How German Intel Uses Asylum Seekers In Spy Efforts

Exclusive: inside a special German intelligence program that questions asylum seekers about their home countries. Berlin denies that asylum requests are contingent on cooperation.

In Kassel, Germany
In Kassel, Germany
Stefan Buchen, Christian Fuchs, John Goetz, Klaus Ott, Niklas Schenck and Alexander Tieg

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.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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