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.

'We Can Attack and Bring a Speedy End to the Matter'

The relevant government agencies had already reached a basic agreement in November, under which the GSG-9 would be responsible for "hostage situations." To be on the safe side, Hanning's superior, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), put in a call to Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, who is also a Christian Democrat. Jung was pleased to hear Schäuble telling him that the GSG-9 would handle the operation. The elite police unit has more experience with kidnappings and can act without fear of legal repercussions, the logic being that the job of law enforcement is to hunt down criminals, giving the German parliament, the Bundestag, no excuse to get involved. An attack by the KSK, on the other hand, would be a military operation, which requires parliamentary approval. Besides, Jung is seen as a man who prefers not be in the forefront.

Ironically, Bundeswehr forces were already relatively close to the freighter when it was hijacked. When radio operators on board the Rheinland-Pfalz received the distress call from the captain of the Stavanger, the German navy frigate, piloted by Captain Markus Rehbein, was 250 nautical miles away. By that point, the Stavanger was already bound for Harardere, and it appeared that there were only five or six pirates on board.

For the team at the Foreign Ministry, preventing the pirates from reaching Harardere was of paramount importance, because they would likely receive reinforcement there. There was no time to be wasted, and for Silberberg, the situation was clear: "As long as there are only five pirates on board, we can attack and bring a speedy end to the matter." Hanning's staff assured him that the GSG-9 team could be ready for deployment at the nearest secure port, Mombasa, within 96 hours -- a very short time frame for an operation of this magnitude. But, as it turned out, it would take the pirates only 24 hours to reach Harardere.

The Rheinland-Pfalz has a crew of more than 200 men and is armed with artillery, rockets and helicopters. It was capable of stopping the pirates. It even had a special team of about a dozen men trained to board hostile ships, the " Navy Specialized Deployment Force." But the naval unit had never been trained to rescue hostages. Stopping the hijacked ship would not have been a problem, but the issue was complicated by the presence of hostages.

When the pirates discovered the German frigate, the captain of the Hansa Stavanger, fearing for the lives of his crew, sent a radio message to Rehbein, the frigate captain, asking him to keep his distance. Rehbein complied and did not intervene.

A second opportunity arose a few days later. After being taken to Harardere, the Hansa Stavanger suddenly left the coast again, but now with 14 armed men on board. The pirates had decided to rush to the aid of another pirate gang that had boarded the American container ship Maersk Alabama in the Indian Ocean and was now being chased by the US Navy.

The contrasts between the case of the Maersk Alabama and that of the Stavanger couldn't have been more glaring. The crew of the American freighter defended itself the minute the pirates came on board, forcing the Somalis to flee in a small lifeboat. But the pirates had kidnapped the ship's captain, Richard Phillips. The crisis ended a few days later when US Navy SEAL snipers shot three of the pirates and rescued Phillips, who was unharmed.

As the pirates on board the Hansa Stavanger rushed to the rescue, they were tailed by a second German frigate, the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The Somalis, unable to find their fellow pirates, drifted around the Indian Ocean for days. Meanwhile, back in Berlin, the members of the crisis team concluded that German forces had to be able to either recapture the Stavanger or at least prevent it from returning to Harardere. Under cover of darkness, 18 special forces troops parachuted out of a Transall military transport plane near the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where they were picked up by a rubber raft and taken to the frigate. The troops, part of an elite Bundeswehr unit, had orders to be prepared to board the hijacked ship.

The crisis team considered stopping the hijacked ship by firing a warning shot across its bow or firing at its rudder. But the question of how the soldiers were to rescue the hostages remained unanswered.

Meanwhile, the frigate diligently continued to follow the Hansa Stavanger at a distance of a few nautical miles, but without attacking. The pirates, after searching for their comrades in vain, returned to Harardere, where they dropped anchor.

Schäuble and State Secretary Hanning criticized the military officials for wavering too long. By then, the consensus of the first few days among government officials had fallen apart. Hanning, dissatisfied with the Bundeswehr's handling of the matter, turned to the Americans for help, and the Interior Ministry requested the use of the USS Boxer.

Senior officials at the Foreign and Defense Ministry were not enthusiastic about the idea. Defense Minister Jung's state secretary felt that the German ships were sufficient, and the Foreign Ministry was opposed to depending on the help of others. The diplomats feared that the Americans would insist on taking a more offensive approach against the pirates, but no one anticipated that they would, in fact, eventually take precisely the opposite position.

Despite these objections, the Interior Ministry managed to submit an official request for assistance to the Americans. Washington approved the request and provided the Germans with the use of the USS Boxer, an enormous helicopter carrier, which was ready to be deployed. The ship's berth at the port in Mombasa was sealed off and containers were stacked around its hatchway, preventing unwanted observers, even on the surrounding hills, from seeing the heavy German equipment being loaded onto the vessel.

But the mission still faced logistical problems. To transport the GSG-9's six special helicopters to Africa, Hanning's elite unit needed large cargo aircraft, which it had to lease from a Russian-Ukrainian company. The Interior Ministry requested several Antonov transporters, but the company was unable to deliver the number of aircraft needed on such short notice.

The first ransom demand had been received by then. The pirates used the ship's satellite phone to contact the shipping company, demanding $15 million (€11.4 million) in ransom. Officials at the Hamburg-based shipping company quickly made the necessary preparations to begin negotiations. Its insurance company, which expected to pay a ransom, eventually, had also sent a representative.

On April 10 -- Good Friday -- the German government was finally ready to act. On Easter Sunday, two Antonov An-124, three Ilyushin Il-76 one Transall and one Airbus departed for Mombasa, loaded with weapons, explosives and six "Puma" and "Bell" helicopters. The Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), Germany's disaster relief organization, managed the logistics, and the GSG-9, after having sent an advance commando earlier, deployed the remainder of the team, comprising more than 200 men.

The military equipment was slipped through the Mombasa airport -- a delicate matter for the Kenyan government, which seeks to avoid open confrontation with neighboring Somalia. The German Embassy in the Kenyan capital Nairobi sent a verbal notification of the arrival of each individual military transport to the Kenyan authorities, including a vague mention of military material and thanking the Kenyans for their cooperation.

The fact that the Kenyans were willing to cooperate was partly due to the efforts of Walter Lindner, the German ambassador in Nairobi, who used his contacts within the government to ensure that the operation went smoothly. In a text message, Lindner wished "Dear Moses" Wetangula, Kenya's foreign minister, a happy Easter and added the brief message: "Let's talk later this week." In plain language, the ambassador's message meant: We prefer not to discuss the details of these unusual shipments at this time.

Meanwhile, the GSG-9 had set up its headquarters at the Bahari Beach Hotel in Mombasa. A banner across the entrance to the hotel, a popular destination for German tourists, reads: "World of TUI," a reference to a leading German tour operator. In the GSG-9 command center, on a floor of the hotel directly above the lobby, the curtains were drawn and sheets of cardboard were placed in the window frames. Technicians set up satellite dishes outside, and inside the command center, the lights were kept on day and night.

The frogmen, snipers and paratroopers did their best not to attract attention by crowding around the buffet or congregating too conspicuously at the pool. Nevertheless, a group of men with unusually broad shoulders, muscular physiques and shaved chests are bound to be noticed, especially when they spend minutes underwater and swim at high speeds through the pool, passing elderly women doing water aerobics. The men also attracted attention at the bar where, instead of drinking the Tusker Beer on tap, they would order glasses of water with a slice of lemon.

The negotiations were already underway in Hamburg by then. The pirates had reduced their ransom demand to $6 million (€4.5 million), but it was still too much for the shipping company, which countered with an offer of $600,000 (€450,000). It was the usual game of pirate poker, in which losing one's nerve means losing the game.

At the Bahari Beach Hotel, the situation was becoming serious for Olaf Lindner, 42, the head of the legendary GSG-9 for the past three-and-a-half years. Lindner, a reserved man, polite but determined, knew that Berlin would eventually ask for a decision. He was also aware that it probably be the most difficult decision he had ever made. If all went well, there would be many winners. If the mission failed, he would be expected to shoulder much of the blame.

A Return to Ransom Negotiations

The Boxer set sail at 5:00 p.m. on a Thursday, two weeks ago. The next morning, once the warship was no longer in sight, the GSG-9 pilots flew their helicopters from Mombasa to the Boxer. An escort of four German ships with a total of 800 men on board joined the Boxer: the frigates Rheinland-Pfalz, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Emden , and the Berlin, a supply ship.

After almost three days, the convoy reached the waiting position off Harardere. Lindner knew that the pirates always kept six hostages on the bridge of the Stavanger, while the rest were hidden below deck. The GSG-9 commander counted roughly 30 pirates, armed with machine guns, pistols, Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers. The weapons were rotated on a regular basis and the ship was kept brightly lit.

The situation couldn't have been more difficult. Lindner weighed his options. He could send the helicopters, but the pirates would hear them approaching and possibly kill the hostages. Instead, he devised a combination approach. The frogmen would approach the Stavanger first, bringing along inflatable dinghies and their underwater tractors. Then they would use suction equipment to climb up the ship's side. The pirates would likely open fire and the frogmen, facing a hail of bullets, would seek to protect the hostages. Only then would the helicopters arrive.

But there were at least two groups of hostages. The frogmen could quickly reach the hostages on the bridge, but the labyrinthine passageways below deck on a typical freighter could become a death trap.

The issue of risk assessment sparked a dispute among government officials. Silberberg requested a written assessment from the federal police. At first, Hanning said that the assessment was not yet available, but then he described the risks verbally, telling Silberberg that the secrecy surrounding the mission prevented him from providing further details.

The officials at the Foreign Ministry, feeling left out of the loop, were growing increasingly impatient with the Interior Ministry. When the crisis team met again on Monday evening, the state secretaries were in favor of proceeding with the operation, and Silberberg was also on board. Although the team envisioned launching the mission on either that Wednesday or Thursday night, many of the details remained unresolved.

The head of the GSG-9 was also undecided. Lindner, who was able to communicate with the team in Berlin on a secure line from the Indian Ocean, was under tremendous pressure. He insisted that further observation was necessary and that he wanted to wait for the right opportunity -- hardly ideal circumstances for successfully completing a sensitive operation.

Steinmeier, who had departed on a last-minute trip to Afghanistan and expected the attack to take place on Wednesday night, took along a telephone equipped with a coding function.

On Wednesday, Silberberg contacted his superior in Kabul to notify him of an unconfirmed piece of news that was making the rounds in Berlin: The US military was strongly opposed to the use of force to rescue the Stavanger and wanted to withdraw the Boxer.

The rumor became official that afternoon, when US National Security Advisor James Jones called Christoph Heusgen, the chancellor's foreign policy advisor. At approximately 6:00 p.m., Heusgen notified the relevant state secretaries of the American decision. It was clear, even before the crisis team met that day, that the operation would have to be cancelled. Hanning acted decisively, as he had done in the preceding weeks, calling for a withdrawal and ordering the GSG-9 team to return to Germany.

Officials in Berlin now face the question of what went wrong. The operation lasted for three weeks, at a cost to the German treasury well in excess of the combined ransom payments of recent years. The failed campaign demonstrated that without improved logistics and available aircraft and ships, the GSG-9 is incapable of operating swiftly enough in comparable situations.

The obvious solution seems to be to concentrate such rescue operations in the hands of the Bundeswehr, but this would require the military to be more effectively prepared for foreign missions. To date, Defense Minister Jung has managed to muster neither the power nor the means to bring about the necessary reforms.

Back in Somalia, the process of resolving the hostage crisis has returned to what Berlin refers to as the "normal approach": The haggling over ransom money between the shipping company and the hostage-takers. There is still a divide of €2 million or €3 million between the pirates' demand and the shipping company's offer. But the pirates are considered relatively predictable, and are expected to release the hostages for roughly $2 million.

The German naval frigates are still patrolling the Indian Ocean off the coast of Harardere. The Germans could pursue the pirates once they have released the hostages in return for the ransom. That too would be a signal. But perhaps they will simply continue observing from afar.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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