In the summer of 1975, Willi Voss was left with few alternatives: prison, suicide or betrayal. He chose betrayal. After all, he had just been betrayed by the two men whom he had trusted, and whose struggle had forced him to lead a clandestine existence.
It was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's closest advisers who had used him and jeopardized his life: Abu Daoud, the mastermind behind the terror attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, and Abu Iyad, head of the PLO intelligence service Razd.
Voss, a petty criminal from West Germany's industrial Ruhr region, in cahoots with Palestinian leaders who were feared around the world? It took a number of coincidences and twists of fate in Voss' life before he found himself in such a position, but here he was on a mission for the Palestinians -- in a Mercedes-Benz, traveling from Beirut to Belgrade, together with his girlfriend Ellen, so it would all look like a vacation trip.
His job was to deliver the car, Iyad and Daoud had said. But they had neglected to mention that the Mercedes contained automatic weapons, a sniper rifle and explosives, which were hidden in a secret compartment and consisted of a number of packages, each weighing 20 kilos (44 pounds) -- complete with fully assembled detonators made of mercury fulminate, a highly unstable substance. If Voss had gotten into an accident or hit a deep pothole, he, the car and his girlfriend would have been blown to pieces.
Voss only found out about his dangerous cargo when Romanian customs officials tore the vehicle apart. The only thing that saved the 31-year-old and his companion from ending up behind bars was the fact that the PLO maintained excellent ties with the Romanian regime. Romanian officials placed the two Germans in a car driven by a couple of pensioners from the Rhineland region, who were on their way back home to Germany after a vacation. Voss and his girlfriend hopped out in Belgrade. This was the end of the road for them -- and, as Voss recalls today, the day when they had to make a fateful decision: prison, suicide or betrayal?
Becoming a Defector
Prison: In Germany there was a warrant for Voss' arrest. A few years earlier, he had been taken into custody during a raid at the Munich home of a former SS officer who was in league with neo-Nazis. Investigators had secured weapons and explosives from the PLO along with plans for terror attacks and hostage-taking missions in Cologne and Vienna.
Suicide: Voss and his companion spent three days and nights in a tawdry hotel in Belgrade, where they continuously debated whether they should put an end to their lives. But they decided against this option as well.
That left only betrayal. Voss and his girlfriend went to the American embassy, demanded to speak to a diplomat and made the statements that would add yet another twist to his already eventful life: "I am an officer of Fatah. This is my wife. I'm in a position to make an interesting offer to your intelligence agency."
Voss became a defector. He went from being an accomplice of Palestinian terrorists to a member of the US intelligence agency -- from a handmaiden of terror to a CIA spy. As if his first life were not eventful enough, Voss opted for a second life: as a CIA spook with the codename "Ganymede," named after the kidnapped lover of Zeus, the father of the gods in Greek mythology.
His career as an undercover agent took him from Milan and Madrid back to Beirut and the headquarters of the PLO intelligence service. "Ganymede" provided information and documents that helped thwart attacks in the Middle East and Europe. Duane Clarridge, the legendary and infamous founder of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, even gave him the mission of catching top terrorist Carlos, "The Jackal."
Today, as he sits in a Berlin café and talks about his life, the gray-haired man clad in a black leather jacket appears at times bitingly ironic, at times shy and prone to depression -- making it all the more difficult to reconcile him with the daredevil who lived through this lunacy.
Voss, who was called Pohl until he adopted the name of his first wife, often says: "That's exactly how it was, but nobody believes it anyway" -- as if he himself had trouble tying together all the loose ends of his life to create a coherent biography. He is 68 years old and wants to get one thing straight: He has never been a neo-Nazi, he insists. "I was a stray dog -- one that had been kicked so often that it wanted to bite back, no matter how," says Voss. "If I had met Andreas Baader at the time," he contends, "I would have presumably ended up with the Red Army Faction."
It's a statement that only becomes plausible when one considers the other formative experiences of his life. He recounts that his childhood was marred by violence, sexual abuse and other humiliations. "As a child, I constantly faced situations in which I was completely powerless," says Voss, "and that triggered a naked fury, utter shame and the feeling that I was the most worthless thing in the world."
As a teenager, he sought to escape this world by joining a clique of young rowdies whose dares including stealing mopeds for joy rides. That got him a year in juvenile detention.
This could have led to a small, or even substantial, career as a criminal in the industrial Ruhr region. But in 1960, Voss met Udo Albrecht in prison, who later became a major figurehead in the German neo-Nazi scene. Albrecht fascinated his fellow prisoners with his dream of using mini submarines to smuggle in diamonds from the beaches of southwest Africa.
Yes, he actually believed this nonsense at the time, admits Voss. Politics didn't come into the picture until later on, he says, when the two jailbirds met in another prison in 1968. This time Voss was doing time for breaking and entering. "Albrecht talked and acted then like an unabashed Nazi," says Voss. But he says that this did nothing to diminish his friendship with the self-proclaimed leader of the "People's Liberation Front of Germany."
Hooking Up with the Palestinians
Voss' connection with the PLO began when he helped smuggle his buddy Albrecht out of prison in a container. The neo-Nazi slipped away to Jordan, where he hooked up with the Palestinians. When Daoud, the architect of the Munich massacre, asked him if he knew a reliable man in Germany, Albrecht recommended his prison pal from the Ruhr region.
Voss made himself useful. In Dortmund he purchased a number of Mercedes sedans for Daoud -- and he established contact to a passport forger in his circle of acquaintances. Today, Voss believes that he was even involved in the preparations for the Munich attack. For a number of weeks, he says, he drove the leader of Black September, a terrorist group with ties to the PLO, "all across Germany, where he met with Palestinians in various cities."
The Palestinians used him to handle other jobs, as well: "I was to hold a press conference in Vienna, in which I would comment on a mission that I would only find out about once it was successfully completed," as the PLO chief of intelligence Iyad had told him. When Voss saw the images on TV, he realized that the "mission" was the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Instead of securing the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, as the hostage-takers had demanded, it ended in a bloodbath: Nine Israeli hostages, five Palestinian terrorists and one German policeman died.
Six weeks later, Voss was arrested in Germany. He had machine guns and hand grenades that stemmed from the same source as the weapons used by the Palestinian hostage-takers in Munich. This marked the beginning of wild negotiations initiated by Voss' lawyer Wilhelm Schöttler, who sent a letter with a "classified" offer to Federal Minister for Special Affairs Egon Bahr.
The offer was simple: Release Voss to allow for negotiations with Black September. The objective was to prevent further attacks on German soil. Today, it is known that high-ranking officials at the Foreign Ministry met with the lawyer, who was considered a right-wing radical, and discussed an ongoing series of demands until March 1974, when then-Interior Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher decided to end the negotiations.