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What is Germany's Intelligence Service Doing in Iraq?

Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007

What exactly is the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, doing in Iraq? Although the public has had occasion to be aware of the BND presence, up until now most will have been led to believe that the BND has been "quietly" cooperating with American and coalition authorities. Even more skeptical observers will have assumed that it is at least not cooperating with America's enemies in the country. But a photograph published earlier this month in the German weekly Stern provides disturbing evidence that it is doing precisely that. (See here on the Stern website.)

The photo depicts a middle-aged man in traditional Arab dress posing in front of an inlaid door with two other men on either side of him. The two other men, seemingly guests of the man in Arab dress, are wearing Western "casual wear": jeans and an untucked plaid-shirt and loose-fitting pullover, respectively. The "host" smiles benignly into the camera. Stern has obscured the faces of the other two men, but reports that they are "beaming with good cheer."

The Iraqi "host" has been identified as Sheikh Jamal Al-Dulaimi; the other two men as agents of the BND, the German equivalent of the CIA. As it happens, Al-Dulaimi is regarded by Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigations (BKA), the German equivalent of the FBI, as the principal suspect in the alleged 2005 kidnapping in Iraq of German archaeologist Susanne Osthoff. Osthoff disappeared -- supposedly taken hostage by a hitherto unknown "resistance" group with the colorful name "Stormtroops of the Earthquake" -- on Nov. 25, 2005. According to the Stern account, the photo of Dulaimi and the two BND agents was taken on Nov. 24: the day before the kidnapping.

Osthoff was turned over to the custody of the German Embassy in Baghdad some three weeks later, on Dec. 18, following payment of a ransom estimated at $5 million. The German government has never officially confirmed the ransom payment, but it is now universally accepted in the German media that ransom was paid. Barely a month after Osthoff's release, two further Germans were taken hostage in Iraq. When asked if the ransom money paid for Osthoff may have encouraged the kidnappers in the new case, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier replied: "not the ransom money, but the reports about it."

In late January 2006, the German weekly Focus, citing BKA sources, reported that some $4,000 of the ransom money was found on Osthoff's person at the German Embassy in Baghdad. The report gave new life to already widespread speculation in Germany concerning Osthoff's possible involvement in her own alleged abduction.

Such speculation was fueled both by the open solicitude she expressed for her supposed kidnappers and the numerous inconsistencies and gaps in her inevitably bewildering accounts of the affair. (For details, see my January 2006 reports "More Euros for Terror" and "Susanne and the Baathists".) Osthoff claimed that she had been seized by followers of the late Al-Qaida-affiliated terror chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who mistook her for a "Jewish" spy. (On the "Jewish spy" remarks, see here.) It did not help the credibility of her story that she, for example, described her abductors addressing her on a familiar first-name basis as "Miss Susanne" -- after pulling her out of the trunk of their car. "They clarified the situation for me," Osthoff explained, oddly reassuringly.

But perhaps the strongest indication of Osthoff's involvement with her alleged kidnappers is her -- apparently to this day unbroken -- friendship with none other than Sheikh Jamal Al-Dulaimi. Osthoff's self-professed conversion to Islam and her odd penchant for wearing burqas in her earliest appearances in the German media following her release led many casual observers to conclude that she is a Jihadist fellow-traveler. But, as I have discussed in "Susanne and the Baathists," a closer inspection of her biography and her own pronouncements suggests that her true allegiance in the current Iraq conflict lies rather with remnants of the deposed Baathist regime.

Jamal Al-Dulaimi represents a case in point. Al-Dulaimi has been identified in numerous German press reports as a former personal physician of Saddam Hussein. An earlier Stern article from Dec. 23, 2005, identifies him rather as a former officer of the Baathist secret service, the Mukhabarat. All the reports concur that Al-Dulaimi hails from the Baathist stronghold of Fallujah. The December 2005 Stern article cites the account of an unnamed "foreign friend" of Dulaimi who in 2004, at the height of the local anti-American insurgency in the city, drove through the middle of Fallujah with the Sheikh: "unmolested and greeted with reverence by men whom as a Westerner one should otherwise do one's best to avoid."

Osthoff is known to have lodged in Al-Dulaimi's villa during her stays in Baghdad. It is Al-Dulaimi, moreover, who provided her the driver in whose car she would allegedly be abducted on the morning of Nov. 25, 2005. (The driver is likewise considered a suspect by the BKA.) Indeed, on her own account, Osthoff apparently set off on the trip from the Al-Dulaimi residence. "Jamal's wife made me breakfast," she remarked pleasantly in a January 2006 interview with Stern.

The newly published photo reveals, however, that it was not only Osthoff who had amiable contact to the chief suspect in her "kidnapping," Al-Dulaimi, but also local agents of the German BND. Osthoff is known in turn to have had extensive -- and, on her own account, highly amiable -- contacts with local BND agents in Baghdad. It was indeed the Osthoff case that first brought the BND presence in Iraq to public attention, when reports of these contacts surfaced. Osthoff was surely not herself a BND agent, as a sensational UPI headline from January of last year implied, but she does appear to have served as an informant for the agency: in particular -- and again, on her own account -- passing information to her BND "friends" on impending terror attacks. It was her "duty as a German," she said. That she was privy to such information is yet another indication of her proximity to local terror milieus.

Almost immediately after the coverage of the Osthoff case brought to light the BND presence in Iraq, reports appeared in the German and then, in short order, the English-language media to the effect that two BND agents stationed in Baghdad had "helped" American forces with actionable intelligence during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This supposedly "embarrassing" revelation was based exclusively on anonymous sources and, on the German domestic scene, it was quickly denied by German government officials and dismissed as unfounded by the German Bundestag's intelligence oversight committee. (For contemporaneous reports, see the "BND Affair" dossier on Transatlantic Intelligencer.) Nonetheless, it created the reassuring impression for the American public that Germany, despite the German Red-Green coalition's vociferous opposition to the Iraq War, had continued to act as a loyal ally.

Thereby, it diverted attention from the considerably more embarrassing and, prima facie, more plausible possibility that German agents in Baghdad were pursuing their country's own manifestly -- at least as far as the Red-Green coalition was concerned -- conflicting agenda. This possibility was potentially all the more embarrassing inasmuch as the BND presence had come to light in connection precisely with an apparently staged hostage-taking and the payment by the German government of millions of dollars to a presumably Baathist-inspired "resistance" group. It should, moreover, be recalled that even though the Red-Green coalition had been voted out of power, the "Red" component, in the person of Foreign Minister Steinmeier, remained in charge of German foreign policy. It was during Steinmeier's tenure as coordinator of German intelligence services under Gerhard Schröder that a BND representative, according to an Iraqi document published in the British Daily Telegraph, in early 2002 proposed to establish a "relationship" with Iraqi intelligence "under diplomatic cover."

The newly published photo, needless to say, raises new questions about the possibility of direct BND involvement in the affair. While vaguely invoking these questions, the German media have largely avoided posing them explicitly. Thus, for example, in a revised version of its story that appeared two days after the first publication of the photo, Stern vigorously spun its own revelation as merely an indication of the BND agents' dangerous indiscretion and "dilettantism." Citing supposed testimony of Osthoff herself, it even reassuringly noted that she moved out of the Sheikh's villa -- and into the BND residence -- as soon as it became clear to her that he was playing a role in the "resistance." This account stands in obvious contradiction both to the Stern's own prior reporting -- the above-cited December 2005 Stern article has Osthoff moving out because the Sheikh's wife had the annoying habit of looking through her luggage -- and to Osthoff's numerous statements of sympathy for this very same "resistance."

In any case, interviewed on the popular German talk show "Beckmann" a few days later (Jan. 8, 2007), Osthoff denied that she had any knowledge of Al-Dulaimi's involvement in the "resistance" and continued to express nothing but gratitude toward her former host. "Up till now he's never said to me, 'Hello, I kidnapped you!'," she objected when the question of Al-Dulaimi's motive for having her kidnapped was raised. Osthoff acknowledged knowing the two BND agents: "Of course, I know them." "And I know others, not only those two guys!" she added, suggesting that the BND presence in Iraq is larger than has been hitherto admitted. She claimed indeed to have served as interpreter for the two agents during the meeting with Al-Dulaimi documented in the photo. "Dear Sheikh, we're Germans, you know, and we're also against the inhuman conduct of the Americans," she related them saying by way of introduction. Referring excitedly to the January 2006 reports of her keeping part of the ransom money, Osthoff also inadvertently let slip that she had signed an agreement with German authorities as to what she can or cannot say concerning her case: "These things that I had to sign . . . that I am not permitted to say -- suddenly they're splashed all across a magazine!"

This fact perhaps helps to explain the impression Osthoff invariably gives in her public interviews of being under extreme duress and the incoherent -- virtually delirious -- quality of her discourse, which sounds like a weird mix of fact and fiction. "That is a woman who has something to hide," the psychologist Christian Lüdke commented to the German daily Die Welt after one such appearance in late December 2005. It would seem that Germany's BND does as well.

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations. His work has appeared in English, French and German in publications such as Policy Review, The Claremont Review of Books, The New York Sun, Les Temps Modernes, Le Figaro and Merkur.