German Army rocked by right-wing extremism revelations

To what extent is the German Army – the Bundeswehr – a home for far-right sentiments? This disconcerting question has dominated the German political debate since last week’s arrest of Franco A. Apparently motivated by far-right ideology, the 28-year-old Lieutenant is suspected of having planned attacks on politicians, civil society institutions, and Jewish and Muslim representatives while seeking to make it appear as if refugees were to be held responsible.

A far-right backstory

Franco A., who is a member of the Franco-German Brigade stationed in Illkirch in the French Alsace region, has a history of engagement with far-right ideas. The young man’s master’s thesis – submitted at the French elite military academy of Saint-Cyr in 2014 – was marked by an obvious adherence to right-wing extremist and racial ideologies.

His professors notified their German colleagues, whose evaluation of the thesis came to the same conclusions: an internal Bundeswehr document noted that the text was “not a work for an academic degree but rather a radical nationalist, racist call for action”.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article164193275/Die-voelkisch-rassistische-Masterarbeit-des-Franco-A.html ))

Nevertheless, his superiors still reached the conclusion that any doubts about the soldier’s fitness for service and about his politico-ideological convictions could be “excluded”. As a result, no further steps were taken and his disciplinary file remained unsullied.(( https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article164193275/Die-voelkisch-rassistische-Masterarbeit-des-Franco-A.html ))

A second identity as a refugee

In light of Franco A.’s brinksmanship, the following events read like an adventure tale. In late 2015, he approached local authorities in Bavaria under the pseudonym ‘David Benjamin’ and, claiming that he was a green grocer from Damascus, sought asylum in Germany.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-offizier-unter-terrorverdacht-das-bizarre-doppelleben-des-franco-a-a-1145166.html ))

Inexplicably enough, over the following months he managed to lead a double life by commuting back and forth between his refugee shelter in Bavaria and his barracks in Alsace. And even more remarkable is the fact that, although he spoke hardly any Arabic, he not only managed to demand legal protection in Germany – he also obtained it.

Whilst this casts an extremely bad light on the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), Franco A. prepared meticulously for his role by questioning fellow soldiers who had helped out at the Office at the height of the so-called refugee crisis in late 2015 and early 2016. In this way, he appears to have obtained valuable insider information on the conduct of asylum procedures and hearings.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/franco-a-soll-bundeswehr-kollegen-vor-asylantrag-ausgefragt-haben-a-1146248.html ))

Run-in with the police at Vienna Airport

Subsequently, Franco A. – together with an accomplice who has also been arrested but whose role remains unclear – began collecting weapons and ammunition. He had hidden an old pistol in the cleaning shaft of the toilet facilities of Vienna’s international airport. The weapon was discovered; and A. was briefly detained when attempting to recuperate it in February 2017.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-offizier-unter-terrorverdacht-das-bizarre-doppelleben-des-franco-a-a-1145166.html ))

The Austrians tipped off their German counterparts, who began a surveillance operation. Over the following weeks and months, ample materials testifying to A.’s far-right views were collected. Investigators reached the conclusion that A. and some of his confidants might be planning an attack.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-offizier-unter-terrorverdacht-das-bizarre-doppelleben-des-franco-a-a-1145166.html ))

This premonition appeared justified when, following the arrests of A. and one of his accomplices, investigators uncovered a large stash of ammunition, most of which was taken from Bundeswehr depots.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-soldat-franco-a-hortete-1000-schuss-munition-a-1146177.html ))

Accomplices and targets

The size of the Lieutenant’s network is as of now unclear. The weapons were stored by fellow soldier Matthias F. in the central German city of Offenbach.(( http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-soldat-franco-a-hortete-1000-schuss-munition-a-1146177.html )) A blacklist of potential targets for assassinations appears to have been compiled by Franco A. together with at least one other accomplice, Maximilian T., who served together with Franco A. in the Alsace-based battalion.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-05/bundeswehr-franco-a-mitwisser-angela-merkel-ursula-von-der-leyen ))

The blacklist seems like a compilation of all political actors A. and his followers despised: targets include former German President Joachim Gauck, current Minister of Justice Heiko Maas, Green party politician Claudia Roth, as well as Bodo Ramelow, Minister President of the state of Thuringia and leading member of the Left party.

Yet the list also mentioned civil society institutions, such as the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, the most important foundation seeking justice for the victims of far-right and neo-Nazi violence; as well as the Central Council of Jews and the Central Council of Muslims.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-05/bundeswehr-franco-a-mitwisser-angela-merkel-ursula-von-der-leyen ))

A larger issue

The extent to which the conspirators’ deliberations amounted to a coherent plan or just to a megalomaniacal laundry list of unreachable targets needs to be uncovered by further investigations. Yet even so, the events surrounding Franco A. cast an exceedingly negative light on the Lieutenant’s environment in Germany’s armed forces.

Not only was A.’s master’s thesis not seen as a cause for a concern (critics would say that it was, in fact, swept under the rug). Army inspectors also visited the Lieutenant’s barracks in French Illkirch, only to report that they had found swastikas drawn on the barracks’ walls as well as on an assault rifle. They also noted that the buildings contained a range of memorabilia from the Wehrmacht, the National Socialist predecessor of the current German Bundeswehr.(( http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2017-05/bundeswehr-verteidigungsministerin-ursula-von-der-leyen-usa-reise ))

Extremism in the Bundeswehr

The Bundeswehr has repeatedly had to struggle with allegations of unsavoury behaviour in its ranks. Over the past few months, a string of sexual harassment scandals have rocked the Army. Moreover, the armed forces have faced repeated accusations that they are too lenient vis-à-vis right-wing extremism.

The military intelligence agency (Militärischer Abschirmdienst, MAD) is currently investigating 280 cases of potentially far-right and neo-Nazi soldiers. Yet the treatment of these affairs is long-winded and the number of unreported cases potentially considerably higher.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/rechtsextremismus-in-der-bundeswehr-wenn-der-soldat-den-hitlergruss-zeigt-1.3493827 ))

In fact, an overriding concern in recent years had been the possibility that Islamists might join the armed forces in order to gain military training or even battlefield experience. This is, to be sure, a risk: from 2007 to 2016, 24 soldiers with Islamist leanings were identified by the MAD.(( https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/bundeswehr-islamisten-101.html )) Nevertheless, against the backdrop of the case of Franco A., this strong focus on Islamists looks like a major blunder on the part of the military and intelligence leadership.

Political repercussions

These events have placed considerable pressure on the German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen. Widely dubbed as a potential successor to Chancellor Merkel in her CDU Party, von der Leyen took up the Ministry of Defence after the last federal election in 2013 in order to gain political clout.

At the same time, the Ministry is famed for being “ungovernable”.(( http://www.dw.com/de/schleudersitz-verteidigungsministerium/a-16889658 )) Successive corruption affairs, as well as managerial incompetence have long plagued the German defence portfolio, including during von der Leyen’s tenure. Yet no scandal has developed into such a threat to von der Leyen’s position as the case of Franco A.

The Minister initially took a strikingly bold stance, attesting the army an “attitude problem” and “leadership weaknesses”. However, a backlash from within the CDU forced von der Leyen to apologise for these utterances, seen as tarnishing the work of thousands of committed soldiers. Others questioned von der Leyen’s ability to actually control her own ministry and the armed forces. (( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/bundeswehr-skandal-nur-merkel-verteidigt-von-der-leyen-1.3492235 ))

Growing militancy of the German far right

The case involving Franco A. is only the latest indication of growing militancy on the part of the German far-right. Answering to an information request by a Left party MP, the federal government has just published new data showing that more and more known far-right activists are acquiring weapons, with numbers nearly doubling between 2014 and early 2017.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/news/politik/waffen-750-rechtsextreme-besitzen-legal-schusswaffen-dpa.urn-newsml-dpa-com-20090101-170506-99-343300 ))

In recent months, the German National Day celebrations were have been overshadowed by bomb blasts and far-right agitation. More generally, the incidence of xenophobic hate crimes has skyrocketed with the ‘refugee crisis’ has remained high ever since.

On the backs of refugees

The fact that Franco A. sought to pass himself off as a Syrian grocer is also indicative of a scapegoating mechanism that seeks to paint refugees as the originators of violence. In this respect, the presence of refugees is instrumentalised to carry out agendas of violent action.

These agendas need not necessarily be political. A particularly striking case in this regard was the recent bomb attack on the team bus of the Borussia Dortmund football team. The perpetrator placed three letters at the scene in which the so-called Islamic State appeared to claim responsibility.

Investigators later found, however, that the man had most likely sought to make large financial gains on the stock market by speculating on a dramatic fall in the football clubs’ share prices in the aftermath of his attack.(( https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-04-21/german-soccer-team-attacker-hoped-to-profit-from-share-slump ))

The many faces of violent extremism in Finland

Whereas violent attacks motivated by religious terrorism have over and over again targeted several European countries in the recent years, Finland has factually remained safe and secure. However, in a news article on national security that was published shortly after the most recent attack on civilians in Stockholm, a representative of Finnish Security Intelligence Service (SUPO) noted that factors that used to safeguard Finland are breaking down.

The change can be observed affecting the general public. A recent survey conducted by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE says that a fear of a danger of violence and terrorism has increased among Finnish people, and that this change in attitudes is particular since in early April a radicalized asylum seeker crashed a truck into the entrance of a shopping mall in Sweden’s capital, a heinous act that was very similar to previous attacks in Nice and Berlin in 2016. According to the survey’s results, Finnish perception of potential threats to the country due to growing strength of global extremist movements and due to terror have bypassed the threat image of economic downturn when compared to perceptions before the Stockholm attack.

Finnish media’s recent reports on jihadist networks in the country and the on-going discussions on the central mosque project’s possible effects in spreading radical Islamic preaching have certainly not put the public discourse at ease in terms of Islam’s role in the country. In their recent article for the online magazine of international politics The Ulkopolitist researchers Otso Iho and Juha Saarinen analyzed the nature of ISIS propaganda that targets Finnish speaking audiences. Their research shows that up until January 2017 one of the blogs operated by ISIS had translated into Finnish 15 publications that mainly focus on theological issues. The nation-wide newspaper Helsingin Sanomat had as well followed a Finnish Telegram-channel used by ISIS followers, and reported in a news article how the Finnish propaganda content found on the channel incites to attacks against civilians, “even if they were just on their way home from a walk”. The image of homegrown terrorism is strengthened by the analysis of Iho and Saarinen about the high quality of the translations; it indicates that the writers are either native Finnish speakers or individuals who have grown up in the country and learned the language and possibly have also received higher education.

However, public discourse on terrorism is sometimes misleading and causes essentialized images, as has been argued by Leena Malkki, who is a researcher of terrorism at the University of Helsinki. According to Malkki, coffee table talk is at times very generalizing, as in the discourse anyone who has left to Syria or Iraq can be stigmatized as a terrorist. Similarly, Tarja Mankkinen from the Ministry of the Interior commented on a news article on returning foreign fighters that not all of the individuals coming back to Finland bring with them jihadist views and thus pose a threat as they might have well abandoned the ideology.  Therefore, it can be said, that in order to maintain a rather balanced and unloaded public discourse, media’s careful use of terms related to terrorism is crucial.

Coming back to the survey on security perceptions, it has to be mentioned, that the results on threat images of extremist movements cannot be taken as a clear-cut indication of increasing fear towards jihadist violence. Namely, the survey did not specify the type of the extremist movements, and thus other sorts of extremist violence have to be considered in the current socio-political context of the country as well. In the recent years, especially the Finnish chapter of the Nordic Resistance Movement has been in the news headlines for their violent behavior. Also security officials have noticed the increase of such Neo-Nazi violence, as can be inspected from the 2016 Yearbook of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (SUPO) and the situation report of the Ministry of the Interior (February 2017). While the report states that the presence of so called “new right-wing extremism” with Muslims and Islam as a particular target is still minimal in Finland, the right-wing extremist movements’ violence against individuals opposing their ideology is a concrete threat according to the Ministry of the Interior. Whereas Finland has not yet witnessed any violent attack by jihadists, members in the Finnish chapter of the Nordic Resistance Movement have shown violent behavior towards civilians and in September 2016, a young man died after having been physically assaulted by a participant in the movement’s demonstration.

German NGOs seek to coordinate and enhance their work on religious extremism

25 German non-governmental organisations active in the prevention of religiously-driven radicalisation and violence have come together to create a new coordination body. The Federal Working Committee on Religiously Motivated Extremism, founded on November 30 in Berlin, seeks to pool expertise and best practices from a range of actors engaged on the ground.(( http://www.ufuq.de/gruendung-der-bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft-religioes-begruendeter-extremismus/ ))

Capacity building among diverse organisations

Participating organisations are diverse, ranging from local social work initiatives active in underprivileged neighbourhoods to associations operating at the national level. Major Islamic associations, such as the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) also take part.(( http://islam.de/28232 ))

The Committee’s creators hope to forge a network that crosses Germany’s often cumbersome federal administrative divisions that have vitiated a common approach in the past. Its foundation comes as the parliamentary opposition has once more criticised the lack of a national-level prevention strategy against violent Islamist movements.(( https://www.welt.de/newsticker/news1/article159834940/Gruene-fordern-bundesweites-Praeventionszentrum-gegen-islamistischen-Terrorismus.html ))

Beyond Islamism

However, the Committee and its participating NGOs have stated that they will seek to assert their independence from politicking and a public debate that is uniquely focused on the Islamist threat. Instead, the Committee seeks to retain a broader, cross-religious focus: whilst radicalisation of Muslim youth will be a prominent aspect of its work, it will also encourage projects dealing with Christian fundamentalism or extremist sects.

Moreover, the group seeks to build bridges to organisations active in preventative efforts in the far-right and neo-Nazi scenes. This is an approach with considerable potential, given the fact that over the past years and decades, a whole landscape of NGOs and institutions working with individuals and communities vulnerable to right-wing extremism has developed.(( http://www.ufuq.de/gruendung-der-bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft-religioes-begruendeter-extremismus/ ))

Need for a strong voice

The actual impact of the newly created Committee remains to be seen. Its members will gather in early 2017 for a first conference and exchange of ideas. Yet the Committee’s biggest task is perhaps to develop stronger capacities for public advocacy and lobbying. Whilst demands for their services are on the rise, many projects and organisations working with groups vulnerable to the appeal of jihadist messaging are struggling with financial constraints and cutbacks. (( http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/praevention-in-berlin-es-fehlt-geld-fuer-kurse-gegen-radikalisierung/14929730.html ))

Indeed, as politicians shift to the right and advocate a ‘law and order’ approach to Islamist terrorism in order to tap into the growing voter base of the populist Alternative for Germany party, ‘soft’ strategies of prevention and social work are in danger of being side-lined. The creation of the Committee is thus exceedingly timely.

French thinkers Kouchner, Williame and Benbassa weigh in on Swiss minaret ban

Bernard Kouchner claims to be scandalized by the Swiss vote on minarets, calling it an “expression of intolerance.” Marine Le Pen, the vice-president of the extreme right congratulated the Swiss populace for the vote.

Jean-Paul Willaime, director of the European Institute of Religious Sciences, claims that the Swiss response is more of a secularist response to religion in the public sphere than one counter to Islam. However, he warns that it is the state and public institutions which are secular, however, not civil society. Islam, says Willaime, has become the litmus for European interrogations on identity, particularly because the vestiges of religious heritage and concern for religion still remain despite widespread secularism. Esther Benbassa, director of the Ecole pratique des hautes études (EPHE) suggests that in the era of globalization, fear creates a desire to create oneself against an Other, who today, are Muslims.

UK troubled by right-wing anti-Islam rallies

Violent clashes between anti-Islam demonstrators and Muslim counter-protesters in English cities are worrying the government, with one British minister comparing the disturbances to 1930s-era fascist incitement. The violence that has hit Luton, Birmingham and London in the last few months has involved a loose collection of far-right groups — such as the previously unknown English Defense League — on one side and anti-fascist organizations and Muslim youth on the other.

In an interview published Saturday, Communities Minister John Denham accused the anti-Islam protesters of deliberately stirring up trouble. “The tactic of trying to provoke a response in the hope of causing wider violence and mayhem is long established on the far-right and among extremist groups,” Denham was quoted as saying by The Guardian newspaper. “You could go back to the 1930s if you wanted to — Cable Street.”

Denham was referring to a 1936 confrontation sparked by British fascist leader Oswald Mosley’s decision to march through the then-heavily Jewish East End of London. Mosley’s pro-Nazi followers were met at Cable Street by Jews, communists and anarchists, and a pitched battle ensued.

The English Defense League rejects the fascist label, arguing that it only opposes militant Islam. On its website, the group claims that the violence at its rallies has been provoked by Muslims and far-left groups.