A network of elite German combatants with links to far-right “prepper” circles secretly trained civilians in “commando-like structures”, raising fears the group planned to build up a paramilitary fighting unit.
Drone footage filmed in June 2018 at a former barracks of the German armed forces in the southern town of Mosbach shows a group of around half a dozen men in military-style gear moving in formation across sandy terrain, holding what appear to be assault rifles in a firing position.
Experts interviewed by the German public broadcaster ARD’s Monitor programme after viewing the footage classified the exercises as “combat training” – illegal in Germany unless carried out by active members of the military, police or private security companies and supervised by state authorities.
The exercise in Mosbach, however, was organised by Uniter, a private support network for active and former soldiers and security personnel. Its founder, André Schmitt, is known to have founded and administered a Germany-wide Telegram chat group, which had sub-groups in which so-called preppers discussed plans to build up parallel infrastructures in preparation for the anticipated collapse of the prevailing social order.
The group chat, which was divided into southern, northern, western and eastern districts, expanded in the autumn of 2015, when Angela Merkel’s refugee policy became the focus of the national debate in Germany. Members discussed the threat of terrorist attacks and how to respond to them by hoarding weapons, munitions and food supplies.
They have since dismissed their chats as “thought experiments”.
When approached by Monitor researchers, Schmitt, a former member of Germany’s Special Forces Command (KSK) who refers to himself as “Hannibal” in the group chats, said the exercises in Mosbach had been part of a medical training course and that participants only had airsoft guns.
Schmitt said in a statement: “The work of rescue workers and aid agencies in crisis and conflict zones is accompanied by so-called security elements.”
In an audio message heard by the Guardian and Monitor, however, Schmitt says the purpose of the exercise was to train “good infantry, who can be easily deployed, whether across Germany or anywhere”. When asked why he was trying to train infantry, Schmitt told Monitor they were needed “to support the medical response unit in the context of humanitarian UN missions”.
Internal documents presented on the programme suggest the exercises were part of “Kommando Pipeline” training designed to produce in its last phase “combat-ready” fighters trained in handling rifles and handguns, as well as close combat and urban warfare.
In recent months a number of investigations across Germany have tried to establish a fuller picture of the network’s activities. In November, a member of one of the northern German chat groups went on trial in the north-east city of Schwerin accused of illegally hoarding and stealing weapons, partly from the German military.
A member of the southern Südkreuz network, a disgraced former army officer known as Franco A, is to stand trial over alleged plans to impersonate a Syrian refugee and carry out a terrorist attack that would be perceived as motivated by Islamist extremism. Investigators found a Uniter badge at his home, though the association denies he was a member of the network.
Germany’s public prosecutor general is also investigating a police officer and a lawyer who are suspected of plotting to round up and murder “representatives of the political left”. The accused deny any such plans.