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.
Money to Buy Passports
However, fleeing abroad proved more complicated than expected. According to one report, K. passed the word around that he needed more money "to get the three fugitives out of Jena once and for all." On July 24, 1998, K. talked to Tino Brandt ("Otto") in confidence. The informer later said that K. had asked him for a favor: He allegedly wanted Brandt to help him get a loan from Peter Dehoust, the publisher of the far-right magazine Nation & Europa, which has since been banned.
At the time, Brandt was working at Dehoust's publishing house in Coburg, and he set up a meeting which allegedly took place in early August 1998. If Brandt's report to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution is to be believed, Dehoust gave K. 1,500 deutsche marks (€767) at this meeting. However Dehoust denies this. He claims he merely asked about the three fugitives and Brandt had told him that they weren't in any danger. No money ever changed hands, Dehoust says.
When André K. told "Otto" a short time later that he had made contact with two passport forgers, the intelligence agency gave their informer either 2,000 or 2,5000 deutsche marks, which he then passed on to K. The exact figure can no longer be determined because the relevant files are missing. K. was given the money to buy three passports. The intelligence agency even stipulated the route the trio was to take when fleeing Germany: They should travel via Bucharest and then on to either Hungary or Namibia. The idea was that the police would pick them up in Bucharest.
But the plan fell apart. K. explained that one of the two forgers he'd given 1,500 deutsche marks in June 1998 had had to flee because of his involvement in illegal arms deals. He was therefore apparently trying a different forger, although this one wanted 1,800 deutsche marks. But this plan failed too, and the money was never seen again.
Clandestine Calls from Phone Booths
The passport debacle aroused mistrust among the neo-Nazis. Some suspected K. had embezzled the money Brandt had given him, and he was largely sidelined as a helper. Another activist took on more responsibilities as a result.
Jürgen H. was an old acquaintance of Wohlleben's, and seemed to be the perfect person to act as a courier because the authorities weren't keeping him under surveillance. According to the investigators' report, Jürgen H. "acted as an intermediary between the fugitives and the contact persons, and provided temporary storage facilities."
From mid-March to mid-April 1998, H. was contacted clandestinely from public telephone booths. The conversations were, however, being tapped by the LKA. The police therefore knew H. was receiving instructions for planned meetings, information that he was supposed to pass on to Wohlleben.
On Aug. 11, 1998, agents from the Thuringian branch of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution tried to recruit Jürgen H. as an informer, offering him between 500 and 2,000 deutsche marks for information, depending on the quality. But H. turned them down, recorded the conversation and told Wohlleben about it. When he was questioned by Germany's military intelligence agency, the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD), a year later, in September 1999, H. admitted he had been active as a courier for the trio.
The files on Operation Drilling are more than 700 pages long. Helmut Roewer, the head of the Thuringian domestic intelligence agency at the time, says his agents managed to penetrate the trio's support network and had even installed tracking devices. He says TV journalists were hired through a front company for the intelligence agency to put together an image and audio archive about the far-right scene in Jena, the trio's home town.
Agents also contacted the trio's relatives. In October 1998, they twice spoke to both the parents of Mundlos and Böhnhardt, and it seemed like a deal was on the horizon. A lawyer hired by the Böhnhardt family wanted the police to lift the arrest warrants against him. The prosecutors in Gera offered to let Böhnhardt off with 14 days in pretrial detention in exchange for a full confession. It's not clear why the deal never came about.
Access to the Group
In early 1999, the intelligence agency seemed to be close to a breakthrough: Their informer, Tino Brandt a.k.a. "Otto," had won Wohlleben's trust, thus advancing into the trio's inner circle of supporters. According to the investigative report, the intelligence agency in Thuringia had managed "to gain intelligence-gathering access to the group of neo-Nazis in Jena that maintained contact with the fugitives."
The contact to the group paid off. The files indicate that, on Jan. 28, 1999, Wohlleben complained to Brandt that something had to "be done as quickly as possible" because the trio had run out of money. What's more, he said that their own financial straits prevented him and André K. from being able to provide any more help.
A few days later, Wohlleben reportedly asked Brandt to locate some telephone booths in Coburg, where Brandt worked. There, he was told he would receive calls from the underground in Chemnitz at a pre-arranged time. Brandt, in turn, informed his handler in the intelligence agency about this arrangement.
And, indeed, at around 6 p.m. on March 8, 1999, the telephone rang in a booth at Coburg's train station. Brandt picked up the receiver. It was apparently Böhnhardt on the other end. He reportedly complained about how the "backstabber" André K. had taken off with the money. Brandt asked if the trio still needed passports. In response, Böhnhardt allegedly thanked him but said that, no, they already had some, though he added that they did need a new hideout. Brandt suggested that Böhnhardt should ask Thorsten Heise, a neo-Nazi living south of Hanover, in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony. At the end of the exchange, Böhnhardt allegedly asked for one more favor: If the lawyer and NPD functionary Hans-Günter Eisenecker should call and utter the phrase "7 p.m.," Brandt was to inform Wohlleben immediately. When contacted by SPIEGEL, Brandt confirmed that the telephone call had taken place.
Failing to Connect the Dots
Through "Otto," intelligence agency officials now had a direct link to the underground. But they still didn't manage to connect the right dots. Between Feb. 5 and March 1, 1999, they tapped various telephone booths in Coburg. But, ironically enough, the phone call came just a few days later. In Chemnitz, on the other hand, surveillance was conducted on four telephone booths, but they turned out to be the wrong ones. As a result, when Böhnhardt made his calls, no recording was made, and the calls couldn't be traced.
At this point, the police had yet to be involved in the operation. As a result, they also weren't able to identify Böhnhardt's whereabouts. It was an unforgivable slip-up. But was it born of incompetence or an unwillingness to act?
A week later, on March 13, 1999, Brandt was contacted by Carsten S., another activist in the Thüringer Heimatschutz. The latter reportedly told Brandt in confidence that he would immediately replace Wohlleben as the contact person for Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe.
The fact that it was Carsten S. is potentially explosive. The following year, S. would become the deputy head of the state chapter of the Young National Democrats (JN), the NPD's youth organization. His alleged role is yet another sign pointing toward ties between the NPD and the circles of people who supported the trio. Indeed, the JN functionary is suspected of having transferred money to Saxony, where the trio lived.
A 'Further' Robbery
While intelligence agents in Thuringia and Saxony were trying to track down the trio, their counterparts in the eastern state of Brandenburg received some alarming news in Sept. 1998. A neo-Nazi based in the state who was acting as an informer to the intelligence agency, under the codename "Piato," went on record as saying that Jan. W., a Chemnitz-based neo-Nazi, wanted to supply the trio with weapons for armed robberies. He also said that one of W.'s acquaintances, Antje P., had already said she would give Beate Zschäpe her passport if she needed it.
"The trio is apparently planning to carry out a 'further' robbery after receiving the weapons and before fleeing to South Africa," intelligence officials wrote. A "further" robbery? Is this a reference to the start of the series of bank robberies which Böhnhardt and Mundlos carried out over a period of years? As it happens, Böhnhardt and Mundlos held up their first bank in Chemnitz in Oct. 1999.
Other information provided by "Piato" shows just how potentially violent the neo-Nazis were. The mole claims that, in the summer of 1998, W.'s friend had suggested that members of the underground "carry out political work in the form of attacks." It is unclear how reliable this information is, however.
Investigation Ran Into the Sand
Again, there was conflict between the various authorities. Officials from the state branches of the domestic intelligence agency in Thuringia and Saxony placed the woman and Jan W. under surveillance. However, their colleagues in Brandenburg wanted to protect their source "Piato" and refused to supply the police with a written report, saying only that "Piato" had received the information during a private conversation.
Because there was no written report, police investigators didn't get actively involved in the case. As a result, the weapons lead was not properly followed up. What stands out is the fact that Chemnitz is repeatedly mentioned in these exchanges. For example, in the intelligence agency's report, it says that investigators had, "by mid-March 1999 at the latest," more and more information "that the sought-after individuals were reportedly staying in the Chemnitz area."
Today, investigators know from various statements that the three neo-Nazis found a hideout in Chemnitz at the very beginning of their time underground, in the apartment of an individual identified as Max-Florian B. There, Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos spent their first few months in hiding. Mandy Struck, B.'s girlfriend at the time, had put them in touch with B. There are photographs that were in Struck's possession which show her and Beate Zschäpe holding up a banner together while protesting against an exhibition about the crimes of the Wehrmacht, Germany's Nazi-era military.
TV Appeal to the Public
A meeting was held in Chemnitz on April 26, 2000, attended by intelligence officials from the state branches of the intelligence agency in Thuringia and Saxony as well as Saxony's State Office of Criminal Investigation. The meeting was called to discuss a new operation called "Terzett" ("Trio"), specifically because new information had turned up. Officials had learned that a Saxony-based right-wing extremist had reportedly said on the sidelines of an NPD training event that things were going well for "the three" and that Jan. W., who had already been mentioned by the informer in Brandenburg, had allegedly been "responsible for taking care of the logistics of supply trips for the trio."
During the meeting, police and intelligence officials hammered out a new strategy. They set their sights on four suspected supporters who they wanted to frighten with an appeal to the general public. The plan was to have MDR, the regional German public broadcasting network, show a "wanted" announcement during an episode of "Kripo Live," a television show that asks the public for help in solving crimes, on May 7. The officials wanted to see whether, in reaction to the show, the suspects would lead them to the hideout of the fugitives who had gone underground.
The surveillance operation began on May 6, 2000. A photograph from this day shows Mandy Struck with her then-boyfriend Max-Florian B. -- whom officials initially misidentified as Uwe Mundlos -- pushing a shopping cart to their car. And there are also those shots showing a man resembling Böhnhardt outside the house in Bernhardstrasse in Chemnitz, which was listed as Struck's official residence.
The intelligence agents from Thuringia, who were conducting the surveillance, had their doubts about the identification. They eventually asked their colleagues from Thuringia's State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) for help -- but they only did so on May 15, 2000, or nine days after the sighting. The LKA, in turn, asked the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) for help. The BKA responded by saying it was highly likely that it was Böhnhardt in the photograph. But the answer got lost somewhere in the official channels and never found its way to the intelligence agency officials, thereby costing valuable time.
It was only on July 7 that the Thuringian officials brought the photograph that supposedly showed Böhnhardt to the attention of their counterparts in Saxony. The agency in Saxony reacted by placing Struck's boyfriend under observation for three days, without success. In this way, Operation Trio petered out without any consequences.
There are now serious doubts about whether it really was Böhnhardt in the first picture. In retrospect, however, it really doesn't matter if it was or not, because the surveillance operation led officials in any case to the correct address, Bernhardstrasse 11. And investigators say that Böhnhardt really did turn up there.
In that summer of 2000, the neo-Nazis are believed to have made preparations for their first murder. On Sept. 9 of that year, they allegedly shot the florist Enver Simsek in broad daylight on an arterial road in Nuremberg.
Böhnhardt and Mundlos are believed to have driven to Bavaria several times to case the location. And they managed to do so even though officials had friends of the trio, and individuals who helped them find places to stay, under observation at the time -- as well as the fugitives themselves on at least one occasion.
Three weeks after the murder in Nuremberg, officials were back on the lookout on Bernhardstrasse in Chemnitz. They had been tipped off that Böhnhardt might attend the birthday party of Struck's boyfriend at either his or her house on Oct. 1.
Intelligence agents took up position in a house across the street. On Sept 29, 2000, the officers set up a video camera in their clandestine apartment. They turned the camera on, but then left, believing it wasn't necessary to be there in person. Under the circumstances, the reasoning went, the staffing costs needed for round-the-clock monitoring could not be justified.
On that same day, two figures appeared at the front door across the street for roughly three seconds. Investigators assume they were Böhnhardt and Zschäpe. Today, Mandy Struck says that she was only in contact with the trio until the summer of 1998, she did not aid terrorists and that she had nothing to do with the series of murders the trio allegedly committed.
'Law Enforcement Officials Have Systematically Failed'
The series of slip-ups that has now been presented will also fuel the debate regarding the consequences of the state's failures. In the German parliament, the Bundestag, the opposition Green Party and far-left Left Party have called for the establishment of a parliamentary committee to investigate the affair.
But Germany's federal structure makes things complicated. The most serious mistakes were made in Thuringia and Saxony. To do its job properly, a central investigative committee in the Bundestag would need these states to open up their files, but so far they have not agreed to do so. The federal structure of Germany's law enforcement agencies has become a problem again -- just as it did during the manhunt over a decade ago.
"Law enforcement officials have systematically failed," says Thomas Oppermann, a senior member of the opposition center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). "What we need is a fundamental change in how things are done." Oppermann has proposed an "intelligent combination" of a Bundestag committee and a commission made of representatives from the federal and state levels, which the SPD expects would result in a comprehensive overhaul of the current system. Oppermann talks of a "purifying effect."
Once the facts have been established, the important thing will be to take relevant action. Indeed, the Interior Ministers' Conference, which includes officials from the state and federal level, has already made two important decisions. To tackle communication problems within the Office for the Protection of Constitution, which has both a national agency and 16 state-level branches, the national agency will take over the coordination of similar cases in the future. Similarly, a new joint center to combat right-wing extremism has been set up to aid cooperation between the intelligence agencies and the police.
In their flight from justice, the neo-Nazi terrorists benefited from the disastrous condition of the authorities, particularly those in Thuringia. In June 2000, Helmut Roewer, the head of the intelligence agency's state branch in Erfurt, was suspended for a range of irregularities. A 2001 report that remains confidential found that the operational capability of certain sections of the state-level agency had "failed completely" on his watch.
In the wake of Roewer's departure, Tino Brandt, aka "Otto," stopped being used as a source. After 2001, according to the national agency's investigative report, "no information on the whereabouts, activities or contacts of the three fugitives" was passed on to the organization. "Owing to the lack of relevant information, there were no starting points for further investigations," it wrote. As a result, the neo-Nazis could continue their alleged murder spree unmolested for an entire decade.
Brandt supplied one final report. It shows that officials already had clear indications in 2001 that the trio wasn't just on the run but was also planning new crimes. In April 2001, Brandt reported that Wohlleben had declined a cash donation, saying that, "according to his information," the trio didn't need any more money because they "had already done so many things/operations." The statement is potentially highly incriminating for Wohlleben, who is currently in custody. He apparently knew about the criminal activities of the fugitives by 2001 at the latest. "My client declines to comment on the accusations," says Wohlleben's lawyer.
According to Brandt, Wohlleben provided one more detail in April 2001. He allegedly said that the trio had no more contact to their parents, after a far-right activist had given them the message that the three neo-Nazis would "rather shoot themselves than surrender."