While making a Hitler salute is illegal in Germany, it appears as if the self-styled National Socialist Underground (NSU) terrorist group could kill at will for more than a decade.
The neo-Nazi gang managed to remain unknown to the German authorities for 13 years, shooting dead nine immigrant shopkeepers and a policewoman, as well as injuring several more people with homemade explosives.
While local police wrongly suspected ethnic organised crime elements to be behind the murders, the country's domestic intelligence service – the Verfassungsschutz – failed to avert the nationwide terror campaign despite identifying NSU members as active neo-Nazis who had been building bombs way back in 1998.
“I'll admit that a few days ago it was impossible to imagine there could actually be such terrorist organisations, or that a cell could murder its way across the country,” German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told public broadcaster ARD this week.
Speaking of a “new form” of far-right terrorism to hit Germany, he has called for a central database of known right-wing extremists and better coordination between the police and Verfassungsschutz.
While the details of how exactly which authority made which mistakes, a general lack of awareness, urgency and institutional inefficiency can certainly be detected throughout. These are almost identical charges to those made against German police forces and intelligence agencies after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States.
The measures taken afterwards, and the enormous emphasis placed on Islamist terrorism since, potentially obscured the threat from the German far-right. But they could also provide a good template for what needs to change in the fight against violent neo-Nazis, a terrorism expert at a southern German state Verfassungsschutz office told The Local.
He said a previous lack of communication between the intelligence services and police was tackled with alacrity via a national anti-terror centre.
“All 16 state police forces, all 16 state domestic intelligence offices, customs officials, the federal police and intelligence forces, they all send representatives there,” he said. “Such cooperation between the authorities would certainly be useful in the right-wing extremist area. It really bridged the gaps between the authorities.”
New approach needed
He said a fiery speech held in a mosque inciting people to violence would likely be picked up on and become part of an over-arching observation of the extreme Islamist scene – but a Hitler salute by a neo-Nazi would not necessarily be treated in the same way.
“Perhaps because the right-wing extremists drink beer and speak German, we think we can understand them,” the intelligence officer told The Local. “With the Islamists after 2001 it was different; we had to really adopt a new approach. But with the right-wing extremists that is perhaps also the case.”
The Verfassungsschutz man also emphasised that the immigrant shopkeeper murders were crimes – and thus for the police to investigate.
Yet the police are refusing to take responsibility for failing to connect the dots, blaming state and federal intelligence agencies for not telling them what they knew.
“There is no good cooperation, or no cooperation at all,” said Rainer Wendt, chairman of the German Police Union on Wednesday, accusing Verfassungsschutz officers of operating in secret.
“They don't even tell each other what they are doing. I find that unworthy in a country with the rule of law,” he told Deutschlandfunk radio.
A re-think will almost certainly now be undertaken to determine whether the attention was directed on Islamist terrorism at the expense of focus on the far-right extremist scene.
And the operations against neo-Nazis may well have been too dependent on intelligence agencies paying far-right snitches for information, with suggestions that the extensive network of informers was delivering little of value – and indirectly funding far-right activities. The Verfassungsschutz office in the eastern state of Thuringia has been particularly singled out for failure.
The clamour of criticism has been getting louder as the extent of the authorities' failures sink in.
On Thursday, Thomas Oppermann, a top Social Democratic MP and chairman of the parliamentary intelligence committee, said there had been “a systematic underestimation of right-wing extremism in Germany.”
‘Carelessness, vacillation and neglect'
Speaking to the NDR radio station he said of the police as well as intelligence agencies, “One sees carelessness everywhere, one sees vacillation and neglect of duty.”
A recent police and intelligence agency focus on far-left extremism, particularly in the light of a lengthy series of arson attacks on cars in Berlin, is being held up as an illustration of the bias of officials still haunted by the leftist terrorism of the Red Army Faction in the 1970s and 1980s.
Bernd Wagner, a criminologist and expert on the far-right who founded the “Exit” group to help neo-Nazis leave the scene, said Germany needed to be more aware of the danger they pose.
“Every Nazi group certainly has the potential to form a violent cell which could operate in the underground,” he told public broadcaster ZDF.
“No snappy response from intelligence agencies can help, when they say everything is under control, and that our eyes and ears have everything covered. History is now telling us this is not the case.”