Germany's Islamic Terrorists: Echoes of Baader-Meinhoff

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Eric Breininger (L) and RAF founder Andreas Baader

Germany's most-wanted fugitive was last seen in a video that appeared on an Islamic Internet site in October. Eric Breininger wore a black and white turban and fired off a quick round of staccato shots with his Kalashnikov rifle, probably somewhere in the hills of Afghanistan or northern Pakistan. At one stage he espoused the cause of jihad against the United States and allies such as Germany.

Breininger, 21, had disappeared a month earlier from his hometown in the southwestern city of Neunkirchen. According to German investigators the former skateboard rider then resurfaced in Egypt, where he tried to learn Arabic. A few weeks later, investigators say, he traveled, via Iran, to the tribal areas in northern Pakistan. Officers at Germany's Federal Crime Agency believe he has since received training in weapons and explosives. Fearing that he could slip back into Germany to carry out an attack, they have put him at the top of Germany's most-wanted list. (Read TIME's Top 10 lists of 2008.)

Young men like Breininger are dangerous for what they can do, of course. But they are also dangerous for what they represent: the first generation of German terrorists since the Baader-Meinhoff gang formed the left-wing Red Army Faction (RAF) in the 1970s.

Investigators, academics and even some of those who knew members of Baader-Meinhoff in the 1970s, see striking similarities between the earlier radical leftists and Germany's homegrown Islamists today.

For a start, says a German investigator focused on home grown Islamic radicals, the 1970s group and today's German terrorists share similar motives, including a deep-seated loathing of the U.S. and a passionate opposition to unpopular wars (Vietnam then, Iraq now).

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University, also sees parallels in the way the two groups are organized and the fact that they both began to pursue a utopian yet undefined vision of a future society. Like the leaders of the RAF, al-Qaeda's leaders come largely from educated, middle-class backgrounds and in their desire to correct what they see as long-standing injustices, both groups embrace violence. "Both give a wider, productive focus to the individual's frustration of not being able to affect policy through normal channels," Hoffman says. "For young people looking for discipline and a focus it could help them feel a part of something bigger than themselves."

Ulrike Meinhof, a RAF co-founder, told a German court in 1976 that her group's actions were directed against the U.S. military presence in the Federal Republic of Germany. U.S. bases in Germany were a lifeline to troops in Vietnam — U.S. bombers on their way to Hanoi made a stopover in Wiesbaden just as those same bases support U.S. troops in Iraq today. (See pictures of life returning to Iraq's streets.)

More recently, Daniel Schneider, Fritz Gelowicz and a third man are alleged to have formed the core of a cell known as the Sauerland Group linked to the Islamic Jihad Union, an Uzbek terror organization with ties to al-Qaeda. The group is believed to have been focusing on striking at U.S. targets as well. German police say that they observed the men purchasing and storing highly concentrated peroxide, which Germany's federal prosecutor believes was for making car bombs. The police further allege that the men scoped out U.S. military facilities or clubs where they believed frequented by Americans, according to a summary of the federal prosecutor indictment.

Stefan Aust, a former editor of the German magazine Der Spiegel and author of the Baader-Meinhof Complex, was friends with Meinhof and some of the other 1970s radicals before they became terrorists. Reflecting on the emergence of Islamic terrorism in Germany, Aust says: "There is an uncanny similarity to what happened back then." If you take terrorists today "and imagine them 30 years ago, they would probably have wound up in the RAF."

There are differences too, of course. For one thing, today's terrorists have replaced Marxist ideology with religion. But that distinction may not be as great as we think. "If it was just about religion it wouldn't have the same impact," says Hoffman. "Religion is just the glue that holds it together, but it's not the most important part. It's political."

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