later analyzed. It could also be that the Leipzig-based officer listening in didn't know the area and didn't put two and two together.
But there are further oddities. On Oct. 27, an ominous witness presented himself to the Dresden police. The name of the informant has remained secret and his address was listed as that of police headquarters. Proof of identity was noted as "police badge." Was the witness a police officer?
It quickly became apparent that the man was an insider. He was familiar with the group's structure in addition to the names and aliases of members. He testified about the attack on the leftist residential project and presented online chat records. It quickly became clear that he had also been at the Übigau site when the attack started. He says that he was handed a paving stone to throw, but that he had quickly passed it along to someone else. Once the fireworks started, he ran away and went home. Indeed, he behaved just as undercover cops are trained to act so as to avoid committing crimes while on duty.
Officials familiar with the case insist that there were no undercover investigators inside the group and say the witness is not a police officer. They do not, however, have an explanation for the "police badge" entry.
As such, suspicions remain that the investigators knew about the next steps planned by the terrorist group but didn't immediately do anything to stop them. Twelve days passed between the monitored telephone conversations and the group's next, apparently most serious, attack. It also came four days after the appearance of the odd witness.
It was the night of Oct. 31 when the Freital Group allegedly carried out the attack that federal prosecutors have classified as attempted murder. Once again, the target was an asylum hostel in Freital, this one home to four refugees from Syria. Explosives were placed at three windows and once again, the detonation was immense. Splinters of glass eight-millimeters thick flew through the rooms inside, with one resident receiving eye and forehead injuries. The rest of the refugees were lucky: Ahmed H. was just going to the refrigerator and saw the burning fuse in the window by chance. Everyone ran out of the kitchen and slammed the door behind them.
Two days later, the first arrest warrants went out and the Freital Group was stopped.
State prosecutors in Dresden would have been happy enough to let the case be tried at a lower court. Indeed, the charges had been finished and ready since Feb. 16. The state prosecutors did not believe the perpetrators had meant to kill the hostel residents, rather they felt the group had merely been trying to intimidate the residents and that the attack had a "demonstrative character." They didn't make a connection between the series of attacks and terrorism.
But on April 11, federal prosecutors took over the case, which accounts for the arrests of additional group members earlier this week. The federal prosecutors, too, believe intimidation was a motive, but are also pursuing charges of four counts of attempted murder. The group, they argue, knew full well how dangerous their fireworks were. Furthermore, they consider xenophobia to be the group's primary motive.
Gypsy Philli, alias Philipp W., had already been in pretrial detention for more than five months by the time the case was handed over to the feds. He is no longer prone to making the kind of jokes he was known for in the chat records.
He recently complained in a letter to his girlfriend that he has been locked away for weeks with all kinds of foreigners despite the presumption of innocence. Because of "a broken window and a couple of fire-crackers." After all, he wrote, nobody died. Gypsy Philli doesn't get it. "I thought we lived under the rule of law."