Operation White Milk How Austrian Intelligence Hid a Suspected Syrian War Criminal from the Law
When the henchmen of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad fled from the city of Raqqa in spring 2013, they left behind a rather strange instrument in the state security building: A wooden plank with a hinge in the middle and a crossbar on one end.
Bisat al-Rih is the name locals have given to the device, the "flying carpet." Yet despite the rather whimsical name, it is shorthand for a particularly ghastly method of torture, even by the standards of the Syrian regime. Victims are bound to the plank before it is then bent as far as possible along the hinge. Those who have experienced it say it quickly becomes difficult to breathe and the pain in their limbs and back is unbearable.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 37/2021 (September 11th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.
Now, eight years later, testimony from survivors and from former members of Assad’s security apparatus have provided a more precise account of the horrors committed by state security in Raqqa before the city fell to the Syrian opposition and, later, to the terrorist organization Islamic State. Prisoners were beaten with cables and plastic pipes, given electric shocks and tortured on the "flying carpet." There are also reports of rape.
The names of some of the perpetrators are known, but it will be difficult to bring most of them to justice. That, though, is not the case with the man who is allegedly responsible for the atrocities committed by the interrogation experts under his command: Brigadier General Khalid Muhsen al-Halabi.
Halabi, 58, was the head of Branch 335 of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate in Raqqa before fleeing to Europe via Turkey and Jordan following the fall of the city. Security officials in several EU countries have shown an interest in him and some have even sought to locate his whereabouts. Thus far, he is the highest-ranking Syrian government representative under suspicion of torture who has been discovered in Europe.
But Halabi has been living in complete freedom for the past several years – in Austria.
Together with the Austrian daily Der Standard, DER SPIEGEL has examined thousands of pages of files and spoken with victims, insiders and investigators. The reporting has revealed how Halabi was able to go into hiding and live a normal life in Europe – even as prosecutors in Germany, Sweden and France were working hard to drag Syrian war criminals into court. It is a story of an unprecedented public authority scandal.
At the same time, the story demonstrates just how discordant the interests of different intelligence agencies and criminal prosecutors can be. Some want information, and promise clemency in exchange. Others are more interested in trying criminals in a court of law. The Halabi case is an example of the worst of all solutions.
Austria’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT) smuggled the general into the country six years ago at the request of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Public prosecutors in Vienna have now begun investigating Halabi – as well as the Austrian agents who brought him into the country and who possibly protected him from criminal prosecution.
Former Syrian brigadier general Khalid al-Halabi in BudapestFoto: privat
The debacle began in March 2015. Four years after the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the Mossad received a BVT delegation in Tel Aviv, with an additional meeting following a few weeks later in Vienna. The agents reached agreement on a strictly confidential cooperation between the two agencies: Operation White Milk.
According to Austrian files, the Israelis had been able to recruit a "high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer" as an informant – Khalid al-Halabi. The former general was said to be "in possession of essential information about the Syrian intelligence apparatus." And, following the collapse of the Assad regime, which was still seen as a distinct possibility at the time, he could "potentially take on an important role in the Syrian state."
Halabi, as noted by a BVT agent, had initially settled in France. But there were "communication problems" with the domestic intelligence agency in France, which is why the Mossad wanted to bring the former Syrian general to Austria. In reality, a different problem was likely gumming up the works: The French asylum agency had voiced suspicions that Halabi was responsible for serious human rights violations in Syria. It looked as though his asylum application would be rejected in France.
A Plan B was needed.
Israel’s priority was that of protecting a high-ranking defector from its archrival Syria. A man who had extensive insight into the Syrian security apparatus and who possessed "extremely sensitive state secrets," as one file memo notes. A student of jurisprudence and a graduate of the military academy, Halabi had been in charge of counterespionage in Damascus before taking command of Branch 335 in Raqqa.
Austria was pursuing a different agenda. BVT has a notoriously bad reputation in the intelligence world, and the agency saw an opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with one of the best secret service agencies in existence. If a powerful partner like the Mossad asked for a favor, the BVT wasn’t going to say no.
In early 2015, BVT representatives again met with their Israeli counterparts. According to a memo, they agreed to deliver the "package" to Austria two weeks later. The "package," of course, was the former brigadier general Halabi.
According to the documents, Mossad agents apparently drove Halabi secretly out of France on June 13 before entering Austria by way of the former German-Austrian border crossing of Walserberg, located near Salzburg.
The BVT initially put him up in a hotel in the Schwechat neighborhood of Vienna and accompanied him two days later to his asylum hearing. During that hearing, Halabi claimed that he had left Syria because he didn’t want to join the regime or the rebels. "In either case, I would have had to kill," he said. "I didn’t want any blood on my hands." There is no record of his claim being challenged.
Halabi was recognized in Austria as a refugee, under the registration number 151965848. At a time when hundreds of thousands of legitimate refugees from Syria were looking for protection in Europe and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was demanding an "end to the invitation policies," a high-ranking member of the Assad regime received political asylum in Austria thanks to intelligence service intervention.
It could have been the beginning of a wonderful friendship between the Austrian spies and the Mossad. But in January 2016, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a research initiative, contacted officials in Vienna. They said they were in possession of information according to which a suspected war criminal was in Austria and asked for an appointment.
CIJA was founded by the Canadian Bill Wiley, a former war crimes prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague who made it his mission to document war crimes being committed in the Syrian civil war. Wiley’s commission received financing from countries like Germany, Britain and the United States.
Bill Wiley, who hunts down war criminals, in the file storage room of CIJA, the organization he founded.Foto: AFP
The organization is in possession of hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence incriminating both the Syrian regime and Islamic State. The evidence provides proof of systematic torture and executions in addition to massacres and the deployment of chemical weapons.
German prosecutors have relied on help from CIJA in some of its proceedings in the past. An arrest warrant issued by Germany for the former head of the Syrian air force intelligence agency was partially informed by information provided by the organization, and CIJA investigators also testified as witnesses in the first criminal trial worldwide against state-sponsored torture in Syria, which was held in the German city of Koblenz. One accomplice to torture has already been convicted.
In late 2015, CIJA investigators were able to locate Halabi in Vienna by way of his Skype profile. But when two CIJA representatives traveled to Austria in January 2016, a strange thing happened. During their meeting with two Justice Ministry delegates, two BVT agents were also present. They were apparently concerned that the cover on their strictly confidential cooperation with the Mossad, Operation White Milk, could be blown.
"It was very unusual," says Chris Engels, a CIJA director and a participant in the meeting. "You got the feeling that they had no interest in the case." Only later did he come to understand the dirty game being played by Vienna. For three years, the BVT did not tell Austrian prosecutors that they had brought Halabi into the country and were providing him with assistance.
We met with Engels in the unadorned conference room of a CIJA office in a large city in Europe. He asked that the city not be named, since he and his co-workers fear that the Assad regime could seek to take revenge. The Russians, too, are a thorn in their side. A steel door protects the investigators from unwanted visitors, and there is no sign.
Engels delivered everything he knew about Halabi to the Viennese Justice Ministry officials. "In other countries, they would have been excited," he says. But the Austrian officials, he continues, were reserved, saying that the material was insufficient for a conviction.
In May 2016, Austrian prosecutors did actually open an investigation into Halabi. But another problem cropped up, this one of a legal nature. In contrast to Germany, Austrian law only provides for the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed in 2015 or later. But Halabi had already left Syria by March 2013. And a newer amendment pertaining to torture could only be applied to a short time he spent with the state security agency. The case bogged down.
The torture device known as the "flying carpet" in the state security building in Raqqa.Foto: Bryan Denton
Initially, Halabi lived in a 32-square-meter (345-square-foot) apartment in the Favoriten neighborhood of Vienna, a flat that belonged to the father-in-law of a BVT agent. He was then able to move into a roomy, 111-square-meter (1,200-square-foot), four-room apartment in the 16th District. The monthly rent of close to 1,000 euros was paid out of a Raiffeisen Bank account that Halabi’s BVT handler had set up under the alias Alexander L. The BVT apparently received regular payments of 5,000 euros in cash from the Mossad to fill the account.
The Austrian agents took care of all of Halabi’s needs. They got him a mobile phone, a television hookup and an internet connection. They also arranged a language course for him and got him lamps for his living room. When a leak developed in the IKEA kitchen, the BVT arranged for a worker to come by to fix it. Halabi also received money from the Catholic charity organization Caritas, funding that was earmarked for "foreigners in need of help and protection." The sum amounted to between 200 and 320 euros per month. Despite the ongoing investigation, Halabi was even allowed to travel outside the country.
The case only moved forward in summer 2018 – thanks to external pressure. France filed a judicial request through Europol for an investigation into Halabi’s whereabouts, a request that went to all member states, including Austria. The French wrote that Halabi and the officials under his control were responsible for torture using electrical shocks and other abuses in Raqqa. Paris investigators who specialized in war crimes had taken an interest in his case. Vienna also received new information from CIJA.
One Syrian had reported that he had been tortured into making a confession in Raqqa. Afterward, he said he had been brought to the commander, who had condescendingly called a doctor. Former state security employees had also testified. One said that the screams of the prisoners echoed through the building, a former school. Halabi’s office was on the first floor, right next to the interrogation area.
Austrian security officials were suddenly alarmed. The country’s prosecuting office specializing in white collar crime and corruption opened an investigation into several BVT officials for abuse of authority, accusing them of having illegally smuggled a torture suspect into the country and having kept his location secret from justice officials. Most of the defendants in the case did not respond to a request for comment. Halabi’s BVT handler rejected the accusations via his lawyer. It was, the lawyer said, "a completely normal intelligence operation" within the boundaries of the law.
In October 2018, Austrian intelligence brought an end to its secret cooperation with the Israelis, who also declined to comment on the case when contacted. A short time later, the former Syrian general apparently disappeared without a trace. Criminal investigators only found leftover food rotting in his apartment.
But reporting by DER SPIEGEL and Der Standard has found that Halabi is again – or still – living in Vienna. He has obtained the services of a defense attorney. A few months ago, Viennese prosecutors summoned him to a hearing, during which he denied all accusations. During his time as head of Branch 335, he said, he never allowed abuse of any kind and claimed to be unaware of any violence, sexual or otherwise, perpetrated against the prisoners. His conscience, he said, is clear. "Many of the accusations are based on anonymous witness testimony or are extremely contradictory," his lawyer, Timo Gerersdorfer, said in a statement. "My client neither committed torture nor did he order others to do so."
Files in a former government building in RaqqaFoto: Bryan Denton
Meanwhile, NGOs from Germany, Austria and the U.S. have gathered more incriminating evidence and found additional witnesses. The Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), based in New York, co-represents – along with the Viennese organization CEHRI – 19 victims who are prepared to testify against Halabi in court. The survivors are eager to see the day when "they can confront one of their torturers in court," says Steve Kostas of OSJI.
One survivor is Obada Alhmada, a medical doctor who now lives in Germany. He still remembers the torture he was subjected to in Raqqa as if it were yesterday. He had participated in protests, and secretly sent video from those demonstrations to foreign television broadcasters. Over the phone, he says that he was apprehended by five or six regime henchmen and beaten with fists and rifle butts. In the state security building, they then tried to force him to reveal the names of demonstrators. Then, Alhmada recalls, he was transferred to a prison, and was lucky to later be released. "The truth must come out," he says.
Viennese prosecutors, though, still haven’t filed charges – after more than five years of investigations. "Because of its foreign aspects" and the difficulties with reaching relevant witnesses, it is "extremely complex," the prosecutors’ office said when contacted for comment.
Austria has, however, revoked Halabi’s asylum status. But his lawyer has appealed. As of today, Assad’s general remains a free man.