RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There is some serious drama in Berlin this morning. The German defense minister is meeting today with her generals behind closed doors - closed doors because they're talking about some very sensitive issues - the possibility that far-right extremists have infiltrated the German military. We go now to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson who's following all of this in Berlin. Good morning, Soraya.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Walk us through. What started all this?
NELSON: Well, it started last week when a 28-year-old German army lieutenant was arrested for allegedly planning terror attacks. He's only being identified here by his first name and last initial, Franco A., which is - German privacy rules mandate that. We know he's from the city of Offenbach near Frankfurt and that he was assigned to a Franco-German combat brigade in Eastern France where he made no secret of the fact that he had far-right leanings. But it turns out he had a double life.
MARTIN: A double life, OK. Say more.
NELSON: (Laughter) Well, he falsely registered last year in Germany as a Syrian Christian asylum seeker, and he was collecting refugee welfare payments in Bavaria. He - what he was plenty to do apparently was - or at least this is - these are the allegations - is that in his Syrian refugee persona, he was going to carry out attacks, including possible assassinations of some German politicians, which, in turn, would make Syrian refugees look bad, or that was his goal anyway.
He's also accused of trying to plan an attack on a refugee home. And all of this came out after he allegedly stashed a loaded gun in a Viennese airport bathroom.
MARTIN: I mean, this is pretty remarkable. His military superiors had no idea any of this was happening?
NELSON: Well, apparently not. And this is what has the defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, so angry, especially after it came out that the suspect wrote a master's thesis three years ago at the German military academy that was flagged for far-right and racist content, not to mention that he had Nazi paraphernalia and apparently a swastika-engraved gun in these barracks. And engraving or drawing swastikas is illegal under German law.
MARTIN: So the defense minister, meeting with her generals today - are they just talking about this one case or are there more?
NELSON: Well, there are more. It's not clear that they're necessarily connected to this guy. There was a second arrest in connection with the guy. That was a civilian student however. But officials say three other soldiers are being investigated for far-right criminal activity, and German military intelligence is also investigating 280 complaints about far-right military activity, in other words, within the military - for example, German soldiers exhibiting Nazi paraphernalia or calling out Sieg Heil or posting Nazi sentiments on social media, like this one in which a soldier wrote in a WhatsApp group chat (reading) missing since 1945. Adolf Hitler, please check in. Germany needs you.
MARTIN: OK, not to be taken lightly. So what does the defense minister plan to do about any of this?
NELSON: Well, she's launched an in-depth investigation, and she's told reporters this is going to be very painful and delve deep in order to fully root out any problem and rectify it. I should point out that this is one of several military scandals that von der Leyen has had to deal with this year, including sexual abuse and hazing, which I think is part of why she's so angry with the military leadership at the moment.
MARTIN: All right, so given German history, anything to do with its military and the far-right would be, I would imagine, incredibly sensitive. How is this unfolding in Germany? How are people reacting?
NELSON: Well, interestingly enough, there's actually a huge backlash against her being so harsh with the military leadership. They feel that this sweeping criticism shouldn't be done in open as she's been doing it. But most important is the fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel is actually backing her despite all of this, so it seems that she's coming from a strong political position.
MARTIN: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reporting in Berlin. Soraya, thanks.
NELSON: You're welcome, Rachel.
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