Exclusive: inside a special German intelligence program that questions asylum seekers about their home countries. Berlin denies that asylum requests are contingent on cooperation.
BERLIN — In Somalia, Yusuf was a powerful man, a politician with money, a large family and a fleet of cars. But he got on the wrong side of Islamist group al-Shabaab, who first threatened him and ultimately tossed a grenade through his window. He wound up fleeing to Germany.
But in seeking asylum, Yusuf didn’t quite receive the welcome he expected. The German authorities questioned him for hours, on five separate occasions over the course of six weeks. The officials from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, who were responsible for deciding his asylum case, came to the meetings accompanied by people claiming to be interns — although they looked rather old to be doing an internship.
These “interns” are responsible for interviewing asylum seekers and gaining insider knowledge from conflict areas. They work for the Office for Questioning (Hauptstelle für Befragungswesen or HBW), an organization that reports directly to the Chancellor’s office — just like the German Federal Intelligence Service, with which it reportedly works in close collaboration. The organization has no website and the doorbell to its headquarters is marked “K. Mustermann.” You need a special key to gain access to the office, as there are no stairs leading up there, and the elevator stops before the top floor.
Employees from the HBW go out to refugee centers and ask asylum seekers like Yusuf for information about politicians, clan leaders and their families. The German agents often take down mobile phone numbers and addresses and ask about the movements and whereabouts of suspected terrorists. The refugees have no idea what their answers are used for. However, the information gleaned by the German authorities might well be of interest to the United States, as it could be used to locate targets of drone strikes in Somalia and Afghanistan.
Some of the refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia are given a letter along with their asylum forms. This letter tells them that due to “the global security situation,” the German government needs “political and social information about your home country.” The HBW is responsible for “gathering such information” and gives out a questionnaire in the asylum seeker’s native language.
“You can help the German government,” reads the first sentence of the questionnaire given to asylum seekers from Afghanistan. “You can help us to understand the situation in Afghanistan better.” Filling out the questionnaire will only take a few minutes and it is voluntary. If you wish, your answers can be filed anonymously.
The HBW wants to know whether there is an adequate supply of doctors and drinking water in the refugee’s home town, how foreign soldiers are viewed and whether people believe that the government can maintain stability. They also ask about political dangers for Germany. Asylum seekers are asked to answer:
People in my home town openly support the Taliban.
Which of the three reactions would your friends, acquaintances, colleagues and relatives have if the Taliban came back into power?
-They would learn to live under the new government and continue their life as before.
-They would flee to a neighboring country to escape oppression and violence.
-They would go to Europe and seek asylum.
Government keeps silent
The German government is unforthcoming when asked about the HBW and its activities. In winter 2012 it stated that the relationship between the HBW and the Federal Intelligence Service is a matter of “state security and therefore will not be discussed in a public setting, which neither confirms nor denies the claim that the HBW is part of the Federal Intelligence Service.” Radio and television broadcaster Norddeutsche Rundfunk and Süddeutsche Zeitung’s inquiries in November 2013 met with the same response. Frustrated at the silence, journalists surprised HBW employees at their office, but still found no answers.
A few days after this visit, the Federal Intelligence Service answered their request. A spokesperson apologized for the delay and wrote: “We are unable to help you with your inquiries, as the HBW is not a part of the Federal Intelligence Service.” Apparently they are not responsible. The shadowy organization is proving difficult to track down.
The only HBW office that is officially recognized by the German government is in the Friedland immigration camp near the central city of Göttingen, a camp that houses men and women fleeing conflict in their homelands. Many come from countries where the U.S. is actively involved in drone strikes against terrorists.
The camp maps, which hang in glass cases all over the compound, mark every building with a color and a name. Accommodation is light blue, the canteen is orange and the bike repair workshop is yellow. The only facility missing is the one in House 16, where six HBW employees work in the basement. A gold plaque with the German eagle shows that the space is rented by the Federal Office of Administration. The doors are locked.
The HBW employees at Friedland only meet the asylum seekers whose questionnaires reveal interesting information. Do you know the name of the local al-Shabaab leader? Who is he friends with? What are his siblings called? Which mosque does he attend? Slang is also an area of interest: Do people still say “five greens” when they mean “five dollars”? This sort of information is important for understanding conversations on phones that have been tapped or emails and chat messages that have been intercepted.
Information in exchange for asylum?
Many of the asylum seekers only answer because they are afraid of being thrown out of the country. One interpreter claims that particularly cooperative interviewees have fewer problems with their asylum application. The government strongly denies this, claiming that refusal to participate in the survey has no effect on the outcome of the asylum proceedings.
A few years ago, an insider going by the pseudonym Jack Dawson published a report on the HBW claiming that it was part of a joint program between Germany, Britain and the United States, with France also occasionally involved. Apparently the German employees celebrated the organization’s 50th anniversary together with American and British colleagues. They even brought a present: a coffee mug decorated with the date 1958 and the German, British and American flags. Dawson claims that the three countries still cooperate over questioning refugees and sometimes British or American agents are allowed to do so without German supervision.
Officially, the foreign agents are employed by their embassies and if they discover information in Germany, they report back to their home countries where it is evaluated by analysts. When we asked the German government about Dawson’s claims, they replied that more specific answers would “reveal details of working methods, which would damage the HBW’s and Federal Intelligence Service’s ability to fulfill their responsibilities”.
The Federal Intelligence Service has recently advertised for Somali-speaking “freelancers” with excellent listening skills. They are also looking for “a committed translator” with good knowledge of English, Arabic and Farsi. Candidates should submit their applications discreetly.