In Somalia, Yusuf A. owned two houses and several cars. He had money and power as a politician with a seat in parliament and occasionally even in the cabinet. Now he lives in a shabby apartment in a small industrial park in Munich. Yusuf hasn’t yet found work and frequently falls ill. He’s lost his wealth, but at least he’s safe. In Somalia, he was under threat from al-Shabaab Islamists. Then it went beyond threats. One day a grenade landed in his house, killing a colleague of his. Yusuf fled to Germany.
He was granted permanent residency with amazing swiftness and was allowed to send for his wife and seven children to join him. The German authorities—and they probably weren’t alone—showed great interest in Yusuf. In the span on seven weeks authorities called him in for questioning five times. The meetings lasted hours. Hearings conducted by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees usually aren’t that involved. But in the case of Yusuf A., another authority came into play: the Main Office for Questioning (the Hauptstelle für Befragungswesen, HBW for short), which was established in during Cold War times to interview refugees and immigrants.
The mysterious agency specializes in drawing on information it teases out of refugees. Just like the Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, the BND, the counterpart to the U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency), it falls under the purview of the Chancellor’s office. Even the federal government is tight-lipped about the intelligence operations conducted within the HBW. This is about secret intelligence, after all.
Old records at Berlin’s administrative court show, however, that the HBW (first created by Germany’s Western allies) has been under the control of the BND since the 1950s. One BND report from 1983 calls witnesses in the HBW asylum process an “opening in the shadows.” That would make the HBW an institution built on a shadow world.
The refugees are expected to give extensive testimony. Testimony about conditions back home, preferably about politicians, terrorists and their networks.
Yusuf won’t say exactly what he told the officers at the HBW. But he will give us one detail; during a meeting he gave up the telephone number of an al-Shabaab leader. He knew a woman who came from the same town and, at the urging of the German officers, coaxed the al-Shabaab leader’s number out of her. He also found out that the Islamist leader seldom used his cellphone and even then used it only briefly. He mostly let his associates speak for him, switching their phones often.
Yusuf now wonders if it was right to pass on the number to the Germans. Cellphone numbers help to locate people, and if the German authorities get a hold of important numbers, the BND can hand them over to the U.S.
The United States is leading a drone war in Somalia that is legally questionable and continually claims the lives of people who have nothing to do with terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab or Al-Qaida. Yusuf knows that.
He says, “You have to attack al-Shabaab. They are evil people.” But he doesn’t want innocent civilians to die in the name of shutting down al-Shabaab.
Refugees like Yusuf who are interviewed by the HBW aren’t told later what was done with the information they provided.
Immigrant as informant
Asylum seekers in Germany are unwittingly being used as intelligence sources. Not every immigrant is called for questioning, but some receive letters from the HBW. They read; “the security situation worldwide” makes it necessary that the government of the Federal Republic of Germany gain information “about the political and social issues in your home country.” The HBW is charged with “collecting reliable information.”
An HBW questionnaire for Afghanis reads: “The people in my hometown openly support the Taliban”—”yes” and “no”. The HBW wants to know how the supply of doctors and drinking water is, how foreign soldiers are perceived, and whether people believe that Afghanistan’s government can stabilize the situation. The questions are written in Afghanistan’s official language, Dari.
Once you’ve filled out the questionnaire, it’s not over. Sometimes two women from the HBW, accompanied by a translator, arrive for a more personal chat. One lawyer from northern Germany says her client was allowed to stay in Germany because of his work helping the U.S. Army in his home country of Afghanistan. Later she learned her client had been questioned by the HBW in a refugee camp. She calls the cooperation between refugees and the HBW a “balancing act”. It’s not yet clear, lawyers say, what’s done with the information from these surveys and interviews or what effect participation—or nonparticipation—has on the refugees’ fate.
The Germany government says participation in the surveys is voluntary and has no influence on the duration or success of the asylum process. But it’s striking how quickly refugees are taken in when they pique the interest of the HBW. Attorneys argue that their clients are especially vulnerable after such an HBW interview session if they are subsequently sent back to their home countries. In many of these refugees’ homelands, it’s not exactly seen as a good thing to be talking to a western intelligence agency.
The German government talks about “post-refuge rationale” that occurs after leaving one’s homeland. If such a “post-refuge rationale” is apparent during the HBW questioning, it will be considered as part of the asylum application. That sounds complicated, especially since the government says there’s no reward system at play.
In off-the-record interviews, several attorneys said clearly: refugees who cooperate with the HBW can expect a speedy process and permanent residency in Germany. Lawyers are mostly shut out of these interview sessions. The authorities explicitly advise the asylum seekers to come without legal representation.
One Somali interpreter who has translated for asylum seekers for many years is convinced that there’s a rewards system at play: “It’s made clear to these people that if they cooperate they will be accepted quicker.” The interpreter came to Germany more than 20 years ago and has assisted many asylum seekers over the years. He fears giving his name would put his work and himself at risk. He says sometimes strange people come to hearings at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees calling themselves interns. “The intern doesn’t come to simply any hearing, but rather just when he thinks someone knows something.” Then the refugee is asked about Islamist groups in great detail. Many refugees come from regions where the U.S. has dropped bombs using unmanned predator drones. Drones are a weapon against which you can’t protect yourself, says the interpreter. “People live in fear.”
Victor Pfaff, a lawyer from Frankfurt, witnessed in the 1970s how asylum seekers had to move through three rooms during an application procedure. One room where the German officials sat, one where representatives from the U.S. intelligence agencies awaited them. The sign read “Liaison Officer “. It was only later that Pfaff learned of the HBW. He considers the agency to be legitimate and thinks it’s in Germany’s interest to make sure no one who poses a security risk should be allowed to remain in the country. That’s one possible outcome of the HBW surveys. But when it comes to cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies, “it could be problematic,” Pfaff says.
The 1980s it came out that the information Turkish refugees had given the HBW/BND somehow landed at the Turkish intelligence agency. A BND officer at the time testified that it be “grave misconduct” if the authorities had been responsible for such a huge slip-up. But the agencies do work together with Turkish intelligence agencies on projects including those in the area of anti-terrorism.
The methods, explanation and assertions from that case sound oddly similar. Three years ago, an insider published an essay under the pseudonym Jack Dawson in the Journal for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies. He wrote that the HBW was a part of a larger interrogation program in Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S. called the Tripartite Debriefing Programme. France is said to have taken part earlier in its existence.
British and U.S. intelligence officials celebrated the 50th anniversary of the HBW along with their German counterparts in Berlin in 2008.
After Dawson’s revelations British and American intelligence officers began questioning asylum seekers in Germany sometimes even without their German colleagues. Asked in late October, Dawson said that, to the best of his knowledge, the Tripartite program still runs strong. The goal remains the same: gain intelligence from the refugee questioning sessions.
You could even say: whoever wants German protection isn’t safe from American intelligence agencies.
Confronted with Dawson’s information, the German government seems struck by a telling silence. In stilted language, officials refer to rules of confidentiality. “An in-depth answer to the question would reveal details about methods, jeopardizing the future ability and performance of the HBW and BND.” Questions put to U.S. officials about HBW still remains unanswered.
It’s not very easy to pay a visit the HBW headquarters at 150 Hohenzollerndamm in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district. Surely, that’s by design. In front of the building lies a well-maintained yard. The HBW offices are housed on the fourth floor, where officers can look down from a bay window. But getting up there isn’t simple. There are no stairs that lead to the HBW offices—only an elevator, which requires a key.
There are other HBW offices in Nuremberg, Maiz and Hanover and six refugee reception centers. The German government won’t say anything on the topic. It merely confirms that there is a duty station at the border transit camp in Friedland, in central Germany. In total, just 40 people work at the HBW.
Meanwhile the interviewers have switched their focus towards Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Syria. At the end of 2012, in response to questions posed by the Green Party, the German government said that since 2000, some 500 to 1,000 “briefings” with refugees and emigrants were conducted, each applicant enduring two to five question sessions each.
But not every asylum seeker is telling the truth. In 1999, the Iraqi Rafed Ahmed Alwan came to the refugee reception center in Zirndorf, near Nuremberg and was questioned there. He provided the BND with information about purported biochemical weapon laboratories in Iraq, which was forwarded to American officials. The C.I.A. gave him the codename Curveball. His statements were later used by the U.S. government to justify the invasion into Iraq.
But the alleged facts were wrong. There were no labs. Alwan, AKA Curveball, got a Germany passport and a contract at some sham offices at, of all places, the BND.
Coincidentally, the BND currently seeks “freelancers” who speak Somali. Applicants are asked to discreetly submit their letters of interest.
November 20, 2013 02:54 pm CET
By Christian Fuchs, John Goetz, Hans Leyendecker, Klaus Ott, Niklas Schenck, Tanjev Schultz
© Süddeutsche Zeitung Digitale Medien GmbH / Süddeutsche Zeitung GmbH