• U.S.

Return of the Red Army Faction

5 minute read
Frederick Painton

West Germany’s leftist urban guerrillas ambush a U.S. general

As the commander of the 200,000-strong U.S. Army forces in Europe, General Frederick J. Kroesen, 58, knew he had become a prime target in the anti-American campaign waged by West German terrorists. Barely a month ago, the mild-mannered general finally heeded pleas by West German police to exchange his American limousine for an armor-plated Mercedes.

That act of precaution saved Kroesen’s life. As he was being driven to his headquarters in Heidelberg one morning last week, the green, unmarked limousine rolled up to a red traffic light beside the Neckar River, less than a mile from his office. Kroesen was in back with his wife Rowene.

A West German police driver and the general’s aide, Major Philip E. Bodine, occupied the front seats. Just before the car came to a stop, an explosion shook the rear of the Mercedes, spewing glass inside.

A Soviet-made antitank grenade, fired from a rocket launcher, had smashed into the trunk, splintering the inch-thick, shatterproof rear window. Then several rounds of small-arms fire were heard. Said Kroesen later: “When I saw that all the legs and arms were in the right places, and the driver found the car would start, we took off.”

With drawn weapons, Kroesen’s West German military police escort charged toward the source of the attack, a heavily wooded hillside 200 yds. away. Eyewitnesses said they saw a man running from the scene, but police found only an abandoned campsite with a small tent, sleeping bags, canned food and a powerful radio transmitter, all evidence of a carefully planned operation. Whoever scored on the Mercedes with a grenade at that distance was a good shot with a lot of practice, according to police. Had Kroesen not been protected by the car’s armor plating, he and the other occupants would certainly have been killed. As it turned out, the general and his wife received only minor cuts from the broken glass, and the others were unscathed.

The attack was the tenth on U.S. personnel and property in West Germany this year, and the fourth in the past month. The bloodiest came three weeks ago at Ramstein Air Base, the U.S. Air Force’s European headquarters, where a bomb blast wounded 20 people. “I don’t know who is responsible, but I do know there is a group that said they had declared war on us,” said General Kroesen. “I’m beginning to believe it.” Specifically, the general was referring to the Red Army Faction, the terrorist group founded by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff, which flourished in the 1970s. Confirmation came the next day when the Frankfurt Rundschau, a left-of-center daily, received a three-page type written letter explaining in turgid jargon that Kroesen had been attacked “because he is one of the U.S. generals who effectively hold in their hands the imperialist policy from Western Europe to the [Persian] Gulf.”

The brutal re-emergence of the Red Army Faction shook West German authorities out of the complacent belief that the nation’s leftist terrorism had largely been brought under control. From a peak of 150 hard-core members four years ago, the Red Army Faction has dwindled to about 30 as a result of arrests, deaths in clashes with police and desertions from the cause. Despite their limited numbers, say West German officials, the terrorists want to exploit the wave of protest against the NATO decision to deploy U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe.

For Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s government, the upsurge of a terrorist campaign directed against his nation’s major ally was a diplomatic as well as a security danger. “These acts of violence are not only attacks against our American allies,” said a government statement, “but just as much against our own security and freedom.” At stake, it continued, was “the political value and reputation of the Federal Republic.”

The attack on General Kroesen clearly seemed to be linked to the huge anti-American demonstration two days earlier in West Berlin that protested the visit of Secretary of State Alexander Haig. “The growth of anti-American rhetoric here is an irreversible invitation to further action of this kind,” commented the prestigious Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, which predicted that terrorist acts would continue. Indeed, one day after Kroesen’s escape, two explosive devices were found on a rail spur leading to the U.S. Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt. Said a police officer: “They would have blown up a train if it had passed.”

The terrorists are unlikely to gain many followers among the pacifist adherents of West Germany’s peace movement, although there is a risk that some might become sympathizers. Kroesen did his best to avoid additional fraying of U.S.—West German relations because of the incident. “I know too many German people and too much about the German character,” he said, “to think that there would be support for what we call a back shooter.” —By Frederick Painton. Reported by Roland Flamini/Bonn

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com