Germany to restructure special forces to tackle far-right leanings

Germany’s defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will dissolve part of the country’s special forces and restructure the elite military division, after some of its members were found to have radical rightwing sympathies.

The second company within the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK) will be disbanded, according to a defence ministry report seen by the Financial Times, while the roughly 1,400-strong force is to be stripped of control over its training.

Germany is attempting to counter a rising trend of rightwing extremism. In February a man with far-right beliefs killed 10 people, most of them immigrants, in Hanau, and another far-right sympathiser attacked a synagogue in Halle in October.

In 2018, a suspected far-right sympathiser killed a politician from chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union party, known for his welcoming stance toward refugees.

Attention has also turned to Germany’s military forces in recent years, particularly the KSK, amid media reports and ongoing secret service investigations of potential extremist plots and sympathisers within its ranks.

Over the past few years, parts of the KSK have been exposed to “toxic leadership, extremist tendencies, and a lax approach to material and ammunition”, the defence ministry report said. “The KSK cannot continue to exist in its present form. It must be changed from within and better integrated into the [rest of the armed forces].”

On Monday, the head of Germany’s military counter-intelligence services, Christof Gramm, told parliament that his forces faced a “wall of silence” as they investigated the KSK in recent months. He described a noticeable rise in cases of far-right sympathisers, and potential networks of extremists within the military.

“Even if the vast majority of soldiers are in line with the constitution, and rightwing extremism is not a new phenomenon in society and the Bundeswehr, we have identified a new dimension,” he said.

President of the German Federal Military Counter-intelligence Service (MAD) Christof Gramm, ahead of a hearing at the Bundestag in Berlin © Omer Messinger/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In recent days, German media reported that some 48,000 rounds of ammunition and 62 kgs of explosives had disappeared from the KSK. The defence ministry report said the status of the missing munitions was “not yet clarified”.

Earlier on Tuesday, German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that secret services had also tracked a non-commissioned army officer who was using two far-right chat groups on the mobile texting application WhatsApp. The groups were circulating detailed information, including addresses and telephone numbers, of 17 prominent German figures, from serving officials including foreign minister Heiko Maas and finance minister Olaf Scholz, to the actor Til Schweiger.

Christian Mölling, head of the security and defence program at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said the possibility of far-right networks within the special forces was particularly concerning, given the KSK’s critical role in special operations and specialised training.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer moved quickly as political pressure to act grew, he said, even before the situation was fully understood.

“I think the minister is trying to make a necessary move in public and not wait until every detail is clear,” Mr Mölling said. “But does it help to prevent the rebuilding of a [far-right] network? And how did this all go so wrong? ”

The KSK has been under increased scrutiny since 2017, when intelligence officials began investigating a “Day X” plot — an alleged conspiracy to kill left-leaning politicians — with links to some members of the KSK.