Main Image Credit Taking no chances: masked policemen pictured in Karlsruhe after raids against a far-right group suspected of planning a coup. Image: dpa picture alliance / Alamy
The recent raids and arrests in Germany illustrate some of the trends we have seen in extremism in the last few years, including the transnational connections of groups and narratives and the involvement of current and former members of militaries and police forces in far-right extremism and terrorism.
In the early hours of Wednesday 7 December, the German authorities conducted their biggest ever raid on a far-right group, involving over 3,000 police officers who searched over 130 sites. 25 individuals were detained, with more arrests expected in the coming days. The individuals under investigation are alleged to be members or supporters of a far-right terrorist group suspected of planning to storm the German Bundestag. They allegedly believed this action would lead to riots that would ultimately allow them to install one of their own – Heinrich XIII Prince Reuß, a member of a former German ruling princely family – as the new head of state.
The suspected terror group had apparently organised its activities into a ‘governmental’ and a ‘military’ wing, and is reported to have succeeded in securing weapons and ammunition. Aside from the prince, those under investigation include the owner of a gun shop, a gourmet chef, a pilot, a lawyer, a doctor, a singer, and a judge and former MP for the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland party. This former MP still had access to the Bundestag building until Wednesday, even though she lost her seat in 2021, and was apparently supposed to provide access to the building for the rest of the group. Even more concerningly, the group also involved a number of current and former members of the German security forces.
Some of the details of this alleged plot may sound mundane, but they exemplify some of the key trends that have emerged from far-right extremism and terrorism over the last few years. First of all, the suspected terror group provides a clear example of the transnational diffusion and convergence of far-right ideologies – a trend that some involved in counterextremism have labelled ‘salad bar ideologies’. This refers to the tendency identified in recent years for extremist and terrorist groups and individuals to follow ideologies that defy clear categorisation, for example by combining often contradictory elements of jihadist ideologies with far-right and conspiracy beliefs, gendered grievances linked to the ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate) movement, or far-left tendencies. The group is apparently part of the German Reichsbürger (‘citizens of the Reich’) movement, which included an estimated 21,000 people in 2021 and does not accept the legitimacy of the post-war arrangements and the current German state. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this movement – including several of those detained last week – became increasingly intertwined, both operationally and ideologically, with anti-vaxx groups and Covid-19 deniers. At the same time, the suspected terror group, under the alleged leadership of Prince Reuß, also appears to have taken inspiration from QAnon conspiracy theories, which emerged in the US and revolve around the idea of countries being governed by a ‘deep state’ that is run by malicious elites.
In addition to these ideological convergences, the transnational connections of this group extended into the physical world, which illustrates another important trend in far-right extremism. Prince Reuß had an extensive network of supporters in the German-speaking world and beyond. Arrests in relation to the German plot were also made in Italy and Austria, where two suspects were reportedly involved in an esoteric association, offering their clairvoyant services to the purported terrorist group. Apparently, the group also tried to establish a relationship with the Russian state to secure foreign support for their coup, with the help of Prince Reuß and his Russian ‘life partner’, who supposedly made a visit to the Russian consulate in Leipzig to that end (although ostensibly without success).
While many are already trying to ridicule this apparent coup attempt, it should not be taken lightly
Still more disturbingly, the foiled plot also points to the involvement of numerous current and former members of the German security forces in extremist activities. For example, the military wing of the group was reportedly headed by Rüdiger von Pescatore, a former commander of a paratrooper battalion. According to accusations by the investigators, he was leading attempts to recruit members of the German security forces for the group, as well as carrying out reconnaissance missions at several military barracks to assess them for their potential to host the terror group’s troops following a successful coup. Also arrested were a still-serving sergeant who worked on logistics at the Special Operations Forces Command (KSK), as well as at least two former members of special forces units in the German military. In addition, one police officer who had been suspended from his post for his far-right and anti-vaxx views was arrested, and another currently serving police officer is reportedly under investigation.
While many in Germany and beyond are already trying to ridicule this apparent coup attempt, pointing to the advanced age of some of those arrested and questioning their ability to carry out a violent coup, it should not be taken lightly. This is not the first time in recent years that a far-right plot has been foiled in Germany. Only a few months ago, members of a far-right group – including a 75-year old woman who played a leading role – were arrested for plotting to kidnap Health Minister Karl Lauterbach and carry out attacks on infrastructure to achieve a nationwide blackout.
This case was also not the first instance of members of the security forces becoming involved in far-right activities. It follows a series of scandals that have shaken the German security forces – particularly the KSK, which was disbanded in 2020 following a cluster of cases of suspected involvement in far-right groups in the unit, combined with the disappearance of large amounts of explosives and ammunition from its stocks. The elite KSK unit, which was formed in 1996 to focus on cases such as anti-terror operations and hostage rescues, had come under public scrutiny from around 2017, with the German military counterintelligence agency, BAMAD, investigating dozens of suspected cases of far-right radicalisation within the unit. In 2021, German authorities investigated a total of 1,452 suspected cases of far-right, Reichsbürger and Selbstverwalter (sovereign citizen) extremism in federal and state-level security agencies.
The connections that some of the involved individuals are alleged to have had to the military and other security forces present an increased threat on multiple fronts. Events such as these can shake the reputation of these forces and the faith of citizens (upon which they rely) that they are able to provide security from foreign threats and enforce their domestic safety. Additionally, there is a danger of individuals who receive training and have access to weapons and resources being directly targeted and recruited by extremist groups or independently becoming radicalised. Such individuals can provide unique sets of skills to the violent extremist networks and organisations that they might join or form – giving them an increased ability to plan or carry out an attack.
The foiled coup once again demonstrates the potential dangers of members of national security forces becoming involved in far-right groups and movements
This is true not only in the German context but globally, as can be seen with the recent trial and sentencing for seditious conspiracy of the Oath Keepers’ leaders in the US. The Oath Keepers employed a targeted strategy of recruiting former security forces to their ranks, similar to what has been suggested in the German case. In the UK, an actively serving Metropolitan Police officer and four soldiers were convicted in 2021 for their membership of the proscribed far-right group National Action, including allegations of potential recruitment activities for the group.
While Germany has been tracking this threat for the last few years, publishing detailed reports and numbers and taking active measures against the phenomenon, other countries are not currently taking the threat as seriously or have only nascent efforts to grapple with it. Research on the spread of extremism within the ranks of security forces is ongoing. However, more work is needed to truly understand what is potentially driving the spread of far-right extremism in these contexts or reducing resilience to such ideologies, in order to help develop better prevention and countering strategies that can be employed within these environments.
The foiled coup in Germany should be taken as a warning of what threats may be in store for other countries. It once again demonstrates the potential dangers of members of national security forces becoming involved in far-right groups and movements. Also, given the transmissibility and the transnational nature of the far-right threat, it highlights the challenges of a seemingly indiscriminate merging of various ideological and conspiratorial narratives.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Jessica White
Senior Research Fellow
Terrorism and Conflict