Germany's domestic intelligence agency was put on the defensive Monday, amid questions of how a neo-Nazi group that it had been aware of in 1998 could have slipped from its radar and carried out a series of bank robberies and at least 10 murders.
The activities of far-right extremists in Germany have produced a thick chapter in the annual report of the nation's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution since the 1960s.
Yet despite all the details on membership, crimes committed, structure and even fashion sense of such groups, the authorities were scrambling for information on the Zwickau-based trio calling itself the Nationalist Socialist Underground. Federal prosecutors are now calling it a domestic terror organization suspected of murdering eight Turks and one Greek from 2000 to 2006 and fatally shooting a policewoman in 2007.
In a statement issued Monday, the office insisted that it had no information regarding the whereabouts of the three members _ two of whom are now dead in apparent suicides _ since last tracking them in 1998.
The third, identified as 36-year-old Beate Z., was formally arrested late Sunday on charges of co-founding and belonging to a terror organization. She is further alleged to have set fire to a house used by the group in an effort to destroy evidence, but has refused to speak with police since turning herself in last week.
Police have been sifting through the remains of that home in the eastern city of Zwickau, near the Czech border, that she is believed to have torched on Nov. 4. That was the same day that the two other suspects Uwe B. and Uwe M. were found dead in a mobile home in the eastern German city of Eisenach, 110 miles (175 kilometers) west of Zwickau.
In the mobile home, investigators also found the service weapons of the two police officers attacked by the group in 2007, when a 22-year-old policewoman was fatally shot in the head and a fellow officer was seriously wounded.
A fourth suspect belonging to the group, identified as Holger G., 37, was brought before a judge Monday and ordered detained. He is believed to have supported the group, including helping to facilitate the 2007 attack in the western city of Heilbronn that killed a policewoman and seriously injured another.
Many Germans are asking themselves how the group, which allegedly included far-right extremists who were known to authorities, could have succeeded in carrying out crimes undetected for so many years.
Chancellor Angela Merkel called it "a shame for Germany" and vowed at a party conference in Leipzig to "do everything possible" to clarify the case, "to bring justice to the people."
The widening case has sparked a fierce debate over the government's ability to protect the millions of immigrants who call Germany home, even as it seeks to attract more skilled workers from abroad.
"I find it shocking that our country was not capable of protecting 10 innocent people from a band of far-right terrorists," said Thomas Oppermann, a senior lawmaker with the opposition Social Democrats. He noted that Merkel's government has slashed the budget to fight far-right extremism in recent years.
Authorities in the western state of North-Rhine-Westphalia also said they believed the group could be responsible for an attack on a 19-year-old Iranian-German in Cologne. The young woman survived with injuries and the case was never resolved, state authorities said.
Ralf Jaeger, interior minister for North-Rhine-Westphalia, said analysis of a DVD believed to have been complied by the group led authorities to link that January 2001 attack to the extremist.
"We are now going back over all unsolved crimes for which we previously had no motive, to determine whether they might have been caused by a far-right motive, based on tips from the DVD," Jaeger said, according to the news agency dapd.
Still shots of the video published in Der Spiegel on Monday showed a cartoon stoplight with the acronym "NSU" next to a faked advertisement reading "Today kebab action" _ a possible reference to many of the victims' Turkish origins. Another still depicted an image of a proud Pink Panther next to a placard with "Germany Tour, 9th Turk Shot" blazed over a map of Germany and a photo of a dark-haired main. Yet another image showed a slain victim.