German officer who posed as Syrian refugee in terror trial

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Lt Franco A. in the Frankfurt courtroom on 20 May 2021Image source, EPA/Boris Roessler/Pool
Image caption,
The officer went on trial in Frankfurt on Thursday telling reporters he had a clean conscience

A German military officer has gone on trial, accused of posing as a Syrian refugee and planning far-right terrorism attacks on politicians.

Named only as Lt Franco A, the officer - who was based in France - led an extraordinary double life, registered as a refugee called David Benjamin.

He was eventually caught in 2017 trying to retrieve a handgun found by a cleaner in a toilet at Vienna airport.

The soldier insists he was not an extremist and had not plotted attacks.

Under German privacy rules, defendants' surnames are not made public.

His defence lawyer condemned what he called a smear campaign against him, and the officer told reporters he was going to court "with a clean conscience: I never planned anything to the detriment of anyone".

His double life was exposed when authorities discovered the fingerprints of the soldier based in Strasbourg matched those he had used to register as a Syrian Christian asylum seeker, living three hours' drive north near Frankfurt.

The case against the soldier

Prosecutors believe he had made a list of potential targets, including German Foreign Minster Heiko Maas, the deputy speaker of parliament and a Jewish activist, and was intending to use his fake Syrian identity to stage attacks and have them blamed on a refugee to provoke anti-Muslim sentiment.

They cited a stockpile of ammunition and explosives he had hoarded in his parents' basement which was later found in a friend's house. Notes and recordings are cited in which the officer is said to praise Hitler.

He is also alleged to have been in a "Hannibal" network of survivalists that intelligence officers believe was preparing for the collapse of the German state on "Day X".

His arrest came after the 2015-16 influx of refugees from Syria as well as asylum seekers from other countries. But it was also one of several cases linking members of the military to Germany's far right.

Within weeks of the arrest, Nazi army memorabilia was found on display at the common room of his base at Illkirch in Strasbourg, despite a ban on Nazi symbols.

Image source, German army/KSK
Image caption,
Germany's elite KSK was caught up in a far-right scandal in 2020

Last year the defence minister said she was partially disbanding Germany's KSK commando force because 20 members were suspected of extremism.

The case originally came to trial three years ago but was dismissed by a lower state court in Frankfurt, finding there was not an "overwhelmingly high probability" that he was planning an attack. Federal prosecutors appealed and the case has finally reached a higher court. If convicted the officer could face up to 10 years in jail.

What the soldier says

The officer, who was part of the joint brigade of the French and German armies, denies the terrorism allegations against him. The reason he took on the identity of a Syrian refugee was to expose the flaws in Germany's asylum system, he says.

Ahead of the trial he gave a series of interviews with international media.

"I wanted to get to the bottom of it personally, and check just how far the concept of asylum had been abused by the German authorities to the detriment of security," he told France's Le Figaro newspaper.

He describes being part of radical groups and explains the cache of weapons his parents' house as self-defence, "to protect [his] family in an emergency".

As for the gun found in the airport toilet, he explains that he had gone to an officers' ball organised by the Austrian ministry of defence but went drinking with a friend and found the Nazi-era Browning Model 17 gun in a bush and put it in his coat.

As he later prepared to board a flight he said he panicked and hid it in the toilet before going back weeks later to hand it to police.

Austrian police were waiting for him to return.

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