Photograph: EPA/BKA

If you live in Germany you have to register with the authorities. All citizens have machine-readable ID cards, and you would probably need a bank account to manage your finances.

Despite all that, terrorists have managed to hide from the police for years or even decades. They live under cover as ordinary people on ordinary estates. They are inconspicuous neighbours.

Yet, your neighbour might well be a Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorist, and terrorists too need money to live on. It might therefore not be that surprising to find that German police recently linked fugitive former RAF members to an attempt to rob an armoured security van.

In June, three masked people shot at a money transporter at a supermarket near the northern German city of Bremen. The robbery attempt failed and the three fled without any valuables. No one was injured in the attack.

DNA tests carried out on two cars used in the robbery turned up genetic matches with Daniela Klette, Ernst-Wilhelm Volker Staub and Burkhard Garweg, who like several other RAF members vanished when the group was disbanded in 1998. The DNA is thought to be the first evidence of the three in almost 20 years.

Another similar failed robbery only happened in December in the northern German city of Wolfsburg. The suspects managed to escape on both occasions.

Prosecutors have ruled out a terrorist background to the attacks, saying that they believed the robberies were attempted to help finance the trio's life underground.

Klette, Staub and Garweg are said to have carried out their last terrorist attack in 1993, when a new prison building in Weiterstadt in the state of Hesse was blown up with 200 kilograms of explosives. However, the investigation has so far not led to any results.

In 2000, an arrest warrant was issued against the three suspects. But nobody knows where they are.

RAF members have over time developed precise methods to organize their life underground. When Staub, Garweg and Klette joined the organization, they would have been able to benefit from that accumulated experience.

There were lists "for virtually everything," including the furnishing of underground flats, the former RAF terrorist Peter Juergen Boock has revealed in a documentary for the contemporary history project Memory of the Nation.

The basic terrorist kit included a "crockery set and household items" available at the Woolworth department store, Boock remembers. "The essentials more or less came in two suitcases," he says. Furnishings were usually very basic. He hardly recalls anything beyond "a couple of mattresses."

Still, leftist terrorists used to furnish the hallways of their secret flats "in a more or less petit bourgeois fashion," in case the neighbours might drop round, Boock says. "Every so often someone came round to borrow some sugar or salt."

Nowadays RAF terrorists are on their own or might have to rely on sympathizers for help. Their predecessors of the 1970s and 1980s were backed by East Germany and other communist Eastern Bloc states.

Wanted RAF terrorists were able to travel via the East Berlin Friedrichstrasse station to the city's Schoenefeld airport and from there to Palestinian camps in Lebanon or the formerly communist South Yemen. Several RAF terrorists also found refuge in East Germany.

But even after the reunification of Germany in 1990, security forces have only rarely managed to capture terrorists in hiding. Maybe the RAF terrorists' need for cash will eventually lead to their capture.

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