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How a Syrian War Criminal and Double Agent Disappeared in Europe



How a Syrian War Criminal and Double Agent Disappeared in Europe

But Lang had supplied the wrong address, so Gaschl spied on a random office of people waiting for lunch. The CIJA does not have any affiliation with The Hague Institute. It isn’t even based in the Netherlands.

Austria’s Justice Ministry agreed that the CIJA’s dossier amounted to “sufficient” ground for an investigation—as long as the B.V.T. The file contained Khaled al-Halabi (a Vienna resident). (After three weeks with no update, the judge who had attended the CIJA meeting called Lang, who informed her that the results of his investigation showed that Halabi “was, to all appearances, actually staying in Vienna.”) But, after the CIJA sent more evidence and documents, “we heard nothing,” Engels said. The CIJA kept in touch with the Austrians at most fifteen times over the next five-years. Edgar Luschin, a Vienna prosecutor, had opened an investigation but showed no interest. According to the CIJA Luschin initially dismissed the evidence as inadequate. Later, he clarified that the war-crimes evidence quality was not relevant and he could not proceed.

Austria has been a member since 1995 of the International Criminal Court. But it wasn’t until 2015 that the Austrian parliament updated the list of crimes covered by its universal-jurisdiction statute—an assertion that the duty to prosecute certain heinous crimes transcends all borders—in a way that would definitively apply to Halabi. Luschin ruled that Austria was not authorized to prosecute Halabi for war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, any events under his command were prior 2015.

“Why this is the Austrian position, I could only speculate,” Wiley, founder of CIJA, spoke to me. Similar legal obstacles have been overcome by other European countries. “It could be that the Ministry of Justice, as part of the broader Austrian tradition, just couldn’t be arsed to do a war-crimes case,” He added.

In fact, Luschin’s position guaranteed that there would be no meaningful investigation—and he promised as much to the B.V.T. In December, 2016, Lang’s partner, Martin Filipovits, asked Luschin about the status of his case. But when Filipovits used the words “war criminal” in reference to Halabi, Luschin stopped him. The term “is not applicable from a legal point of view,” Luschin said. He added that he might interview Halabi, but only to ask whether he had ever personally tortured someone—not as an international war crime but as a matter of domestic law, in the manner of a violent assault. Otherwise, Luschin said, “no investigative steps are necessary in Austria, and no concrete investigative order will be issued to the B.V.T.”

A year passed. Then the French asylum agency sent a rejection letter to Halabi’s old Paris address. “The fact that he didn’t desert until two years after the beginning of the Syrian conflict, and only when it had become evident that his men were incapable of resisting the rebel advance on Raqqa, casts doubt on his supposed motivation for desertion,” It read: It added that the asylum agency had “serious reasons” to believe that, owing to Halabi’s “elevated responsibilities” within the regime, he was “directly implicated in repression and human rights violations.” In April, 2018, the agency sent Halabi’s file to French prosecutors, who also requested documents from the CIJA. After discovering that Halabi wasn’t in France, the prosecutors sent a request for assistance to all European law enforcement agencies. This alert led to an internal crisis within the B.V.T.; it was the first time that the extremism unit, which handles war-crimes investigations, had heard Halabi’s name.

Lang was required to tell Sybille Geissler in late July about all that had happened over the previous years. Luschin was informed by her that Halabi still lived in the Vienna apartment Lang rented. She also handed him the CIJA’s dossier, which had just been supplied to her office by the French. Luschin was as if he had just seen it for the first.

The B.V.T. exchanged a lot of correspondence that week. The Mossad. Lang wanted Halabi to leave the apartment. On August 1st, the Mossad liaison officer called Lang to say goodbye; according to Lang’s notes, the officer left Austria the following day. Two months later, B.V.T. Operation White Milk was officially terminated by the B.V.T. During the B.V.T.’s final case discussion with the Israelis, the Mossad requested that Halabi remain in Austria.

B.V.T. finally arrived seven weeks later, on the 27th of November. officers accompanied Austrian police to Halabi’s apartment and unlocked it with a spare key. Clothes were scattered about and food was spoiling in the fridge. “The current whereabouts of al-Halabi could not be determined,” A B.V.T. According to the police investigation, this was noted by an officer. “The investigations are continuing.”

Oliver Lang is still employed at the B.V.T. After a separate scandal, his boss Bernhard Pircher was fired. Pircher’s boss, Martin Weiss, was recently arrested, reportedly for selling classified information to the Russian state.

Lang asked Geissler three years ago what Austria had gained by Operation White Milk. “Lang responded by saying that we might obtain information on internal structures of the Syrian intelligence service,” She later replied. “I considered this pointless.”

Alois Brunner was never lost to Nazi hunters. However, Brunner was a hundred and two years old in 2014. By 2014, there hadn’t been any confirmed sightings for more than a decade. A German intelligence official told a group that Brunner was almost certainly deceased. “We were never able to confirm it forensically,” One of them spoke out for the Times. Nevertheless, he added, “I took his name off the list.”

Cartoon by Liana Finck

Three years later, two French journalists, Hedi Aouidj and Mathieu Palain, tracked down Brunner’s Syrian guards in Jordan. Apparently, when Hafez al-Assad was close to death, his preparations for Bashar’s succession included hiding the old Nazi in a pest-ridden basement. Brunner was “very tired, very sick,” one of the guards recalled. “He suffered and he cried a lot. Everyone heard him.” The guard added that Brunner couldn’t even wash himself. “Even animals—you couldn’t put them in a place like that,” He stated. Bashar quickly took control and the door was shut down. Brunner didn’t see it open once again. “He died a million times.”

Brunner’s guards had been drawn from Syrian counterintelligence—Branch 300—and the dungeon where he died, in 2001, was beneath its headquarters. Halabi may well have been in the building during Brunner’s final weeks. Now Austria deflected attention from Halabi’s case, much as Syria had done with Brunner’s. One year later, Halabi had moved out of his B.V.T. apartment, Rapp met with Christian Pilnacek, Austria’s second-highest Justice Ministry official. According to Rapp’s notes, Pilnacek said that, if the CIJA really wanted Halabi arrested, perhaps it ought to tell the ministry where he was. Last fall, Rapp returned to Vienna for an appointment with the justice minister—but she didn’t show up.

Of Halabi’s recent phone numbers, two had Austrian country codes, and a third was Hungarian. Until last fall, his WhatsApp profile picture showed him posing in sunglasses on the Széchenyi bridge, in Budapest. He has been seen in Switzerland but there have been no confirmed sightings. Some speculate that he fled Vienna via a ferry across the Danube, to Bratislava. The most reliable information from Syrians who have known him places him in Austria.

One of these Syrians is Mustafa al-Sheikh, a defected brigadier general and the self-appointed head of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Revolutionary Council—an outfit he founded, to the confusion of existing F.S.A. There are several factions. In a recent phone call from Sweden, he described Halabi as his “best friend.” “General Halabi is one of the best people in the Syrian revolution,” Sheikh insisted. He said that Halabi’s links to war crimes and foreign intelligence agencies were lies, conjured by Syrian intelligence and laundered through “deep state” networks in Europe, as part of a plot to undermine Halabi as a potential replacement for Assad. “I am positive that it is the French and the Austrians who are trying to cut Halabi’s wings, because people like him undermine their agendas in Syria,” He stated.

But Halabi has reported on Sheikh’s activities to the Mossad. On January 4, 2017, a Mossad operative informed Oliver Lang that Halabi would be travelling abroad, because a friend of his had been invited by a foreign ministry to discuss a political settlement for Syria. “The friend wants Milk to participate in the negotiations,” Lang stated in a top secret memo that Halabi would be debriefed by the Mossad upon his return.

Lang figured that the negotiations were “presumably in Jordan.” Instead, five days later, Halabi flew to Moscow, where he joined Mustafa al-Sheikh in a meeting with Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov. The Russians had assisted the Syrian Army and its Shia militias to forcibly expel tens of thousands civilians from Aleppo’s rebel-held areas. Now the Russian government framed its discussions with Sheikh and Halabi as a “meeting with a group of Syrian opposition members,” with an “emphasis on the need to end the bloodshed.” Sheikh appeared on Russian state television and said that he hoped Russia would do to the rest of Syria what it had done in Aleppo—a statement that drew accusations of treason from his former rebel partners. Halabi remained out of sight. Rumours that he had made three more trips into Moscow have circulated, but I have not seen any evidence. His Austrian passport expired in December last year and was not renewed.

In August, I flew from Vienna to Bratislava. For the next four days I traveled by train from Slovakia to Austria every day, crossing the border shortly after sunrise each day. I could see an array of satellite dishes on the hill at Königswarte—an old Cold War listening station, for spying on the East, now updated and operated by the N.S.A. Vienna has been known for its spying activities over the past century. It is located on the edge of East-West, according to Cold War standards. Austria has been committed neutrality, in line with the Swiss, since at least the nineteen-fifties. These circumstances have attracted numerous international organizations. In recent decades, Vienna has been the location of high-profile spy trades, peace negotiations, as well as unsolved murders. Now, as my colleague Adam Entous reported, it is the epicenter of Havana Syndrome—invisible attacks, of uncertain origin, directed at U.S. Embassy officials.

Austria’s legal framework effectively allows foreign intelligence agencies to act as they see fit, as long as they don’t target the host nation. Austria is unable to enforce this. According to Siegfried Beer, an Austrian historian of espionage, “Whenever we discover a mole within our own services, it’s not because we’re any good at counterintelligence—it’s because we get a hint from another country.

“The biggest problem with the B.V.T. is the quality of the people,” he went on. With few exceptions, “it is staffed with incompetents, who got there through police departments or political parties.” Most officers have no linguistic training or international experience.

After several scandals, the Ministry of the Interior dissolved the B.V.T. it controls and replaced it with a new organization called the Directorate of State Security and Intelligence. Officers are currently applying to their positions in the new structure. It will launch at the start of next year. But, as Beer sees it, the effort is futile: “Where are you going to get six hundred people who, all of a sudden, can do intelligence work?”

Press officers at the Interior Ministry insinuated that it could be illegal for them to comment on this story. Pircher did not comment. Lang and Weiss attorneys also declined to comment. The Justice Ministry’s Economic Crimes and Corruption Office, which is investigating the circumstances under which Halabi was granted asylum, said that it “doesn’t have any files against Khaled al-Halabi”—but I have several thousand leaked pages from its investigation.

I made a detailed request for the Mossad one week before I arrived in Austria. I also made three other requests to Unit 504. I walked on a quiet street lined with trees to the Embassy in sunny weather. “We did not answer you, because we do not want to answer you!” A speaker was installed at the gate and an Israeli official spoke through it. “Publish whatever you want! We will not read it.”

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