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Franco A.: A German far-right soldier's double life

July 14, 2022

The trial of Franco A. a far-right extremist Bundeswehr soldier accused of plotting a terrorist attack while posing as a Syrian refugee ends on Friday. The bizarre saga that put new scrutiny on the German military.

Beginn Prozess Vorbereitung einer staatsgefährdenden Gewalttat
Image: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture alliance

Bundeswehr soldier Franco A.*, who has been on trial since May 2021 for preparing a "serious act of violent subversion," will face a verdict on Friday in one of the most extraordinary cases of alleged far-right terrorism in Germany in recent years.

The military officer who led a double life as a Syrian refugee has been suspected of planning to attack politicians and well-known anti-racist activists possibly hoping that the crime would be blamed on migrants.

The prosecution also accuses the 33-year-old of illegally hoarding guns, over 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and explosives, some stolen from the German military, and is calling for a prison sentence of six years and three months.

Franco A. outside the courtroom being filmed by a journalist
Franco A.'s trial has attracted a lot of media attention Image: Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture alliance

A drawn-out trial

In their concluding statements made in the Frankfurt High Court last Friday, Franco A.'s defense team argued that the state prosecutors had not proven that he was seriously planning an attack.

The two defense attorneys said that Franco A. can only be convicted of the offenses he has admitted to illegal weapons possession and fraudulently receiving state benefits as a refugee. "A sum of oddities does not make a terrorist," the defense team said. They called on the court to hand down a suspended sentence or a fine.

Addressing the court himself, Franco A. said he regretted hoarding the weapons, before pointing out that he had three children to look after and that his only ambitions now were to be a "house-husband and father."

That was belied by his statements during the trial where he made antisemitic remarks and threatened his political opponents.

Friday's verdict will bring to an end a 14-month trial that had become a saga in itself. In February this year, Franco A., who had been free until then, was ordered back in custody after a search at a train station found he was carrying a bag full of Nazi-era medals, and notebooks with swastikas inside, which he had brought back from a trip to Strasbourg, France.

How right-wing is the Bundeswehr?

In a subsequent search of his apartment, police said they found several bladed weapons, including machetes, as well as Nazi memorabilia, 21 cell phones, and a forged vaccine pass.

A case with an international dimension 

First arrested by German authorities in April 2017, Franco A. was in pretrial detention until a court ordered his release in late November 2017, as it could not ascertain an "urgent suspicion" he was preparing to commit a criminal act.

Before then, Franco A. had been apprehended by Austrian authorities as he attempted to retrieve a pistol 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 state of Hesse, Germany, was actually registered as a Syrian refugee living in Bavaria. Neither the military nor the immigration authorities had realized he had spent 15 months leading a double life. 

Austrian authorities let Franco A. go and German authorities began an undercover investigation, during which they found evidence of his far-right ideology in recordings, videos, and tens of thousands of text messages. He was charged with "preparation of a serious act of violent subversion," i.e. terrorism. 

Federal prosecutors believe the weapons were to be used in attacks on politicians and public figures who Franco A. considered to be "refugee-friendly." Authorities found lists that included the names of then-Justice Minister Heiko Maas, then-vice president of the German parliament, Claudia Roth, and Anetta Kahane, head of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a well-known anti-racism organization. 

They also found a list of potential targets and photos that Franco A. had taken around the office and in the underground car park of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. Prosecutors assume his plan was that the violent acts would be attributed to his false Syrian identity.

Bundeswehr soldiers in Illkirch
Franco A. was based in Illkrich in eastern FranceImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Florin

Bundeswehr with right-wing tendencies? 

Even before his arrest, the German military had evidence that Franco A. harbored a racist ideology. 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.

But his superiors in the Bundeswehr simply issued a warning and asked him to submit a new version of the thesis. The Bundeswehr also failed to notify the military intelligence service (MAD), which is meant to track extremists, about the incident. 

Franco A.'s case triggered an attempt to seek out more far-right networks in the German military. Then-Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen visited Franco A.'s barracks in Illkirch, where memorabilia from Germany's Nazi era had been found. 

Von der Leyen ordered all Bundeswehr barracks to be inspected and revised the so-called Traditionserlass (edict of tradition) in an attempt to further distance the current German military from the crimes of its predecessor, the Wehrmacht, during World War II. As of spring 2018, individuals from earlier German armies may only be deemed worthy of honor if they exemplify the values of today's Bundeswehr. 

The Bundeswehr has since had to deal with more scandals of alleged far-right extremism in the ranks. In July 2020, the Defense Ministry dismantled a company of the German army's elite Special Commando Forces (KSK) look the other way on missing weapons after several far-right incidents were reported. The Bundeswehr special forces later made the headlines again when it emerged that it was failing to track down missing weapons

Wehrmacht memorabilia
Memorabilia from the Wehrmacht were found in the Illkirch barracks in 2017Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Seeger

Errors by the refugee authority 

The case also brought Germany's immigration system under new scrutiny. The terrorist suspect had applied for asylum at a Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) office in November 2015 as David Benjamin, claiming to be from near Aleppo, northern Syria.

His 2016 asylum hearing was held in French, when he said he was a Christian, could speak French better than Arabic, and felt threatened in his home country. He received subsidiary protection status and started receiving benefits as an asylum seeker while continuing his full-time job as an officer several hundred kilometers away.

The BAMF later admitted "blatant mistakes" had been made during the proceedings, but did not find evidence of any "deliberate manipulation" by its own officials. The authority also carried out follow-up investigations in 2,000 cases of Syrian and Afghan refugees, and issued an all-clear regarding security standards, though it did change some procedures. 

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

Andrea Grunau contributed to this article. It has been updated continually since it was 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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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight