Germany’s first-ever false flag far-right terror trial begins on Thursday, as former soldier Franco A.*, thought to be part of a wider conspiracy in the armed forces, stands accused of plotting “a serious act of violence endangering the state,” as well as fraud and illegally possessing weapons and explosives. The case sparked scrutiny of a network of far-right extremists in the German military.
Prosecutors say the 32-year-old Bundeswehr officer took weapons and explosives from the German army to carry out an attack on targets including high-ranking politicians.
In early February 2017, Franco A., already a career soldier in the German army, was apprehended by Austrian authorities as he attempted to retrieve a French pistol and ammunition that he had hidden in a bathroom at Vienna airport.
After checking his fingerprints in a database, authorities discovered that the man, born the son of an Italian father and a German mother in the Hesse region of Germany, was actually registered as a Syrian refugee living in Bavaria. Despite the fact that he spoke hardly any Arabic and was supposed to be serving full-time at a Bundeswehr base in Alsace, nobody had realized he was leading a double life.
Explosive weapons find
Austrian authorities let Franco A. go and German authorities began an undercover investigation. Germany’s military intelligence agency, MAD, was also informed. Authorities found evidence of right-wing extremist sentiment in recordings, videos, and tens of thousands of texts on messaging services used by Franco A.
He was arrested in February 2018 and accused of “Preparation of a serious act of violent subversion,” i.e. suspicion of terrorism.
Federal prosecutors believe the pistol and ammunition in Vienna, as well as further weapons and explosives, were to be used in attacks on “the lives of high-ranking politicians and public figures”that Franco A. considered to be “refugee friendly.” Authorities found lists with the names of then-Justice Minister Heiko Maas, vice president of the German parliament, Claudia Roth, and human rights activist Anetta Kahane, among others. Authorities assume his plan was that the violent acts would be attributed to his false Syrian identity.
Was the Bundeswehr too lax?
In 2017, First Lieutenant Franco A. was a member of the French-German 291st Infantry Battalion stationed in Illkirch, near Strasbourg. Before becoming a soldier he handed in a master’s thesis at a French military academy about “race-mixing,” and the “dissolution of ethnic groups.” In 2014, the French warned their German colleagues about the man’s right-wing ideological bent, a German historian concurred with the French assessment.
But his superiors in the Bundeswehr simply issued a warning, and he submitted a new version of the thesis. The Bundeswehr also failed to notify the MAD about the incident.
Defense minister takes action
Germany’s then-Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, initially reacted to the scandal by condemning what she called a “false understanding of esprit de corps.” She then visited Franco A.’s barracks in Illkirch, accompanied by journalists from Berlin, where a hand-painted swastika as well as memorabilia from Germany’s Nazi-era army, the Wehrmacht, had been found.
The defense minister ordered all Bundeswehr barracks to be inspected and decided to revise the so-called Traditionserlass (edict of tradition) in an attempt to distance the current German Bundeswehr from the war crimes of its Wehrmacht predecessor.
As of spring 2018, individuals from earlier armies may only be deemed worthy of honor if they exemplify the values of today’s Bundeswehr.
More awareness for right-wing extremist tendencies
“In the wake of the case of Franco A.,” a MAD spokesperson told DW, “MAD has registered an increase in reports of right-wing extremism since the summer of 2017.”
Some 379 new cases of suspected right-wing extremist activity were reported in 2017 — from displaying anti-constitutional symbols and using aggressive racist slogans, to supposed membership in prohibited organizations. Six people in the Bundeswehr were deemed extremists in 2017; Franco A. was likely one of them.
The Bundeswehr has since remained in the headlines for alleged right-wing extremism in the ranks. In July 2020, the Defense Ministry dismantled a company of the German army’s elite Special Commando Forces (KSK) after several far-right incidentswere reported. Earlier this year, the Bundeswehr special forces made the headlines again for failing to track down missing weapons.
Errors by the refugee authority
Franco A.’s case remains unique, however. In November 2015, Franco A. applied for asylum at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) as David Benjamin, an alleged Syrian national from near Aleppo.
His 2016 asylum hearing was held in French. He had said he was a Christian, could speak French better than Arabic, and felt threatened in his home country. He received subsidiary protection and started receiving benefits as an asylum seeker, in addition to his full-time job as a professional soldier in Alsace, 300 kilometers (186 miles) away.
The refugee office later admitted “blatant mistakes” had been made at every stage of the proceedings, but did not find evidence of any “deliberate manipulation.”
The BAMF later carried out follow-up investigations in 2,000 cases of Syrian and Afghan refugees, and issued an all-clear regarding security standards.
The AfD and sharing the blame
After Franco A.’s arrest, his affiliations began to emerge, thanks to research by the taz newspaper among others. Maximilian T., his friend and fellow soldier in the Bundeswehr, was drawn into the investigation, as well as Matthias F., a friend from Franco A’s hometown of Offenbach.
The warrant against Matthias F. was later withdrawn because, according to federal prosecutors, he had “admitted to broad criminal charges during days of interrogation.”
Maximilian T., who was stationed in Illkirch with Franco A., has been out of police custody since last July. The federal court said it did not see an urgent reason to keep him detained. He has returned to serving in the military.
His case has caused a stir because he also works part-time for AfD parliamentarian Jan Nolte. The MP told DW in 2018 he saw Maximilian T. as a “victim of a politically motivated attack.” Nolte, along with other AfD members, has made a request to parliament for the findings of the case surrounding Franco A., in which the defense minister is sharply criticized. The government has noted that the investigation is not yet completed, but so far there are no indications of a right-wing extremist network within the Bundeswehr.
Franco A. was in pretrial detention for seven months. In late November 2017, the federal court ordered he be released after finding there was “no urgent suspicion” he was preparing to commit a criminal act against the state. He had previously been banned from wearing his uniform and was discharged from service. He remains at home, though is required to regularly check in with the authorities and half his salary is being withheld.
The courts started working through more than 60 files of material that turned out to be complicated and contradictory — a frequent problem in the case surrounding Franco A.
The start of the trial was delayed several times over questions about which court was competent to hear the case. It is now scheduled to last until August. If convicted, Franco A. could face up to 10 years in prison.
This article has been translated from German. It is an updated version of an article first published in 2018.
+Editor’s note: DW follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.
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