Police have detained three people in the past three weeks who were allegedly planning a right-wing terrorist attack. Two of the suspects are serving members of the armed forces.
The defence minister has since said that there is a broader problem of right-wing extremism in the military. And the military intelligence agency said that it has already identified 53 right-wing extremists during internal investigations this year. There are indications that there is a similar situation in the police. While only in a small minority of cases does extremism in the security forces seem to be translating into a threat of violence, it comes as the frequency of right-wing violence more generally in Germany is increasing.
As we reported last month, there was a 14.3% increase in cases of right-wing violence in 2016 compared with the year before. We do not know how many, if any, of the perpetrators of these incidents were members of the security forces. But according to the interior ministry, most of these were physical assaults or, less commonly, murders. The available information indicates that the plot foiled last month was more ambitious. But it is still unclear whether the group behind that plot involved more people than the two soldiers and one student who have now been arrested.
The soldiers allegedly stole ammunition from the military and illegally obtained a pistol in Austria. One also used a fake identity to register as an asylum seeker. This seems to have been part of an elaborate plan to make it appear as though an asylum seeker was responsible for the group’s attack. Some German media reports have stated that they intended to plant the fingerprints of someone at a refugee shelter onto the pistol. The group also had a list of 25 potential targets ranked by priority. According to reports in the German press, these included two government ministers, other politicians, as well as ‘institutions’ that have not been publicly named.
This foiled plot has prompted widespread discussion among politicians and in the German media about the extent of right-wing extremism in the security forces. It comes just a few months after some police units admitted that some of their staff identify themselves as Reichsbürger – a loose collection of groups and individuals that reject the existence of the German state, and instead claim that a government in exile leads the German Reich under its pre-WWII borders. Some have links to racist and far-right groups, and there have been several violent incidents over the past year involving self-proclaimed Reichsbürger.
The German authorities have described Reichsbürger as being a ‘danger to the state’, and said that there are at least 4,500 such people in the country. Bavaria is the state with the largest number, with around 1,700. There are around 650 in Baden-Wurttemberg, 550 in Thuringen, and between 200 and 300 in Nordrhein-Westfalen. Statements from state-level governments suggest that some have attempted to infiltrate the German state and security forces. For example, the Bavarian police suspended two officers and started disciplinary proceedings against two others last year because of their links to Reichsbürger.
It is unclear why Reichsbürger have tried to infiltrate the German security forces. But there is little to suggest that they are particularly well organised or that they are coordinating their actions. Instead, they seem to be either small groups or individuals acting autonomously. And only a minority appear to be intent on violence. But it reflects a wider trend in Germany, and several other European countries, in which far-right extremists are becoming more emboldened, leading to an increase in right-wing violence. As we have previously assessed, a growth in public support for populist, nationalistic or xenophobic parties seems to have created a perceived legitimacy among some extremists for acts of violence.
Most violent incidents involving Reichsbürger and other far-right extremists have been relatively small. Typical attacks have been assaults and attempted murders of religious and ethnic minorities or arson of buildings such as mosques, synagogues, cultural centres and refugee accommodation. But the recently-foiled terrorist plot involving the two soldiers indicates that there is an underlying threat of larger-scale attacks. And the presence of extremists inside the security forces would in some cases potentially help such groups to obtain weapons and other materials that can be used in attacks.
Image: Members of German police and army counter-terrorism units; Getty Images