I had been on the job as a special agent for four years when, in 1989, the chairman of Germany's Deutsche Bank was assassinated in a plot so sophisticated that the case remains unsolved to this day. Alfred Herrhausen was riding in an armored Mercedes limousine when an explosion ripped through the vehicle's plating, destroying its passenger side. The bomb, it turns out, had been hidden in a bicycle on the side of the road and synced to detonate precisely as the three-vehicle motorcade passed.
Authorities suspected that a German terrorist group called the Red Army Faction (RAF) was behind the attack. Originating in Europe in 1970, the group had been better known early on as the Baader-Meinhof Group, named for two of its founding leaders, Andreas Baader and female operative Ulrike Meinhof. The radical leftist organization had a long history of conducting targeted assassinations, embassy hostage-takings and bombings that targeted U.S. personnel and police. It adopted violent tactics in hopes of provoking a harsh government response that would foment a broader social revolution in Germany.
Like many — even most — terrorist groups, the RAF eventually faded from prominence in the world of international crime. But what of its members? No one was ever charged with Herrhausen's murder. The operatives who planned and executed that attack, among so many others, remain at large.
In an interesting development, three members of the RAF resurfaced last week as prime suspects in several supermarket robberies in Germany. The old radicals even carry out their attacks armed with a rocket launcher, which would make Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (better known as "Carlos the Jackal") proud but doubtless causes great concern for the cops assigned to robbery squads.
Out of Retirement
Authorities believe dwindling finances have forced these former terrorists to robbery. Otherwise, at their age, one would think they would want to quietly slip away, vanishing from the radar.
But as someone intimately acquainted with the criminal world — albeit from a law enforcement perspective — I suspect the group's motives are more complex. Sure, some of its members may have taken on aliases and settled down into normal day jobs. But many of them undoubtedly still reminisce about the days when they risked arrest or even death on a daily basis. Compared with holding hostages and wiring bombs, balancing a checkbook and making a weekly grocery run can seem pretty dull. Armed robbery may be giving the three former RAF members, bored after years of lying low in the Netherlands, a welcome taste of the old excitement.
After all, these operatives honed their skills in what I remember as terrorism's heyday, when state-sponsored organizations such as Hezbollah played a prominent and bloody role in Cold War politics. Inside our counterterrorism office at Foggy Bottom in the 1980s, we kept dog-eared, handwritten 3-by-5 index cards of known and suspected members of the German group right next to our IBM typewriters and ashtrays. Hard files of various intelligence reports and assessments, grainy suspect pictures, Interpol Red Notices and global press clippings filled cabinets secured with padlocks. Nothing was computerized, and typewriter ribbons were locked in safes at night to keep them out of the KGB's hands.
We had little operational intelligence on the RAF and not nearly enough resources (or political will) to combat the threat in the first place. Next to powerful enemies such as the Soviet KGB and the East German Stasi, the RAF seemed like a minor threat. Looking back, though, it is clear to me just how intertwined RAF operations were with those of Soviet intelligence; one would have been hard-pressed in those days to find a terrorist group not supported by the Soviet Union. As with most of the radical groups in the 1970s, the RAF had operational relationships not only with the KGB but also with the Stasi, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Carlos the Jackal.
An Inevitable End
Today, the RAF's former operatives may be resigned to robbing supermarkets. But back in their day, they were among the best in the business. The Herrhausen roadside attack alone was so spectacularly executed that it cast doubt on all the security practices of the time. How could things go so wrong when it appeared that you were doing things so right? Security and intelligence professionals dissected and studied the attack for years to come.
In this era of constant terrorist threats in Europe, I don't see the RAF's story ending well. Since the attacks in Paris and Brussels, nations across the Continent have boosted their counterterrorism funding and are on heightened alert. Whatever memories the group's remaining members have been able to revive with rocket launchers on their shoulders and guns in hand, these thefts will likely be some of their last. In Germany and elsewhere in Europe, counterterrorism units will close the net — and the RAF's final chapter — for good. And once in custody, these operatives may divulge information that helps solve long-forgotten cold cases.