The Germany coup plot: How QAnon is dangerously evolving in Europe

ADVERTISEMENT

The Germany coup plot: How QAnon is dangerously evolving in Europe

Experts say unlike groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, when it comes to QAnon, there’s no centralized structure or leadership that can be targeted.

The Germany coup plot: How QAnon is dangerously evolving in Europe
THE NEWS

German special forces arrested 25 suspected members and supporters of a domestic terrorism organization Wednesday, accusing them of plotting to overthrow the country’s government and install Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss, a descendant of the German royal family, as head of state. The operation was carried out by some 3,000 police and special forces in early morning raids.

In addition to Heinrich, those arrested include a member of the far-right Alternative For Germany party who had served in parliament, a Russian citizen, and a number of former German soldiers.

According to law enforcement officials, the heavily armed group had formed a shadow government it planned to install in power if the plot had succeeded, though it’s not clear how close they got to acting on their plans. Prosecutors also say the group was heavily influenced by the online conspiracy QAnon, which has been heavily influential in American politics.

THE CONTEXT

There’s a long history of far-right terrorism in Europe, but the involvement of QAnon in this case will raise some eyebrows. The online conspiracy movement, which holds, among other beliefs, that there’s a cabal of political and media elites involved in Satan worship and child sex trafficking and posits former President Donald Trump as a savior figure, might seem quintessentially American. But as Grid has previously reported, QAnon is an “umbrella conspiracy” that overlaps with other beliefs and is highly adaptable to new political contexts.

This has allowed it to take root in Europe, particularly in Germany, where it has been taken up by far-right extremists and neo-Nazis as well as other fringe anti-establishment groups, including “New Age” alternative health proponents and anti-vaxxers. The movement’s growth was turbocharged by the backlash against coronavirus restrictions and covid vaccination efforts. Much of the world first took notice of Germany’s QAnon scene in August 2020, when a crowd of protesters against coronavirus rules, many of them displaying QAnon flags and paraphernalia, attempted to storm the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament.

After Wednesday’s arrests, the movement will be even harder to ignore.

— Joshua Keating

MISINFORMATION LENS

QAnon ideology fits in with other right-wing conspiracy movements

The 25 suspects, according a statement from the prosecutor at Germany’s Federal High Court of Justice, have ties to QAnon, as well as the Reichsbürger (Citizens of the Reich), a fringe right-wing, white supremacist movement. “The members of the group follow a conglomerate of conspiracy myths consisting of narratives of the so-called Reichsbürger and QAnon ideologies,” federal prosecutors said. “They are firmly convinced that Germany is currently governed by members of a so-called ‘deep state.’”

There’s significant overlap between QAnon and the Reichsbürger movement in Germany, somewhat akin to America’s “sovereign citizens,” which holds that the modern German state is an illegitimate construct and that the 1937 borders of the German empire still exist. The Reichsbürgers have been linked to a number of acts of violence including the murder of police officers. Those arrested this week were also linked to the movement, according to authorities. Estimated to have around 21,000 members, the movement “operates in small groups and virtual networks, but also comprises individuals without attachment to any structures,” according to Reuters.

Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies, explained to Grid’s Joshua Keating in a piece he did while a reporter for Slate, that QAnon “is just a natural addition to their [the Reichsbürger] mindset.”

Federal prosecutors said the group began planning an attack in November 2021. Preparations included “procurement of equipment, the implementation of shooting training and the recruitment of new members.” The Wall Street Journal reported that the group used the messaging platform Telegram and met in a property owned by a member of the group.

“According to the current status of the investigations, the suspected terrorist group uncovered today is driven by fantasies of violent overthrow and conspiracy ideologies,” Nancy Faeser, German Federal Minister of the Interior and Community, tweeted.

The group, which involves former members of the German military, was prepared to use “violence” and “military means” with the intention of “overcoming the existing state order in Germany and replacing it with its own form of government.”

According to a report from NewsGuard, QAnon support started to gain traction in Germany as early as 2017. QAnon followers fueled the 2016 #Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claimed that Hillary Rodham Clinton and other Democratic officials were involved in a child sex ring, operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza shop. In March 2017 the German version of the conservative outlet, Epoch Times, wrote a story headlined “#Pizzagate: Wave of missing children in Washington alerts citizens — the police lack explanation,” the NewsGuard report claimed.

From 2018 to 2020, QAnon websites and social media groups began appearing on European social media channels, according to the report. In Germany specifically, the Facebook group #QAnon 2020 Facts (which has since been deleted) gained 5,000 followers in only a few months. The now-deleted German QAnon YouTube channel Qlobal Change had 99,600 subscribers, the report notes.

— Khaya Himmelman

SECURITY LENS

QAnon really gained momentum in Europe during covid

In the U.S., the number of deaths linked to terrorists motivated by far-right beliefs now surpasses those linked to jihadists since 9/11. Counterterrorism researchers and law enforcement officials are increasingly turning their focus to QAnon and related conspiracies as an acute security threat — much in the way they once looked at Islamist extremism. (This is a pivot from the years leading up to the Jan. 6 riots, when U.S. law enforcement was frequently accused of downplaying right-wing extremism.)

Between 2018, when the movement first emerged, and 2021, 22 violent incidents and plots in the U.S. were linked to QAnon, according to an analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies — nine of which could be classified as terrorism, including a poorly planned assassination plot targeting President Joe Biden and an armed standoff at the Hoover Dam.

In Europe, where jihadist terrorist attacks are still more common than right-wing terror and where QAnon is a more recent import, the movement has not gotten as much attention — but that’s starting to change. QAnon in Europe was turbocharged by backlash to covid lockdowns and vaccination requirements. In addition to the attempted storming of the Reichstag, a recent report from the EU law enforcement agency Europol documented a growing number of “threats made against politicians, government representatives, and health authorities”

In October 2021 a QAnon-financed and organized kidnapping of a girl in France from her grandmother’s home by her mother (an adherent of the conspiracy) got significant media attention across Europe. The incident is believed to have been the first crime in Europe linked to the movement.

In 2020, a far-right extremist named Tobias Rathjen killed 11 in a shooting spree at two Shisha bars frequented by Turkish immigrants in the city of Hanau, Germany, before killing his mother and himself. Described in subsequent reports as an “extremely online” individual, Rathjen’s social media posts showed he was an adherent of the “Great Replacement” theory, the conspiracy, also popular with American QAnon adherents, that politicians and Jewish elites are colluding to bring nonwhite immigrants into the West. While he never directly referenced QAnon, Rathjen also ascribed to a number of other theories related to the movement, including one holding that the U.S. military is torturing children at a network of underground military bases.

The Hanau case highlighted the degree to which QAnon-style beliefs often overlap and dovetail with other far-right causes. “QAnon is almost like a parasite. It just kind of latches on to these other extremist movements and ingratiates itself,” Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism and extremism researcher at the Soufan Center, told Grid.

European governments are starting to do what their U.S. counterparts have done: put a greater emphasis on right-wing extremism as a whole. The German government recently announced a plan consisting of 89 measures to tackle right-wing extremism at a societal level. The country’s Defense Ministry has also announced measures to combat the increasing problem of far-right infiltration of the country’s military.

“This is a huge inflection point for Europe,” said Clarke. “They’ve been so focused on jihadists, and they still have a bigger problem with homegrown jihadism than we do, but they’re also dealing with the rise of the far right.”

Clarke says that one challenge in addressing the problem is that unlike groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, when it comes to QAnon, there’s no centralized structure or leadership that can be targeted.

Then there’s the Russia angle: The New York Times has reported that one of those arrested Wednesday was a Russian citizen and that the group that carried out the attempted coup had at least tried to contact the Russian government about the plan; it’s unclear if they got a response. This will raise new concerns over the degree to which Russian government-backed disinformation efforts plays a role in spreading conspiracy theories. In the U.S., there has also been increasing overlap between theories pushed by Kremlin propaganda and those originating in QAnon forums.

“The Russians are always surfacing in these stories, right?” Clarke noted. “They try to amplify divisive issues, many of them conspiratorial. That’s a key component of what they do in the social media space. It’s low-hanging fruit for them and when you look at how it ties up Western security agencies dealing with this stuff, they clearly get a return on investment.”

— Joshua Keating

Thank you to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.

  • Khaya Himmelman
    Khaya Himmelman

    Reporter

    Khaya Himmelman is a reporter at Grid. A former misinformation reporter for the Dispatch, she is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Barnard College. Khaya has appeared on CNN to discuss misinformation in the media.

ADVERTISEMENT

Related Stories

Donald Trump is embracing QAnon more openly than ever before: ‘It’s obviously concerning’

Donald Trump is embracing QAnon more openly than ever before: ‘It’s obviously concerning’Donald Trump is embracing QAnon more openly than ever before: ‘It’s obviously concerning’

A QAnon expert talks about why and how the ex-president is amplifying the violent conspiracy movement.

‘No Dumb Questions’: What is QAnon?

‘No Dumb Questions’: What is QAnon?‘No Dumb Questions’: What is QAnon?

Grid reporters answers questions that many are asking — and aren’t really “dumb” at all.

15 QAnon-linked candidates have won key primaries in 2022. The GOP and its leaders are embracing them.

15 QAnon-linked candidates have won key primaries in 2022. The GOP and its leaders are embracing them.15 QAnon-linked candidates have won key primaries in 2022. The GOP and its leaders are embracing them.

Some candidates with conspiracy ties are getting big help from a Republican Party eager to retake the House.