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Germany's Red Army Faction: Terror suspect arrested

Matthias von Hein | Christoph Strack
February 27, 2024

The left-wing terrorist group, Red Army Faction, has left deep scars on the German psyche since the 1970s. Now investigators say they have arrested one of its members who has been on the run for decades.

Frankfurt: A burned department store in 1968, seen in a black and white photo
An attack on a Frankfurt department store was one of the first violent crimes committed by the RAF in 1968Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Hampel

In the Berlin district of Kreuzberg on Monday, investigators said they had  arrested a suspected former member of the Red Army Faction (RAF). Daniela Klette, 65, has been a fugitive for decades. 

Authorities have accused Klette of belonging to the left-wing terrorist organization in the 1990s, well after its heyday two decades earlier. The group dissolved in 1998. In the 20 years that followed, she is suspected of involvement in a series of robberies. 

In all that time, Klette was nowhere to be found but on Germany's most-wanted list. 

Police redoubled their efforts earlier this month to find Klette and two other "RAF retirees" — Burkhard Garweg, 55, and Ernst-Volker Staub, 69. The robberies allegedly served no political purpose but to finance their life in hiding. Germany's largest tabloid, Bild, was the first to report the arrest, which authorities later confirmed.

Germany confronts legacy of RAF attacks

While the RAF may have dissolved, Germany is still confronting its legacy. Between 1970 and 1998, the group killed, bombed and robbed — crimes that resulted in 30 deaths and over 200 injuries. Not all cases have been fully solved.

German terrorist Verena Becker breaks her silence (May 2012)

The RAF developed as part of the radicalized student protest movement in the 1960s and '70s. Initially, many intellectuals and leftists sympathized with the left-wing activists.

Future members of the Red Army Faction committed their first known attack on April 2, 1968, when two Frankfurt department stores were hit with arson.

1977 saw things come to a head with the so-called German Autumn: On September 5, with the founding members of the RAF already in prison, some of the younger generation abducted West German industrialist and former member of the Nazi SS Hanns Martin Schleyer in an attempt to force their cohorts' release.

On October 13, Palestinian terrorists sympathetic to the RAF cause hijacked a Lufthansa flight from Mallorca to Frankfurt, also calling for their release.

black and white photograph of Thorwald Proll, Horst Söhnlein, Andreas Baader und Gudrun Ensslin (left to right) sitting on a bench, smoking
Terrorists Thorwald Proll, Horst Söhnlein, Andreas Baader und Gudrun Ensslin were charged with perpetrating the Frankfurt attack in 1968Image: picture-alliance/dpa

All attempts failed, and RAF members Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe committed suicide in prison. Shortly after, on October 18, Schleyer was killed.

Agent provocateur Urbach 'played an important, albeit inconclusive, role'

It's as yet unclear what role Germany's intelligence services played when parts of the student protest movement radicalized in the late 1960s.

Peter Urbach, a former intelligence agent who died in 2011, was a central figure, the political scientist Wolfgang Kraushaar told DW in an interview a few years ago 

"Urbach played an important, albeit inconclusive, role in the transformation of a small but hardcore part of the demonstration scene into militant groups," he said in 2018. 

Urbach was involved in the angry reaction to the assassination attempt of student leader, Rudi Dutschke, who was critically injured by a right-wing extremist on April 11, 1968. The incident spurred 2,000 students to march on the Berlin headquarters of Axel Springer, the conservative German media conglomerate that owns Bild and carried divisive coverage of the Dutschke-led protests. 

Urbach was there, Kraushaar said, handing out Molotov cocktails. He even showed them how to use them effectively.  

"They first overturned these vehicles so that the gas tanks on the underside were more accessible and then ignited them there. Then they all went up in flames one after the other," said Kraushaar.  

For him, Urbach was a provocateur who had significant influence and possibly had the implicit support of the Berlin state government and Western occupying powers. 

"In encouraging the violence, they wanted to get particularly militant-minded demonstrators to discredit themselves and others, but ultimately the entire left-leaning movement." 

RAF then and now 

Decades after the bloody peak of RAF terror, investigators hope Klette's arrest will reveal new clues and solve old mysteries. They have already shown how serious they are at working to keep the trail from going cold.

In February, a major police operation took place at the central train station in Wuppertal, in western Germany, after a passenger reported seeing Klette's accomplice, Staub.  

It turned out to be a false alarm, but not before a person was detained and hundreds of special police officers were deployed. 

Staub and Garweg remain at large. Klette was found to be in possession of an Italian passport, living a false identity. Investigators finally caught up to her, they said, with a fingerprint match. A search of her apartment yielded a collection of ammunition. 

This article was originally written in German. An early version was first published in 2018.

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Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C