The police “crime re-enactment” video that topped the bill on German TV’s equivalent of Crimewatch last Wednesday was more like a Monty Python sketch than a new and desperate bid to catch the last of Europe’s ultra-violent left-wing terrorists – a group still on the run from justice after more than 30 years.
It showed three ageing urban guerrilla types, now pushing 60 or older, snapping together their Kalashnikov rapid fire assault rifles and an anti-tank grenade launcher, while simultaneously programming a sophisticated jamming device capable of blocking all mobile phone traffic within a radius of 60 yards.
Clad in camouflaged military combat gear, their faces masked, the trio are shown storming an armoured black VW cash transport van in a supermarket car park near Bremen one afternoon last June. “This is a hold up – get out !” screams one of the guerrillas as he sprays the van’s windows, sides and tyres with bullets. “We can’t open the doors – the system won’t allow it,” cry the two terrified security guards, now locked in their heavily armoured and impenetrable van by its on-board security alarm system.
The urban guerrilla raiders look at each other, apparently dumbstruck. They can’t open the security van doors and they have just realised that the supermarket’s surveillance cameras have caught their every movement on video.
By now looking slightly ridiculous with their oversized battlefield weapons, they are seen meekly getting back into their blue Ford Focus getaway car and driving off empty-handed: a 1980s-style terrorist attack has just been effortlessly thwarted by second millennium technology. The Germans have a phrase for this: “Vorsprung durch Technik.”
But the perpetrators of the failed van robbery last year, police revealed last week, were not the ordinary criminals they first supposed. Ernst Volker Staub, 61, Daniela Klette, 57, and Burkard Garweg, 47, were the last remaining “third generation” members of Germany’s home-grown Red Army Faction terrorist gang. Fingerprints and DNA traces found in their abandoned getaway car proved their identities beyond doubt.
“They have reappeared, like strange terrorist phantoms from an organisation which officially threw in the towel 18 years ago,” Butz Peters, a lawyer and Red Army Faction expert told The Independent. “The police had virtually forgotten them, they have been living underground for years.”
The Red Army Faction, or Baader Meinhof gang – as the left-wing urban guerrilla organisation was also known – terrorised Germany from the late-1960s onwards. Their declared war against “fascist imperialism” was driven by a conviction that capitalist West Germany was a US puppet state run by former Nazis.
In the course of more than 30 years they murdered 30 people including leading bankers, industrialists and diplomats; they hijacked a Lufthansa plane; and they carried out hundreds of shootings and bomb attacks.
Karl-Heinz Dellwo, 63, a former gang member who served a 21-year prison term for his part in an armed attack on the German embassy in Stockholm in 1975, said he was driven to join in the early-1970s – after being jailed for a year merely for squatting in a Hamburg house.
“It’s difficult to imagine now, but an armed police anti-terror unit was used to evacuate the squat,” he said yesterday. “They fired shots. In those days the state was unforgiving, it wanted to break us. We feared there would be a return to fascism in Germany.”
More than 200 people were injured by Red Army Faction violence. Not until 1998, years after the gang’s founders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, had committed suicide in prison and other key figures had been caught and jailed, did the gang concede defeat and declare its “urban guerrilla project” over.
And until last week, Germany’s police and justice authorities appear to have completely forgotten about the likes of Staub, Klette and Garweg – the last surviving members who have been on the run for 30 years.
They are members of the so-called “third generation” of the gang which came into being in 1984, after leaders of the “second generation” such as Brigitte Mohnhaupt had been captured. Mr Dellwo said: “There would have never have been a ‘third generation’ if the German authorities had responded to Red Army Faction’s attempt to end what they were doing back then, but the authorities just ignored these offers.”
Instead there followed a series of brutal political assassinations in which leading West German diplomats and bankers were gunned down in cold blood. Their victims included the Nato diplomat Gerold von Braunmühl, who was shot twice in the head at point blank range while getting out of a taxi in Bonn in October 1986.
Deutsche Bank board spokesman Alfred Herrhausen’s turn came in 1989 when a bomb containing seven kilos of TNT blew apart his armoured Mercedes limousine and killed him. Detlev Rohwedder, a leading financial expert, was shot dead through an upstairs window at his Düsseldorf home in 1991. None of the perpetrators were identified.
Nobody knows whether Staub, Klette and Garweg were involved in such assassinations. Staub went underground in 1986 after serving a four-year jail term for membership of a terrorist organisation. The trio last appeared on the police’s radar after a more successful raid on a supermarket security van in 1999 when they stole the equivalent of £400,000.
Mr Dellwo and the police believe the trio have run out of cash and are more interested in replenishing that than in waging a guerrilla war against the establishment.
“These are desperate people who know that if they turn themselves in now they will spend the rest of their lives in jail,” said Mr Dellwo. “The state has left them no alternative but to rob, but they’re not interested in mass murder any more – they could have busted that van with their grenade launcher, but they didn’t.”
Jürgen Hage, the Lower Saxony police commander leading the hunt for the trio, hasn’t a clue where they are hiding. He is sure of only one thing. “They have a dog,” he said last week. “We found canine hairs in their getaway car.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies