Bundeswehr soldier Franco A. has been found guilty of planning terrorist attacks, after also been posing as a Syrian refugee. His case has raised concerns about German immigration authorities and the military.
Bundeswehr soldier Franco A.* was found guilty of preparing a "serious violent offense endangering the state" in Frankfurt on Friday, following one of the most-watched far-right terrorism trials in German history.
He was sentenced to five years and six months in jail, after also being found guilty of fraud and illegally possessing weapons of war, including two assault rifles. The defendant has refused to reveal where he acquired those weapons, or where they are now.
Bearded, with long hair, and wearing a red shirt, the defendant appeared relaxed ahead of the verdict, chatting amiably with his defense attorneys after having his handcuffs removed.
He did not visibly react as the sentence was read but kept his head bowed and his hands in his lap as Judge Christoph Koller began to read the court's explanation of the judgment.
Later, as Koller was listing the some of the many items of evidence illustrating his racist National Socialist ideology, the defendant appeared to mutter something to himself.
"The defendant harbored a nationalist, racist and antisemitic ideology," the judge read. The court also established that Franco A. espoused conspiracy theories involving the systematic extinction of "the German race," and admired Adolf Hitler.
At one point, the judge also read out one of Franco A.'s voicemail notes in which he described his urge to "do something" about the immigrants he saw on the streets talking to "German girls."
The judge said the defendant also feared a major catastrophe, such as a war with Russia or China, and had joined, and twice met up with, prepper networks who exchanged strategies for how to prepare for such a disaster.
The court decided that this ideology had inspired his plans to carry out an attack, even if it could not be established how concrete those plans had become. Afterwards, court spokeswoman Gundula Fehns-Böer clarified that the court did not have to establish actual plans in order to find the defendant guilty: It was enough to decide that the intention was there.
But it was clear, the court said, that he intended to "send a signal" by attacking politicians and activists he deemed refugee-friendly. He had illegally acquired semi-automatic assault rifles, practiced shooting them, made lists of potential targets, and researched where those targets might be.
Federal state prosecutor Karin Weingast called the verdict "a big success" for the investigating authorities, though the jail sentence was below the six years and three months the state had asked for. "I am satisfied, and I see it as an important success in the fight against far-right extremism, racism, and anti-Semitism in Germany," she told reporters outside the courtroom.
But defense attorney Moritz Schmitt-Fricke described the trial as "highly political" and expressed disappointment in the verdict. "I still look in vain for a clear proof that my client was planning and determined to carry out an attack," he said afterward, before announcing that his client would appeal.
Schmitt-Fricke dodged questions on where his client had procured his guns, but said Franco A. had credibly asserted he could not say where they are now.
A long-winded trial
In their concluding statements made in the Frankfurt court last Friday, Franco A.'s defense team argued that the defendant could 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 Schmitt-Fricke had said in his final plea.
Addressing the court in his own concluding statement last Friday, Franco A. said he regretted hoarding the weapons, before adding that he had three children to look after and that his only ambitions now were to be a "house-husband and father." He has consistently denied planning any attacks.
But Franco A.'s protestations were undermined by his statements throughout the trial when he expressed understanding for a well-known German Holocaust denier and tried to argue why Jews could not be Germans. During the trial, the defendant's voice memos were played in which Franco A. described political opponents as "pigs" and said, "I know you're going to murder me, I'll murder you first." He also said Germany had been "castrated" by the Allies following World War II.
Franco A.'s defense team said that his weapons hoard was meant for self-defense in preparation for what the defendant considered a potential civil war against Islamists. They said he had kept some of his weapons in a special "crisis cellar" that also contained stores of food and gasoline, in case of "a breakdown of state order."
Immigration system questioned
The conclusion of the trial ends a bizarre saga in the history of post-war German extremism. Franco A.'s case raised questions about the German immigration system, which, at the height of the 2016 migrant influx, granted Franco A. asylum as a Syrian refugee despite his lack of identification and inability to speak any more than basic Arabic.
He testified in court that he had duped officials by darkening his beard and face, wearing disheveled clothing, and claiming that he could speak better French.
He claimed he had assumed the identity in order to find weaknesses in Germany's immigration system and had returned the state benefits he received as a refugee.
The soldier, who lived several hundred kilometers from his assigned refugee home, denied using his false identity in preparation for a so-called "false flag" attack, and prosecutors said that though they suspected this may have been his intention, it could not be proven.
Neo-Nazis in the military
In February this year, Franco A., who had been free throughout the trial 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 swastika armbands, which he had brought back from a trip to Strasbourg, France. The police said he had also resisted arrest.
In a subsequent search of his apartment, police said they found several bladed weapons, including five machetes, as well as more Nazi memorabilia, 21 cell phones, and a forged vaccine pass.
Franco A.'s case triggered an attempt to seek out far-right networks in the German military, not least because he himself admitted to having contacts in the so-called Hannibal network, a group of soldiers throughout the whole country who were preparing for social collapse and espoused far-right ideologies.
The Bundeswehr has since had to deal with more scandals of alleged far-right extremism in the ranks. Franco A. remains a Bundeswehr soldier for now, though he is suspended from service pending a disciplinary process.
*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.
Author: Ben Knight
First published: July 15, 2022
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