Neo-Nazi Terror Cell: How Did German Intelligence Miss It?

German authorities had plenty of info on a far-right terror group accused of killing immigrations, robbing banks and building bombs. Yet for more than a decade, the neo-Nazis operated freely. People now want to know why investigators were unable to put tw

An unidentified skin head (wikipedia)
An unidentified skin head (wikipedia)

For German security authorities, it's nothing short of disaster. For 13 years, a small group of right-wing extremists was allegedly able to kill immigrants, build bombs, and rob banks without appearing on police radars. Local intelligence in the state of Thüringen, Germany, will have to answer some particularly pointed questions about how a terror cell could exist right under their noses.

Ten years ago, when a series of embarrassing incidents shook the service to its core and cost the head of the Thüringen State Office his job, state parliamentarian Heiko Gentzel, a Social Democrat, called for nothing less than dissolution of the state's intelligence service. "A secret service that can keep neither its confidential information nor its sources secret is incapable of doing its job, and needs to go," he said.

The secret service itself was not dissolved – and Gentzel's call is just as pertinent as ever. Except that "this time around, the situation is much, much more serious," he says. Like his counterparts in Germany's federal parliament, the state politician is asking how it's possible that a terror group as dangerous as the "Neo-Nazi Underground" could operate in full view of the secret service. "Didn't the light bulb go on in anybody's head?"

What we do know is that suspected terrorists Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos, Beate Zschäpe and Holger G. were well-known to intelligence services. There were some 24 bulging governing files about them and their entourage. These will now be pored over by a parliamentary commission, which will try to glean some answers about how a group that was under observation in the late 1990s could disappear without a trace, even though it had little cash and was facing international arrest warrants.

A web of lies and inside ties

There are many parallels between the scandals 10 years ago and the present failures. Back then, several key figures were involved whose past actions could still be part of the problem today. One of them is the then-president of the state parliament, Helmut Roewer, 61, who became head of Thüringen's State Office in 1994.

That same year, Roewer is thought to have hired Tino Brandt as a "liaison officer" (informant). Brandt soon became prominent in Thüringen's right-wing scene, heading an outfit called the Thüringer Heimatschutz, or THS (Thüringen Homeland Protection).

Brandt earned pretty good money spying for the State Office. All told, the service is thought to have paid him 200,000 deutschmark. Where exactly the money came from was not altogether clear. In any case, Roewer was forced to leave his job in 2000 because of his generosity not only to Brandt but to another spy.

Penal procedures instigated later against Roewer came to nothing as the defendant was deemed unable to stand trial. Brandt is said to have used the money he got for spying to support extreme right causes. In 2000, he was fired for anti-Semitic remarks. But no sooner was Roewer gone than his successor Peter Nocken re-hired him.

Nocken only lasted a couple of months, but during that time there was another notable incident – an attack on a mosque in Gera, the third largest city in Thuringia, allegedly carried out by three extreme right-wingers one of whom was an informant for the intelligence service. After his release from custody, Brandt was reportedly received personally by Nocken.

Personal involvement in the informant scene by the head of a State Office goes against intelligence service regulations, which state that the acquisition and processing of information must be kept separate. However, in state government circles it is believed possible that Roewer or his successor ran some informants on their own hook – which is why the names of the spies were not in the files.

Although Thürigen intelligence service denies it, there are allegations that at least one other spy in "Homeland Protection," possibly someone close to the three activists who later founded the terror cell. In the spring of 1998, the terror trio disappeared, allegedly without a trace. The series of murders began two years later. Few think it possible that the three men were operating entirely alone.

Read the original story in German

Photo - Wikipedia

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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