Is there a “Brown-Army-Faction” in Germany?

Alexander Ritzmann

European Foundation for Democracy

Alexander Ritzmann is a Senior Policy Advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD) in Brussels, Belgium, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Brandenburg Institute for Society and Security (BIGS) in Potsdam, Germany. He is also co-chair of the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) Communication and Narratives (C&N) Working Group. From September 2012 - December 2015, Alexander worked as Senior Advisor MENA Region and Project Manager for GIZ, the German Development Cooperation, based in Cairo, Egypt. He has also lived and worked in Berlin, Brussels, Beirut, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington D.C. In 2007 he was a DAAD-Fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS), Johns Hopkins University, in Washington, DC. From 2001 - 2006 Alexander was a member of the Berlin State Parliament, overseeing the state police and intelligence agency, focusing on homeland security and data protection issues. He received his Master’s degree in Political Science from the Free University Berlin in 2000.

Do underground right-wing terrorist structures, even a „Brown-Army-Faction,“ exist in Germany? For about two weeks now, it has been known that a group of right-wing extremists have committed murder and robbery in Germany over the past 13 years. They call themselves „Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund“ (NSU), National Socialist Underground, and presumably consist, according to the Federal Prosecutor’s office, of three people, supplemented by a network of supporters. Two of the NSU members, who are being charged with ten murders (of nine foreign small businessmen and one policewoman), multiple aggravated assaults and 14 bank robberies, avoided arrest by committing suicide. The third member and an alleged supporter are under arrest.

The fact that the group was able to operate in at least eight Länder in Germany for more than a decade, without being detected by police or one of the Offices for the Protection of the Constitution (Germanys federal and Länder domestic Intelligence agencies), has led to an intensive, even partly hysterical, public debate. A center point of the debate focuses on speculations about possible support of the NSU by staff members of intelligence agencies or by intelligence agency informants.

By now, the hysteria as also reached politics. Instead of waiting for the investigations to be completed by the Federal Prosecutor’s office, and the already deployed special investigative team, the German minister of justice, Mrs. Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, has already demanded extensive alterations of the German security architecture. Volker Kauder, chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, discussed a complete cancellation of informants at the domestic intelligence agencies. Also, Secretary of Homeland Security, Hans-Peter Friedrich, called the acts of the NSU right-wing terrorism. Other politicians named them the „ Brown-Army-Faction“ , referring to the „Red-Army-Faction,“ a former left-wing terrorist group in Germany.

The exceptionally high extent of political commitment and demands, at times where relevant facts have not been identified and essential questions have not yet been answered shows that some members of the governing coalition are not living up to their responsibility.

One of the most important questions that must be answered first is whether the NSU actually is a terrorist organization at all. Terrorists, regardless of their type, attempt to achieve political objectives by announcing demands and by threatening or attacking civilians. But the so called confession-DVD of the NSU raises more questions than answers. Why was the DVD that refers to attacks, murders and bank robberies between 2000 and 2007, and which was created in December 2007, not sent out until the suicide of the two NSU members? Since four years passed between the creation of the DVD and making it public, had the group planned to keep on operating secretly, if they were not detected on their escape from the bank robbery on November the 4th in 2011? Why are there no, except for the short general note to call for change in ‚politics, media and freedom of speech“, concrete political demands in the 15-minute long video?

The video, instead, focuses on the mockery of the victims and security authorities, and it shows the enjoyment of murder of immigrants. The chosen display format as a Pink Panther cartoon with original voice and music, added with media reports and self-shot photos of victims, casts additional doubts on political motivation of the group.

So, is the NSU a terrorist organization that actually wants to hide their actions and does not have any political demands? That would not only be contradictory in terms, but also non-effective terrorism.

It seems to be clear that nine out of the ten identified murders were racially motivated, and that the series of murders ended in 2007. If the latter will be proven true, the question why more banks have been robbed, but no more acts of terrorism have been committed, comes up.

Thus, the differentiation of whether the NSU is a (wannabe-political) gang of murderers, or a right-wing terror organization backed up by a network, is very important, because the response of the state will, and has, to be carried out differently depending on the classification of the group.

If the NSU turns out to be an actual terrorist network, an extensive alteration of the German security architecture, which has been generally functioning successfully for 50 years, will be due. A further centralization of security agencies, an extension of their competencies and, therewith, a limitation of civil liberties can thus be expected. An official governmental classification of the members of the NSU as terrorists and public enemies would also elevate them to heroic stature and convey the members as „fighters for the fatherland“ within the violent-prone right-wing scene.

If the NSU will be classified as a criminal organization, whose members are driven by lust for killing and the adrenaline rush from robbing banks, there will possibly also be some legal and organizational changes. But the changes would more likely be based on the discovered facts and the mistakes that were made during the investigations. In addition, the popularity of the murder-trio would be reduced.

The fact that a group of right-wing extremists were able to murder undetected for over a decade in Germany justly shocks the public. Therefore, the Federal Government is called upon to wait for the investigations to be completed, instead of rashly announcing an alteration of Germany’s security architecture.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.