BERLIN, Germany — The name says it all: "The Doner Kebab" murders.
From 2000 to 2006, nine men died at the hands of a serial killer across Germany. All of them with foreign heritage, and all but one of Turkish background.
Only two were actual vendors who sold doner kebabs, a common street snack in Germany. But the moniker, smacking of stereotypes and prejudices of Turkish-Germans, continued to stick as the killings went on.
Police were apparently baffled. They looked at the Turkish-German communities for the perpetrators, and at the families. But they never looked at right-wing extremists, nor at a gang well-known among neo-Nazis, even though the ranks of the far right had been thoroughly infiltrated by informers.
When it came to light in November that this small gang was at fault for the murderous spree, officials expressed shock. Critics dismissed that reaction as disingenuous, arguing that Germany has long underestimated, and even ignored, the far-right problem.
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“German officials and politicians all these years acted as if they had everything under control which they clearly didn't," said Bernd Wagner, a former police officer who helps former right-wing extremists reintegrate into society. "I was in conflict with a lot of politicians over this and left the police force in 1991 because I thought [what they were doing] wasn't working.”
Clearly, so does Anonymous, the international hacker group famous for taking on dictators and big multinationals, and for defending Wikileaks.
As officials wrangle over how to best crack down on the far right, Anonymous this year has stepped up “Operation Blitzkrieg,” which first got off the ground last May.
The hacktivists have launched denial-of-service attacks on neo-Nazi websites in order to temporarily shut them down. And through their new Nazi-leaks portal, the group has published highly controversial information: the personal data of alleged neo-Nazis, including mailing lists of far-right publications; a list of National Socialist Party (NPD) donors; and the names of customers of online neo-Nazi stores.
“For [quite a] while now, we have been watching our precious Interwebs being used as a platform for ideologies as stupid and as dangerous as it gets," Anonymous wrote on the website. "The talk is of course of far-right parties. We German Anons have decided to tolerate no more of these actions.”
Solving the neo-Nazi problem
In November, after a botched bank robbery, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt were found dead in what police believe was a murder-suicide in the town of Eisenach. Soon after, Beate Zschaepe, a friend and alleged member of their group, the Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU), turned herself in to police — after burning down the remains of an apartment they all shared.
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There, police found a DVD in which the NSU boasted of killing nine men of immigrant background: They called the spree: “Germany Tour: 9 Turks shot” (one victim was actually of Greek heritage).
In response to these revelations, there have been renewed calls from politicians to ban the NPD, currently regarded as a legitimate political party, holding seats in two state parliaments. NPD members are suspected of helping the NSU. For instance, Ralf Wohlleben, a former party official was recently arrested on suspicion of accessory to six of the murders.
While Anonymous chips away at the problem via online vigilantism, defenders of the government point out that working through official channels is not easy. An attempt to ban the NPD failed in 2003. Because so many top party figures were police informers, the Federal Constitutional Court advised the government to withdraw their petition.
“If I were the government, I would withdraw my secret agents first, and then watch the party, try to collect proof and then file a petition to the Constitutional Court again to ban this party,” said Meinhard Starostik, a constitutional lawyer based in Berlin.
That could take time, however. Der Spiegel magazine recently reported that German intelligence has more than 130 informers in the NPD, some in senior positions.
Whether or not a ban on the party would be legally viable, many analysts say that if successful it would simply drive the neo-Nazis underground. “That is why some people in the police never wanted to ban the NPD. It’s much easier to watch them and keep them under control if they are legal,” said Starostik. “If they are driven underground they might become more dangerous.”
In steps Anonymous
So far, Anonymous is not very well known for political action in Germany, but the campaign could raise the groups profile, according to Christoph Bieber, a political scientist at the University of Duisburg. “I don’t think the German public is really well-informed about [them]. They have come across Anonymous in the Wikileaks affairs and the Occupy protest events, and now they are addressing what is, in Germany, a very intensely discussed topic.”
Of Germans who are aware of Anonymous, the reaction to their anti-neo-Nazi fight has been mixed. Many applaud them for taking on neo-Nazis. But the hackers have also caused some squeamishness for doing so, even among their own ranks.
“The so-called neo-Nazis are not part of the 1 percent global elite, so why are they being attacked?” reads a comment posted on an Anonymous blog page. “… I am against any side issues becoming relevant in the struggle against global corporate tyranny.” Anonymous, which eschews hierarchy, has a culture of vigorous online debate.
Other voices on the site argue that neo-Nazis are a valid target. One comment states, “You are never wrong in fighting Nazis.” Some have raised concerns over posting data on individuals just because their names appear on a right-wing organization’s mailing list. In Germany, for example, the clothing brand Thor Steiner is often associated with neo-Nazis, but just because someone buys their clothes or appears on their mailing list doesn’t mean that they are right wing extremists.
“The biggest problem is that some of those people are not NS [Nationalist Socialist] anymore (me) ... ,” wrote one visitor to the site, suggesting that the writer was a reformed neo-Nazi.
Meanwhile, Anonymous' attacks seem to have set off a cyber war: The far right initiated its own denial-of-service attacks against Nazi-leaks; afterwards, the site reappeared at a different web address.
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Hieronymus says that an increase in anti-Islam web activity and the recent publication of the names of individuals and organizations fighting racism and fascism (including his own) on a far right website shows battle lines being drawn in the virtual world.
“The Nazis seem to be trying to reorganize themselves,” he said.
Some believe the police should step up their fight with the tools at their disposal, just as powerful as those of hackers.
“I think the police really underestimated the NSU,” said Starostik. “It’s important that [officials] understand how dangerous these people are — they have the means to find out how they move, to watch them, to tap their phones ... But obviously they knew where they were and they didn’t get them.”
Still, some groups dedicated to fighting right-wing extremists are uneasy about the publication of such data, and the extra-judicial, mob-rule implications that the tactic raises.
“There may be a political justification but there is no legal justification,” said one civil rights attorney who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Anetta Kahane, of anti-Nazi web forum the netz-gegen-nazis.de, says that her organization is concerned about the presence of the far right on the net, and are working to educate young people about the dangers of racism through social media. But she says that Anonymous’ actions are worrying.
“Of course you have to fight Nazis and you can hack their websites but you always have to be aware that you are part of a responsible society,” said Kahane. “Even if the data is definitely on neo-Nazis it’s not a good approach. I don’t want to know where these people live and I wouldn’t like to see people going after them. And where do you stop with this kind of thing? Who else’s addresses might they decide to publish? It starts to become something very ugly.”
Or as Florian Kroeckel, 32, who has himself been a victim of abuse from neo-Nazis in his hometown of Halberstadt in east Germany puts it: “They are assholes, but they still have human rights.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the town where Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt died. It was Eisenach, not Zwickau.