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Formed in the Cold War, former members of Germany’s Red Army Faction are still on the run

German authorities have been tracking down the former members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a now-defunct Cold War-era militant group, who have been on the run for nearly 30 years.

Dubbed the “RAF pensioners” by German media and among Europe’s most wanted people, the female member of a fugitive trio was arrested last month in a Berlin neighborhood where she had been living an apparently normal life for years.

Now, police say they are closing the net on her two alleged male accomplices, hoping to finally bring an end to one of the most notorious chapters in Germany’s post-war history.

Also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, the RAF emerged from a radicalized left-wing student protest movement in West Germany in the late 1960s.

The group – which was supported in part by East Germany’s Stasi secret police force – wreaked havoc throughout the 1970s and 1980s with deadly bombings, kidnappings and shootings. West German politicians as well as high-profile figures in the banking, military and business world were targets, and 34 people were killed, including Dresdner Bank head Jürgen Ponto and federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback. A further 200 people were injured.

While some members were arrested, others went underground when the RAF disbanded in 1998, where they have remained undetected – until now.

Daniela Klette, 65, was arrested in the German capital last month and authorities say they are closing in on two of her alleged accomplices, Burkhard Garweg, 55, and Ernst-Volker Staub, 69.

The trio were on the run from armed robbery and attempted murder charges.

Klette was tracked down in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg on February 26, following a police tip-off. It is thought she had been living in the neighborhood for around 20 years, under the assumed name Claudia Ivone.

She is facing two separate legal cases. One relates to charges of involvement in six armed robberies and at least one attempted murder, in crimes allegedly committed between 1999 and 2016, after the RAF was disbanded, according to a press release from Germany’s Public Prosecutor’s Office.

The other relates to her suspected RAF crimes. While still in the RAF, Klette is accused of involvement in a gun attack on the US embassy in Bonn in 1991, and an explosive attack in Weiterstadt in 1993, the statement says.

According to the public prosecutor’s office, Klette has not yet provided any information about her past but has admitted that she is Daniela Klette.

Despite being the only woman tagged as ‘dangerous’ on Europol’s most-wanted list, she successfully evaded detection from authorities for almost half her life. And in many respects, it appears she was hiding in plain sight.

Neighbors have described how Klette would give maths and German tutoring to local school children in Kreuzberg, German tabloid Bild reported.

She was also often seen in the local area walking her dog, Malaika. One neighbor described her as a “very quiet person,” according to local media reports.

The risk posed by RAF fugitives was underlined after police found a grenade in Klette’s flat, prompting authorities to evacuate the apartment block. Police later confirmed on X that the grenade was safely defused. Meanwhile, authorities have warned that Garweg and Staub are considered dangerous and should not be approached as they may be armed.

It later emerged that investigative journalists were able to track down Klette’s location prior to police pouncing on her Kreuzberg apartment, using artificial-intelligence tools.

By running the picture from her wanted notice through image search tool PimEyes, the journalists from an ARD television podcast generated search results of an older woman named “Claudia Ivone,” Reuters reported.

According to their findings, Ivone was a regular participant in Berlin’s Afro-Brazilian scene, until the Covid-19 pandemic struck. It is unclear if the journalists’ findings were the original source of the police tip-off.

Klette’s arrest has been hailed as a milestone in the fight against domestic terrorism. However, Garweg and Staub remain on the run.

Police have searched several premises in Berlin in recent weeks as part of their efforts and announced the arrests of two men earlier this month, before later confirming they were not the suspects sought.

A week after Klette’s arrest, an unconfirmed report from Bild claimed that Garweg had been sighted by locals begging for money at Berlin’s Oberbaum Bridge.

The pair may also have escaped abroad, police say.

Cold War ‘crossroads’

Wolfgang Kraushaar, a German historian and political scientist who has studied the RAF, says the group was borne out of opposition to capitalism and imperialism.

Speaking to CNN, Kraushaar compared the RAF to the Red Brigades in Italy, the Nihon Sekigun in Japan and the Weathermen or Weather Underground in the US – all radical-left groups which emerged from student protests movements of 1969-1970.

The RAF, he said, emerged in what was then West Berlin, at the “crossroads” of the Cold War.

“Because of the Vietnam War, their political goals were primarily to combat US military installations. In addition, there was also the fight against the justice system and the [Axel] Springer press.”

The Baader-Meinhof Group – named after its founding members Andreas Baader and Ukrike Meinhof – is often divided into three generations. The first, and most prominent period from 1970-1977, saw the group murder public officials and US soldiers and take many hostages.

Images believed to be of ex-Baader-Meinhof Group members Burkhard Garweg, left, Ernst-Volker Staub and Daniela Klette, released by the Lower Saxony State Criminal Police Office in 2016. - Lower Saxony State Criminal Police Office
Images believed to be of ex-Baader-Meinhof Group members Burkhard Garweg, left, Ernst-Volker Staub and Daniela Klette, released by the Lower Saxony State Criminal Police Office in 2016. - Lower Saxony State Criminal Police Office

The second generation ran from 1974-1982 and, according to Kraushaar, was largely concerned with taking hostages in order to exchange them with imprisoned members of the organization. In April 1975, six RAF members seized the West German Embassy in Stockholm in a hostage standoff with the goal of forcing the release of imprisoned RAF members.

The third generation, from 1982-1998, is the one Klette and her accomplices are suspected of belonging to. The goal of that generation was to “murder representatives of various power elites in order to throw the system they hated into question,” Kraushaar said.

He believes that the RAF posed the most significant danger to individuals who represented certain power elites, including former Chancellor of West Germany Helmut Schmidt, Bavarian opposition politician Franz Josef Strauss and press mogul Axel Springer.

Springer was a German media publisher who, by the early 1960s, owned and controlled much of the country’s conservative print titles including mass-circulation tabloids. He was intrinsically opposed to student radicalism.

The Baader-Meinhof Group officially disbanded in 1998, sending an anonymous letter to Reuters’ office in Cologne in which the remaining members declared that “the urban guerrilla group in the form of the RAF is now history.”

Yet Kraushaar believes the RAF had already long since ended. “With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the implosion of the GDR [German Democratic Republic] and German reunification, the framework conditions were lost.”

But high-profile murders carried out by Baader-Meinhof members remain partly unsolved, including the 1989 killing of Deutsche Bank head Alfred Herrhausen. The Red Army Faction claimed responsibility for the assassination, but the perpetrators were never brought to justice. 

“This is why the capture of an ex-RAF member like Daniela Klette in Berlin is so electrifying for authorities as well as for politicians and parts of the public: people hope that the murder cases that are painfully remembered will finally be solved,” said Kraushaar. 

There is a chance that Klette may break her long-held silence in exchange for leniency, he adds.

For Kraushaar, the Baader-Meinhof Group represents a wound in Germany’s collective memory that has not yet healed.

“The fact that there was a small but determined group that declared war on the [West German] state at a time when the future Nobel Peace Prize winner Willy Brandt had become Chancellor is still a sore point.

“This is a wound that will continue to ache as long as there is no satisfactory investigation into the RAF’s crimes.”

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