How a US soldier’s death in Afghanistan ended up in a German court, 4 years later
By MARCUS KLOECKNER AND JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 27, 2018
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The trial of a young Afghan refugee accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan began quietly in Munich last month in a case that will set a precedent in Germany for judging a foreign combatant for alleged crimes in another country.
Although prosecutors say it’s the first time Germany has tried anyone for an alleged role in the death of a U.S. soldier abroad, the case against Abdol Moghadas S., 20, has received little attention.
The trial, expected to conclude in March, comes nearly four years after Pfc. Christian Jacob “Jake” Chandler was gunned down and killed while on a combat patrol in Afghanistan in the spring of 2014.
Chandler was 20 years old.
Abdol — whose full name has not been released in accordance with German law — also was 20 when he was arrested in Bavaria about a year ago.
Abdol has been charged under German law with “collaborated murder” and “attempted murder,” among other crimes. The charges stem from a legal change that came after the 9/11 attacks, which allows German authorities to prosecute a foreign combatant. The unprecedented case has lifted the hopes of a dead soldier’s mother eager for justice while shattering the hopes of a refugee seeking a fresh start.
The case is also unusual for its ambiguity. Prosecutors last year told Stars and Stripes that they weren’t sure who they were accusing Abdol of killing.
There is no mention of a soldier’s name in the 60-page indictment. Abdol’s defense lawyer only heard Chandler’s name when it was mentioned — although not in a charge — on the opening day of the trial.
Abdol isn’t being sent back to Afghanistan for trial for many reasons. His rejected asylum application still is under appeal and Germany won’t extradite defendants when the death penalty is a potential punishment.
Others familiar with the case cite political motivations — it gives Germany a chance to show it’s doing something about radicalism.
German law allows an accused to be tried even if the victim’s identity is uncertain. What needs to be certain is that there is a victim. Prosecutors say in this case there is, based on Abdol’s confession during his asylum hearing that he was present at an attack in which a U.S. soldier was killed.
The only other soldier killed in combat where Abdol was known to be in 2014 was Spc. Kerry M.G. Danyluk, who was wounded in Afghanistan and died several days later in Germany at the military hospital in Landstuhl.
The Army’s account of the fight where Chandler died more closely matches the description in the indictment.
‘They were wrong’
More than three years after she lost “Jake,” Rhonda Beazley never expected to hear that a suspect could go on trial for her son’s death. That it’s happening in a foreign country is even more surprising, she said.
“I have never been so shocked or speechless in my life,” said Beazley, who learned of the charges soon after a story appeared in Stars and Stripes last year. “You just kind of go back into that numb spot that you live in after that knock on the door comes.”
Beazley will never forget what she describes as the knock “that every military family dreads and desperately prays that they will never experience.”
It was April 28, 2014, and Beazley was running about 15 minutes late at her job as a nurse caring for babies with congenital heart defects.
Her daughter Katie — Chandler’s younger sister, who was 11 — had just arrived home from her grandmother’s house. She called Beazley and told her “there were people in uniform back at the house,” Beazley said. Her daughter said: “They’re in dress blues.”
At her doorstep was an Army chaplain and a sergeant.
“I tried to convince the officers that they were mistaken,” Beazley said. “I screamed at them that they were wrong, that my son couldn’t possibly be dead, that there was no way that this could happen.”
Beazley had communicated with her son nearly every day, mostly via Skype and Facebook. Her last text to him was earlier that day, “the stupidest question,” she said in retrospect, about new volleyball shoes that Katie needed. Beazley never heard back.
“I just sat on the stairs of our front door, holding my daughter, both of us crying,” she said.
Chandler was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y.
Beazley was told her son was killed earlier that day, when his patrol was attacked in Logar province.
While Beazley reeled from the news, Chandler’s fellow soldiers back in Afghanistan were dealing with his death. After Chandler’s platoon arrived back at base, the first sergeant pulled in the rest of Chandler’s unit to tell them that Chandler had died.
John Swanson, one of the platoon members, was Chandler’s captain.
For Swanson and the other soldiers, Chandler’s death was a big loss. Swanson, now assigned to Fort Riley, said he was uncomfortable talking about the attack. The platoon “was cut deep that day,” he told Stars and Stripes. There is “a hole that is only filled with memories and what-ifs,” Swanson said. The loss of their comrade “was the single hardest and worst day of our lives.”
The soldiers won’t talk about Chandler’s death with Beazley, she said, “so I don’t ask.”
“Half of them still can’t make direct eye contact with me,” she said. “They will hug me and hold on and shake and tremble. They can’t talk about it.”
A Taliban deserter
In the early morning of Feb. 17, 2017, in the small Bavarian town of Schnaitsee, German special police forces arrested Abdol, who told authorities he had fled Afghanistan in fear after deserting the Taliban.
Five months later, German federal prosecutors announced criminal charges against Abdol for his alleged role in two attacks on U.S. soldiers and Afghan government troops as a Taliban member.
Abdol lived in a three-story refugee home in the town’s center, reported the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, a national daily. He played volleyball at a local sports club and won trophies for kickboxing in the nearby town of Traunreut, the newspaper reported.
Wolfgang Bachleitner, a member of a refugee support group in Schnaitsee, said Abdol showed “great engagement” by using his translation skills to help other refugees, the paper reported. Bachleitner declined to speak to Stars and Stripes.
Thomas Schmidinger, the mayor of Schnaitsee, told Stars and Stripes that he had not met Abdol. Schmidinger said he heard that Abdol did not try to hide his past: “He must have talked openly about the fact that he fled from the Taliban.”
Abdol is charged with being an accomplice to murder and attempted murder in a 2014 attack on a U.S. convoy near the border of eastern Logar and Wardak provinces. The prosecutors allege that Abdol joined a local Taliban group in 2013 in the Baraki Barak district of Logar province. They say he was issued a Kalashnikov automatic rifle, a Russian Tokarev pistol and several hand grenades.
The indictment alleges he used these weapons in attacks on foreign military convoys in 2013 and 2014. During an ambush in early 2014, Abdol is alleged to have been among more than 20 Taliban who attacked a U.S. convoy with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, killing one soldier and wounding two others.
The attack occurred on a connecting route from the town of Baraki Barak to Wardak province, according to the indictment. The Army said that Chandler was killed by small arms fire in Baraki Barak district in April 2014.
The only other U.S. soldier to die in combat in Logar province in 2014 was Danyluk. He died April 15, 2014, at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center from wounds sustained in an attack three days earlier in Pul-e-Alam, Logar province — far from the connecting route mentioned in the indictment.
However, Danyluk’s name was mentioned in court as a possible victim when the trial opened, said Abdol’s defense lawyer, Marc Juedt.
The Army did its own investigation into Chandler’s death, but the report was not made public.
Beazley read the report and turned her only copy of the investigation over to an FBI agent, who told her there was a suspect in custody in Germany and “they were bringing charges against him,” possibly for the death of her son, she said.
While the German indictment describes an attack in which one U.S. soldier was killed and two were wounded, Beazley knows of only one soldier injured in the attack with her son, citing the Army’s report.
“They were on a reconnaissance mission,” Beazley said of Chandler and another soldier in his unit. “They left their truck and were walking over a small ridge toward a village when they were ambushed.”
Both soldiers were shot. Chandler took a bullet to the left side of his chest, Beazley said. “It ended up knocking him out,” she said. The other soldier was able to call for help, she said. Medics worked on Chandler back at base but couldn’t save him. “There was too much blood loss, too much damage,” she said.
Crackdown on Islamic extremists
Abdol revealed details of the attack against the U.S. convoy in an asylum application last year, according to the indictment.
Soon after joining the Taliban at 16, he began to work for Afghan intelligence against the Taliban, according to the indictment. He says he fled Afghanistan after the Taliban became suspicious of him.
Juedt told Stars and Stripes that his client feels no ill will toward Americans.
“He did not become a Taliban because of hate toward Americans but for certain life circumstances,” he said, which will likely be revealed during the trial.
Federal prosecutors believe Abdol is an Islamic extremist. They dismiss his claim that he didn’t aim his weapon at the Americans during the attacks in which he is alleged to have participated.
The case is part of a crackdown across Germany on suspected Islamist radicals, as the country looks to prevent terrorist attacks that have killed scores in Europe in recent years.
In 2014, the federal prosecutor’s office investigated 117 individuals suspected of participating in acts of terrorism both within Germany and abroad, a spokesman told Stars and Stripes. Of those, 60 percent had ties to radical Islam, said the spokesman, who declined to give his name, which is customary for the office. Figures for how many of those individuals were later tried were not available.
Last year, the federal prosecutor conducted 1,200 investigations, with 85 percent of defendants suspected of having a radical Islamist background.
Jan Bockemuehl, chairman of Bavaria’s defense lawyer association, defended a client in Germany’s first trial under the International Criminal Code a few years ago in Stuttgart.
He believes that many of the cases against foreigners accused of Islamic extremism should be tried in their home countries or before an international court.
“It is extremely difficult to find incriminating or exonerating evidence if we deal with a crime that took place in a country far away,” he said. Not only is there is the language barrier when questioning the accused and witnesses, it’s difficult to research crimes in the country in which they happened, Bockemuehl said.
“In cases like these, we as defense lawyers have to do something that is almost absurd: We have to rely on the evidence the prosecution will present,” he said.
German prosecutors recently announced that Abdol will be tried as a juvenile, meaning he faces a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. It also means the trial won’t be open to the public.
So far, Beazley is trying to keep her emotions in check.
“I would love justice,” she said, but “I let go of the anger quite a while ago. I realized that it was fruitless, that all it was going to do was just tear me apart.”