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Germany Pays for Terror: Hannelore Krause and the Iraqi Hostage Industry

Friday, July 27, 2007

Earlier this month, on July 11, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced the release from Iraqi captivity of German-born hostage Hannelore Kadhim -- or, as he called her, "Hannelore Krause." The now 62-year-old Kadhim and her son Sinan were reported to have been kidnapped from their Baghdad home in early February. Speaking before the assembled media at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, Steinmeier noted: "At the present time, I can tell you nothing about the background to the release," before adding: "And I ask you please to refrain from any speculations. . . ." Most of the German media obediently complied, just as most of the German media -- and the American media -- has obediently followed the German government's lead in referring to Kadhim by her maiden name: thus reinforcing a connection to Germany that in light of the four decades she has lived in Iraq might otherwise appear rather tenuous.

This was not, moreover, the first time that the foreign minister had had the occasion to make such a request. Already in January 2006, when German engineers René Bräulich and Thomas Nitzschke were kidnapped somewhere north of Baghdad, Steinmeier was asked whether the seizure of the two engineers might have been provoked by the $5 million ransom that Germany reportedly paid merely weeks before to obtain the release of archaeologist Susanne Osthoff. "Not the ransom payment," he replied curtly, "but the reports about it."

But despite the discretion shown by the established media this time, if one is to judge by the comments in German Internet forums, blogs and on the Web sites of Germany's major newspapers and magazines, the German public is not in doubt: Germany has yet again paid ransom to obtain the release of a hostage in Iraq. "They've milked the BRD again," one Jochen wrote, for instance, on the site of daily Die Welt: "Or, better said, they've milked those who -- as always -- end up holding the check: the tax-payers." "I do not even want to know how much the ransom payment was," one Stefan wrote, "And I do not even want to imagine what the terrorists are going to do with this money."

Ever since the disappearance of Susanne Osthoff in November 2005, the constant refrain of Foreign Minister Steinmeier and German Chancellor Angela Merkel after each new hostage-taking has been: "Germany does not allow itself to be extorted" ["Deutschland lässt sich nicht erpressen"]. This pretense, however, quickly began to crumble when, shortly after Osthoff's release, reports emerged that part of the ransom money had been found on the person of none other than Susanne Osthoff herself. (See here for a translation of the original report and, at greater length, my "Susanne and the Baathists.") In their haste to deflect the obvious inference that the kidnapping had been staged and that Osthoff has been complicit in the operation, German officials appeared to forget their pro forma denials that Germany had ever paid ransom in the first place. Shortly after the May 2006 release of Bräulich and Nitzschke -- who had been in Iraq all of two days when they went missing -- German public television ARD reported that the German government had paid $10 million to obtain their release: thus seemingly confirming a stable value of Germans on the Iraqi hostage market of $5 million per.

But the skepticism displayed by the German public toward government assurances in connection with the Kadhim/Krause kidnapping is not only a product of experience, but, above all, a matter of common sense. As Robert Ménard of the French NGO Reporters Without Borders put it in June 2005, alluding to the impending release of French hostage Florence Aubenas and what he claimed was some $15 million that had been paid to obtain to it: "There is no release of hostages unless something is given in return." When the French government quickly issued statements denying that any ransom had been paid, Ménard shot back: "Everybody knows that is not true." The ostensible "political" demands made by the group holding Krause, moreover, were universally dismissed by terrorism experts in Germany as unserious. Indeed, the very fact that an Iraqi militant group should be making political demands on Germany was in and of itself peculiar. What more, after all, could they ask of Germany: a country that led the opposition to the Iraq War and that has been conspicuously unforthcoming with aid or support for the new Iraqi government since? Thus, in two hostage videos that turned up on the internet on March 10 and April 3 respectively (see here and here), the kidnappers threatened to kill Kadhim and her son within ten days unless German troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan. "I don't believe that anyone in Baghdad at the moment is really interested in what is going on in Afghanistan or that there are German troops there," Guido Steinberg of the Berlin-based Wissenschaft und Politik think-tank remarked on ARD. Both deadlines passed without any new developments.

Adding to the mystery, in the second of the videos, the kidnappers extended their demands also to Austria! On the tape, Kadhim herself explains that she had once worked in the Austrian embassy and that "Austria also has soldiers in Afghanistan and now I am supposed to be killed because of it." Austria does indeed have troops in Afghanistan: according to the Austrian Ministry of Defense, precisely five.

Could the Kadhim/Krause kidnapping have been staged, as more critically minded German observers now generally assume that the Osthoff kidnapping was? (For the evidence in the Osthoff case, see my earlier articles here, here, and here.) Given the extreme paucity of information currently available both on Kadhim/Krause herself and the circumstances of her reported abduction, it is difficult to say. Nonetheless, certain parallels between the Osthoff and the Kadhim/Krause cases are striking. In both cases, for instance, responsibility for the kidnappings was claimed by hitherto unknown Jihadist groups with notably improbable names: "The Stormtroops of the Earthquake" in the case of Osthoff and "The Brigade of the Arrows of Righteousness" in that of Kadhim/Krause. These names appear to be more the work of aficionados of political thrillers than that of Islamist ideologues. As a comparison of the names of known Islamist organizations makes immediately clear, the latter as a rule prefer more pedestrian and descriptive fare: typically referring to Islam or elements of Islamic theology -- not "arrows" and "earthquakes." (The name of the "arrows" brigade was apparently inspired by the name of an authentic Islamic extremist group that briefly surfaced in Iraq in 2005-2006: the "Swords of Righteousness Brigade." But the sword is a traditional part of Islamic symbolism and crossed swords, as used in the "logo" of the "Swords of Righteousness Brigade," also figure in that of the Muslim Brotherhood.)

And then there is the matter of the video images. Osthoff's kidnappers were reported to have provided a hostage video to the German public television network ARD. This is itself an oddity, since Iraqi militant groups have otherwise preferred to "premiere" their hostage videos on Arabic broadcasters. In fact, however, ARD never broadcast any video, limiting itself instead to the release of a single still image. But even this single image immediately aroused the suspicions of experts on Islamic terrorism. Among other details, the masked figure standing to Osthoff's left and holding a rocket launcher -- once upon a time the favored weapon of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, but not known for its usefulness in hostage-taking operations -- seemed particularly incongruous. Here again, one appeared to have entered the realm of political fiction, rather than authentic jihad.

Osthoff Still.jpg
Still from Susanne Osthoff hostage video, November 2005

The hostage-takers depicted in the first Kadhim/Krause video appear to have similarly curious taste in weaponry. Thus, one sequence shows three militants standing behind the hostages: one reading a statement, while the other two point guns at their heads. The figure on the left of the image is clearly holding a mounted machine gun, mount and all.

Kadhim-Krause video still.jpg
Still from Hannelore Kadhim/Krause hostage video, March 10, 2007

As the owner of the German video blog Outcut TV has noted in a commentary on the video (link in German): "in the position shown, the weapon would be virtually impossible to control and firing off a round would presumably serve to eliminate not only the hostages, but all the other brothers of righteousness assembled in the room as well." Oucut TV points also to a certain anomaly in the statement read on the video: namely, the warning that if Germany fails to meet the group's demands, they will not only kill the hostages, but "you will not even get to see [their] bodies." In marked contrast to the practice of known terror groups, such a warning, in effect, forestalls the possibility of ever verifying whether the principle threat -- the killing of the hostages -- was ever carried out.

Reports in the German media earlier this year revealed that not only did Susanne Osthoff have prior and amiable contact with the principal suspect in her alleged abduction, Sheikh Jamal Al-Dulaimi, but so too did two agents of the German foreign intelligence agency, the BND. (See "What is Germany's Intelligence Service Doing In Iraq?".) The two agents are known to have met with the Sheikh and Osthoff at the Sheikh's Baghdad villa on the very eve of her disappearance. "Dear Sheikh, we're Germans, you know, and we're also against the inhuman conduct of the Americans," they are supposed, on Osthoff's account, to have told Dulaimi. Such familiarity obviously suggests that the BND was actively exploiting the Iraqi hostage industry to funnel money to the Iraqi "resistance": in this case, more precisely, to its Baathist wing and not its Islamist one, as the trappings of the Osthoff kidnapping would have led one to believe.

Could the Kadhim/Krause kidnapping have been another such operation? Reports in Die Welt suggest rather that at least the initial kidnappers merely, so to say, "got lucky" in finding themselves in possession of a German passport holder. One thing, in any event, is clear: whether by accident or design or a combination of both, the country that led the international opposition to the Iraq War has in the last year and a half become a major source of financing for those insurgent movements that are attempting to reverse its outcome. And this source of financing is not likely to dry up any time soon. Hannelore Krause's son Sinan continues to be held by the "Arrows of Righteousness." The German Foreign Ministry is treating the Iraqi-born Sinan as "a German hostage" and has made known that its efforts to obtain his release are ongoing.

John Rosenthal is a WPR contributing editor.

Photo: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier