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“This is something new, and significantly worse”

One German soldier's fake Syrian refugee terror plot stokes fears of hidden military extremism

One German soldier’s fake Syrian refugee terror plot stokes fears of hidden military extremism

A German military officer with far-right beliefs created a fake identity as a Syrian refugee — successfully gaining political asylum and claiming monthly benefits — with the intention of carrying out a terror attack in his home country and framing it on his fictitious alter ego. The 28-year-old lieutenant, named in German media as Franco A, was arrested in the southern city of Hammelburg last Wednesday before he could carry out the attack.  

The bizarre case has sparked a political firestorm in Germany, highlighting glaring inadequacies in the country’s refugee system and prompting a sweeping probe into far-right extremism in German security forces. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has traded accusations with military chiefs over how the lieutenant was allowed to continue serving in the military even though his extremist views had been known to higher-ups for years.

The lieutenant in Germany’s armed forces, or Bundeswehr, initially came to the attention of authorities in February when he was detained by Austrian police at Vienna airport trying to recover a loaded, unregistered firearm he had stashed in a toilet days earlier. Subsequent investigations into the lieutenant, who is based at a French-German military base near Strasbourg, revealed he had created the refugee persona.

Prosecutors say that Franco A had extreme right-wing views and, along with a 24-year-old student who was arrested the same day, was plotting a terror attack with the apparent intention of framing it on a Syrian refugee.

Von der Leyen, who canceled a planned trip to the U.S. to focus on the investigation, has been critical that Franco A’s superiors took no action after he wrote a 2014 master’s thesis at a German military academy arguing that immigration was causing a “genocide” in Western Europe. “We have to ask, systematically, how someone with such clear right-wing extremist views, who writes a master’s paper with clearly nationalistic ideas … was able to continue to pursue a career in the Bundeswehr,” she said to reporters.

“This is something new, and significantly worse.”

The German armed forces association responded by saying that if the minister thinks there’s a leadership problem, “then one must of course say leadership comes from the top down.”

Von der Leyen doubled down on her criticism when she visited the officer’s home base near Strasbourg Wednesday and found that memorabilia from the Wehrmacht — the German armed forces during the Nazi era — was on display in a common room.

Faced with a strong backlash, von der Leyen conceded that she bore “responsibility for everything that happens in the Bundeswehr.”

The Bundeswehr’s right-wing extremism problem

Reports of pockets of right-wing extremism within Germany’s military are nothing new, says Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But this is the first time a soldier has been caught allegedly plotting a deadly terror attack, and the incident has caused shockwaves in Germany. “This is something new, and significantly worse,” said Gressel.

Franco A’s arrest comes just weeks after the Defense Ministry revealed that the military counterintelligence agency was investigating 275 suspected right-wing extremists in the forces, stemming from incidents in which soldiers made Nazi salutes, made racist comments, and in one case, said, “Heil Hitler.” Public displays of Nazi symbols and salutes are illegal in Germany.

Gressel said the growing problem within the military reflected an escalation of right-wing militancy in German society at large, as the country grapples with a historic influx of migrants, predominantly from Muslim countries. According to the most recent data from Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, violent crimes committed by right-wing extremists rose by 42 percent from 2014 to 2015, with crimes against foreigners hitting the highest level since the report began, in 2001.

“You can see similar things with post-Soviet security forces — whether you go to Russia, to Belarus, or even Ukraine — there are affinities toward Stalinist glorification.”

Gressel compared the situation to the escalation of far-right activity, including frequent arson attacks, in the early 1990s following an influx of migrants from the Balkans.

He said he believed that some of von der Leyen’s criticism was valid in that superiors did not appear to have taken sufficient action once the officer’s political views were known. But based on his dealings with the Bundeswehr, he believed the problem did not reflect a broader culture across the German military and was limited to small pockets of extremists, as can be found in other militaries.

“You can see similar things with post-Soviet security forces — whether you go to Russia, to Belarus, or even Ukraine — there are affinities toward Stalinist glorification.”

The Bundeswehr has been struggling to recruit adequate manpower since a policy of compulsory military service was dropped in 2011. Since then, there’s been concern about the profile of people drawn to military service. Gressel said there were ideological factors that could draw people with far-right political views to the military, which had an ethos of deep patriotism and a strictly authoritarian structure.

He noted similar concerns about far-right sympathizers among the country’s police force, with police announcing last year they were investigating into their own ranks for members of the Reichsbürger movement ­— a fringe and increasingly violent right-wing movement that rejects the legitimacy of the Federal Republic of Germany and holds that the German Reich continues to exist according to its 1937 borders. German officials are increasingly concerned about the radicalization of the movement following the fatal shooting of a police officer by a Reichsbürger in October.

The Bundeswehr plot comes after last month’s bomb attack targeting the football club Borussia Dortmund’s team bus, which also involved misleading authorities to implicate Islamist terrorists. Police initially suspected an Islamist motive after letters were found at the scene referencing the caliphate, but they later arrested a speculator who they say had hoped to profit from the bombing if it drove down the price of shares in the team.

Cover: Soldiers of German special naval forces with their machine guns are pictured during a visit of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen at the German army "Bundeswehr" in Kiel, Germany April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer.

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