BERLIN — A 2000 firebomb targeting Russian Jewish immigrants at a Duesseldorf railway station. A 2004 nailbombing in a Cologne immigrant neighborhood. A 2008 fire in a Ludwigshafen apartment building that killed nine Turkish immigrants, including five children.
All unsolved crimes, and all now reopened as the possible work of a small band of neo-Nazis who allegedly killed and terrorized minorities for a decade, undetected by Germany's thousands of security authorities nationwide before they finally tripped up this month.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed a thorough investigation of the group's crimes, calling them "a disgrace, shameful for Germany."
Yet many questions remain. Key among them is whether the group is responsible for deadly hate crimes beyond the 10 deaths for which they are blamed, and whether there are other members or sympathizers still at large. More broadly, the nation is asking how such a group could have been allowed to carry out these crimes undetected for so long.
The case has provoked widespread criticism that in an effort to focus on leftist and Islamic terrorism, authorities have been blind to the threat of the right.
"If this had happened in Turkey, if eight or nine Germans had been killed with the same weapon and if the murderers were not found, all European nations would be up in arms, they would declare Turkey to be a barbarian country not fit to live in," Elif Kubasik, whose husband Mehmet was killed in April 2006 in a slaying linked to the group, told Turkey's Sabah daily.
Other families of the nine known minority victims have come forward with tales of how police suspected organized crime, drugs or interethnic rivalries — anything but far-right violence. Aside from one Greek, all of these victims were of Turkish origin, and the group took responsibility for their deaths in a homemade video. The group is also believed have carried out the 2007 shooting death of a German police officer.
Authorities are now scrambling to determine whether the group was linked to other violent crimes targeting immigrants.
In the amateur DVD, the group also appeared to take credit for a 2004 bombing in the Muelheim district of Cologne, home to many Turks, in which 22 people were injured. The interior minister at the time, Otto Schily, said that attack was likely the work of "not terrorists but the criminal underworld."
Investigators are also taking a new look at a July 27, 2000, explosion at a rail station in Duesseldorf that injured 10 recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, six of them Jewish. They have also reopened the investigation of a blaze in 2008 in the southern city of Ludwigshafen, in which five children and four adults — all ethnic Turks — died.
"We have a growing scandal," Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Friday. "Thirty-two state police and domestic security offices have not been able to stop a series of far-right extremist murders."
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger and Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich held a crisis meeting Friday with representatives of the law enforcement agencies to try to figure out what went wrong, and where.
Although the emphasis is on solving the crimes, they also discussed the possible restructuring of Germany's complex web of police and security agencies — a decentralized system set up in a post-World War II attempt to avoid the repeat of the Nazis' absolute consolidation of power.
"Federal prosecutors have to focus on the crime and its perpetrators," Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said Thursday. "Politicians have to answer the question of whether the security structures in Germany can work effectively and efficiently and what changes might be needed."
The story began to unfold on Nov. 4 with a brazen daylight bank heist in the central city of Eisenach, when two masked men wearing hooded sweat shirts reportedly made off with €70,000 ($94,360) and police tracked them to a parked mobile home.
As authorities closed in, the mobile home caught fire. After dousing the flames, they found the bodies of two men inside — Uwe Boehnhardt, 34, and Uwe Mundlos, 38 — both had been shot in the upper body in an apparent suicide committed before setting the vehicle ablaze.
Several hours later, another fire broke out in an apartment 180 kilometers (110 miles) to the east in Zwickau. The two blazes seemed unrelated, until a pair of pistols were found that linked the two and blew the entire case up, leading authorities to tie the group to the killings of the nine minority victims and the policewoman.
The policewoman's service weapon was among the charred ruins inside the mobile home. At the burned-out apartment, police found a Czech-made 7.65mm Ceska pistol, known by authorities to be the weapon used in the slaying of the minority victims.
Copies of a self-made propaganda DVD also found among the wreckage tipped police off to the group's name, the Nationalist Socialist Underground — a clear reference to the full name of the Nazis — the "National Socialist" party — and their extreme nationalist hatred. The video features pictures of the victims from the Ceska-linked killings, and included a cartoon image of the Pink Panther standing next to a sign proclaiming "Germany Tour: 9 Turks shot." The minority victims were all small businessmen, shot at close range in execution-style killings between 2000 and 2006.
Days after the two fires, 36-year-old Beate Zschaepe turned herself in to police. She has since been charged with membership in a terrorist organization for allegedly co-founding the group with Boehnhardt and Mundlos and for starting the fire in an attempt to destroy evidence.
Though the same pistol was used in all of the killings of the minorities, police could find no other leads and they remained unresolved for years.
Mehmet Kubasik was shot in the head at his greengrocer's shop in the western city of Dortmund in April 2006. Authorities now believe he was the group's eighth victim.
Yet German authorities refused to believe that the crime could have been attributed by neo-Nazis, Kubasik's widow told the Sabah daily in her native Turkey, where she was spending the religious Eid holiday last week.
"Because it could not associate itself with racism, the German government looked the other way for years. They inspected even the dust on the curtains in my home, they even suspected me, but they never considered racism," Kubasik said.
Such actions are emerging as what one expert has said was a clear tendency among authorities to trivialize the threat of right wing extremists over the last 20 years.Comment on this story
"The danger was not taken seriously by many of the top politicians who carry the responsibility in this country, and partially denied," said Hajo Funke, a professor at Berlin's Freie University who is among Germany's leading experts on the far-right scene.
Federal prosecutors took over the investigation on Nov. 11 under German anti-terrorism laws, looking at the group as a domestic terrorist organization.
In addition to Zschaepe, who so far has refused to make any statement to police, authorities have also arrested a man identified only as 37-year-old Holger G., and charged him with supporting a terror organization.
So far, neither has been charged with murder.