It was no ordinary robbery attempt.
Two men and one woman, waving Kalashnikov rifles and a grenade launcher, ambushed an armored security van outside a northern German supermarket on a warm Saturday afternoon in June three years ago. The lightly armed guards inside the cash-filled truck refused to open the door, even as the attackers fired shots that pierced the fortified windows and front tire.
Quickly aborting their foiled strike, the robbers fled empty-handed. But they left their DNA behind in the escape vehicle — and it led to a surprise. The would-be robbers were linked to Germany’s most notorious postwar terrorist organization: the anarchist Baader-Meinhof gang, also known as the Red Army Faction.
Decades after its bloody heyday, the gang was back.
It is hard to overestimate the degree to which the Red Army Faction struck terror through the heart of Europe, beginning in the 1970s. The organization formally disbanded in 1998, but only after killing 34 people, including a number of prominent business leaders, and injuring more than 200 in the name of overthrowing the capitalist West German government and battling American imperialism.
By then, most of its members had either been captured, killed or turned themselves in to police. At least four onetime Baader-Meinhof members disappeared or went underground rather than go to jail. Three of the four fugitives were never seen or heard from again — until the botched robbery in the town of Stuhr, near Bremen, in 2015.
The DNA discovery helped solve a riddle about the suspects behind the intermittent robberies since 1999. It also led investigators to later conclude that the handful of remaining Red Army Faction fugitives might not be primarily motivated by political goals. Instead, they appeared to be engaged in a far more mundane pursuit: making a living.
“We believe that their reason for these robberies is simply their need for sustenance,” said Marius Schmidt, a spokesman for the Lower Saxony state police department that has been tracking the trio and their trail of robberies — most of which since 2011 have been in his northern German state. The trio allegedly got away with about $700,000 in 1999 in what police only later realized was the first of a dozen or so armed robberies in Duisburg, where a bazooka was used.
The suspects — Ernst-Volker Staub, 63; Daniela Klette, 59; and Burkhard Garweg, 50 — have come to be called “Raeuber Rentner” (“robber pensioners”) by the German news media.
In July, police found DNA evidence linking the three to two more attempted robberies, one in 2006 and one in 2009. Authorities are actively looking for them and are waiting to see if they strike again.
Investigators have estimated that the $700,000 taken in the 1999 robbery could have sustained the three suspects, living modestly, for about 12 years. They then struck nine times from 2011 to 2016, netting at least $500,000 more.
Federal prosecutors have had an arrest warrant out for Staub, Garweg and Klette on suspicion of involvement in the bombing of a prison in Weiterstadt, near Frankfurt, in 1993. They are also wanted in connection to the deaths of industrialist Detlev Karsten Rohwedder (1991) and Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Alfred Herrhausen (1989).
Among the earlier Red Army Faction assassination attempts was a 1979 bomb attack in Belgium against Alexander Haig, then commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and later U.S. secretary of State. Haig was not hurt, but the explosion injured three of his bodyguards. Prominent West Germans believed to have been killed by the group include federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback (1977), industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer (1977), Dresdner Bank Chairman Juergen Ponto (1977), and Siemens executive Karl-Heinz Beckurts (1986).
The faction “used to rob banks to raise funds for their terror attacks,” Butz Peters, a Dresden lawyer and expert on the group, said in an interview. Peters, who has written four bestselling books on left-wing terrorism in Germany, calculated that the Red Army Faction collected about $3 million in 31 bank robberies before 1998 to purchase weapons and finance its attacks.
“But I don’t think these three are actively planning anything. They’ve just run out of money,” he said.
Most of the estimated 80 or so Red Army Faction members active from the 1970s to 1990s went to jail, were killed in battles with the police or committed suicide. The last member convicted, Birgit Hogefeld, was released from jail in 2011 after serving 18 years of a life sentence for murder. Many former members were trained for ordinary jobs and resocialization while in jail, later entering careers as photographers or authors.
“It’s one of the great ironies of history that many of the [Red Army Faction] terrorists are now drawing welfare or pension payments from the hated state that they tried so very hard to overthrow,” said Wolfgang Kraushaar, a political scientist in Hamburg who has studied the group.
Peters, the lawyer in Dresden who estimated that the faction’s attacks caused about $300 million in damage, believes the three suspects are probably either living somewhere outside Germany, where their wanted posters are not seen, or being protected underground in Germany by left-wing anarchists or squatters in a large city such as Hamburg or Berlin.
“It’s remarkable that they’re still out there and haven’t been caught yet,” he said.
With police methods and tactics improving over the last two decades, Peters and others believe the chances of finding them are increasing.
“It’s just a question of time until we catch them,” said Lower Saxony state’s interior minister, Boris Pistorius, who warned they are extremely dangerous and should be considered anything but amateurs. “I feel we’re getting closer and closer all the time.”
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.