Arrest of Member of the Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany After 30 Years of Investigation: Transnational Left-Wing Terrorism in Germany

March 6, 2024
Jessa Mellea  —  CEP Intern

Left-wing extremism and terrorism remain a significant form of ideologically motivated violence. Transnational connectivity and loose, leaderless networks—both offline and online—are key elements of this milieu’s operations. As with other extremist and terrorist phenomena that use these structures, this organizational structure presents challenges to security authorities. This blog is the first in a short series in which CEP aims to highlight the distinguishing characteristics of this extremist and terrorist movement and address individual case studies. Given the recent arrest of a member of the RAF in Germany, this inaugural installment summarizes the history and functionality of this infamous left-wing terror group.

On February 27, 2024, the German police apprehended former Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion or RAF) terrorist Daniela Klette. Klette is suspected of having played a role in the bombing of a prison in Weiterstadt in 1993, as well as participating in the RAF attacks on an Eschborn Deutsche Bank building in 1990 and on the Bad Godesberg United States Embassy in 1991. The arrest represents over 30 years of investigations by law enforcement into one of the deadliest left-wing terrorist groups in the country’s history. During decades in hiding, Klette  financed her life underground through a series of armed robberies between 1999 and 2016 in cooperation with two other former RAF members, Ernst-Volker Staub and Burkhard Garweg, both of whom remain at large. As of March 3, 2024, German law enforcement has conducted several raids in Berlin and discovered a trailer in Berlin’s Friedrichshain neighborhood that Garweg recently lived in. 

The RAF was formed in 1970 as an “urban guerrilla” group with the goal of using terrorism to fight what the group termed “state tyranny” and “imperialism.” The group was active over several decades and reorganized itself several times. These reconstituted group structures are commonly referred to as the three “RAF generations.” The first generation (1970-1975), the so-called Baader-Meinhof group, named after two leading members, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, drew their ideological basis from Castroism and focused their attacks primarily on state institutions and officials. Following the “May Offensive” in 1972—a series of bombings that targeted U.S. military facilities, West German government buildings, a federal judge, and the Springer publishing house skyscraper—many RAF members of the first generation were arrested and the group was forced to reorganize.

The second generation (1975-1981) continued the first generation’s general strategy and attempted to force the release of the imprisoned RAF members through a wave of terror attacks in West Germany and abroad. This wave included the 1975 occupation of the West German Embassy in Stockholm and the murders of two German diplomats. The siege failed to secure the release of RAF prisoners and resulted in the deaths of two group members. The RAF escalated their violent attacks two years later, in a period of terror referred to as the “Deutscher Herbst” or German Autumn. Termed “Offensive 77” by the group, RAF members assassinated Federal Prosecutor General Siegfried Buback, his driver, and Dresdner Bank CEO Jürgen Ponto; attempted to bomb the Karlsruhe Federal Prosecutor’s Office; and kidnapped Hanns-Martin Schleyer, President of the Federation of German Industries, killing his driver and three police officers in the process. The RAF held Schleyer hostage for 44 days, demanding an exchange for the imprisoned first generation RAF members. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s Special Command (PFLP-SC) hijacked the Landshut plane in a show of support for the RAF and to increase pressure on the German government. Once it became clear that the government would not exchange the prisoners for Schleyer, and West German security forces liberated the hostages on the Landshut, the remaining imprisoned RAF members committed suicide and the RAF murdered Schleyer.

Following the failure of the second generation to achieve the release of the imprisoned members of the group, the third generation formed in 1982, with Klette as a member. The group remained active until 1998, when it formally announced it was disbanding in a letter to Reuters News Agency. The third generation maintained the anti-imperialist ideological goals and strategy of terror attacks, but broadened their aims beyond attempting to liberate imprisoned RAF members, to pursuing their ideological goals at a local, national, and international level. The new strategy argued not only for solidarity with international leftist movements but also for cooperation with left-wing terrorist groups outside of Germany. Attacks carried out by the third generation frequently targeted NATO installations in Germany as perceived representations of the “core of imperialist power” that sought to unite Western Europe into an imperialist bloc. The RAF also carried out several successful bombings and assassinations of diplomats, business leaders, and military members. During this period, the RAF was responsible for the deaths of at least ten people.

In line with their new internationalist turn, the group made contact with other European left-wing extremist groups, including the French group Action Directe, with whom the RAF shared weapons and other matériel. This was not the first time the RAF had coordinated with violent extremist groups in other countries. Members of the first generation of RAF received military training in Lebanon from Fatah, a faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization. Middle Eastern terrorist groups continued to provide training and other material support to the RAF throughout the following generations as well. The second generation of RAF even jointly planned a plane hijacking with the PFLP-SC. RAF members were also in close contact with and received support from the Stasi, East Germany’s state security force (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit). The agency trained RAF members in weapons use during the early 1980s. Ten members of the group went into hiding in East Germany with the aid of the agency, and members were able to travel to the Middle East for further training through the East German airport with the Stasi’s tacit support.

The RAF was internationalist from its inception, and its transnational connections materially contributed to the group’s ability to carry out bombings and assassinations. Its success in perpetrating attacks illustrates how impactful support from foreign extremist groups can be to small terrorist cells. While the group is no longer active, Klette’s arrest is a timely reminder of the danger of transnational networks in amplifying and spreading terrorist violence. Today, violent extremist groups across the ideological spectrum are increasingly forming transnational connections facilitated by communication through online channels. These contacts, as demonstrated by the history of the RAF, can lead to lethal offline cooperation and pose a unique challenge to security agencies. The case of Daniela Klette highlights the ongoing need for states and security agencies to invest in prevention and monitoring of international extremist connections in order to mitigate their danger.

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