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Defense minister probes terrorism scandal

May 3, 2017

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has traveled to Illkirch, France, in response to a far-right terror scandal. An army officer stationed there is suspected of posing as a refugee in order to carry out attacks.

Frankreich  Illkirch-Graffenstaden Bundeswehr Soldaten vom Jägerbataillon 291
Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Florin

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was welcomed by soldiers stationed at the shared Franco-German military installation in Illkirch, where 28-year-old arrested suspect Franco A. had been most recently stationed. She was accompanied on the visit by Inspector-General Volker Wieker.

Von der Leyen said her visit was only the beginning of a long-term investigation. She spoke to soldiers and visited Franco A.'s quarters.

"We need to have a no-holds-barred investigation, and I say this also with a view to other incidents in recent weeks where people were bullied, where they were denigrated, which won't be tolerated under any circumstances," she said.

The defense minister also highlighted that the investigation had to initially focus on establishing whether vital information on Franco A.'s far-right views could have slipped through any cracks. Von der Leyen has recently been criticized for her lackluster reaction to a number of scandals plaguing the German defense forces.

"I respect the vast majority of soldiers, and we all are proud of them," von der Leyen said, adding that this was why it was important to "dig deeper, wherever something goes wrong."

Von der Leyen announced that there would be a critical review of the disciplinary code of the German military. The Federal Prosecutor's Office is now investigating the case on grounds of suspicion of a planned act of violence.

Karte Erding Illkirch ENG

A military plot

Franco A. is alleged to have posed as a Syrian refugee for months in order to infiltrate a number of targets and carry out violent attacks. According to "Die Welt" newspaper, Franco A.'s targets included a refugee home in the state of Bavaria, Justice Minister Heiko Maas, former German President Joachim Gauck, the Central Council of Jews as well as the Central Council of Muslims.

It remains unclear whether he had accomplices. A 24-year-old student from the soldier's hometown of Offenbach was also arrested in the case. At the barracks in Illkirch, where Franco A. was stationed, investigators also found an assault rifle with a swastika etched into its side as well as numerous notes scribbled with extremist messages.

Frankreich Bundesverteidigungsministerin Ursula von der Leyen in Illkirch
Von der Leyen said she respected the "vast majority of soldiers," but her previous comments had disturbed the militaryImage: Reuters/V. Kessler

The case of Lieutenant Franco A. came to the attention of authorities when he was arrested in February 2017 for hiding a weapon in a bathroom at the Vienna Airport. Upon his release, Austrian authorities informed their German counterparts of the incident. A fingerprint match showed he had registered as a refugee, claiming financial aid.

The revelations about the first lieutenant sent shockwaves through Germany, especially when after it was disclosed that Franco A.'s extremist views had first been observed back in 2014, when he had submitted an inflammatory master's thesis at the French military academy of Saint-Cyr.

The problem of right-wing extremism among soldiers

The document, which according to von der Leyen espoused racist views, was later equally dismissed by German assessors for its extremist content. He was reportedly given an official warning at the time.

German Defense Ministry spokesman Boris Nannt said the views Franco A's expressed in the thesis were "very drastic, very strongly worded," adding that it had been a "mistake" to issue only a warning without escalating the incident.

"If you look at that incident and put it into the context of today then it's surprising that the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD) wasn't called," Nannt told reporters.

MAD is currently investigating a total of 280 cases of suspected far-right extremism in the military, according to Nannt. In the past four years, 18 soldiers have been discharged from the military for their radical views. The German military has some 178,000 active duty personnel in total.

Merkel backs von der Leyen

The arrest of the soldier suspected of plotting the far-right attack has put added pressure on Germany's defense minister, who has already been under fire over a series of sexual abuse and degradation cases within the country's armed forces. Her recent comments on these cases saying that parts of the military were lacking "leadership" were not well-received.

Von der Leyen planned scheduled meetings with the heads of Germany's armed forces on May 4 to discuss the case of Franco A. as well as the separate investigations abuse within military ranks.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has, meanwhile, expressed her support for von der Leyen. Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said the defense minister had "the full support of the chancellor and the entire government in her effort to clarify all aspects of Franco A's case concerning the Bundeswehr."

Berlin investigating right-wing extremism in army

ss/sms (AFP, AP, dpa, epd)