Since December, when Islamic terrorist Anis Amri drove a truck into a Berlin Christmas market, Germans have been waiting fearfully for the next Islamist attack. However right-wing terrorism is also a growing concern in Germany, and the latest case to come to light shows how this extremist movement may be evolving. Germany's Military Intelligence is currently investigating 275 cases of right-wing extremism, but surely none of them is quite so disconcerting as the peculiar case of Franco A.
The investigation began in January, when a maintenance worker at Vienna Airport opened a toilet ventilation duct and found a pistol hidden inside it. The police attached an alarm to the air duct, in February a man set off the alarm, and was duly arrested. That man was a 28 year-old German soldier, a first lieutenant called Franco A.
Franco A told the Austrian police he’d found the pistol in the gardens at an officers ball he’d attended in Vienna. Passing through Vienna Airport, he’d realised he couldn’t take the weapon through security, so he’d hidden it in the lavatory. The police didn’t believe his story, but with insufficient evidence to hold him, they eventually had to let him go. However they put him under surveillance, and his texts and phone calls revealed a stream of xenophobic exchanges with right-wing extremists. They also passed on his fingerprints to the German police. When the German police checked these prints, they made an unexpected discovery. Franco A’s fingerprints were a perfect match for a Syrian asylum seeker called David Benjamin.
So had David Benjamin been masquerading as Franco A, in order to join the German army? Not quite. In fact, far more bizarrely, it seems it was the other way around. In 2015, Franco A had registered as a refugee with the Bavarian authorities. He’d claimed he was a Christian Syrian, the son of a fruit seller from Damascus. Under his Syrian alias, he was given a monthly allowance of €400, and a room in a local hostel. All the while he continued his army service in the Bundeswehr, and no-one smelt a rat.
German police monitored Franco A as he carried out his military duties, but nothing new came up. In April he was interviewed by Military Intelligence, but he stuck to his story about the gun. However his phone led investigators to another suspect, called Mathias F. In Mathias F’s home, in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, they found hand grenades, ammunition and explosives. On Wednesday, Franco A was arrested in Hammelburg, a small town in Bavaria. His suspected accomplice, Mathias F, has also been detained.
So what else do the authorities know, and what avenues are they exploring? ‘Prosecutors in Frankfurt have been investigating Franco A since February 17, on suspicion he was planning a significant act of violence,’ reports Der Spiegel. ‘One of the theories investigators are pursuing is that Franco A had hoped to implicate refugees in the act of violence he was planning.’
For now this remains a mere theory, and nothing whatsoever has been proven. ‘Investigators still have to find out what exactly Franco A was planning,’ cautions Der Spiegel. ‘Investigators have found no clearly developed plans for an attack.’ Yet regardless of whether this case stands up, it creates a chilling precedent. Germans have long since been concerned that Islamists might try to infiltrate the German army, and acquire the skills and equipment to carry out a terrorist attack. However the idea that right-wing extremists might infiltrate the asylum process is a new and disquieting development. Even if this strange case comes to nothing, it raises a disturbing question: when Islamists and right-wing extremists both stand to gain from Islamic terrorism, how can we tell whether the next terrorist incident is the work of Islamists, or right-wing extremists launching a ‘false flag’ attack?