Ausgabe 50/2005

CIA Operations in Germany Cooperation and Concern from Berlin

New revelations about the secret operations of US intelligence services in Germany has increased pressure on the government to explain what exactly the CIA has been up to. The Americans frequently work discretely with German approval and with German intelligence agencies. But often they are simply quietly tolerated.

Lebanese-born German citizen Khaled al-Masri.

Lebanese-born German citizen Khaled al-Masri.

In their eagerness to capture a supposed terrorist, Khaled al-Masri's abductors broke the law, took him to Afghanistan and allegedly mistreated him for months at a secret camp there. In the end, they simply dropped the 42-year-old off on a roadside in the Albanian mountains.

When al-Masri later tried to enter the country of his tormentors, American investigators detained him once again. But this time the Americans were anxious to get rid of the German citizen as quickly as possible.

After Delta Airlines flight Dl-117 from Stuttgart landed in Atlanta shortly after 4 p.m. on Nov. 28, the two passengers from seats 30F and 30G in Economy Class didn't even make it to the passport checkpoint. As soon as al-Masri and his attorney, Manfred Gnjidic, reached the end of the jetway, two officials took them aside and told them that they wanted to ask them a few questions. When the lawyer reached for his mobile phone, a third US official snapped: "It looks like you're reaching for a gun. Put it back, or I'll shoot."

After an interrogation lasting more than an hour, the officials said that Gnjidic was welcome to enter the United States, "but not Mr. al-Masri," who was deported immediately. Unable to get a direct flight back to Germany, and seeking to avoid a night in US detention -- "It reminded of the first time I was kidnapped," says al-Masri -- the man finally boarded a flight to Stuttgart via Paris.

Now he's back home in the town of Senden an der Iller, about 10 kilometers from the southern German city of Neu-Ulm. Senden is about as far away from jihad as a typical German prison is from the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. It's a model community, a town of clean sidewalks surrounded by the flat Swabian countryside, a place where city dwellers come to relax. It's also a town of 23,000 sufficiently inquisitive neighbors who live up to the cliché of Germans being thorough -- at least when it comes to making sure nothing is out of place in their community.

But the Americans were mistaken if they thought that they would be getting rid of al-Masri by sending him back to the German countryside. Last Tuesday, the Lebanese-German was beamed in via satellite to join a press conference given by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington. When the pony-tailed al-Masri appeared on the screen at 9:39 p.m. wearing a suit jacket, his shirt open at the collar, the major US television networks were on hand with their cameras rolling. When the devout Muslim described his brutal treatment at the hands of CIA agents, it was immediately clear that the press conference would be a PR disaster for the US government.

Even some Bush supporters are beginning to feel that their country's war on terror has gotten out of hand. Despite its complexities and the fact that some of the details remain unresolved, the al-Masri case has exposed one important reality: The CIA, America's overseas intelligence agency, has behaved just as ruthlessly on the sovereign territory of its allies as anywhere else. Germany, for one, isn't just a cooperative partner for the CIA. Germany is also an operations region, sometimes with and sometimes without the knowledge of German authorities -- even when this violates German law.

Quiet German tolerance

German intelligence officials estimate that more than 100 CIA officials are currently working in Germany, although only the Americans know the exact number. They work at the US Embassy in Berlin, but also in Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg and, together with German intelligence agencies, at the German counterterrorism center in Berlin. Some of their work is as mundane as writing reports and discussing analyses, but they also recruit sources and observe suspects. And whenever the US agents, operating in Germany under the title "Joint Intelligence Services," become too conspicuous, German officials don't seem to have any qualms about looking the other way. "When these kinds of problematic cases land on our desks," says an interior minister of one of Germany's states, "we keep one eye tightly shut, so that we don't end up having to do something that would be very embarrassing."

Because of this unwritten policy, the normal diplomatic procedure of deporting anyone who is discovered to be an agent -- a fate that befell the Russian consul in Hamburg late last year -- only rarely applies to the Americans. On the contrary, US agents have benefited tremendously from the Germans' special relationship with their erstwhile liberators from abroad.

Thanks to the Cold War, the CIA managed to gain a stronger foothold in Germany than in any other European country. In no other country were so many active US agents, and in no other country were they as appreciated as in the former West Germany.

To this day, the CIA is a natural partner for German intelligence agencies when it comes to counter-intelligence. For example, when Germany military counter-intelligence discovered in the summer of 2004 that Russian consul Alexander Kusmin was trying to extract information from a German army employee, the Cologne-based agency turned to the CIA for assistance. Together, the Germans and the Americans observed the Russian diplomat during several suspicious meetings, and ultimately tried to bring him over to their side. If Kusmin had been willing to switch sides, the CIA would have provided him with a new identity.

But in many cases the Germans are kept completely in the dark when it comes to the CIA operations in Germany. The Americans' aggressive approach is also controversial among German security agencies. According to one agent, many Germans resent their American big brothers, "who are always taking and are only willing to give when it serves their interests." And, as to be expected of people operating in the spy game, the typical American agent trusts only one person -- himself.

Targeted in Neu-Ulm?

This image released 17 January, 2002 by the FBI and the US Justice Department shows Ramzi Binalshibh.

This image released 17 January, 2002 by the FBI and the US Justice Department shows Ramzi Binalshibh.

The idea of not keeping an ally in the loop, even when one of its own citizens is at issue, apparently applied to al-Masri, whose name was on a CIA blacklist. According to the official version, it was a case of mistaken identity. One of the key al-Qaida figures behind the September 11 attacks, a Yemeni living in Hamburg named Ramzi Binalshibh, allegedly mentioned the name of "Khalid al-Masri" as someone who worshipped terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and provided the Hamburg terrorists who committed the Sept. 11 attacks with tips during a chance meeting. This, at least, is the version documented by the US commission investigating the attacks. According to the report, the German Muslim from Neu-Ulm became the target of an illegal abduction because agents confused him with the man Binalshibh had mentioned, who remains at large to this day.

All of this fits the picture of al-Masri that has existed in Neu-Ulm until now. In 1985, al-Masri, the son of Lebanese parents, emigrated to Germany from his war-torn homeland. He first worked as a carpenter and, in 1995, became a German citizen. Al-Masri is a soft-spoken man with green eyes who speaks German with a Swabian dialect. After completing his carpentry apprenticeship, he worked as a truck driver for some time and eventually drifted into the used car business. He is married, has five young sons and is considered a well-integrated immigrant.

The affair began on a very private level, with an ordinary marital spat. According to al-Masri, the quarrel was so severe that he felt the need to spend a week alone, to have some time to sort out his thoughts. With the objective of embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, says al-Masri, he simply took a look at a map and picked out the Macedonian capital, Skopje, which is near the country's border with Kosovo.

Just why al-Masri was so attracted to this volatile region, of all places, is one of the unanswered questions in what one German government official calls a "case rife with comic twists and contradictions." Al-Masri's explanation is simple and to the point: He says that he remembered that friends had once said that Skopje was a good place for a cheap vacation. But he never arrived in Skopje, at least not officially. He was last seen on Dec. 31, 2003 at Kumanovo, a border crossing between Serbia and Macedonia.

A second, considerably more disturbing version of the story suggests that the abduction might be more than just a simple mistake, but rather part of a secret CIA plan that was first hatched in the southern German countryside.


© DER SPIEGEL 50/2005
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