Daniela Klette: dog walker, dancer – and Germany’s most-wanted woman

<span>Forensic experts leave the building where Daniele Klette lived in Kreuzberg, Berlin.</span><span>Photograph: Liesa Johannssen/Reuters</span>
Forensic experts leave the building where Daniele Klette lived in Kreuzberg, Berlin.Photograph: Liesa Johannssen/Reuters

To Anna Spiering she was simply another friendly dog walker, who greeted her with a smile whenever their paths crossed in the neighbourhood, but from whose snappy crossbreed, Malaika, her dog, Harry, knew to keep a safe distance.

That was until she saw Daniela Klette’s face on TV earlier this week. “I recognised her immediately,” Spiering said, pausing on a walk with Harry down Sebastianstraße, a street in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district once divided by the Berlin Wall, adjacent to the former guard-patrolled death strip. She said it was “bizarre now to think I was swapping small talk” with an alleged terrorist.

Klette – the last female member of the Red Army Faction (RAF) terror network still on the run until her arrest at her flat on Monday evening – was known by many dog walkers in the area not by her name or her notorious past, rather as the “owner of Malaika”.

She is suspected of involvement in at least 10 armed attacks and robberies, including a gun attack on the US embassy in Bonn in 1991 and the bombing of a prison in Weiterstadt in 1993.

White-overalled forensic investigators filed out of Klette’s flat in a run-down 1950s housing block removing boxes and bags, her bike and even an anti-tank weapon, on top of the Kalashnikov rifle and a machine pistol discovered there two days before. Her neighbours – evacuated overnight due to the discovery of the weapons – were still trying to digest the news about who had been living in their midst.

Lutz Nietet, a retired metalworker who lives above Klette’s flat, believed she moved in around 2007. Although the two had had a run-in after rusty pipes in his apartment burst and caused damage to her sublet flat, she usually kept herself to herself. He recalled a boyfriend, from whom she had split up, but wondered why her name was never on the bell. “I’d seen people come and go, having lived here since 1974, and I often asked myself who she really was,” he said.

Spiering recalls an incident when Malaika bit another dog, but Klette refused to pass on her contact details to its owner. “What seemed strange at the time makes a lot of sense now that we know who she really was and that she was trying to keep her identity secret.”

Klette spent more than three decades hiding in broad daylight. She gave maths and German tutoring to school pupils in the neighbourhood, either free or for cash, and helped Turkish nationals to write letters to the authorities, neighbours said. One said she had baked biscuits for him one Christmas.

For several years she was deeply involved in a Brazilian culture centre in the district, where she practised capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines dance and fighting. There is photographic evidence she travelled to Brazil with her dance troupe; she held a falsified Italian passport. Members of the group recall a friendly, gentle but taciturn character.

It is thought that the discovery of photographs of her with her capoeira group at Berlin’s annual carnival of cultures – smiling, tossing petal confetti, a white bandana on her head – led to her identification and arrest.

Police have yet to confirm the link between the arrest and a podcast from 2023 for which an investigative journalist from the website Bellingcat put the police wanted notice of Klette from the 1990s through the AI image search tool PimEyes, which detected images of the older version of her, AKA Claudia Ivone the capoeira enthusiast, online.

So far police have only referred to a tipoff from the public received in November last year. “Owing to our discretion over our investigatory tactics, we cannot reveal how we track people,” Alexander Hege, a prosecutor, told German media when asked if it was the journalist’s finding that had led to Klette’s capture.

The police are prohibited by strict privacy laws from using similar face comparison tools, instead relying on an artist’s impression of how Klette might have looked aged 65. This has provoked scorn from within the police and from politicians, who say that due to the pressure on authorities to crack down on extremists, such restrictions are counterproductive and endanger the public.

Hitherto, Sebastianstraße was known for the 30-metre-long escape tunnel at No 82, built by East Germans trying to escape under the wall, and for Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 cult horror film Possession starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, filmed at No 87, in which, most memorably, a tentacled creature flails around the flat.

Klette was part of the so-called third generation of the RAF, the urban guerrilla group that terrorised Germany in the 70s and 80s. The group disbanded in 1998, and Klette and her two male accomplices went underground.

The RAF, also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang after its founding members, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, was behind a campaign of terror in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, involving attacks, kidnappings, bombings and murders.

The group is believed to have been responsible for 30 murders and injuring 200.

Klette was one of Germany’s most-wanted criminals. She was suspected of committing at least 10 armed robberies and at least one attempted murder between 1999 and 2016 to fund the trio’s underground existence. Police have said they will continue to search for the men still on the run, offering a €150,000 reward for information that could lead to their arrest.

Christa Missok, 88, a retired diamond polisher who lives on the sixth floor of Klette’s building, said she got to know her over about 12 years. “As I told the police, she was my neighbour and we got along. I could never have dreamed she was who she has turned out to be.” She said she thought Klette had aged suddenly in recent months.

“Once, when the pipes burst, she invited me into her flat. It was quite sparse, squalid and untidy,” she said. “I offered to give her a jacket as I knew she didn’t have much, but she never took me up on the offer.”