German Officer Goes on Trial, Accused of Plotting Far-Right Terrorism

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German Officer Goes on Trial, Accused of Plotting Far-Right Terrorism

FRANKFURT — One of postwar Germany’s most spectacular terrorism trials opened Thursday, with federal prosecutors laying out their case against a military officer who they said had been motivated by a “hardened far-right extremist mind-set” to plot political murder in the hope of bringing down the country’s democratic system.

The case of First Lieutenant Franco A., whose surname is abbreviated in keeping with German privacy laws, shocked Germany when he was arrested four years ago and has since pushed the country to confront a creeping threat of infiltration in the military and the police by far-right extremists.

Franco A. was caught in 2017 trying to collect a loaded gun he had hidden in an airport bathroom. His fingerprints later revealed that he had a second — fake — identity as a Syrian refugee, setting off alarm bells and an investigation that would span three countries and multiple intelligence agencies. Prosecutors have accused him of planning terrorist attacks using that identity with the intention of stoking growing fears over immigration in Germany and triggering a national crisis.

The case has become the latest warning for a country that has spent decades atoning for its Nazi past but that also has a track record of turning a blind eye to far-right extremism and terrorism.

On the first day of the trial the mood in the courtroom was tense. Franco A., dressed in a gray checkered shirt under a brown vest, his long hair tied back, sat to the right of the judges’ bench flanked by two lawyers. He looked defiant, occasionally scribbling notes to a lawyer, as two prosecutors dressed in burgundy robes and matching masks read out a summary of the indictment.

One of the prosecutors, Karin Weingast, described how in 2015, as hundreds of thousands of refugees were arriving in Germany, Franco A. had fooled the authorities into believing that he was one of those migrants. Over the course of more than a year, he got shelter and an asylum hearing, and qualified for monthly benefits.

When he first disguised himself as a refugee in December 2015, he had “planned and already began preparing” an attack under that fake identity, Ms. Weingast said. For that purpose, she said, he had hoarded more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition, four guns and some 50 explosives, some of it stolen from military bases where he had been stationed.

And in his own notes, she said, he had identified several potential targets, including Claudia Roth, a vice president of the German Parliament; Heiko Maas, the foreign minister; and Anetta Kahane, a Jewish antiracism activist and vocal defender of refugees.

Franco A., Ms. Weingast said, had planned to attack not just one or several public figures — but democracy itself.

“With this attack, the accused wanted to change the political state of affairs in the Federal Republic of Germany in line with his far-right extremist ideas,” Ms. Weingast said.

Franco A. is the first active soldier in recent memory to face terrorism charges in Germany. He is charged with plotting “a violent act endangering the state,” asylum fraud and illegal possession of weapons and ammunition. If convicted, he could face 10 years in prison.

He denies all the terrorism charges against him. But his elaborate double life, which lasted 16 months, unraveled after the police caught him trying to collect the gun in a bathroom at the Vienna airport, according to the indictment and police reports.

Franco A. spoke only briefly in court to confirm his identity and address. But when he arrived and left the court by foot, with a leather satchel slung over his green coat, he stopped several times to speak to journalists.

“The indictment is a farce,” he said, stopping in front of television cameras waiting for him at the courthouse entrance. “The prosecutor’s office is politically directed.”

That assertion appears to be the main thrust of his defense. Franco A.’s lawyers responded to prosecutors with an opening statement that characterized their client as a victim of a political “witch hunt” — and that accused Chancellor Angela Merkel of breaking the law and endangering national security by allowing over a million refugees into the country.

For a full hour, they painted a picture of a government that acted without the consent of its voters and disregarded democracy. Franco A., they said, was a soldier who had sworn an oath to protect his country. He had posed as a refugee to blow the whistle on Ms. Merkel’s refugee policies. His aim was not to destroy democracy, but to strengthen it, they said.

“My client dressed up as a refugee,” said Moritz Fricke-Schmitt, one of Franco A.’s lawyers. “I am unable to see anything that endangers the state in this. But I can see how the state is endangered when parts of the government are making common cause with people smugglers, and that is what happened.”

When Franco A., now 32, was first arrested, the military searched army barracks across the country for Nazi memorabilia. They found plenty.

But his case also opened the door to a maze of underground networks at all levels of the nation’s security agencies — a threat that those agencies themselves now acknowledge was far more extensive than they had imagined.

One group, run by a former soldier and police sniper in northern Germany, hoarded weapons, kept enemy lists and ordered body bags, and is the subject of an ongoing terrorism investigation. Another, run by a special-forces soldier code-named Hannibal, put the spotlight on the KSK, Germany’s most elite force. Last year, after explosives and SS memorabilia were found on the property of a sergeant major, an entire KSK unit was disbanded by the defense minister.

In all these cases the authorities had failed to identify extremists inside the institutions, sometimes for years. Franco A. is no exception. He received glowing reports from superiors throughout his military career even as he wrote and publicly spoke about his far-right views.

In 2014, after submitting a Master’s thesis riddled with far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, he was asked to write another one. But he was never reported even though a military historian who had been asked to assess the thesis called it a “a radical nationalist, racist appeal.”

Ms. Weingast, the prosecutor, described Franco A.’s views as stemming from a “longstanding hardened far-right extremist mind-set” that was particularly hostile to Jews. Franco A., she said, was convinced that Zionists were waging a “race war” that would lead to the extinction of the German race. He considered Germany to be under occupation by the United States.

All this had motivated him to plan “a violent attack on life” that would “create a climate of fear,” Ms. Weingast told the court.

“This was the intention of the accused,” she said.

According to the indictment, Franco A. had gone beyond abstract plotting and in July 2016 had traveled to Berlin to visit the workplace of one of his alleged targets, Ms. Kahane, the Jewish activist. He drew a sketch of the location of her office and took several pictures of the license plates of cars in the parking garage.

Franco A.’s lawyer, Mr. Fricke-Schmitt, dismissed any suggestion that his client had a far-right mind-set. “He is interested in rowing,” he said. “He listens to punk music.”

But Franco A. kept a record of his far-right ideas in a diary and a series of audio memos on his phone. The New York Times has a transcript of these audio memos.

In them he praises Adolf Hitler, indulges in global Jewish conspiracies, argues that immigration has destroyed Germany’s ethnic purity, hails Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as a role model and advocates destroying the state.

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