Could the Copeland case have helped to track down the NSU terrorists?

David Copeland, Neo-Nazi, London, Terrorist, White Supremacy, Bomber
© BBC 1999

On the afternoon of 9 June 2004, a nail bomb exploded on vibrant Keupstrasse in Cologne, Germany, a business centre for the city’s Turkish community. 22 people were injured, some of them severely; purely by luck, no one was killed. In the hours afterwards, it was widely discussed in the German media whether this could have been a terrorist attack. Only one day later, however, the then Minister of the Interior, Otto Schily, announced that initial investigations did not point to a terrorist background but to a criminal milieu. As we know today, this statement had no substantial basis in fact; nevertheless, it set the agenda for both the police and in dealing with the attack’s victims. Keupstrasse’s inhabitants and business owners, mainly of Turkish or Kurdish background, were publicly blamed the bombing due to – electively – alleged drug trafficking, protection racked or conflicts in the red light district.

A CCTV camera recording that had videotaped two men with bicycles soon identified the perpetrators; the fact that they obviously had no Turkish background did not lead to a withdrawal of the conjecture that the attack emerged from “organised crime”. Still the true attackers were unidentified.

Keupstrasse bombing was an NSU crime

It took more than seven years until the true culprits were revealed: after the “National Socialist Underground” (NSU) terrorists Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos had committed suicide in November 2011, their accomplice Beate Zschäpe forwarded a video in which the group claimed responsibility for the bombing. It immediately became obvious what should have been detected back in 2004: the men on the CCTV recording were Mundlos and Böhnhardt.

Mundlos, Böhnhardt and Zschäpe had gone underground in 1998 – a fact that was long known to police, security agencies, as well as to the general public. As wanted persons, their faces were known at least to the domestic intelligence service (“Verfassungsschutz”), and likely to other enforcement agencies as well. An internal dossier on the threat of radical right armed struggle (“BfV-Spezial Nr. 21”), issued by the “Verfassungsschutz” few weeks after the Keupstrasse bombing, even mentioned that the three were in hiding claiming they were not able to “fight a sustainable battle from the underground”.

The Copeland case could have led on the right track

However, two important tracks could have shed light on the Keupstrasse investigations much earlier. Both hints were closely connected to the radical right motivated nail bombing spree committed by the neo-Nazi David Copeland in London in April 1999. In fact, knowledge about this similar case could have helped piece together the puzzle, identify Böhnhardt and Mundlos on the videotape, and intensify the search for the three in hiding – which was inactive at that time. Parliamentary investigation committees into the NSU’s crimes disclosed after 2011 that both the North Rhine-Westphalian state agency of the “Verfassungsschutz” and the special commission of the police received important indications from other authorities, but simply discarded them.

Internal file suggested to consider radical right motives

In July 2004, the Federal Office of the Verfassungsschutz (BfV) sent an internal file to its North Rhine-Westphalian branch explaining that the office saw similarities between the Keupstrasse attack and the Copeland bombings. The Copeland attack, the report found, may have served as a pattern to the perpetrators in Koeln (….) By his [Copelan’s] own admission the defined goal of his bomb campaign was the `inception of a race war`. The attack in Koeln reminds of this series of attacks because of the usage of a nail bomb and because of the crime scene in a neighbourhood mainly populated by immigrants.

Furthermore, the file referred to a German version of the neo-Nazi magazine “The Stormer” which militant “Combat 18” activists had began to spread in 2003. Under the title “How to build a Dave Copeland Special”, the magazine provided instructions for constructing a nail bomb and called upon militants to imitate this attack.

The responsible employees at the North Rhine-Westphalian Verfassungsschutz neither reacted to this proposal to consider a radical right terrorist background for the bombing, nor even forwarded the memorandum to the special commission of the police that carried out the investigations in Cologne. In 2016 the head of division stated before a parliamentary committee that it was simply – and without checking – assumed that the Cologne police had independently received the information.

New Scotland Yard addresses the investigation authorities

A second hint arose directly from the Metropolitan Police Service in London (New Scotland Yard). In September 2004, the Cologne police headquarters received a short note dated 23 September 2004. It was sent from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), from which a New Scotland Yard liaison officer pointed out that David Copeland had committed three nail bomb attacks, targeting black, gay and Jewish communities. Furthermore, Copeland was aiming at a “race war” and that he had, although acting alone, a network of contacts to radical right organizations in the UK, including the National Socialist Movement.

In October 2004, an investigating police officer in Cologne contacted the BKA, requesting additional information on Copeland – such as a photograph, a personal description and the circumstances of his crimes. Over fourteen months later, in December 2005, the BKA responded by sending a 70-page memorandum, written in English by the Metropolitan Police Service’s Anti-Terrorist Branch. This memorandum contained a detailed report on the bombing series and the investigations against Copeland in 1999/2000.

A few days later the police officer closed the trace, reductively arguing that Copeland “can be ruled out to be the perpetrator of the Keupstrasse attack. He was convicted to six counts of life prison on 6 June 2000 and had been imprisoned at the time of the attack. Since he has been a single perpetrator, there is no further angle of police investigation. The trace no. 260 is closed.” When the officer concerned was heard at the North Rhine-Westphalian parliamentary investigation committee in 2016, he stated that his English reading skills were not sufficient to comprehend the document; he therefore did not read the memorandum for links to copycat attacks. Equally troubling, no translation was arranged to be made.

It seems that Scotland Yard’s attempts to provide insight into the influence of a radical right “lone bombing actor” either could not or did not want to be understood.

In both cases described here, no effort was made to explore more thoroughly what the message was in the suggestions made by other authorities. Regarding the general direction of the investigations – especially that into the migrant community – it must be assumed that the investigation authorities were biased against the Turkish community that was victimised by the attack. A greater open-mindedness toward a radical right terrorist background of the attacker could have put German investigators on the right track, and perhaps also prevented the death of İsmail Yaşar, Theodoros Boulgarides, Mehmet Kubaşık, Halit Yozgat and Michèle Kiesewetter, who were later murdered by the NSU between 2005 and 2007.

Dr Barbara Manthe is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Principal Investigator on the government-funded project, “Right-wing Terrorism in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1970-1990” at the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf. See her profile here. © Barbara Manthe. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).