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

Alexander Ritzmann

Counter Extremism Project

Alexander Ritzmann is a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow from March to June 2023. He has been working on the promotion of liberal democracy and human rights and on the prevention of violent extremism and terrorism for twenty years. The German Bundestag, the European Parliament, and the U.S. House of Representatives have invited him to testify on these subjects. He regularly advises the German federal government and the EU Commission on security matters.

Alexander is a senior advisor with the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) Berlin, where he focuses on the effective countering of extremist/terrorist actors, in particular on violence-oriented far-right extremist (transnational) networks, offline and online. He is also advising the European Commission’s Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN), where he particularly focuses on extremist ideologies, narratives, and strategic communications. From 2018 until the end of the project in 2021, he co-developed and facilitated the “International Forum for Expert Exchange on Countering Islamist Extremism” (InFoEx) at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), where he still serves as an associate fellow.

During his time at AICGS, Alexander will focus on his research project “White supremacy 3.0 and the possible militarization of combat sports networks in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war.” His research addresses developing and pressing challenges for the national security of the United States and Germany, as well as the transatlantic security cooperation between the two countries. His research will focus on two national security challenges:

1. The new “white supremacy 3.0” strategy by U.S. REMVE (racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism) “Active Clubs.” The main research question is to what degree this new strategy of mainstreaming (professional focus on popular aesthetics and music) and REMVE combat sports is already anchored in different U.S. REMVE milieus, to what degree it is being exported to other countries, especially Germany.
2. The militarization of RWE (right wing extremism)/REMVE combat sports networks: The main research question will investigate to what degree, and in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, RWE/REMVE combat sports networks in the EU and the United States are cooperating and how such networks could be used to plan and execute attacks or to grow from a combat sports focus to a military/militia phenomenon, also by connecting with existing RWE/REMVE militias.

The research will produce policy recommendations for the United States and Germany.

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-German Institute.