In Munich, the longest case in German criminal history is slowly drawing to a close.
Beate Zschäpe is the central figure among five defendants accused of involvement in a murder series that took place from 2000 until 2007. One of a trio of neo-Nazis who called themselves the National Socialist Underground (NSU), Zschäpe is accused of murder in ten cases. Nine of the victims were immigrants, one a policewoman.
Four years after the trial began, the prosecution gave its final statement in July, demanding a life sentence for Zschäpe.
The NSU apparently chose their targets at random. The victims were gunned down at their place of work in towns from Rostock to Munich, leaving bereaved families at a loss to explain how tragedy had befallen them.
Police realized early on that there was a link between the killings, as the murder weapon was always a Ceska pistol, but they couldn’t put the pieces together. For a long time investigators were convinced that the killings were mafia related - an assumption based on the fact that the victims were Turkish rather than on concrete evidence.
It was only in 2011, after the two male members of the group, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, committed suicide with the police on their tail for a bank robbery, that the true perpetrators were revealed. Subsequent searches of an apartment the men had been staying in turned up the Ceska pistol.
Beate Zschäpe. Photo: DPA
Thanks to diligent work of German journalists since then, it has become clear that German domestic spy agencies were close to the trio, but failed to inform the police. Why the spy agencies never handed over this information has become a source of much debate.
The spies agencies had "everything they needed to stop Mundlos and Böhnhardt. There were so many chances to stop them, without a question," Dirk Laabs, an award-winning journalist who has written a book on the links between the intelligence services and the NSU, tells The Local.
For police, who were searching for the trio after they went on the run in 1998, getting information out of the intelligence agencies was like "pulling teeth."
The reasons why the intelligence agencies didn't co-operate “are still not clear,” says Laabs.
What is certain is that the spy services want as little as possible about the affair to become public. Since 2011 they have been destroying relevant files, while those that they have given to parliamentary investigations are heavily redacted.
Theory and speculation have filled the void created by the absence of hard facts. Did the spies just not put the pieces together? Were they too concerned with protecting their sources? Or did some of them have hidden neo-Nazi sympathies?
Using informants is standard practice in Germany, Laabs explains. Both the BfV (the federal spy agency) and the various state spy agencies (LfVs) use paid informants.
“As the far-right threat increased after reunification in 1990, the head of the BfV said we need far more informants, we need more information, we need to be closer to them” he says.
So they started giving money to central figures in the neo-Nazi scene in order to try and control it.
“It was a strategic goal to restructure the scene so that they could better spy on it. A splintered milieu with 50 different groups is harder to control than a single group in which the leader is my informant,” Laabs explains.
Dirk Laabs. Photo: DPA
There were successes along the way.
“There are definitely informants who reported crimes, including reporting planned terrorism,” says Laabs.
But there was also a danger that the tail would start to wag the dog.
The NSU trio grew up in Thuringia, an east German state which proved fertile ground for neo-Nazism in the 1990s. One of the key figures in the scene was a young man called Tino Brandt.
“Tino Brandt had just turned 18. He had no car, no money and no telephone. The state LfV in Thuringen gave him all these things plus a computer and he was then able to start to organize the scene,” says Laabs.
With the support of the LfV in Thuringia, Brandt was able to set up the Thüringer Heimatschutz, a neo-Nazi group in which the NSU trio of Zschäpe, Mundlos and Böhnhardt were all involved.
In 1998 the NSU trio went underground after police found explosives in a garage belonging to Böhnhardt. For the next 13 years they were able to continue living undetected in east Germany.
Brandt is just one of several intelligence informants who is believed to have had contact to them during this time. Another informant is alleged to have provided them with work in his shop. A third was asked to supply them with weapons.
It is “indisputable” that BfV informants had contact to the trio, Laabs says. “The question is whether they learned of their plans. The BfV says they didn’t. The problem is that when files keep being destroyed one can have one’s doubts.”
While Laabs says it is unlikely that concrete plans about an attack were ever passed on to the intelligence agencies, he points out that “informants reported that there were discussions among the people around them that they would commit an attack, that is proven through documentation.”
At a murder scene
It has also become clear through the Munich trial that on one occasion a state intelligence service was much closer to the murders than they care to admit.
On April 6th 2006, the terrorists entered an internet cafe in the town of Kassel and shot Halit Yozgat, a 21 year old with Turkish roots who was employed there, with a silenced pistol. Sitting in the cafe at the time was Andreas Temme, an agent for the LfV in Hesse who worked with informants in the neo-Nazi scene.
When the police started investigating the crime, Temme never came forward as a witness. When it was later established that he was there, he told police and then the Munich court that he had been browsing dating websites covertly so that his wife would not know about it. He also claimed that he paid and walked out of the internet cafe without noticing Yozgat’s body lying behind the desk.
A memorial to NSU victims. Photo: DPA
Subsequent police searches of Temme's home unearthed illegal Nazi literature, much of which would be hard to obtain unless one knew the right people. Meanwhile a policeman from the village in which he grew up told reporters that he was known as “little Adolf” in his youth.
But, according to Laabs, not all the evidence points to Temme being a neo-Nazi mole.
“There was a lot of Nazi literature found on Temme, but he was running right-wing informants. I could also need these if I was running informants. But he knew what the murder weapon was before it became public knowledge and he has lied systematically and under oath,” he states.
Temme’s lies have been particularly difficult for the families of the victims who suspect that he is hiding key information about the network that supported the NSU as they murdered people up and down the country.
‘The spies are the winners’
Laabs stresses that there is no concrete evidence that the spy agencies have been infiltrated by neo-Nazis. The more likely explanation for their secretiveness, he says, is that they do not want to divulge information to the police which might lead to the identity of their informants being revealed.
The spy agencies are not legally obliged to solve individual crimes, they are interested in gathering information - and losing moles means losing vital sources of information, Laabs argues.
He gives a contemporary example to illustrate how the spies think.
"The way the spy agencies think is: they get information about a trio who are about to burn down an asylum home. But they ask themselves 'shall I report it and risk my informant being revealed when it was just an empty house? The spy agencies will always say 'I’ll keep him in the game.'"
The ironic thing, according to Laabs, is that the NSU murders led to the informant programme being ramped up.
In the current unstable climate, with Islamists posing a significant terror threat in Europe, the government wants under no circumstances to weaken the powers of the security agencies, he explains.
“Paradoxically it is the opinion of the government that we don’t have more right wing terror because the informant system works, so the BfV was the big winner.”
“Internally they think that the NSU case was tragic and bitter but that it was an operational accident in a functioning machine.”
Laabs says solutions to the problem are complex. The spy services need informants, but there also needs to be much closer parliamentary supervision to ensure that police get relevant information when they need it, he argues.
"I do think that they have learned their lesson. When it comes to the extreme cases they are more prepared to work with the police. But it always depends on the individual case, and as long as there is no binding control, it will always lie with the intelligence agencies to make the call."