SPIEGEL Interview with the Head of Germany's Foreign Intelligence Agency 'Guantanamo Sends the Wrong Signal to the Muslim World'
Ernst Uhrlau, 60, president of the German foreign intelligence agency, the BND, discusses the groups hoping to benefit from al-Qaida's brand name, the damage done to the US's reputation by Guantanamo and the threat from Iran.
The BND has headquarters in Berlin (shown here) and Pullach near Munich.
Uhrlau: When dealing with the issue of how to end a hostage crisis, every German administration in the past has made it clear, with good reason, that it does not discuss the mechanisms used to reach a successful outcome. What applied most of all then, and continues to apply today, is that we will not make any statements during an ongoing hostage crisis. That's the same policy I will apply in the current situation (the kidnapping of Hannelore Marianne Krause and her son Sinan).
SPIEGEL: Not all of your counterparts are as reticent. In the case of the Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in early March, the Afghan government openly admitted that it exchanged five Taliban prisoners for the hostage.
Uhrlau: This is an approach that is highly controversial internationally, and rightfully so. You yourself stated the German government's position on the issue: The German government will not allow itself to be blackmailed through hostage taking.
Uhrlau: The way the videos have been produced shows that we are clearly dealing with professionals here. But as far as I am concerned, this does not constitute a qualitative change in the nature of the threat. Before Sept. 11, 2001, Germany was not involved in the so-called "crusade," as violent Islamists refer to the struggle against terrorism. Nevertheless, both the Sept. 11 attackers and North African jihadist groups had spent time in Germany and planned their attacks there. Germany has been and remains part of a common European zone which is in danger of attack. Islamist terror is structured as a transnational network. Its principle is to be able to strike anywhere and at any time. That includes strikes in and against Germany, although we do not have any current information about concrete plans for terror attacks.
SPIEGEL: But for a long time people thought that terrorists would just use Germany as a base for planning attacks elsewhere.
Uhrlau: We mustn't fool ourselves. From the standpoint of the sponsors of terrorism and their accomplices, we belong to the "crusaders." German soldiers are deployed in Afghanistan, and the German navy is patrolling the waters off the Horn of Africa and in the Mediterranean off the Lebanese coast. From the perspective of the terrorists, we have adopted a clear position in this conflict -- they see us as being on the side of the attackers.
The German woman Hannelore Marianne Krause and her son Sinan are currently being held by Iraqi militants. The group is threatening to kill them if Germany does not withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.
Uhrlau: It doesn't change very much, in my opinion. If you take a look at developments, you will see that the number of attacks has also increased in the supposedly quiet north, though not to the same extent as attacks in the south. In many cases, it was only the defensive measures taken by troops on the ground that prevented serious casualties. In other words, German soldiers have become the targets of attacks, even without the decision to send Tornados to Afghanistan. And German soldiers have been killed in attacks. From the point of view of the Taliban and al-Qaida, even those involved in reconstruction efforts are opposed to Islam and its values.
SPIEGEL: The Taliban and al-Qaida are apparently using Pakistani territory as a base for their operations. Is the government of President Pervez Musharraf not willing or able to play a decisive role in combating terrorism?
Uhrlau: Pakistan has a great interest in stopping al-Qaida activities on its territory, arresting suspects and pursuing leads. However, there are some very difficult areas in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan and, to some extent in Afghanistan itself, which resist being controlled by security forces. Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and jihadists operate in a border zone that is very difficult to monitor, and they operate in a safe environment with tribal structures which support al-Qaida or the Taliban, or at least do not hand them over to the authorities. Pakistan is making considerable efforts, but unfortunately those efforts are reaching their limits.
SPIEGEL: How successful has al-Qaida been in reorganizing?
Uhrlau: Both the Taliban and Al-Qaida have, without a doubt, managed to revitalize themselves as transnational networks. But the fact that al-Qaida has re-grouped doesn't mean that there is once again a classic centralized structure like the one that existed before Sept. 11, 2001. The organization has adapted itself. A number of groups in North Africa have recently joined al-Qaida, hoping to benefit from its brand name and thus be regarded as major players by the media. Nowadays al-Qaida is much more of an ideological umbrella organization which has the strategic objective of triggering conflict in the Muslim world with non-Muslim regimes. The focus of the struggle is always in the region in question.
SPIEGEL: If this is true, then it doesn't make much difference whether Osama bin Laden is dead or alive?
Uhrlau: No, it doesn't. The Islamist terrorist offensive is currently a self-sustaining process. The capture or killing of bin Laden is seen as part of this struggle. Bin Laden is the one providing the ideas, the supplier of ideology; in other words, a Ché Guevara for the Islamist networks. Bin Laden, and especially Ayman al-Zawahiri, succeed again and again in responding very quickly to political and military developments.
SPIEGEL: What role does the Internet play in that process?
Uhrlau: The Internet has to some extent taken over the role that the training camps in Afghanistan once played. Al-Qaida is a group that espouses a social and religious step backward, and yet it uses the Internet, an instrument of the modern era, with great efficiency. The Internet is a medium that is used for the purposes of preparing attacks, training and propaganda. To address this problem, Germany's intelligence agencies, including the BND, set up the "Joint Internet Surveillance Center" in Berlin in January.
SPIEGEL: Five and a half years after Sept. 11, the issue of how to deal with terrorism suspects has become highly controversial in the United States. To what extent have Guantanamo, secret prisons and CIA abductions harmed the war on terror?
Uhrlau: Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have become an international rallying cry for jihadists today. This has led to a polarization that is counterproductive. If we intend to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world, then Guantanamo -- along with all the related issues in the public debate -- sends the wrong signal. However, US officials have also explained to us that the information they gained from various interrogations worldwide has been instrumental in preventing further attacks and uncovering terrorist structures. So we have benefited from all this in the sense of preventing attacks and understanding the structures of the networks, but not when it comes to criminal proceedings.
SPIEGEL: To repeat the question, to what extent has the US government's brutal approach undermined political successes?
Uhrlau: Guantanamo has certainly become a propaganda tool for groups that seek militant terrorist conflict with the United States or its allies. And it has not helped to strengthen the image of the US as a so-called "soft power" in the public imagination.
SPIEGEL: Is it fair to say that the concept of Guantanamo has become a kind of "motivational program" for Islamist terrorists around the world?
Uhrlau: No, not Guantanamo -- more likely the images from Abu Ghraib.
SPIEGEL: When we think of Guantanamo, we see prisoners in cages who claim they have been tortured.
Uhrlau: I do have to ask whether there is actually evidence that the inhuman practices shown in the images from Abu Ghraib were also used with the prisoners in Guantanamo. I do not myself have any direct experience of what goes on, or has gone on in the past, in Guantanamo. I only know the same pictures that you have seen. I see the prisoner transports, I see prisoners in overalls and I see chains. But what triggered such a heated debate in the United States and internationally in 2004 were the images from Iraq, from Abu Ghraib. But the intense controversy about the issue in the United States also underscores just how strong American civil society, and its resolve to critically address the US's own behavior, is.
SPIEGEL: What would happen if there was an attack similar to 9/11 in Germany and the German government set up a military base with a prison camp on, say, the Heligoland islands off Germany's northern coast?
Uhrlau: There is absolutely no comparison!
SPIEGEL: But is it inconceivable?
Uhrlau: It is inconceivable even as fiction.
- Part 1: 'Guantanamo Sends the Wrong Signal to the Muslim World'
- Part 2: 'I Decided to Treat Kurnaz as Dangerous'