How Germany’s Most Wanted Criminal Hid in Plain Sight

It took authorities more than 30 years to hunt down one of Germany’s most wanted fugitives. For Michael Colborne, an investigative journalist running old photographs through a facial recognition service, it took about 30 minutes.

At the request of a German podcasting duo, he’d been asked to search for matches to the decades-old wanted photographs of Daniela Klette, a member of the leftist militant group Red Army Faction, Germany’s most infamous postwar terrorist group, originally known as the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Instead, the facial recognition software he used lighted upon a woman called Claudia Ivone. In one image, she posed with her local capoeira troupe as they waved their arms exuberantly. Another showed her in a white headdress, tossing flower petals with an Afro-Brazilian society at a local street festival.

He had stumbled on an alias Ms. Klette had used for years, as she hid in plain sight in the German capital.

This week, German police announced they had finally caught Ms. Klette, now 65, trumpeting her arrest as a “masterpiece” and a “milestone.” Some German journalists had a different interpretation of events.

“What was their success?” one journalist asked, challenging officials at a news conference this week. “Listening to a podcast?”

It is still unclear whether Mr. Colborne’s findings for the podcast, Legion, whose latest season on Ms. Klette was released in December on Germany’s public broadcaster ARD, actually led to Ms. Klette being discovered by police. The police say they found her thanks to a tip in November, around the same time Mr. Colborne, 42, and Legion were doing their research.

Nonetheless, it raised an awkward prospect: That a fugitive who had eluded German police since Mr. Colborne, a Canadian journalist who works for the investigative website Bellingcat, was in junior high school, was identified with relative ease using two publicly available programs, PimEyes and AWS Rekognition.

“Somebody like me, who does not speak German, who does not know much beyond the basic background of Daniela Klette — Why was I able to find such a lead in like literally 30 minutes?” he said. “There are hundreds of German far-right extremists with warrants for their arrest. If I can find somebody who’s been on the run for 30 years, why can’t German authorities find some of these other wanted people?”

The question comes at a time when Germans are growing increasingly concerned about security. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germans have been keenly aware of the risks for Europe as it witnesses its biggest land war since World War II.

Late in 2022, German intelligence services discovered one of their own officers had been working as a double agent, sending sensitive information about the war to Russia.

Around the same time, police uncovered a network of conspiracy theorists with far-right links, who had devised a violent and fantastical plot to storm Germany’s Parliament in the hopes of triggering a coup.

Peter Neumann, a German professor of security studies at King’s College London, said a major flaw in Germany’s ability to hunt down extremists and militants was an overly zealous application of data protection laws, which many Germans attribute to the country’s history of surveillance and repression under the Nazis and in communist former East Germany.

“For 70 plus years now, this has been a democratic state, and it is really handicapped by its inability to acquire data, even for perfectly legitimate reasons,” Professor Neumann said.

German police, he argued, hamper their own ability to fight crime through “overcompliance” or overly strict laws. He said police are unable to record conversations between organized crime members, for example, if they may be sitting next to someone at a restaurant having an innocent conversation that would also be heard.

Another problem, he said, was that Germany has been struggling and failing for years to digitize a government that has remained stubbornly beholden to paper mail and even fax machines.

“They are not necessarily even thinking in terms of people’s presence in the virtual space,” he said. “Right wing extremists, but also jihadists, they are operating in online spaces on messaging forums — in places that German authorities wouldn’t consider it to be real. But they certainly are real.”

Ms. Klette is a remnant of a different era of security threats, when leftist militancy was one of the most violent threats to society.

During her time in hiding, the police say, Ms. Klette and two accomplices, Ernst-Volker Staub and Burkhard Garweg, who are also wanted in connection with Red Army Faction activities, committed at least 13 violent robberies, netting them about two million euros (a little more than $2.1 million).

Police are still searching for Mr. Staub and Mr. Garweg. They believe that the two men are still in Berlin.

Ms. Klette lived for years in the historically left-wing neighborhood of Kreuzberg. Neighbors told local reporters she was a friendly, calm presence and that she was often seen with a big white dog. She tutored local children and helped write letters, one neighbor told Bild, a tabloid. A boyfriend, who visited sometimes, was said to be about the same age as Ms. Klette and wore a long white ponytail.

One Brazilian woman living in Berlin posted on Facebook about her shock over the discovery that a woman she’d done capoeira with was a fugitive on the run.

“If the German secret police didn’t find Daniela Klette, it’s not like Brazilians would have guessed that the capoeirista, who paraded at the Carnival of Cultures, is Germany’s most wanted national and international terrorist,” she wrote.

On Wednesday, after finding a hand grenade in her home, police evacuated the gray, nondescript, rent-controlled building on a street where the Berlin Wall once ran. The next day, they discovered a grenade launcher and a Kalashnikov machine gun.

Kreuzberg, a rapidly gentrifying Berlin neighborhood, has a special history with the Red Army Faction. It was in a basement there where, in February of 1975, the group held Peter Lorenz, a Berlin political boss, for five days in what they called the “people’s prison.” Lorenz was only released after the West German government agreed to free several RAF guerrillas in a trade.

It also is the kind of neighborhood where well-paid government consultants live next to Turkish immigrants, social security recipients and artists, and where the Berlin attitude of letting everyone live as they please is still felt strongly.

On Facebook, Ms. Klette posted mostly pictures of flowers and posters advertising events at the Afro-Brazilian association in which she was active. It was those photographs that ultimately got her in trouble.

Mr. Colborne’s unwittingly successful identification of her for Legion last winter, however, initially led to nothing because the podcasters were unable to find the woman in the photographs he’d found.

His realization that his sleuthing had in fact worked, he said, has inspired conflicted feelings. It shows the power, he said, of what someone using easily accessible software can do with a single photograph.

“You can find pictures they don’t even know were taken of them. You can find out where they lived, where they went to university,” he said. “I can’t stress enough that some of these tools can and will further be abused by bad actors.”