Franco A. posed as a Syrian refugee and now stands accused of preparing right-wing terror attacks | Photo: Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture-alliance
Franco A. posed as a Syrian refugee and now stands accused of preparing right-wing terror attacks | Photo: Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture-alliance

All eyes are on Frankfurt this Thursday, on the trial of Franco A. a Bundeswehr soldier accused of plotting a terrorist attack while posing as a Syrian refugee. Last week, he was taken into custody over fresh evidence.

Bundeswehr soldier Franco A.* has been on trial since May 2021 over preparing a "serious act of violent subversion." He allegedly planned to commit terrorist attacks targeting public figures while posing as a Syrian refugee and blame the attacks on asylum seekers. 

Frankfurt's Higher Regional Court said on Monday (14.2.2022) that the 33-year-old, who has been free during his trial until now, was back in custody after a routine check at a train station found unnamed objects in his possession that could serve as evidence. It remains unclear whether the check was carried out at random or whether Franco A. had been targeted for checking. According to media reports, the terrorist suspect resisted the officers. 

Before his arrest Sunday, Franco A. had been required to check in with the authorities regularly, and half his salary was being withheld. During a special closed court hearing last Monday, authorities concluded that he should be considered a flight risk. 

First arrested by German authorities in April 2017, Franco A. was in pretrial detention for seven months, until a court ordered his release in late November 2017, as the court found "no urgent suspicion" he was preparing to commit a criminal act against the state. He has confessed to owning a number of weapons, but has rejected allegations that he was planning an attack. The case sparked scrutiny of a network of far-right extremists in the German military. 

A case with an international dimension 

Prosecutors believe the former Bundeswehr officer took weapons and explosives from the German army to carry out attacks on targets including high-ranking politicians. 

Franco A., already a career soldier, was initially apprehended by Austrian authorities as he attempted to retrieve a French pistol and ammunition that 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 Hesse region of Germany, was actually registered as a Syrian refugee 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. 

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 texts on messaging services used by Franco A. 

He was charged with "preparation of a serious act of violent subversion," i.e. suspicion of terrorism, but let go. 

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 with the names of then-Justice Minister Heiko Maas, then-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. 

Bundeswehr with right-wing tendencies? 

In 2017, First Lieutenant Franco A. was a member of the French-German 291st Infantry Battalion stationed in Illkirch, near Strasbourg. 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, and a German historian concurred with the French assessment. 

But 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 intelligence service (MAD) about the incident. 

Germany's then-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, where a hand-painted swastika as well as memorabilia from Germany's Nazi-era army, the Wehrmacht, had been found. 

Von der Leyen then ordered all Bundeswehr barracks to be inspected and decided to revise the so-called Traditionserlass (edict of tradition) in an attempt to further distance the current German military from the Wehrmacht's war crimes. 

As of spring 2018, individuals from earlier armies may only be deemed worthy of honor if they exemplify the values of today's Bundeswehr. 

The Bundeswehr has since remained in the headlines over 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)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

In the meantime, Franco A.'s affiliations began to emerge. Maximilian T., his friend and fellow soldier in the Bundeswehr, was drawn into the investigation, which caused a political stir because he also worked part-time for parliamentarian Jan Nolte from the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). The MP told DW in 2018 he saw Maximilian T. as a "victim of a politically motivated attack." 

Errors by the refugee authority 

Franco A.'s case remains unique, however, because of his attempts to pose as a Syrian refugee. In November 2015, Franco A. applied for asylum at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) as David Benjamin, claiming to be from near Aleppo, northern Syria. 

His 2016 asylum hearing was held in French. He had 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, in addition to his full-time job as a professional soldier in Alsace, 300 kilometers (186 miles) away. 

The refugee office later admitted "blatant mistakes" had been made at every stage of the proceedings, but did not find evidence of any "deliberate manipulation." 

The BAMF later carried out follow-up investigations in 2,000 cases of Syrian and Afghan refugees, and issued an all-clear regarding security standards. 

The start of the trial was delayed several times over questions whether the evidence was strong enough. Trial proceedings against Franco A. have turned out to be tricky, as there are dozens of relevant files with complicated and contradictory information, and there is little clear evidence that he really was planning to carry out an attack under his Syrian identity. 

If convicted, Franco A. could face up to 10 years in prison. 

This article was originally written in German. 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. 

Authors: Ben Knight, Andrea Grunau

First published: February 22, 2022

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