Mission Impossible German Elite Troop Abandons Plan to Free Pirate Hostages

In a massive secret operation, Berlin sent members of its elite GSG-9 police force to Somalia to free hostages and a German freighter captured by pirates there, but the commandos were called off before the rescue effort could begin. The scuppered operation reveals deficits in Germany's security forces.


The situation room at the German Defense Ministry, on the 5th floor of Berlin's Bendler Block building complex, was built as a place where secret, life-and-death decisions are made. The room is so secure that German Chancellor Angela Merkel once complained that she couldn't even send a text message from it.

Last Wednesday, at approximately 7 p.m., the government's key state secretaries were sitting around the birch conference tables in the situation room, where they had met almost daily for the past three weeks to address a crisis brewing off the coast of Somalia. The officials were there to manage one of the biggest secret operations in postwar German history. Elite members of the GSG-9 police force were on the verge of boarding a German freighter, the Hansa Stavanger, which had been kidnapped by Somali pirates.

A Transall military transport plane awaits GSG-9 elite forces preparing to return home after an aborted mission to free hostages from pirates in Somalia.

A Transall military transport plane awaits GSG-9 elite forces preparing to return home after an aborted mission to free hostages from pirates in Somalia.

The Americans had lent the Germans one of their ships, the USS Boxer, to use as their flagship in the planned attack -- and a fleet of German Navy vessels flanked the enormous helicopter carrier. The ships had been patrolling near the Hansa Stavanger for days, waiting just beyond the horizon to evade detection on the pirates' radar screens.

Speaking in the situation room in Berlin, Interior Ministry State Secretary August Hanning came directly to the point. US National Security Advisor James Jones, he told the group, had called the Chancellery to cancel the operation. The US government, worried that the operation could turn into a suicide mission, was sending the USS Boxer back to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, where the German forces were to disembark. Officials at the German Federal Police headquarters in Potsdam, outside Berlin, concerned about the potential for a bloodbath, had also spoken out against the operation.

"The operation cannot take place," Hanning told the group, noting that the pirates were vigilant and prepared for an attack, and that "the risk is too high."

As a result, the operation ended before it actually began. It has been almost 32 years since the GSG-9 stormed a Lufthansa airliner, the "Landshut," in the Somali capital Mogadishu, freeing hostages from the control of four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who had hijacked the aircraft. The case of the Hansa Stavanger, this time off the Somali coast, seemed sufficiently symbolic to justify another potentially successful rescue operation, though on a much larger scale. More than 200 members of the elite police force, equipped with helicopters, speedboats and advanced weapons, had been secretly brought, via Kenya, to a location 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the German freighter.

Although the dramatic narrative of the cancelled rescue operation is an example of great resolve on the part of German and American authorities, it also points to deficits. It shows that, in such extreme situations, the German government is essentially incapable of deploying its law enforcement authorities in a purposeful way. And even if the mission had proceeded according to plan and had been successful, it is worth noting that there are parts of Somalia where even Germany's highly sophisticated, elite forces would be ineffective -- places where such operations would be nothing short of a Mission Impossible.

The cancellation of the freighter rescue operation represents a heavy setback for German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a Christian Democrat (CDU), and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat (SPD). The two ministers were intent on ending this hostage crisis militarily, if at all possible, and they had the backing of Chancellor Merkel, who had asked for regular updates. Schäuble and Steinmeier, weary of the dollar diplomacy of the past few years, were eager to set an important international precedent -- to let the world know that the Germans are no longer willing to pay up when blackmailed by gangsters and terrorists, and that they are capable of a more forceful response.

German citizens have been kidnapped and taken hostage on numerous occasions in various remote parts of the world. Since 2005, a crisis team at the German Foreign Ministry has been called upon to resolve more than 20 such cases, with money exchanging hands in almost every instance.

The government was determined to break this pattern but, as it turned out, it had overestimated its capabilities. What began as an effort to send a signal of strength ended up, in the Stavanger case, as a sign of impotence.

This could have serious consequences. German sailors can now expect to become prime targets for pirates, in contrast to their French or American counterparts, whose governments have not hesitated to use force to rescue their citizens.

The German government's handling of this crisis was not exactly serendipitous. This time it was not the usual political spats within Merkel's Grand Coalition government of conservative Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats compounding an already tricky mission, but quarreling among the relevant government agencies. In the end, it was both the qualms of the Federal Police and the new administration in Washington that nixed the operation. There are undoubtedly senior ministry officials in Berlin who are grateful to the Americans for halting an operation that could very well have ended in disaster.

Although there was no shortage of resolve in Berlin, the Germans did lack the means to complete the operation successfully. There is a vast divide between Berlin's sensitivities and the raw reality of African pirates, who care very little about turf wars among German bureaucrats. The case exposes serious deficiencies in the Germany security apparatus.

Although the GSG-9 is constantly being trained for maritime missions, it lacks the logistics for speedy operations beyond German borders. The German military, the Bundeswehr, can provide the logistics, but it in turn lacks a sufficient number of readily deployable special operations forces. There is poor cooperation between the two organizations, while strategists are hampered by legal restrictions. And in some cases the Germans simply lack the necessary equipment. In the case of the Hansa Stavanger, the German government had to borrow aircraft and an American helicopter carrier to transport its close combat experts within range of the freighter. But by the time these preparations were complete, three weeks had already passed since pirates captured the ship on April 4.

On that Saturday, the Somali pirates attacked the Hansa Stavanger at a point far out in the Indian Ocean. For the pirates, the crew of the ship -- owned by the Hamburg-based Leonhardt & Blumberg shipping company -- is even more valuable than its cargo of containers. In addition to Russians, Ukrainians and Filipinos, the crew includes five Germans.

After boarding the ship, the pirates ordered the crew to steer it toward Harardere, a notorious pirate stronghold. At least 17 hijacked ships are currently at anchor off the Somali coast, and about 300 crewmembers are being held hostage.

The first radio transmission arrived in Germany that Saturday morning. By early afternoon the Federal Police, which includes the GSG-9, had developed an organizational structure.

The crisis team met at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin the next morning. It was a Sunday, and yet, for the disaster management experts at the interior and foreign ministries already accustomed to such crises, it was almost business as usual.

But one aspect of that Sunday morning meeting was out of the ordinary. This time, the group was operating on relatively scant information. The pirates had not made contact or issued any ransom demands yet. Nevertheless, there was unanimous agreement within the crisis group that it was time to take matters to a new level. This time, they were determined that no one was going to pay any ransom money -- neither the shipping company nor the federal government. This time, shots would be fired, if it came to that. "This is the litmus test over whether the country is capable of ending this sort of drama without paying a ransom," said one member of the crisis team.

The two men leading the meeting that morning are in the process of making an important change to Germany's security policy. One was Reinhard Silberberg, 55, Steinmeier's state secretary at the Foreign Ministry and the head of the crisis team. A career diplomat, Silberberg has a reputation for being self-confident -- a man who holds a dim view of dropping off sacks of money somewhere in Africa.

The second man was August Hanning, 63. As the former head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, Hanning has experienced many hostage crises. He is the driving force behind the government's policies on security issues, and he is convinced that a tough approach is sometimes necessary.

Hanning and Silberberg have worked together during hostage crises for close to four years. There is a latent tension between the two men that sometimes leads to conflict. Hanning was long convinced that the Foreign Ministry was too weak and too quick to make deals. Silberberg argued that he would support the use of force, but that it was usually the law enforcement agencies that balked when called upon to take part in such action.

They were determined that it would be different this time. On the morning after the hijacking, the state secretaries on the crisis team agreed that Germany would strike back. They also agreed that the GSG-9 would carry out the mission, not the Bundeswehr's KSK Special Forces unit.


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