TCS Daily

Susanne and the Baathists

By John Rosenthal - January 27, 2006 12:00 AM

Last weekend, the German news magazine Focus reported that part of the ransom money paid for German hostage Susanne Osthoff's release from Iraqi captivity was found on her person following her liberation. According to the Focus report, German embassy personnel discovered rolls of US dollars held together with rubber bands in Osthoff's clothing while she was taking a shower in the embassy facilities. Agents of the German Federal Criminal Bureau (BKA) - the German equivalent of the FBI - present on the scene are supposed to have checked the serial numbers on the bills and confirmed that they came from the ransom money. Furthermore, according to Focus sources - described by the magazine as "absolutely trustworthy" - when embassy personnel notified the Foreign Office in Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier ordered that the affair be kept "absolutely secret." (Curiously, Reuters seems to have deemed this detail not newsworthy, as it is not to be found in its dispatch on the Focus report.)

The German government has made no official statement on the Focus report. This is unsurprising, since it has always denied its very premise: namely, that it paid ransom to obtain Osthoff's release. However, what is evidently an unofficial response from elements of the German government was quickly forthcoming on the website of the weekly Stern. Citing unnamed "diplomats and investigators," Stern reports [link in German] that both the Foreign Office and the Criminal Bureau are "astonished" by suggestions that Osthoff may have been involved in her own supposed kidnapping: to draw such a conclusion represents, according to the "diplomats and investigators" (apparently speaking with one voice), a "complete twisting of the facts."

On their account, the facts are rather these: some $4,000 found on Osthoff was given to her by the hostage-takers as "compensation" for $3,000 that they previously stole from her [sic!], as well as the "sometimes brutal treatment" to which she was subjected during the kidnapping. It should be noted that the bizarre denial in fact serves to confirm many aspects of the original Focus report - including precisely the premise of a ransom payment. It should likewise be noted that the funds that Osthoff was transporting at the time of her disappearance were themselves German government monies, allegedly provided to her in support of an archaeological project in Mosul. Are we, then, supposed to believe - as according to the "untwisted" version of events - that after having extorted a reported $5 million in ransom from the German government, the honest kidnappers felt compelled to reimburse $3,000 they had "stolen"?

The protestations of the "diplomats and investigators" clearly merit the Shakespearean rejoinder: the lady doth protest too much. The Focus report in fact made no claims about Osthoff's possible complicity in the alleged kidnapping. But in light of its content, it quite naturally gave new life to widespread speculation about such a possibility that has accompanied the story at least since the time of Osthoff's release. Such suspicions have been fueled both by the supposed ex-hostage's bizarre behavior - including her remarkable solicitousness toward her alleged kidnappers - and by certain troubling facts about her biography that have come to light in the German media.

Osthoff's various attempts at providing an account of her ordeal did nothing to discourage the suspicions. Thus, in her first interview on German television - the now famous burqa-clad appearance on the public television channel ZDF - when asked to explain how the kidnapping took place, she responded:

I think these details are uninteresting. Nobody is interested in that. Normally, a kidnapping involves the use of force. People watch a lot of television. Maybe they see that no one lets herself get snatched up voluntarily. There's a brief use of force, which is, of course, such that one has no more possibility, and it happens and so forth.

Her next interview, a print affair published in Stern, provided more details and gave the impression of greater coherence. But it contained, nonetheless, a disturbing inconsistency. Osthoff related how while being transported in the trunk of a car she bit off the bindings with which her hands had been tied. But as an alert Stern reader pointed out in a letter, she had previously said her hands were tied behind her back. "Does Ms. Osthoff possess the flexibility of a human snake?" the reader asked. Stern responded by saying the anomaly was the result of editing.

Given her penchant for wearing burqas (she also posed in one for Stern), her self-professed conversion to Islam, and her own uncorroborated identification of her kidnappers as members of the al-Zarqawi group, many skeptical observers of the Osthoff saga have been led to conclude that Osthoff is herself an Islamist militant and perhaps allied with the Jihadist forces that are supposed to have taken her hostage. A closer inspection of both her words and her biography suggests a different, but no less troubling, scenario.

Whereas Osthoff's familiarity with Islamic practice has been called into question by specialists, her discourse is replete with references suggesting sympathies for the ousted Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. Thus, in her last interview (on the public television channel ARD), when asked for what she most wished upon her release, Osthoff, who has been a frequent visitor to Iraq since the mid-1980s, responded: "To see Iraq in peace, see it how I have seen it in the past." She has, moreover, repeatedly sought to call attention to what she presents as the plight of Iraqi exiles living in Germany: seemingly, at least in the ARD interview, referring to persons who have applied for political exile since the fall of Saddam Hussein. (According to official statistics [pdf-file in German], more than 5,000 Iraqis applied for political exile in Germany in 2003 and 2004.)

According to reports in the German press, Susanne Osthoff's biography has in fact been marked by significant and close contacts with known supporters of the Hussein regime in both Germany and Iraq. One such contact is Jamal Dulaimi, a long-time acquaintance of Osthoff in whose Baghdad villa she is even supposed to have lived "from time to time." An article from the 28 December edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) provides the following information concerning Dulaimi:

The psychiatrist Dulaimi was in the past one of Saddam Hussein's personal physicians. In the 1990s he moved to... Kurdish north Iraq and after Saddam's overthrow he returned to Baghdad. The Dulaimi clan live, above all, in the Sunni triangle around Fallujah and Ramadi. Its members figured among the major supports of the Saddam regime. Nowadays, they provide some of the major supports of the insurgency.

Jamal Dulaimi - whom Osthoff refers to as "Sheik Jamal" - is supposed to have provided Osthoff the driver in whose car she was allegedly kidnapped on 25 November. It is indeed apparently from his home that she departed on the fateful voyage. "Jamal's wife made me breakfast," she says in the Stern interview. The FAZ report continues:

There is another indication that likewise points in the direction of possible connections with networks from the time of Saddam Hussein. In the mid-1980s, Susanne Osthoff was introduced to Iraq by way of the Marburg-based Professor Walter Sommerfeld and his German-Iraqi Association, which was reputed to have good relations with the Hussein regime.

In light of the foregoing details, there is reason to wonder whether Osthoff's burqa-wearing theatrics were not in fact a smokescreen put up to obscure links to Baathist circles and fellow-travelers. Evidence of what the German journalist and intelligence expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom has recently described as "very good contacts" [partial translation here] between the German secret service, the BND, and the ousted Hussein regime makes this possibility all the more intriguing and troubling. It was the Osthoff case, and Osthoff's admitted contacts with BND personnel, that first brought the current BND presence in Iraq to public attention.

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 ( His email is


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