cologne njemačka policija police germany.jpg
Photograph: EPA/MAJA HITIJ

The ageing trio of left-wing terrorists suddenly emerged like spectres from the murky past, attempting to rob cash transports in two German cities in recent months, just when fear of Islamic terrorism is stalking Europe.

Almost two decades after the so-called Red Army Faction (RAF) - better known outside Germany as the Baader-Meinhoff Group - announced its dissolution, DNA traces leading to the three were found at crime scenes in the north-western city of Bremen and the central city of Wolfsburg.

The question being asked is whether Daniela Klatte, 57, Ernst-Volker Staub, 61, and Burkhard Garweg, 47, third-generation members of the gang that held West Germany in its thrall in the 1970s, have launched a new wave of attacks.

But state prosecutors believe the three were merely trying to secure their pensions. "There are as yet no indications of a terrorist background to the crime of June 6, 2015. The assumption rather is that the crime was solely to finance life underground," they said after the Bremen incident.

Terrorism is also not thought to be behind the Wolfsburg attack on December 28.

RAF attacks claimed the lives of 30 people between 1972 and 1993, before the group announced it was dissolving in 1998.

Founders Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and others were captured in 1972, but a new generation, headed by Christian Klar and Brigitte Mohnhaupt, attempted to force their release, mounting a spectacular attack on the German embassy in Stockholm in 1975.

Two years later, they shot and killed federal chief prosecutor Martin Buback and kidnapped Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the head of West Germany's employer federation, subsequently murdering him.

A third wave followed between 1989 and 1993, although few of its members have ever been identified.

German police saw the Bremen attack as inept. The perpetrators wore masks and on the back of the jacket worn by one of them, the word Polizei (police) was misspelled without the 'l' as Poizei.

But on past experience, the three are anything but amateurs. They are held responsible for the 1993 bomb attack on a prison under construction that caused widespread damage.

And in 1999, after the RAF had ostensibly ceased to exist, they are believed to have got away with a million Deutschmarks after an attack on a cash transport in Duisburg. The three have evaded capture for years.

Rumours of an RAF return to operations have surfaced over the years. In 2001 there were reports that RAF activists were making use of old arms caches that had been hidden from the authorities, leading to talk of a fourth generation.

According to Der Spiegel news magazine at the time, two of those linked to the recent attempted robberies - Klette and Staub - were part of this group, but little came of it.

In November last year, a regional newspaper reported the existence of a group called "RAF 4.0" that was planning 40 murders targeting judges, prosecutors, police officers and politicians.

The group accused its planned victims of failing to investigate a series of 10 murders by the so-called "National Socialist Underground" that targeted Germany's large Turkish community.

German security and terrorism experts are divided on the significance of the new attacks.

"I simply don't believe that there is a fourth generation ready to sally forth," lawyer Butz Peters told dpa, attributing the attacks to purely criminal motivation.

But Wolfgang Petri takes a different view. "It's not just about gaining access to money. The old idea lives on," the former police officer says.

"The modus operandi bears the marks of professionals," he says, pointing to the extreme violence deployed. And as a result of the threat of Islamic terrorism, the German state is in febrile condition that leftist terrorists could seek to exploit, Petri believes.

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