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Terrorism inquiry

Marcel Fürstenau / agJanuary 17, 2013

Only a few months remain for a parliamentary inquiry into failures by German security agencies over a series of murders carried out by the NSU right-wing terrorists. But important evidence is still missing.

In session: the NSU inquiry board is holding a meeting (c) Steffi Loos/dapd
Image: dapd

The parliamentary inquiry looking into the National Socialist Underground (NSU) terror group is about to complete its first year of intensive work. Since its establishment on January 27 2012, the committee has held almost 50 sessions, investigating the activities of the right-wing extremist killers.

If it hadn't been for the inquiry, the German public would know much less about the extent of extreme right-wing activism - and about the obvious failures of German security agencies in dealing with the NSU, which is alleged to have killed ten people between 2000 and 2007.

The inquiry is made up of 11 members representing all the parties in the German parliament. Its mission statement opens ambitiously: "The inquiry is to obtain a comprehensive understanding regarding the terror group 'National Socialist Underground,' its members and activities, its environment and supporters - and should investigate why it could carry out such serious crimes over such a long period of time without being noticed."

Evidence must be complete by spring

But there is little time remaining for the committee to view files, hear witnesses and thereby do at least in part what the German security agencies have so far failed to do: systematically analyze the causes and effects of violent right wing extremism - and successfully fight it. As the work of the inquiry is linked to the lifetime of the current parliament, it will cease to exist in June 2013 at the latest. After that, parliament will be in summer recess, followed by general elections in September. And since the findings of the inquiry have to be prepared for publication, the evidence has to be largely complete by the spring.

It already appears obvious that even after that, open questions will remain. The field of right-wing extremism is in itself difficult to research, and the time frame involved does not make the task easier: the alleged NSU terrorists Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos and Beate Zschäpe went into hiding back in 1998 - even though they were under observation by the security agency of the state of Thuringia at the time.

Police gather evidence after the bombing Photo: Federico Gambarini dpa/lnw
The NSU is said to have also carried out a bombing in CologneImage: picture alliance / dpa

Lost in the thicket of administration

Two years later, in 2000, a Turkish florist, Enver Simsek, was shot in Nuremberg and became the first victim in the series of murders that only ended in 2007 with the death of 22-year-old policewoman Michèle Kiesewetter in Heilbronn. She was the only victim without an immigrant background; and the circumstances of her death are something the inquiry has yet to look into.

Thousands of files and folders have now been analyzed by security agencies and police at both state and federal level. Many prominent security experts and politicians have been questioned and a special investigator appointed. The impression is growing that it was easy for the NSU to carry out its activities because its traces were lost in a labyrinth of complex government agencies.

Now, a year after the inquiry started its work, the inquiry is examining how the agencies in Thuringia could have lost sight of the NSU trio. Over a period of years, there had been indications about the group's whereabouts, and about their readiness to use violence.

Special investigator issues damning verdict

Special investigator Gerhard Schäfer, a former judge, has raised serious questions: because of its moles in the neo-Nazi scene, he says, the security agencies had "first class knowledge" about the NSU. They knew that the trio was trying to get its hands on weapons and fake forms of identification.

Special investigator for the NSU inquiry board, Gerhard Schaefer (c) Jens-Ulrich Koch/dapd
Schäfer is highly critical of the security agenciesImage: dapd

Therefore, says Schäfer, it's all the more absurd that, once the trio went into hiding, the agencies' informers were unable to tell them about the right-wing extremist circles in which the NSU terrorists were moving.

Based on what has emerged so far, it seems unlikely that the Thuringian security agents are going to produce plausible answers to the many open questions that remain. Even in the agencies, there's a clear admission that the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing.

One conclusion has already been drawn: federal and state interior ministers have agreed that the federal security agency BfV will take the lead in future in the investigation of right-wing terrorism, which means that all states now have to share their evidence with the BfV.

Another result has been the creation of a joint "Center for the Defense against Right-Wing Extremism," which started its activities even before the NSU inquiry took up its work. All the police forces and security agencies in the country are involved, as well as the federal foreign intelligence agency, the military intelligence agency and the European police authority Europol.

But the members of the parliamentary inquiry are unlikely to be happy with what has been achieved so far. They are far from their goal of being able to offer recommendations on "how to fight right-wing extremism effectively." It may be necessary for their work to be continued under the next parliament. For that, 25 percent of the members of parliament would to have to vote in favor of a new inquiry.