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Germany's RAF terror: Will new arrest answer old questions?

April 15, 2024

Following the arrest of suspected left-wing terrorist Daniela Klette in Berlin, investigators are now hoping for new insights into crimes committed by the Red Army Faction.

Suspected terrorist and RAF member Daniela Klette.
Investigators found weapons including Kalashnikovs and a bazooka in the Berlin apartment of suspected terrorist Daniela KletteImage: Polizei/dpa/picture-alliance

It was the most spectacular arrest in decades in connection with the left-wing terrorist group the Red Army Faction (RAF). Following tips from the public, investigators from Lower Saxony rang the doorbell of an apartment building in the district of Kreuzberg in Berlin on February 26, 2024.

The woman they arrested there was 65-year-old Daniela Klette, a member of the former RAF, also known as the Baader–Meinhof Group. Since then, investigators have hoped to solve many previously unsolved crimes committed by the group which carried out assaults and terrorist attacks in Germany until the 1990s.

Cash, Kalashnikovs and a bazooka

Among other things, investigators found €40,000 (about $42,000) in cash, a bazooka with a warhead, pistols and Kalashnikov rifles. There was also an embarrassing mishap: officers apparently allowed Klette to use the restroom, during which she seized the opportunity to warn her suspected accomplice Burkhard Garweg by phone.

Garweg, who was also in Berlin at the time, and the third suspected former terrorist, Ernst-Volker Staub, have since disappeared. "I can't imagine that the two of them are currently living out their days in peace," Friedo de Vries, the head of the Lower Saxony State Criminal Police Office, told the German Press Agency. "We are determined to arrest Mr. Garweg and Mr. Staub."

The weapon finds are the biggest success for the investigating authorities in years. One of the pistols, for example, comes from a raid on a gun store in Maxdorf, Rhineland-Palatinate in 1984. Officers hope to be able to link more of the weapons found to RAF crimes. It's still largely unclear who exactly committed the robberies and murders.

Red Army Faction defined by hatred of capitalist state

The so-called "third generation" of left-wing terrorists, to which Klette and the two fugitives also belonged, were active between 1984 and 1993 and killed 10 people. The murders of Alfred Herrhausen, the head of Deutsche Bank, in 1989 and politician Detlev Karsten Rohwedder, head of the Treuhandanstalt, in 1991 caused a particular stir.

At the time, the Treuhandanstalt was an agency tasked with organizing the privatization of state-owned companies in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). These were typical targets of the terror group: what they saw as representatives of the hated capitalist state.

The RAF was founded in West Germany in 1970 by Andreas Baader (top left) and Ulrike Meinhof (top, second from left)Image: Polizei/dpa/picture-alliance

There have been three generations of left-wing extremist terrorists in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Their goals at the beginning, after the student revolts at the end of the 1960s, were to bring about a left-wing revolution in Germany and put an end to the US war in Vietnam. The first RAF generation around the founders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof carried out attacks on department stores and were imprisoned.

The second generation made it their goal to free Baader and Meinhof from prison. In the mid-1970s, they committed murders such as those of the then-Attorney General Siegfried Buback and Hanns Martin Schleyer, a former SS officer and head of the Federation of German Industries and the Confederation of German Employers' Associations.

The third generation, which was active until the terrorist group dissolved itself in 1998, was the most mysterious: it carried out attacks without being discovered. Its members later raided money transports and banks to finance their lives underground and remained undetected — until now.

Did the authorities look the other way for too long?

According to Konstantin von Notz, the Green Party's interior affairs expert in the Bundestag, the intelligence services did not take the continuing threat posed by the RAF members seriously enough.

"The crimes committed by them, so the argument goes, were solely to raise money to finance the perpetrators' own livelihoods in the underground. An ongoing political motivation for the crimes was always ruled out," von Notz told DW. The wanted posters of Klette, Garweg and Staub showed pictures that were decades old. All three seemed to have disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Klette is now in Vechta women's prison in Lower Saxony, strictly isolated from other prisoners and under round-the-clock video surveillance in her cell. Like many captured RAF members before her, she has remained silent regarding all the accusations.

After her arrest, there were demonstrations of solidarity for Klette in several cities across the country. On March 9, around 600 people in Berlin marched in front of the Klette's apartment. She was already in custody at the time. On March 17, there was demonstration in Vechta, where she is currently imprisoned.

Another protest action has been announced for this coming week in Vechta. For von Notz, this is a sign that the ideology of the left-wing extremists is still popular.

"The findings in the accused's apartment alone, but also expressions of sympathy from the left-wing extremist scene, show there is still a considerable danger from the members of the third generation of the RAF and that their actions are still not clearly condemned by some deranged people," he said.

At least 33 murders in 22 years

The terrorist group carried out at least 33 murders between 1971 and 1993. Experts estimate that up to 80 people were active in the group's inner circle at any one time. In the entire period up to its dissolution in 1998, around 1,000 people were convicted of supporting the group and around 500 for membership.

The public was shocked by the cold-bloodedness with which bodyguards, drivers and police officers were murdered. Hanns Martin Schleyer was kidnapped in Cologne on September 5, 1977, and his four companions were literally executed with 119 shots.

A total of 26 members of the RAF leadership were sentenced to life imprisonment. Some of them have been released, such as Christian Klar, one of the leading heads of the RAF in the 1970s. He has never distanced himself from his actions.

This article was originally written in German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau
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