Lack of Competence in Online Investigations

On August 26, 2020, during the seventh day of the Halle trial, several investigators from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) who investigated the accused’s online activities were questioned.

On August 26, 2020, during the seventh day of the Halle trial, several investigators from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) who investigated the accused’s online activities were questioned. Obvious failures in these investigations became apparent thereby.

The trial day began with the interrogation of the principal of the elementary school at which the mother of the defendant, Claudia B., worked. This interrogation was intended to show how the principal perceived Claudia B. and her son. The 58-year-old woman reported that she had an exclusively professional relationship with the ethics teacher, Claudia B., who was always a reliable and good teacher in her eyes. However, she noticed behavioral changes in the summer before the crime: Claudia B. became irritable and sensitive and told a colleague that she had an ill feeling that something bad was about to happen. Since the crime, the elementary school principal has been preoccupied with the thought of whether this statement had anything to do with the crime which came later on. Likewise, the mother’s account during one coffee break, that her son finally found a new hobby and was being taught welding by his brother-in-law, now appeared to her in a different light.

Later in the day, five witnesses were questioned, all of whom were employed by the BKA with the task of investigating the accused’s online activities. This gave rise to doubts about the competence of the police forces in this field and about the relevance of their investigation methods. On several occasions, questions from the joint plaintiffs’ representatives revealed that alleged investigation results, for example about the functioning of image boards or the content shared on them, were merely copied from other reports or public articles. Although the reports suggested, for example, that the investigators themselves visited and researched image boards as part of their investigation, they later admitted that this was not the case or was only very superficially done. Attempts to find out where the information in their reports actually came from proved futile as well. Some witnesses were unable to remember which colleagues were responsible, to whose findings they referred, or stated that they might need explicit permission to reveal their names. 

Central themes were the defendant’s activities on the gaming platform Steam, his networking on image boards and the reception of his actions there, as well as the documents that he personally posted online in which he presented his weapons and ideology in order to motivate imitators. The accused spent hundreds of hours in the past years on Stream, using various first-person shooters and participating in role-playing games. However, exact information regarding his networking there and with whom he chatted and communicated could not be provided. Further investigations were not carried out after an initial inquiry to the platform operator, according to which many relevant data had not been collected or had already been deleted.

The operator of the “Meguca” image board, on which the accused published the link to his livestream of the alleged crime, was identified by journalists. Thereafter, the operator was merely addressed by an e-mail, to which he only supplied the answer that no more data on the accused is available, following which the investigation was no longer pursued.

A young BKA official described how long the accused worked on his propaganda materials: In the course of the investigation, it was discovered that the first versions of his propaganda leaflets were written as early as the end of March 2019. This matches the accused’s statement that the Christchurch attack on March 15 finally led to his decision to commit the crime.

Another investigator commented on the connection between the two attacks: He evaluated the writings of both assassins and found few similarities. He admitted that he was not familiar with the concept of image boards or right-wing extremist ideas such as the “Great Exchange” before this investigation. He thus came to the faulty assessment that there was little congruence in the writings of the two right-wing extremists and that the Christchurch attacker was only latently antisemitic. 

On the same day of the trial, a report was read out on possible Bitcoin donations and financial supporters of the attack: In a document, the accused claimed to have received a 0.1 Bitcoin donation from a person called “Mark”, which he was to use for an attack. According to BKA investigations, no such transactions could be identified on two Bitcoin addresses assigned to the accused. With the support of the FBI, “Mark” was identified as the 28-year-old Mark M. from Brooklyn, who had acted as moderator of several image boards. There had been no evidence of contact between him and the accused, so the accused’s account could be neither proven nor refuted.

The trial day ended with a dispute between the representatives of the joint plaintiffs: When attorney Kristin Pietrzyk questioned a witness in more detail regarding his faulty assessment of the text as not antisemitic, she was interrupted first by attorney Assia Lewin and then by attorney Jan Siebenhüner: Siebenhüner called for an intervention stating that German criminal law is about evaluating the individual guilt of an accused. He asked that questions that had nothing to do with this should be dropped. He was supported in his demand by the presiding judge, Mertens: “The ideological background of the crime should not be given too much attention. The ideas of the accused or other right-wing terrorists could not be dealt with here in a meaningful manner in any case”. Dr. Kati Lang, attorney, strongly disagreed with this: It is essential to deal with these ideas, not least because they have led to six million deaths in Germany. If the BKA made mistakes or investigators dealt with things for which their competence is questionable, this must be addressed.

Attorney Alexander Hoffmann also contradicted Siebenhüner’s remarks, according to which the social background of the alleged crime did not require more in-depth attention: Precisely because it is a matter of evaluating the guilt of the accused, it is essential to reveal his motivation, role models and the intended impact of the crime.