One year ago, a right-wing extremist German army officer was arrested on suspicion of terrorism, then it was discovered he was also leading a double life as a Syrian refugee. The case is anything but closed.
"At first I just couldn't believe it," Christof Gramm, head of the Military Counter-Intelligence Service (MAD) told the German weekly magazine Spiegel in 2017: "We've never had a case like this in the counter-extremism program at MAD." In early February 2017, Franco A., a career soldier in the German army, the Bundeswehr, was apprehended by Austrian authorities as he attempted to retrieve a French pistol and ammunition that he had hidden in a bathroom at the 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 and 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. 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. On February 26, he was arrested. The most serious charge: "Preparation of a serious act of violent subversion," e.g. suspicion of terrorism.
Federal prosecutors are still operating under the assumption that 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 career soldier he handed in a master's thesis containing right-wing extremist ideology at a French military academy. In the thesis, he wrote about "race mixing," and the "dissolution of ethnic groups." In 2014, the French warned their colleagues about the man's right-wing ideological bent, a German historian concurred with the French assessment.
Nevertheless, 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 Military Counter-Intelligence Service about the incident.
Defense minister takes action
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. There they found a hand-painted swastika near his weapon as well as memorabilia from Germany's Nazi-era army, the Wehrmacht.
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 it 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.
Read more: Opinion: A Bundeswehr with moral courage
More awareness for right-wing extremist tendencies
"In the wake of the case of Franco A.," as a spokesperson for the Military Counter-Intelligence Service 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.
Errors by the refugee authority
In November 2015, Franco A. had 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. 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.
In the case of "Franco A." BAMF head Jutta Cordt spoke of "blatant mistakes" at every stage of the proceedings. She said there was no evidence of any "deliberate manipulation." The official who heard Franco A.'s case is said to have been a soldier. After the false Syrian asylum seeker became known, BAMF carried out follow-up investigations in 2,000 cases in Syria and Afghanistan and issued an all-clear regarding security standards.
The AfD and sharing the blame
After Franco A.'s arrest, his affiliations became more clear. 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 home town 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 he sees 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, 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.
A decision on prosecutors' charges was originally supposed to be made by the end of March, but Frankfurt's Higher Regional Court is working through more than 60 files of material that is often complicated and contradictory — a frequent problem in the case surrounding Franco A. In a story rife with confusion, mystery and drama, prosecutors are looking to paint as exact a picture as possible.