Police tend to view the more than two dozen bombings in West Germany in the past two months as a sign of terrorist weakness rather than strength. They say the Red Army Faction terrorists (Baader-Meinhof Gang) probably could not today duplicate the kind of spectacular kidnappings and murders of three leading public figures that it staged at its height in 1977.
But other officials warn that with fewer than an estimated 20 hard-core RAF members and 200 supporters still at large, the group maintains a capability for recurrent surges of violence like the present one against fairly open public sites.
President Herbert Hellenbroich of the Verfassungsschutz (with responsibilities comparable to some of those of the FBI) has been publicly stressing the first, more positive interpretation. Interior Ministry Secretary of State Carl-Dieter Spranger has been publicly stressing the second, more somber interpretation.
In the wave of West German bombings, no one has been killed except for the presumed setter of one bomb that went off prematurely in Stuttgart Jan. 20. The man, Johannes Thimme, had served two prison sentences totaling three years for membership in a terrorist organization.
Targets have included a United States Army communications center, a NATO school in Oberammergau, a French military building, the Lower Saxony Interior Ministry, and various business offices. The last known terrorist attempt to stage a murder or abduction of a public figure was the failed attempt on US Army Gen. Frederick Kroesen in 1981.
What is conspicuously absent in the current bombings is the coherent political plan of the first Baader-Meinhof generation -- as well as its impenetrable inner leadership and the elaborate underground preparation that made the 1970s terrorism so hard for the police to crack.
The late Ulrike Meinhof, the original brains of the RAF, had specific political goals; she sought to radicalize society by goading the government into police repression that would alienate the population. As RAF terror escalated from violence against buildings to violence against people, the attempt backfired, however. The public found terrorism itself far more repugnant than police countermeasures. Internal RAF debates in the late 1970s indicated the leaders were still concerned about this public alienation. But RAF papers found since the arrest of the then leaders Christian Klar, Brigitte Mohnhaupt, and Adelheid Schulz in 1982 (and presumably also information from police infiltrators of the less-and-less tightly knit organization) display a fixation on attacking ``centers of imperialism'' with little consideration of the political impact of such attacks. In this drive the RAF papers project hopes of opening a European front with other terrorists.
So far, the only evidence of active RAF coordination with terrorists across borders, however, seems to be with the French ``Direct Action.'' RAF links with Palestinian terrorists have reportedly dwindled, while close links have not been established with the Italian Red Brigades, the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army, or the Basque Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna.
Internally, the RAF papers also indicate that there is no longer a recognized hierarchy within the RAF; decisions on actions seem to be taken ``collectively.''
The lack of thorough 1970s-style preparation for the current bombings is evident not only in the premature explosion of the Stuttgart bomb that was wheeled to the site in a baby carriage. It is also evident in the lack of cover for the latest generation of bomb-planters. The attempt on the NATO school in Oberammergau in December -- the bomb was defused by guards before it exploded -- was the one bombing operation apparently carried out by underground ``commandos.'' Even in this case the driver of the car in which the bomb was placed -- he has since been arrested -- was living above ground, under his own name. All the other two dozen bombings were apparently carried out by above-ground fringe groups.