Abstract: A series of extreme far-right cases among members of Germany’s military and police highlight the threat of the enemy within: radicalized extremists within security services, with access to weapons, training, and confidential information. Such individuals, and especially those who are part of groups and networks, pose a new challenge to Germany’s intelligence community, which is still struggling to assess the true dimension of the threat. From police chat groups where racist, nationalist, and anti-Semitic content is being shared to a Nazi sympathizer within the special forces allegedly storing weapons and explosives to a police employee allegedly looking to help far-right terrorists plunge the country into civil war, it is clear the threat is significant. The specter of armed underground cells being trained by former or current members of the security services has been a wake-up call for authorities. New measures have already been implemented within Germany’s domestic and military intelligence agencies to more effectively root out enemies of the state wearing uniforms. Nevertheless, the threat will most likely persist in the coming years. The detection and monitoring of potential terrorists among fellow servicemen and police officers is a difficult task for security services, and rooting out bad actors can be even harder—especially in times when new recruits are desperately needed. With the United States and other countries also grappling with this problem set, it is vital to share lessons learned and best practices at the international level.
On February 3, 2017, Franco Hans A.,a a German national from Offenbach in the West German state of Hesse, entered a restroom for the disabled at Vienna-Schwechat airport and began trying to break open a maintenance shaft on one of the walls. Shortly after, a police team moved in and arrested him on terrorism charges. They had been expecting that someone would show up and pick up the gun, which had been stored in the restroom, but had no idea who it would be. A week earlier, a cleaning person had discovered the handgun hidden in a shaft in the restroom and notified the police.1 The shaft was then outfitted with an electronic alarm system.2
Soon after they arrested Franco A., Austrian police found out he was a German national and an officer of the Bundeswehr (German armed forces).b His phone and a USB stick were confiscated and his fingerprints were taken, then Franco A. was released and sent back to Germany. Austrian investigators of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung (BVT) then informed the German Federal Police (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA) and Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, BfV), and the Federal Office for Military Counterintelligence Service (Bundesamt für den Militärischen Abschirmdienst, BAMAD) about the arrest.3
After Franco A.’s arrest in Vienna, German police started an investigation into him but did not immediately arrest him. He was identified by German authorities as a soldier in the German military stationed with the Bundeswehr’s Jägerbatallion 291 at a joint French-German military base in Illkirch, Bas-Rhin department in northeastern France. In the past, he had been flagged for possible far-right extremist views because of a master’s thesis he wrote at the Special Military School of Saint-Cyr in December 2013. His thesis was rejected because of anti-Semitic and racist content. An appraiser wrote that: “In terms of type and content, the text is demonstrably not an academic qualification paper, but a radical nationalist, racist appeal, which the author tries to support in a pseudo-scientific way with some effort.” Franco A. was not dismissed from military service, however. Instead, he was given the chance to write a new master’s thesis.4
The German police investigation into Franco A. soon led to a surprise: The suspect’s fingerprints matched those of a Syrian refugee registered in Germany. As it turned out, Franco A. had posed as a refugee fleeing from civil war in Syria in 2016 and had applied for asylum in Germany. He had been interviewed by the staff of the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, BAMF) and had falsely claimed his name was “David Benjamin” and that he hailed from a Christian Syrian family of French descent from a small village of Tel al-Hassel near Aleppo. He also stated that he had attended a French school in Syria and was not fluent in Arabic.5 The “false Syrian” was then granted “subsidiary protection,” and German authorities even assigned him refugee accommodation in Bavaria. Franco A. regularly showed up at this accommodation while he reported ill for service at the military base in France where he was stationed.6
The German General Federal Prosecutor opened a case against Franco A., accusing him of planning a terrorist attack—possibly an assassination of a German politician. The prosecutor accused Franco A. of planning to use his fake identity as a Syrian refugee “to direct suspicion of asylum seekers registered in Germany after the attack.”7 According to a spokeswoman for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, the planned false-flag attack “was intended to be interpreted by the population as a radical Islamist terrorist attack by a recognised refugee … [and] would have attracted particular attention and contributed to the sense of threat.”8
On April 27, 2017, the Federal Criminal Police (BKA) moved in and arrested Franco A. and soon afterward two additional suspects, another Bundeswehr soldier, and a university student.c Ammunition, grenades, and weapon parts were found during the raids.9
Franco A. denied any terrorist activities and claimed he had been in Vienna to attend the “Ball of the Officers” there in January 2017. According to his account, after the event he went on a boozing tour through the city and stopped to urinate outside.10 In his telling, it was in the bushes that he then found the gun later recovered in the airport restroom, a handgun made by Manufacture d’Armes des Pyrenees Francaise, Modell 17, Calibre 7.65mm Browning.11 This weapon used to be the pistol of choice for the German Wehrmacht soldiers in occupied France during World War II.12 According to Franco A., he had picked the gun up, put it in his jacket, and forgotten about it. In his rendition of events, the next day when he entered the airport, he panicked about the weapon that he was carrying and decided to store it in a hidden place to pick it up at a later point. He denied any assassination plans, but BKA investigators recovered some suspicious handwritten notes, allegedly listing names of potential targets13 as well as mobile phone video footage showing a garage in Berlin14 used by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a German NGO named after one of the first victims of far-right violence after the reunification in Germany in 1990.15
The trial against Franco A. is scheduled to start at the High Court of Frankfurt am Main in May 2021.16 Germany’s General Federal Prosecutor charges him with preparing a severe state act of violence endangering the state (“Vorbereitung einer schweren, staatsgefährdenden Gewalttat” – § 89a Strafgesetzbuch), violation of the gun laws, theft, and fraud.17
The case of Franco A. led to a series of terrorism-related investigations against current and former members of Germany’s military and law enforcement agencies. Several networks and cells were uncovered that had apparently prepared for doomsday “Day X” scenarios of civil war, had been storing weapons and ammunition, and had collected information on political enemies and potential targets.18
As the investigations progressed, Germany’s intelligence agencies became aware of extreme far-right ideology among the staff of agencies tasked to protect the state, the government, and the constitution—posing a new threat as such individuals have “access to weapons, are trained to use them and know how to avoid detection,” as one German security official described it.19
The emerging threat of far-right extremists in the ranks of police and military has been a wake-up call for authorities and policy makers. Several high-ranking officials, including the head of the German military counterintelligence agency BAMAD, have resigned or were dismissed in recent years over allegations of not acting decisively enough to face the challenge. Germany’s Parliamentary Oversight Panel (PKGr), the oversight committee for the intelligence services, has conducted an inquiry into extreme far-right activities in the German military. After two years, the members of the committee presented a report in December 2020, stating that “in the Bundeswehr and in several other security services on federal and state level (police and intelligence agencies) – despite a security screening – there are a number of public servants with an extreme far-right and violence-oriented mindset.”20
This article examines several clusters of far-right extremist influence that have been discovered within the German military and police, before outlining how German authorities have responded and their latest diagnosis of the threat. Finally, the article assesses the evolving challenge posed by the far-right extremist insider threat. In so doing, it examines how adequate the response has been, the lessons learned in Germany that may be applicable to other countries grappling with similar problems, and the threat outlook.
The “Nordkreuz” Group
Shortly after the arrest of Franco A. in Germany in April 2017, a former Bundeswehr soldier named Horst S. gave BKA investigators new insights into a loose network of former policemen, former military service members, and civilians spread across Germany that was connected through various WhatsApp, Telegram, and other messaging groups. In these chat groups, there were allegedly discussions about preparation for an upcoming civil war and about “Day X” when all state authority would collapse and self-defense would become essential.21
Horst S. was a former officer in the German air force and was still active in the military reserve. German security services, specifically the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), had first become aware of him after he had purchased literature in an extreme far-right online shop that was monitored by the BfV.22 This led to the reservist being questioned by the BfV as well as BAMAD (military counterintelligence) because he was about to serve as part of the German Bundeswehr mission tasked with safeguarding the G20 summit in Hamburg. During the interview, Horst S. denied that he was a far-right extremist and made an offer to the intelligence officers: He said he could provide additional information on Franco A., who had been arrested a few months earlier.23
Horst S. was then questioned in July 2017 by the BKA investigators leading the Franco A. case. He talked at length about various chat groups he had been part of in which, according to his account, there had been discussions about preparations for civil war. He claimed there had been information collected on left-wing politicians, including private addresses and photos. Horst S. spoke about alleged weapon storages and told the investigators that Franco A. had been a member of at least one of these chat groups. These groups had names like “Nord,” “Süd,” and “Vier gewinnt.”24
Further investigation by the BKA led to a Telegram group named “Nordkreuz,” consisting at times of more than 30 members who were mostly living in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the northeast of Germany. Several of the “Nordkreuz” members were current or former policemen and soldiers, and some were in the military reserve force.25 The men of “Nordkreuz” are regarded as “preppers” by investigators,26 meaning they belong to a survivalism subculture. Adherents to this subculture proactively prepare for emergencies, natural disasters, and social, political, or economic disorder by stockpiling supplies, such as water, canned food, batteries, candles, and gas. They also gain survival knowledge and acquire emergency medical and self-defense training.27
The German General Federal Prosecutor opened a case against the “Nordkreuz” group on terrorism charges, suspecting members of the group had planned to kidnap and kill politicians.28 In August 2017, the BKA raided the apartments of six suspects in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and confiscated large quantities of weapons and more than 23,000 rounds of ammunition, most of which had been legally obtained.29
The leading figure and founder of the “Nordkreuz” group was Marko G., a former Bundeswehr paratrooper who had joined the state criminal police (Landeskriminalamt, LKA) in 1999, was a member of the police special forces/SWAT team (Spezialeinsatzkommando, SEK), and had served as a police sniper and shooting instructor. In December 2019, he would be sentenced to 21 months on probation for violation of German gun laws after an Uzi submachine gun and around 55,000 rounds of ammunition were found in his home during further investigation.30
A part of the ammunition originated from police stockpiles from various German states, including around 1,900 cartridges that were traced back to special forces police in North-Rhine Westphalia and more than 100 cartridges from police in Saxony. Until today, it remains unclear how Marko G. obtained the ammunition; he would not give any details on its origin in court.31 Investigators believe the ammunition, including the rounds originating from police stockpiles, might have been sourced from a private shooting range in Güstrow, in Meckleburg-Western Pomerania, whose operator had links to the “Nordkreuz Group.” Numerous police and military special forces units from all parts of Germany had trained at that shooting range.32 Seventeen members of a police special forces unit from Saxony are under investigation because the members allegedly had left large amounts of ammunition behind as a gift to the range’s operator. Prosecutors suspect the bullets were used as a form of payment to the shooting range owner for unauthorized tactical shooting training.33
The Uniter Network
Horst S. told the BKA investigators not only about Marko G. and the other members of “Nordkreuz,” but also mentioned a network of chat groups spread across the country—some of which, according to Horst S., were administered by a mysterious figure with a military background known as “Hannibal.”34
The BKA was able to identify the person behind that nickname.35 It was André S., a sergeant in the German military’s elite special forces Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK).d André S. appeared to be operating several chat groups and organizing in-person meetings. He had not only administered a network of chat groups of like-minded people discussing doomsday scenarios, possible military tactics, and war games, but was also the founder and head of a much broader network, an organization called Uniter, which describes its name as coming “from the Latin for: united in one.”36
Uniter was founded by André S. in the city of Halle in 2012.37 Later, a new entity with the same name was registered as a non-profit association in Stuttgart, and since February 2020, Uniter has been registered in Switzerland.38 The current number of Uniter members is not publicly known. In the past, the organization has claimed to have around 2,000 members, but this has been disputed by Germany’s security services who (as of early 2021) estimate it to be a few hundred.39
Uniter describes itself as starting off as “a network of active and former members of special forces from federal and state level and police,” which evolved into a “network for people outside of these specialized professions.” The organization’s mission statement reads: “Uniter connects people of the same values and virtues regardless of their heritage, their culture or their faith. In a worldwide community security and stability should be promoted on the basis of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights.”40
Uniter claims it has assisted former special forces members to find new jobs and connect with other veterans.41 Uniter has also sold merchandise, T-shirts, badges, and pins with its logo on it. One of these badges was found during the investigation of Franco A., the German soldier posing as a Syrian refugee.42 Uniter claims Franco A. has never been a member.43 It has been reported that Uniter members have offered military training to police and army in the Philippines and have also looked for opportunities to work in Libya.44
The Uniter network has offered various forms of security training, including self-defense courses and military-style combat training, to civilian clients. In October 2020, a court in southern Germany issued penalty orderse against André S. and five former members of his network over a civilian combat training session in the southern German town of Mosbach in the summer of 2018.45
Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has been treating Uniter as a so-called “Verdachtsfall” since June 2020,46 meaning the domestic intelligence agency is looking into the organization as a possible threat to German democracy because of its suspected far-right extremist aspirations. Uniter denies any extremist activities or connections, and its founding figure André S. left the Bundeswehr in late 2019.47
The KSK Special Forces
Germany’s KSK military special forces, established in 1996 and headquartered in Calw in Baden-Wuerttemberg, have come under scrutiny because of far-right extremist occurrences in recent years, which as described above included the activities of KSK instructor André S. (aka Hannibal). On April 27, 2017, a farewell party was organized for Pascal D., then commander of the 2nd company of the KSK. At the event, which allegedly resembled a Roman emperor theme party, much alcohol was consumed, and there was archery shooting and a competition involving tossing a severed pig-head. A prostitute who was flown in was presented as an award to the winner. The woman later described the party—later dubbed “Schweinskopfparty”—in detail to journalists and the Bundeswehr, saying she witnessed soldiers listening to neo-Nazi rock music and making the “Hitler salute.”48
Germany’s military counterintelligence agency, BAMAD, has investigated several dozen KSK special forces soldiers for suspected extreme right-wing tendencies. Five soldiers were dismissed from military service, and another 16 have been redeployed to other sectors or have left the Bundeswehr. Currently, around 20 members of the KSK are still under investigation.49
In April 2020, police raided the property of 45-year-old KSK Sergeant Major Philipp S. in the eastern state of Saxony.50 BAMAD had received a tip-off about the elite soldier a few weeks earlier. A cache of weapons, ammunition, and explosives were found hidden in boxes in his house and buried in the garden, including an AK-47 assault rifle; the origin of the material still remains unknown.51 Police also found Nazi literature, postcards with swastikas, and a songbook of the SS. In March 2021, Philipp S. was sentenced to two years on probation for violation of the Military Weapons Control Act.52
The Case of “NSU 2.0”
On August 2, 2018, at 3:41 PM, Seda Basay-Yildiz, a German lawyer of Turkish descent from Frankfurt who represented relatives of one of the 10 victims killed by the neo-Nazi terrorist group “Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU),”f received an anonymous fax containing racist insults and death threats against her, signed “NSU 2.0.”53 It was the beginning of a series of threats. Dozens of anonymous e-mails, faxes, and text messages were sent to Basay-Yildiz and more than 25 leftist politicians, activists, comedians, and journalists in the following years: many recipients were female and many of migrant heritage. Many were signed “NSU 2.0 Der Führer” or “SS-Obersturmbannführer.”54
The “NSU 2.0” barrage of threats stood out from other similar incidents of extreme far-right threats previously sent to lawyers, politicians, and activists55 because some of the messages contained personal details of the victims, such as the private addresses, names, and birth dates of family members and sometimes private phone numbers or other non-public information. This could have been obtained by accessing official records, perhaps even police computer systems.56
As the police in the west German state of Hesse began to investigate the case of threats made against Basay-Yildiz, they came across a suspicious search in the state’s police system. Someone had accessed the non-public records of Basay-Yildiz via a computer in a police station in Frankfurt only about two hours before she had received the threatening “NSU 2.0” fax.57 Further investigation led to a group of six police officers working at the Frankfurt police station where the data was accessed. All were members of a WhatsApp group named “Itiotentreff,” in which they had shared more than 40 anti-Semitic and racist images and memes from October 2015 to early 2017. One of the pictures showed Adolf Hitler on a rainbow with text that read “Good night, you Jews.” Another image shows Hitler standing next to a chimney and the message: “The bigger the Jew, the warmer the shack.”58
Investigators established that on the police computer on which Basay-Yildiz’s data had been accessed, a policewoman was logged into her account at that time. She told investigators she had not been present and anyone else at the police station could have accessed the system using her password. All of the police officers involved were dismissed from duty for the racist content of their chat messages, but investigators were not successful in establishing that anyone at the police station was involved in the threats. In fact, as will be outlined later, authorities now believe no one at the police station had a witting role in the threats.59
A police officer with alleged links to far-right extremists who worked at the Frankfurt police station and was also a member of the WhatApp chat group was investigated early on as a prime suspect. The police officer was monitored, his house was searched, computer and mobile phones confiscated, but no evidence has emerged that he is behind “NSU 2.0.”60
An investigative unit within Hesse Criminal Police named “AG 211” was set up with around 60 investigators working on the case. By March 2021, they had counted more than 100 threats directed at left-wing politicians, journalists, comedians, and justice and police officials coming from “NSU 2.0,” a vast majority not containing personal data of the recipients. The investigation has focused on the possibility of an extreme far-right network within the Hesse police, but years of investigation have not led to any charges against any suspects, resulting in harsh criticism against the police for not doing enough by the victims of the “NSU 2.0” threats.61
In July 2020, the Hesse state police chief was forced into early retirement after crucial information about a different suspicious search in a police database—regarding data later possibly used in a “NSU 2.0” threat message—was not reported to the Hesse Ministry of Interior.62 Later that month, police raided the house of a retired police officer and his wife in Bavaria (a state that borders the southeast of Hesse) after threatening e-mails were sent to politicians in which a pseudonym appeared that the retired police officer had used in previous online postings.63 Investigators now believe the former policeman was a copycat of “NSU 2.0.”64
The author of the genuine “NSU 2.0” threats used a unique anonymous e-mail account of the Russian provider Yandex. Investigators have asked Russian authorities for help, without much success.65 Investigators in Hesse have become aware of additional searches in police databases in Berlin, Hamburg, and cities in Hesse that they suspect are linked to the “NSU 2.0” threats and that are still under investigation.66
On May 3, 2021, a suspect in the “NSU 2.0” case was arrested in Berlin. The 53-year-old German national Alexander M., who is not a former or active member of the police, had been identified by the Hesse police investigators after postings on a far-right online website were found bearing similar use of words as in the “NSU 2.0” e-mails. The suspect had been sentenced several times in the past and was also known for making fake calls to German authorities posing as an official or public servant to obtain information from government databases. During the house search, a weapon was found. The hypothesis of investigators is that Alexander M. posed as a public servant and called police stations across Germany, including the one in Frankfurt under scrutiny, as part of an effort to piece together information on Basay-Yildiz and others who received “NSU 2.0” threats. No charges have been filed, and the investigation is ongoing. But authorities now believe that no one at the Frankfurt police station wittingly had a role in the threats. After the arrest, the Hesse Interior Minister stated that “from what we know today no Hesse police officer was responsible for the NSU 2.0 threat message series.”67
In recent years, extreme far-right tendencies within German police have surfaced in several German states—in many cases involving chat groups.68 In North-Rhine Westphalia, a police chat group named “Alphateam” was discovered in 2020 consisting of 31 members, all of whom were police officers working at a police station in the city of Mülheim. They are suspected of sharing racist and anti-Semitic content. More than 250 mobile phones, computers, and hard drives were confiscated during the follow-up investigation. The criminal inquiry is still pending in some cases.69
In February 2020, 12 terrorist suspects, including an administrative officer of the police, were arrested and houses were searched in various cities across Germany. The investigation focused on a suspected extreme far-right group named “Gruppe S.,” allegedly led by 54-year-old Werner S., a German national from Bavaria with no military or police background, living from social care (welfare benefits), and calling himself “Teutonico.”70 He is charged with recruiting the other group members in 2019 mostly via social media to form a cell planning terrorist attacks on Muslims, migrants, and politicians, with the aim of sparking civil war. The trial against the alleged group members began in April 2021 in Stuttgart.71
The alleged group founder, Werner S., had planned to acquire a Kalashnikov-type assault rifle, an Uzi submachine gun, 2,000 rounds of ammunition, and hand grenades, according to investigation files seen by reporters of Stuttgarter Nachrichten and ZDF. The group already had obtained 27 unlicensed weapons, mostly pistols, it is alleged. “If the accused had been able to carry out their planned acts of terror, we would have had a totally brutal and massive killing machine running here,” said Ralf Michelfelder, chief criminal investigator for the state of Baden-Württemberg, ahead of the trial.72
The plot allegedly has a police nexus. Thorsten W. from Hamm is accused of offering material support to the group. At that time, he worked for the police in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and allegedly offered €5,000 ($6,000; £4,300) to buy weapons for the attacks.73
With example after example emerging of the far-right extremism problem within Germany’s military and police, German authorities have taken steps to counter the threat. The case of Philipp S. prompted the Federal Ministry of Defense to start a large-scale internal investigation into the grievances at KSK, extreme far-right incidents and missing weapons, explosives, and ammunition.74 Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer promised further investigation of possible extremist networks and ordered a task force to reform the elite unit. She said there was no place for anyone in the armed forces who acted “in a radical way.”75 As a first step, the 2nd company of KSK, which was deemed to be the most problematic unit with the highest number of suspected extremists, was disbanded in July 2020.76 In total, 60 measures to reform the KSK were announced, including changes in education and training.77
There was also the adoption of a more focused approach by the military counterintelligence agency BAMAD. Furthermore, in September 2020, the director of BAMAD was dismissed.78 The new director, Martina Rosenberg, is the first woman to lead one of the federal intelligence agencies.79 She recently presented her plans for a reform of the BAMAD to confront the threat of far-right extremism among soldiers more efficiently, demanding more staff and proposing the OSINT, HUMINT, and information analysis elements of the agency work closer together. Rosenberg made clear that BAMAD needed to be able to input its own data into the Nachrichtendienstliche Informationssystem (NADIS), the database for extremists operated by the domestic intelligence agency BfV. At the time she presented her plans, BAMAD was allowed to access NADIS for reading purposes but was not allowed to add data from its own cases.80
In recent years, BAMAD has changed the methods of security screening (in German, “Sicherheitsüberprüfung”) for soldiers and recruits. A new law allows BAMAD to do an early background check on people applying for the military. This means their data is cross-checked with databases of known extremists before they enter military service. In the past, such screenings were only allowed after a person had already joined the military.81 As part of the widened security screening, BAMAD is now also allowed to conduct online research on certain individuals, checking their social media accounts for extremist content and/or racist or anti-Semitic statements.82
In 2018, BAMAD began using a new system to characterize investigations, utilizing four different categories:83
Yellow: person is under investigation by BAMAD for potential extremist ideology
Green: suspicion against the person under investigation is not confirmed
Orange: suspected lack of loyalty to the constitution, further investigation is necessary to rule out extremism
Red: person is a confirmed extremist
In December 2020, the “Koordinierungsstelle für Extremismusverdachtsfälle” in the German Ministry of Defense released its annual report on extremism in the German military, providing for the first time a detailed overview of the suspected cases of far-right extremists within the military. The statistics of the active-duty personnel showed that most extreme far-right suspects were 34 years old or younger, 50 percent served in the Army, 14 percent in the Joint Support Service, nine percent in the Air Force, and seven percent in the Navy. The majority of suspected far-right extremist soldiers were stationed at military bases in Bavaria, Lower-Saxony, and Baden-Wuerttemberg in West-Germany, but when compared to the numbers employed by the Bundeswehr payroll across the different German states, the highest proportion were from Saxony.g
Reservists—which in Germany means civilians regularly undergoing military training—pose a very unique challenge to Germany’s security services due to their hybrid status. BAMAD is authorized only to investigate active-duty military personnel for extremism, espionage, and terrorist activities. The domestic intelligence agency BfV, on the other side, is charged with monitoring extremists and terrorists among civilians. As noted above, during the investigation into the “Nordkreuz” group, several reservists had appeared on the radar of the security services as potential terror suspects. To coordinate efforts and meet the challenge of effectively monitoring these individuals in their civilian life as well as during their military trainings and service, the BAMAD and the BfV formed a joint working group in 2017 called “AG Reservisten.”84 Officials from both intelligence agencies now regularly meet to discuss individual cases; since its establishment, the working group has met more than 20 times and discussed 1,250 cases. In 2020, the “AG Reservisten” identified 313 suspected extremists or “people with a lack of loyalty to the constitution” among reservists.85 There is now a security background check undertaken by the BAMAD and the BfV for every reservist by default.86
German authorities’ concern over the infiltration of far-right ideas extends to all parts of the public sector. When Germany’s Minister of Interior Horst Seehofer announced in December 2019 a new plan for a more effective fight against extreme right-wing violence, one of the measures was to establish of a new “Central Office” (Zentralstelle) at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, BfV) focusing on far-right extremists among public service staff.87
How Authorities View the Threat
Amidst the growing concern over the infiltration of extreme far-right ideology into the German military and police, the BfV was given the task of composing a report about extremist incidents across Germany’s public service that contravened the country’s constitution. It took several months to complete the report as there was a lack of data88 on suspected far-right extremists in public service in the federal states.
The 95-page report by the BfV titled “Rechtsextremisten in Sicherheitsbehörden” was released in October 2020. It focused on cases of extreme far-right suspects among national and state law-enforcement agencies, German military, and intelligence services (whose combined workforce consists of over 535,000 employees89). For the first time, a nationwide overview (federal and state level) of the threat was presented.90 The BfV counted the cases “on the basis of which, in the period from January 1, 2017 to March 31, 2020, legal measures or proceedings were initiated on suspicion of right-wing extremist attitudes or behavior.”
- The results:
There were proceedings launched against 377 individuals in relation to the workforce of police, intelligence, and customs agencies
- The military counterintelligence agency (BAMAD) reported 1,064 suspected individuals (uniformed and civilian employees) working for the German armed forces, 550 of which were being actively pursued.
Combining the cases in all the different German military, security, police, and federal and state-level intelligence agencies:
- the worst-affected state according to the report is Hesse with 59 suspected individuals, followed by Berlin (53), North Rhine-Westphalia (45), Bavaria (31), and Saxony (28).
- Only 34 of all cases were regarded as “confirmed cases” of far-right extremists, 22 of those concerning police agencies, 11 cases in the German military, and one confirmed case at the Customs agency. (Each “case” referred to in the BfV report refers to one individual under investigation.)
- The majority of confirmed cases led to criminal proceedings or disciplinary measures, including individuals whose employment has been terminated. About 20 percent of the criminal cases had been discontinued.
There was no evidence of structural far-right extremism in the country’s security forces and only “a small number of confirmed cases,” German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told reporters when he presented the BfV review in Berlin. “However, every proven case is a disgrace,” he added. “Every proven case is one case too much which tarnishes all members of the security agencies.”91
In September 2020, Seehofer had rejected calls for a study into racism in the German police after authorities across the country had started to investigate numerous suspicious police chat groups. “There won’t be a study that deals exclusively with the police and the accusation of structural racism in the police,” Seehofer told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “That wouldn’t even begin to do justice to the problem. What is needed is a significantly wider approach for the whole of society, and that’s what we’re working on.”92 Subsequently, however, Seehofer agreed to a wider study exploring the everyday working life of police officers and their motivation for going into the force.93 The three-year study is named “MEGAVO,”94 which stands for “Motivation, Attitude and Violence in the Everyday Life of Police Officers” and will be conducted by DHPol, the German Police University (Deutsche Hochschule der Polizei).
In November 2018, Germany’s Parliamentary Oversight Panel (PKGr), a committee providing oversight of intelligence agencies, decided to investigate the threat of far-right extremists in the military by launching an inquiry. For two years, the members of the PKGr have read through thousands of pages of files of BAMAD, BfV, and Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). In December 2020, the PKGr presented their findings to the public in a non-confidential report, highlighting:
BfV and BAMAD recognized a worrying real and digital networking. There are personal overlaps between previously rather isolated networks of people and people from certain political parties or parts of parties at federal and state level and right-wing extremist movements. BfV and BAMAD currently have no evidence of a “shadow army” planning a violent overthrow. Nonetheless, you see right-wing extremist organized structures (networks) with links to the Bundeswehr and other security authorities. Therefore, there is a need for continuous further analysis and close observation by the authorities.95
The report also criticized BAMAD for acting hesitantly and proposed several changes to its work:
In the course of the investigation it became clear that BAMAD had not adequately fulfilled its tasks in the fight against right-wing extremism and in counter-espionage in the Bundeswehr. BAMAD is part of the security architecture of the Federal Republic of Germany and must also perform this task in practice … The information flows and the cooperation between BAMAD in combating extremism and countering espionage with the federal and state security authorities must be significantly strengthened … The staffing and the organizational set-up of the operational evaluation and procurement work in the defense against far-right extremism and counter-espionage as well as in the forensic-technical tasks of the BAMAD must be optimized and technically upgraded.96
In June 2020, PKGr started a follow-up inquiry into the subject of missing weapons and ammunition from the German military and federal police. This review is ongoing.97
The Evolving Challenge
From the curious case of Franco A. to the disbandment of a whole KSK special forces company, the threat of radicalized individuals and networks within Germany’s military and law enforcement is now high on the agenda of the security services in Germany. The problem was underestimated for a long time and has not been dealt with in an adequate manner, as various investigations and scandals have proven. Most cases had been treated as isolated, singular incidents. Virtual networks had not been fully investigated in the past, likely leaving some potentially dangerous behaviors and individuals undetected.
The potential threat posed by weapons and ammunition stolen from military or police stockpiles has not received enough attention from the security service until recently. Thousands of rounds of ammunition, assault rifles, handguns, grenades, and explosives are currently unaccounted for.98 As noted above, some of the ammunition obtained by the “Nordkreuz” group originated from police stockpiles. Further investigation could possibly reveal extensive extreme far-right networks within and across military, police, and security agencies.
After the parliamentary review, a number of measures have been taken by Germany’s intelligence agencies. Many of these changes will most likely improve the detection and monitoring of potential terrorists in public service. The much greater challenge still lies ahead. In the coming years, a high number of civil servants in Germany will retire, which means that almost all public sectors, including the security services, are in desperate need of new recruits to fill their ranks.
The police and the military in Germany have been regarded for a long time as the “mirror of society,” meaning all parts of society should be represented. But this is not the case in reality. In Germany, police recruits from immigrant communities are still underrepresented.99
An independent police commissioner who is representative and oversees police staff in the various state police agencies as well as at the federal level could be another effective step to act against misbehavior of individuals or even structural problems regarding racism and extreme ideologies. This could be implemented in addition to a more robust and extensive whistleblower system protecting those who report wrongdoing and extremist activities within law enforcement departments.
With regard to the Bundeswehr, some have suggested reintroducing general conscription to combat far-right extremism.100 Compulsory military service was introduced in Germany after World War II, under the idea of ‘citizens in uniform.’ In 2011, general conscription was scrapped when the government decided to professionalize its troops. Today, the Bundeswehr only consists of career soldiers and long-term contract troopers.
In July 2020, the German parliament’s military commissioner, Eva Högl, a Social Democrat, suggested reintroducing conscription. It had been a “big mistake” to get rid of mandatory military service, Högl argued. According to her, extreme far-right tendencies among German soldiers stemmed from that decision to scrap conscription.101
While it seems unlikely the country will return to mandatory military service, there needs to be a clear understanding conveyed to new recruits that extremism will not be tolerated in any shape or form. Members of the police and military not only have to follow laws strictly, but have to represent the country’s constitution in their daily work. They represent the state and the monopoly on violence, so the understanding is that they need to be even more loyal to the constitution than a regular citizen. Strengthened internal leadership (in German, “Innere Führung”) is required to ensure this as well as including value-based elements in all training and education.
Germany is far from alone in confronting far-right extremism among active and former members of the military and police. Recent reports, for example, highlighted some of the challenges pertaining to active personnel faced by Franceh and Belgium.i It is a problem set also present on the other side of the Atlantic. According to an April 2021 report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and the Program on Extremism at George Washington University:
43 of 357 individuals (12%) charged in federal court for their role in the Capitol Hill siege had some form of military experience. Of these 43 individuals, the vast majority (93%) were veterans and not currently serving in an Active Duty, reservist, or Guard status.102
According to new data reported in April 2021 by the Center of Strategic and International Studies:
U.S. active-duty military personnel and reservists have participated in a growing number of domestic terrorist plots and attacks … The percentage of all domestic terrorist incidents linked to active-duty and reserve personnel rose in 2020 to 6.4 percent, up from 1.5 percent in 2019 and none in 2018. Similarly, a growing number of current and former law enforcement officers have been involved in domestic terrorism in recent years.103
In April 2021, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin established a countering extremism working group to tackle the issue in the U.S. military and ordered U.S. military services to “work closer together and learn best practices from each other to ensure extremists do not get into the ranks.”104 Best practices also need to be shared at the international level. The United States, Germany, and other countries need to share lessons learned about how to best counter the threat posed by the insidious spread of extremist ideas into the very organizations entrusted with protecting the public. CTC
Florian Flade is a national security reporter for the joint investigative unit maintained by German Public Broadcaster stations WDR and NDR, as well as Süddeutsche Zeitung. In recent years, he has reported on far-right extremism within German security services, on the case of Bundeswehr soldier and terrorist suspect Franco A., on the preppers of the “Nordkreuz” group, and extreme right-wing cases within the German police. He is based in Berlin and blogs about jihadism at ojihad.wordpress.com. Twitter: @FlorianFlade
© 2021 Florian Flade
[a] In Germany, because of privacy laws, criminal suspects and those charged with crimes are generally only identified by their first name and the first initial of their last name.
[b] “The Bundeswehr has more than 260,000 personnel, including women and men in uniform as well as civilian staff.” Bundeswehr website, May 2021.
[c] Terrorism charges against the two additional suspects were subsequently dropped.
[d] “The Special Operations Forces Command, or, for short, SOFCOM (in German ‘KSK’, for ‘Kommando Spezialkräfte’), encompasses the German Army’s special operations forces (SOF) and has unique capabilities at its disposal within the Bundeswehr. Spanning the entire gamut of tasks that fall within the Bundeswehr’s remit, these capabilities give the Federal Republic of Germany added options in its courses of action.” “Special Operations Forces,” Bundeswehr website.
[e] In Germany, penalty orders are punishments imposed by judges in cases in which a trial is determined not to be necessary. Recipients of such an order must file an appeal within a certain time period to take the matter to trial. For more, see “What is a Penalty Order?” Rudolph Rechtsanwalte website.
[f] The German neo-Nazi terrorist group “NSU” killed 10 people (nine murder victims had an immigrant background, one was a policewoman) between 2000 and 2017. “The NSU is also said to be responsible for the nail bomb attack that left 22 people injured in a Turkish neighborhood in Cologne in June 2004.” See Marc Saha, “NSU: What you need to know about Germany’s neo-Nazi terror group,” Deutsche Welle, August 5, 2020.
[g] Only three percent of all Bundeswehr staff are living in/originate from Saxony, but seven percent of all the suspected far-right extremist cases in the Bundeswehr investigated by the BAMAD are people from Saxony. “Koordinierungsstelle für Extremismusverdachtsfälle BMVg, Jahresbericht,” Bundesministerium der Verteidigung, December 31, 2020.
[h] “An investigation by [the French news outlet] Mediapart revealing the existence of neo-Nazi sympathisers among French military personnel has prompted the armed forces minister and France’s chief of defence staff to promise a crackdown on extremists within the ranks. The investigation … identified 50 members of the French armed forces, many of who brazenly posted photos and videos on social media illustrating their admiration of Nazi ideology.” Sébastien Bourdon, Justine Brabant, and Matthieu Suc, “Revealed: the neo-Nazis within the ranks of France’s armed forces,” Mediapart, March 25, 2021.
[i] “The [Belgian] military intelligence service SGRS is keeping a group of around 30 serving soldiers under close surveillance, on suspicion they have extreme right-wing or neo-Nazi sympathies, the [Belgian public broadcaster] RTBF has revealed.” “Defence: About 30 suspected neo-Nazi soldiers are under surveillance,” Brussels Times, March 18, 2021.
 Author interview, German security service source, September 2017.
 Florian Flade, “Namenslisten, Pistole und Granaten – und doch kein Terrorist?” Die Welt, July 9, 2018.
 “Pistolet semi-automatique ‘Unique’ modèle 17 de calibre 7,65 m/m S.F.M.,” Paris Musées Collections website.
 Flade, “Namenslisten, Pistole und Granaten – und doch kein Terrorist?”
 Amadeu Antonio Foundation website.
 “Terminhinweise und Hinweise zum Akkreditierungsverfahren im Strafverfahren gegen Franco A.,” High Court of Frankfurt am Main, March 29, 2021.
 Author interview, German security official, March 2020.
 “Erkenntnisse, Beiträge und Maßnahmen von Bundesamt für den Militärischen Abschirmdienst, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Bundesnachrichtendienst zur Aufklärung möglicher rechtsextremistischer Netzwerke mit Bezügen zur Bundeswehr,” PKGr Report, December 11, 2020.
 Martin Kaul, Christina Schmidt, and Daniel Schulz, “Kommando Heimatschutz,” Taz, Dezember 20, 2017.
 “Rechtsradikale lustige Bilder und die leitet man dann einfach weiter,” NSU-Watch, January 3, 2020.
 Sebastian Erb, “Bewährung für den Nordkreuz-Admin,” Taz, December 19, 2019.
 Kaul, Schmidt, and Schulz, “Kommando Heimatschutz.”
 Martin Kaul, Christina Schmidt, and Daniel Schulz, “Hannibals Schattenarmee,” Taz, November 16, 2018.
 Hans-Martin Tillack, “Anführer ‘Hannibal’ wünschte sich ‘radikale Führer’ und einen ‘Kampf gegen verschworene Politiker,’” Stern, October 10, 2019.
 Author interview, German security official, January 2021.
 “Über uns,” Uniter website.
 “Die Sonne steht tief,” Uniter website, December 17, 2020.
 Sebastian Erb, Alexander Nabert, Martin Kaul, and Christina Schmidt, “Hannibals Reisen,” Taz, March 15, 2019.
 Sebastian Erb, “Jetzt offiziell Verdachtsfall,” Taz, June 26, 2020.
 Flade and Steinke.
 Flade and Steinke.
 Flade and Steinke.
 Florian Flade, “Woher hatte der Täter die Privatadressen?” Tagesschau, May 4, 2021; Florian Flade, “Täter hatte wohl mehr als eine Quelle,” Tagesschau, May 14, 2021; “‘NSU 2.0’-Drohschreiben: Hessens Innenminister sieht nach Festnahme Polizei entlastet,” RND, May 4, 2021; Christopher F. Schuetze, “German Police Arrest Man With Right-Wing Links Over Death Threats,” New York Times, May 4, 2021.
 “Bundestag beschließt Sicherheitsüberprüfung vor Dienstantritt,” Ministry of Defence, December 12, 2016.
 Author interview, BAMAD official, August 2020.
 Author interview, BAMAD official, August 2020.
 “Motivation, Einstellung und Gewalt im Alltag von Polizeivollzugsbeamten – MEGAVO,” German Ministry of Interior, December 7, 2020.
 “Erkenntnisse, Beiträge und Maßnahmen von Bundesamt für den Militärischen Abschirmdienst, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Bundesnachrichtendienst zur Aufklärung möglicher rechtsextremistischer Netzwerke mit Bezügen zur Bundeswehr.”
 Daniel Milton and Andrew Mines, “This is War”: Examining Military Experience Among the Capitol Hill Siege Participants, Program on Extremism at George Washington University and Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, April 12, 2021.
 Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee, Grace Hwang, and Jared Thompson, “The Military, Police, and the Rise of Terrorism in the United States,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, April 12, 2021.