One of the regular issues this blog tries to shed light on is the shady problem of provocation in counterterrorism. When intelligence services systematically penetrate terrorist groups – which is, bar none, the most effective way to defeat them – things get murky fast, and it can become rather unclear who’s actually doing what, why, and for whom. In that confusion the terrorists usually lose. In some cases, the spies have so many agents inside the terrorist groups that they are functionally in control; this is a morally ambiguous, and sometimes downright nasty, game, but it works a lot better in the long run than using drones (see: Algeria).
Provocation is effective but complicated, not to mention difficult for outside observers to make sense of. The United States has its own experience with this, and the FBI’s highly successful penetration and provocation operations against domestic extremists in the 1960s left a lingering bad taste in the mouths of civil libertarians. The Bureau continues to run informants inside terrorist groups – practically every wannabe jihadist since 9/11 in this country has been stopped well “left of boom” when a secret FBI representative enters the picture – which is unquestionably effective in operational terms but leaves political and ethical questions open. J.M. Berger of the excellent INTELWIRE has explained how good the FBI has gotten at thwarting terrorism domestically through aggressive employment of confidential informants, and that this may raise as many questions as it provides answers. One need not be a dues-paying member of the ACLU to worry where this might lead, not least since when FBI informants go bad, it can be more than a little embarrassing.
Yet this problem exists everywhere, and even societies which worry a lot about civil liberties can get themselves into politically and morally ambiguous situations when provocation comes into the picture. Take Germany, where more than anywhere else in Europe, for obvious reasons of history, right-wing extremism is – shall we say – frowned upon. Since its creation in 1949, the Federal Republic has taken a hard line on groups espousing any affection for the Nazis, and German authorities have banned several fringe parties over the decades when they crossed public redlines (though brownlines seems more apt here). It’s also long been the worst kept secret in Germany that any groups that veer towards Hitlerphilia are surely penetrated by German domestic intelligence, which keeps its eagle-eye on right-wing radicalism.
This can take a vaguely comic turn at times. The National Democratic Party (NPD) is the legal far-right group in the country, though it hardly exists in electoral terms (its performance in federal elections rarely exceeds one percent), but it is an embarrassment to authorities, who periodically try to ban it on the grounds that it engages in neo-Nazism, which is illegal there. A decade ago, the government’s last effort to get the NPD banned failed when the case went to Germany’s highest court, which determined that the NPD’s leadership was so filled with government informants that it was impossible to determine what were the party’s actual views and what were the actions of (many) agents provocateurs. Moves are again afoot to ban the NPD, which unquestionably does have ties to people who think the Nazis were merely misunderstood, but the issue of provocation will doubtless come to the fore again here.
Nevertheless, the German government’s confidence that it has the neo-Nazi problem “under control” (as the spies put it) was badly shaken recently by the revelation that a lone-wolf cell of violent extremists had managed to perpetrate a decade-long wave of terror across Germany. The National Socialist Underground (NSU), as it grandly called itself, consisted of exactly three radicals, two men and a woman, who formed a threesome of a cancerous sort (both the men were named Uwe, conveniently for Beate, the sole female member, who was the intermittent lover of the Uwes) which between 2000 and 2006 murdered nine immigrants – eight Turks and one Greek, whom they mistakenly took to be a Muslim – in random-appearing shootings all over the country. Since the NSU spaced its shootings well, in time and geography, and chose their targets somewhat carefully, they evaded detection for years. They also pulled off some bank robberies, a few small bombings, and killed a cop before they were taken out of business in late 2011; when the authorities finally caught on to them, the Uwes shot themselves while Beate was arrested and is awaiting a very long prison sentence.
The NSU story caused an earthquake in Germany far beyond its direct criminal impact. The press and bien-pensants have expressed horror that such a thing could have happened, despite the fact that Beate and the Uwes were quite moderate serial killers compared to a Ted Bundy or a John Wayne Gacy. For their part, Germany’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which were always confident about their handle on this sort of thing and therefore are wearing egg on their faces now, have been in full meltdown mode over the fact that there actually was a small bunch of violent neo-Nazis not under their control.
The recriminations for the cops and spooks have been considerable and embarrassing. Since the NSU were a secretive and malignant triumvirate unto themselves, living off the grid and possessing little contact with established neo-Nazi groups, they were never on the authorities’ radar. To make matters worse, Der Spiegel, Germany’s top newsmagazine, has published a detailed article which establishes that the issue is a good deal worse than it seems, raising awkward questions about the long-term impact of penetration and provocation.
It has never been in doubt that German domestic intelligence (the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, BfV for short) has deeply penetrated known neo-Nazi groups for decades, often at the very highest levels. But that, it turns out, may be part of the problem. In 1997, before the NSU ever got off the ground, the German federal police (BKA) issued a secret report elaborating the shortcomings of the infiltration approach to the far right. This detailed assessment painted a disturbing portrait of just how deeply the BfV had penetrated neo-Nazi groups, and how that was actually making the problem worse. BfV agents inside radical groups, some handsomely paid, were egging each other into ever-greater extremism, even violence, while the BfV was protecting its “stars” from unwanted BKA attention. These agents provocateurs were often criminals, and many seemed quite authentically radical, creating what the BKA, which wondered who was really in charge here, called an “incendiary effect.” Not to mention that some BfV officers seemed awfully cozy with their agents, whom they got to know well, and in some cases bonded with personally. It seemed more than coincidental that certain well-placed radicals seemed to be tipped off about impending police raids. The bottom line, the BKA concluded, was that German domestic intelligence, instead of preventing extremism, was instead actively encouraging it through its extensive use of confidential informants, many of whom acted as agents provocateurs, but whose ultimate loyalty was questionable. Unfortunately, this assessment fell on deaf ears – whether due to interagency rivalry or willful obtuseness is impossible to say – and the BfV’s tricky game has now been exposed in the aftermath of the NSU’s murder spree.
None of this will be new to anyone who is familiar with provocation – the rivalries among agencies, the problems of working with morally dubious people, the need to do bad things to “protect cover,” plus the perennial doubts about ultimate loyalties. These enduring challenges are a feature, not a bug, of the counterintelligence approach. Yet the NSU scandal has put it all into the German public’s view for the first time, with negative effects. As a counterintelligence officer by background, I have no doubt that agents provocateurs are the most effective weapon against terrorists and extremists. But the German case illustrates why some activities ought to remain secret, since the public cannot be expected to stomach certain things over the weekend paper with a nice breakfast.