The Insider Threat: Far-Right Extremism in the German Military and Police.

AuthorFlade, Florian

A series of extreme far-right cases among members of Germany's military and police highlight the threat of the enemy within: radicalized extremists within security services, with access to weapons, training, and confidential information. Such individuals, and especially those who are part of groups and networks, pose a new challenge to Germany's intelligence community, which is still struggling to assess the true dimension of the threat. From police chat groups where racist, nationalist, and anti-Semitic content is being shared to a Nazi sympathizer within the special forces allegedly storing weapons and explosives to a police employee allegedly looking to help far-right terrorists plunge the country into civil war, it is clear the threat is significant. The specter of armed underground cells being trained by former or current members of the security services has been a wake-up call for authorities. New measures have already been implemented within Germany's domestic and military intelligence agencies to more effectively root out enemies of the state wearing uniforms. Nevertheless, the threat will most likely persist in the coming years. The detection and monitoring of potential terrorists among fellow servicemen and police officers is a difficult task for security services, and rooting out bad actors can be even harder--especially in times when new recruits are desperately needed. With the United States and other countries also grappling with this problem set, it is vital to share lessons learned and best practices at the international level.

On February 3, 2017, Franco Hans A., (a) a German national from Offenbach in the West German state of Hesse, entered a restroom for the disabled at Vienna-Schwechat airport and began trying to break open a maintenance shaft on one of the walls. Shortly after, a police team moved in and arrested him on terrorism charges. They had been expecting that someone would show up and pick up the gun, which had been stored in the restroom, but had no idea who it would be. A week earlier, a cleaning person had discovered the handgun hidden in a shaft in the restroom and notified the police. (1) The shaft was then outfitted with an electronic alarm system. (2)

Soon after they arrested Franco A., Austrian police found out he was a German national and an officer of the Bundeswehr (German armed forces). (b) His phone and a USB stick were confiscated and his fingerprints were taken, then Franco A. was released and sent back to Germany. Austrian investigators of the Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekampfung (BVT) then informed the German Federal Police (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA) and Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz, BfV), and the Federal Office for Military Counterintelligence Service (Bundesamt fur den Militarischen Abschirmdienst, BAMAD) about the arrest. (3)

After Franco A.'s arrest in Vienna, German police started an investigation into him but did not immediately arrest him. He was identified by German authorities as a soldier in the German military stationed with the Bundeswehr's Jagerbatallion 291 at a joint French-German military base in Illkirch, Bas-Rhin department in northeastern France. In the past, he had been flagged for possible far-right extremist views because of a master's thesis he wrote at the Special Military School of Saint-Cyr in December 2013. His thesis was rejected because of anti-Semitic and racist content. An appraiser wrote that: "In terms of type and content, the text is demonstrably not an academic qualification paper, but a radical nationalist, racist appeal, which the author tries to support in a pseudo-scientific way with some effort." Franco A. was not dismissed from military service, however. Instead, he was given the chance to write a new master's thesis. (4)

The German police investigation into Franco A. soon led to a surprise: The suspect's fingerprints matched those of a Syrian refugee registered in Germany. As it turned out, Franco A. had posed as a refugee fleeing from civil war in Syria in 2016 and had applied for asylum in Germany. He had been interviewed by the staff of the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt fur Migration und Fluchtlinge, BAMF) and had falsely claimed his name was "David Benjamin" and that he hailed from a Christian Syrian family of French descent from a small village of Tel al-Hassel near Aleppo. He also stated that he had attended a French school in Syria and was not fluent in Arabic. (5) The "false Syrian" was then granted "subsidiary protection," and German authorities even assigned him refugee accommodation in Bavaria. Franco A. regularly showed up at this accommodation while he reported ill for service at the military base in France where he was stationed. (6)

The German General Federal Prosecutor opened a case against Franco A., accusing him of planning a terrorist attack--possibly an assassination of a German politician. The prosecutor accused Franco A. of planning to use his fake identity as a Syrian refugee "to direct suspicion of asylum seekers registered in Germany after the attack." (7) According to a spokeswoman for the Federal Prosecutor's Office, the planned false-flag attack "was intended to be interpreted by the population as a radical Islamist terrorist attack by a recognised refugee...[and] would have attracted particular attention and contributed to the sense of threat." (8)

On April 27, 2017, the Federal Criminal Police (BKA) moved in and arrested Franco A. and soon afterward two additional suspects, another Bundeswehr soldier, and a university student. (c) Ammunition, grenades, and weapon parts were found during the raids. (9)

Franco A. denied any terrorist activities and claimed he had been in Vienna to attend the "Ball of the Officers" there in January 2017. According to his account, after the event he went on a boozing tour through the city and stopped to urinate outside. (10) In his telling, it was in the bushes that he then found the gun later recovered in the airport restroom, a handgun made by Manufacture d'Armes des Pyrenees Francaise, Modell 17, Calibre 7.65mm Browning. (11) This weapon used to be the pistol of choice for the German Wehrmacht soldiers in occupied France during World War II. (12) According to Franco A., he had picked the gun up, put it in his jacket, and forgotten about it. In his rendition of events, the next day when he entered the airport, he panicked about the weapon that he was carrying and decided to store it in a hidden place to pick it up at a later point. He denied any assassination plans, but BKA investigators recovered some suspicious handwritten notes, allegedly listing names of potential targets (13) as well as mobile phone video footage showing a garage in Berlin (14) used by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a German NGO named after one of the first victims of far-right violence after the reunification in Germany in 1990. (15)

The trial against Franco A. is scheduled to start at the High Court of Frankfurt am Main in May 2021. (16) Germany's General Federal Prosecutor charges him with preparing a severe state act of violence endangering the state ("Vorbereitung einer schweren, staatsgefahrdenden Gewalttat"--[section] 89a Strafgesetzbuch), violation of the gun laws, theft, and fraud. (17)

The case of Franco A. led to a series of terrorism-related investigations against current and former members of Germany's military and law enforcement agencies. Several networks and cells were uncovered that had apparently prepared for doomsday "Day X" scenarios of civil war, had been storing weapons and ammunition, and had collected information on political enemies and potential targets. (18)

As the investigations progressed, Germany's intelligence agencies became aware of extreme far-right ideology among the staff of agencies tasked to protect the state, the government, and the constitution--posing a new threat as such individuals have "access to weapons, are trained to use them and know how to avoid detection," as one German security official described it. (19)

The emerging threat of far-right extremists in the ranks of police and military has been a wake-up call for authorities and policy makers. Several high-ranking officials, including the head of the German military counterintelligence agency BAMAD, have resigned or were dismissed in recent years over allegations of not acting decisively enough to face the challenge. Germany's Parliamentary Oversight Panel (PKGr), the oversight committee for the intelligence services, has conducted an inquiry into extreme far-right activities in the German military. After two years, the members of the committee presented a report in December 2020, stating that "in the Bundeswehr and in several other security services on federal and state level (police and intelligence agencies)-despite a security screening--there are a number of public servants with an extreme far-right and violence-oriented mindset." (20)

This article examines several clusters of far-right extremist influence that have been discovered within the German military and police, before outlining how German authorities have responded and their latest diagnosis of the threat. Finally, the article assesses the evolving challenge posed by the far-right extremist insider threat. In so doing, it examines how adequate the response has been, the lessons learned in Germany that may be applicable to other countries grappling with similar problems, and the threat outlook.

Case Studies

The "Nordkreuz"" Group

Shortly after the arrest of Franco A. in Germany in April 2017, a former Bundeswehr soldier named Horst S. gave BKA investigators new insights into a loose network of former policemen, former military service members, and civilians spread across Germany that was connected through various WhatsApp, Telegram, and other messaging groups. In these chat...

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