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More Euros for Terror

By John Rosenthal - January 20, 2006 12:00 AM

After a relatively quiet December, the New Year saw a massive upsurge of violence in Iraq, including a series of horrifying suicide bombings that took the lives of hundreds in a matter of days. As with every such spike in Iraqi violence, this new increase has been seized upon by opponents of the Iraq War as evidence of the strength of the so-called insurgency. In a sense, of course, it is that. But the manifest "strength" of the insurgency -- measured, in effect, in its ability to kill -- bears no necessary relation to its level of popular support or even indeed to the number of militants active in its ranks. Especially given the unconventional methods employed by these "insurgents" -- namely, terror attacks on generally unarmed targets -- it is more likely to reflect rather its level of financial support. And there is, regrettably, reason to believe that the "insurgency" has lately received a substantial financial infusion... from the German government.

When German archaeologist Susanne Osthoff was taken hostage in Iraq in late November, the new German Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly declared that her government would "not allow itself to be blackmailed". "In the fight against international terrorism," she said, "we cannot let down our guard." The tone of Merkel's remarks provided a sharp contrast to that of her French counterparts when confronted by similar situations over the last year and a half. After the seizure of French journalists George Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot in Iraq in August 2004, and then again following the seizure of their colleague Florence Aubenas in January 2005, French authorities soon let it be known that they had entered into negotiations with the hostage-takers. Former French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier even managed to stylize these talks into a "political dialogue." But there was evidently nothing to discuss but a price. (On the one political issue on which France could conceivably have made concessions to its Islamist "interlocutors" -- namely, the French school headscarf ban -- no concessions were made.)

Shortly before Aubenas's release last June, Robert Ménard of the French NGO Reporters without Borders -- an organization that played a high-profile role in the publicly orchestrated mobilization on her behalf, presumably in close coordination with the French Foreign Ministry -- put the price of her liberation at $15 million. "There is no release of hostages unless something is given in return," he noted, "and ... there is necessarily a demand for money. One prefers to refer to these sums of money as 'lodging costs', but when the sums are large obviously we are talking about ransom." When Barnier objected, Ménard politely allowed that he had "misspoken" -- before adding: "The Minister is right not to say that a ransom was paid. It's his role to say that there was no ransom and nothing given in exchange. Of course, something was given in exchange. Otherwise, they [the hostages] would not be here." The amount demanded for the release of Malbrunot and Chesnot is reported to have been $6 million.

Despite the steadfast tone of Merkel's words, evidence emerging in the German media suggests that the result of the Osthoff kidnapping was the same: i.e. more euros for terror. The first indications came from Osthoff herself. Asked about the conditions of her release in an interview with the German weekly Stern, she responded: "The kidnappers had an offer from the Germans. I am not permitted to tell you the exact amount. But they found it a bit low. So, they haggled some more. After all, they had to save face and cover their costs." Note Osthoff's remark that she is "not permitted" ("Ich darf nicht") to reveal the exact amount, suggesting that she had been so instructed in being debriefed by German authorities following her release.

In any case, if a report from the German domestic wire service ddp is to be believed, the hostage-takers in fact did much more than just "cover their costs." Citing information from unnamed German intelligence sources, the ddp report puts the sum of the ransom payment at "around $5 million." According to the ddp's sources, an envoy from Germany's Federal Intelligence Agency, the BND, "brought the money, divided up into smaller bills, from Berlin to Iraq, as the hostage-takers demanded. The 'bound 'parcel' was of 'considerable weight'."

The ddp also claimed to have confirmed widespread rumors according to which Osthoff is supposed herself to have worked for the BND in Iraq. Nonetheless, the shock headline of a UPI article that appeared subsequently -- "The Lady was a Spy" -- is undoubtedly exaggerated. As her own account largely corroborates -- she has merely remained coy about whether she was paid for her services -- Osthoff was, more exactly, an informant for the BND: providing her "friends" in the German intelligence agency with tips on what she has euphemistically termed the "security situation" in Iraq -- or, in other words and as her examples make clear, on impending terrorist attacks.

This raises an obvious question: how was Osthoff privy to such information? In the series of often mind-bending interviews that she has given to the German media since her release -- starting with her now famous burqa-clad appearance on Germany's ZDF public television -- Osthoff has made no secret where her political sympathies lie. Among other things, she has referred nonchalantly to the forces responsible for the violence in Iraq as "the resistance," waxed philosophical about wishing to see Iraq return to "how it was," and even spoken of Osama Bin Laden by just his first name as "Osama" (that's "Sheik Osama", her captors are supposed to have corrected her).

Her jumbled recollections, moreover, have not only provided ample evidence of her identification with her captors, but also contained some disturbing indications of a certain familiarity or even complicity between them. Thus, in an interview with the popular talk show host Reinhold Beckmann last week, Osthoff recounted how she was transported for an hour in the back trunk of an automobile. When the car finally stopped and the trunk was opened, her captors are supposed to have addressed her as "Miss Susanne" and, in her intriguing expression, "clarified the situation" for her:

Then there were men standing before me... I was happy to get some air.... And these people clarified the situation for me [haben mich aufgeklärt]: "Miss Susanne..." -- I'd already heard them knocking on the trunk cover earlier -- "Miss Susanne..."

Hearing this term of address, Beckmann interjected "So, they knew your name...?" Osthoff ignored the question, continuing to ramble about how she wanted to get out of the trunk. But sometime later she returned to what the kidnappers were supposed to have "clarified": namely, that they indeed knew her and considered her a "friend of Iraq" -- and hence presumably intended her no harm.

While politically-motivated hostage-takings still occur in Iraq, a second sort of, so to say, "economic" hostage-taking operation has clearly become a major source of financing for the Iraqi "insurgency." It is hard to overlook the fact that the seemingly most remunerative "catches" have been citizens of precisely those states that spearheaded the opposition to the American-led intervention in Iraq and whose governments staked their credibility on the claim that the consequences of ousting Saddam Hussein would be disastrous. By permitting their citizens to enter into harm's way in Iraq or even facilitating this -- Osthoff's archaeological project in Mosul was financed by the German government -- and then paying ransom to gain their release from captivity, France and Germany are, in effect, helping to make these dire predictions come true. As to whether this is by design, one can only speculate. (Though documents uncovered by the Daily Telegraph in Iraq and revealing the details of amicable contacts between the Iraqi and German intelligence agencies a year before the American-led intervention certainly give cause to pause in this connection.)

In relation to the current German government, of course, such speculations might seem out of place. After all, when Merkel visited Washington last week, she displayed a level of understanding for the challenges involved in America's war on Islamic terrorism that would have been unthinkable from her predecessor Gerhard Schröder -- whom, incidentally, Osthoff has said her captors considered "a friend." There is no reason to think that Merkel is insincere. Nonetheless, it should be recalled that Schröder's Social Democratic Party still forms part of Merkel's "grand coalition" government. Indeed, the present German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is a long-time confidante of Schröder's and was a key aid in both of his administrations. From November 1998 until Schröder's departure from government last year, Steinmeier served Schröder as coordinator of German intelligence services.

John Rosenthal's writings on international politics have appeared in Policy Review, the Opinion Journal, Les Temps Modernes and Merkur. He is the editor of the Transatlantic Intelligencer (www.trans-int.com).
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Any truth to this story?
BERLIN (Reuters) - Part of the ransom money alleged to have been paid by the German government to win the freedom of Iraq hostage Susanne Osthoff last month was found on Osthoff after her release, the German magazine Focus said on Saturday.

Without citing its sources, Focus said officials at the German embassy in Baghdad had found several thousand U.S. dollars in the 43-year-old German archaeologist's clothes when she took a shower at the embassy shortly after being freed.

The serial numbers on the bills matched those used by the government to pay off Osthoff's kidnappers, the magazine said.

Efforts to contact Osthoff for comment through her mother and a friend failed.

A spokeswoman at the German Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the report. The German government is known to have paid ransoms for hostages in the past, but has refused to comment on whether it did so for Osthoff.

Osthoff, who converted to Islam and lived in Iraq, was seized heading north from Baghdad on Nov. 25 by gunmen who threatened in a videotape to kill her and her driver unless Germany ended all support for the Iraqi government.

Speculation about the circumstances of her kidnapping and release has swirled in the German media since the German government announced on Dec. 18 that she was free.

Two days after her release, the German government freed a Hizbollah member jailed for life in 1985 for the murder of a U.S. Navy diver. Berlin has denied a connection between the two events.

Osthoff herself caused a stir when she said in an interview at the end of December that she did not believe her kidnappers were criminals.


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