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A blind eye?

November 16, 2011

For 13 years, a band of right-wing extremists are believed to have carried out murders of immigrants in Germany. Intelligence agencies seem to have been unaware of the background to the murders. How was this possible?

Weapons laid out on a Nazi flag
Did authorities underestimate the neo-Nazi threat?Image: DW/ Weitz

Reports published this week show that information about right-wing terrorism has long been available in Germany. Already in 1995, for instance, one could read in an intelligence report that right-wing extremists were planning to erect a terror network. Intelligence agencies in Thuringia, in eastern Germany, have been tracking various neo-Nazis for 15 years; some 20 files exist on the individuals now implicated in the series of murders of Turks and Greeks that has dominated German media this week.

Intelligence discrepancy

Germany's intelligence agencies - the Verfassungsschutz or Offices for the Protection of the Constitution at state and federal level - are tasked with observing all people and organizations that strive to endanger - or destroy - the democratic order enshrined in Germany's constitution. This includes the monitoring of right-wing extremists.

German intelligence collects its own information and is supposed to be independent of the police which is merely tasked with collecting evidence about crimes which have already been committed. The two bodies are thus completely separate, as is dictated by the Basic Law, Germany's constitution.

It is legally possible for the intelligence services to transfer relevant information to the police - but they don't have to. Even among insiders it is unclear when and under which circumstances information is shared between intelligence agencies and the police.

Lack of competence

With regard to this latest series of suspected right-wing murders, the police have pointed out that no-one claimed responsibility for them - and no evidence that the crimes were vaunted by any extremist organization. Most of the murders, in addition, took place in western Germany.

A puzzle piece under a magnifying glass
Often the problem is how information is organizedImage: picture alliance/dpa

These weren't viewed in the context of right-wing extremism, because most cases of such violence occur in eastern Germany. There, self-proclaimed neo-Nazis have even been voted into state parliaments, as part of the far right National Democratic Party of Germany, or NPD.

These assumptions narrowed down the police investigation. That made it even more important that the information held by the intelligence agencies should have been exploited, but the officials in those agencies seem to have been unable to assess their own information properly.

A host of German politicians - among them Bodo Ramelow of the Left party who has spoken of "chronic failure" - have come out with criticism of Germany's police and intelligence agencies. The journalist Jürgen Roth, who has been analyzing the way police and intelligence agencies work for years and has published a book on the topic, summarizes the situation succinctly with the words, "They're just not up to it."

He says the intelligence agencies in the eastern states of Thuringia and Saxony additionally suffer from poor training and staff frustration. But things were better in Bavaria, so, he says, it's not possible to generalize. But the problems had little to do with a lack of staff - it was more a matter of a lack of political will.

Informers with suspect information

For years, German intelligence has been recruiting members of extremist organizations as informers, in order to help them get as close as possible to dangerous organizations. Sometimes the informers are senior members of the organizations. There have also been attempts to infiltrate the groups with undercover intelligence officers. Often this requires a large amount of money, and it puts the informers and the agents at high risk. That leads to conflicts of interest.

Neo-Nazis in Dresden
Neo-Nazi marches in eastern Germany are not uncommonImage: picture alliance/ZB

The money that is invested must pay off. The authorities want the informers to be in a position to provide information of planned attacks for as long as possible, and they are thus forced to protect their agents. Two of the extremists in the present case had definite contact with an informer. The suspicion that even the suspected perpetrators themselves could have been operating for the agencies could perhaps explain why this terror network remained under wraps for so long.

So-called "legal illegal papers," such as are issued to undercover agents or informers who have to be given a new identity, were found in their apartment, but the intelligence services deny any involvement.

However, Roth questions the use of informers in far-right groups: His research documents several cases in which "information gleaned from these sources have been downright wrong."

Turning a blind eye

But he sees the real mistake made by intelligence agencies in some German states as being the concentration on left-wing and Islamist terror. Former agents say that this has resulted in a lack of attention being paid to right-wing terrorism.

In Thuringia, this tendency can be traced back to the former head of the agency there. It is said that Helmut Roewer, who led the state agency from 1994 to 2000, never showed any special interest in pursuing right-wing extremism.

This ultimately cost Roewer his job; whether or not his successor has made any real changes in the agency will be clear from the current investigations.

Author: Wolfgang Dick / glb
Editor: Michael Lawton