BND ex-chief: If you use mobile phone, you accept being tapped into, no choice there
The European Parliament is in discord. Politicians are arguing heatedly whether the flow of refugees should be stopped. The people are carrying on the same debate, accompanied by fears of increasing law enforcement authority and power, with cyber spying becoming a powerful tool. These two crises - migrant and terrorist - are intertwined. But how deeply does one influence the other? Are migrants really easy victims for radicalization, or does the trouble run even deeper? And are the intelligence agencies as effective as described in the media? Former head of German intelligence, the BND, answers these questions today. August Hanning is on Sophie&Co.
Sophie Shevardnadze: August Hanning, former chief of German Foreign Intelligence Agency, BND, it’s really great to have you with us today, sir.
August Hanning: Thank you very much.
SS: You have said Angela Merkel’s immigration policy imports extremism. Are terrorists entering the EU under a genuine disguise of asylum-seekers? Is there a proof of that?
AH: Yes of course. We have seen these incidents in Brussels and in Paris, and we are seeing that in Brussels there have been three different groups of terrorists. One group was recruited on the spot, in Brussels, they have had a Belgian citizenship, the French citizenship. Another group has been foreign fighters in Syria, and the third group has been recruited from refugees, which came via the so-called Balkan route, even to Germany. Therefore, yes, there’s a certain involvement, but, again, I think the main driver of these terrorist attacks have been foreign fighters and locals from Belgium.
SS: Yeah, because, I mean, you would think the horrifying attacks in Paris and in Belgium, Brussels - they had nothing to do with Europe’s migrant crisis, really.
SS: Even the terrorists that were discovered in Germany - I am talking about Saarland- they were made up of Germans, not migrants, and the attack that took place in Paris, they were Europeans, not people who came from…
AH: I think it is an opportunity, an easy opportunity to recruit people. You know, terrorists groups, they have different operational ways in undertaking their terrorist attacks, but, normally, they have a core, some people who are planning it, supervisors, and they need people who are carrying out the terrorist attacks. Mostly, they came from outside and if you have the opportunity to enter a country without any control, of course, that makes it easier for terrorist groups to recruit other terrorists coming from outside, and that has happened in the Belgian incident, they have recruited terrorists that came from refugee camps in Germany, we know it.
SS: German intelligence services say that 800 Germans left to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, and it’s assumed that one third of these people will come back to Germany.
SS: So how would you handle them? What do you do with these people? Do you arrest them? Do the intelligence services know where they are, what they do?
AH: Some of them are subject to prosecutions, some of them are not creating any danger, and some of them are under very strong surveillance. That is the behaviour, but on the other side, 300 people are very difficult to control and that is a constant threat for our German internal security.
SS: So that’s what I’m trying to figure out - how much control do you have over them, because it’s obvious that Belgian authorities had not that much control over them?
AH: It is very difficult to control these people. If you want to control somebody, 24 hours a day, then you need 25 people, and we can’t afford that in Germany. We have small personnel resources, therefore we have to prioritise the efforts and we have to try to find out who is really dangerous and to concentrate on these people and that are very few.
SS: The anti-terror law in Germany is being challenged in the court for massive surveillance powers that it gives to the authorities. Actually, some parts are even being scrapped. Do you feel German society is right to protect its privacy even in face of terrorism and fight against terrorism?
AH: I think it depends a little bit. Until now, Germany was very lucky. We haven’t suffered severe terrorist attacks, we have seen some attempts, there have been some attacks against Germans outside, but we haven’t had suffered a severe terrorist attack inside Germany. Therefore, the German society does not really feel threatened, but I think the atmosphere is changing a little bit. Of course, it depends on the the question whether we are lucky in the future or not, until now we have been lucky but it could change very fast.
SS: Do you feel like the German law enforcement has enough power, it has all it needs at the moment?
AH: If yo uask intelligence or law enforcement agency whether they have enough power, the answer will always be “no”. Of course, they need more, they need more resources and they need better technical equipment, yes.
SS: So it all comes down to money and financing?
AH: It always has to do with but I think they will now get more financial resources and additional personnel.
SS: I think there’s money and there’s surveillance for instance, and how far that can go. What do you think is more needed for the German law enforcement at this moment?
AH: Both. You need the qualified personnel and you need very good techniques and better surveillance and communication and observation techniques.
SS: I mean, allowing law enforcement to listen to conversations really, what NSA is doing, isn’t it kind of Stasi all over again?
AH: You have to do this. Looking at the U.S., looking at other states in Europe, I think interception of communications is very important tool for discovering plans for terrorist attacks, because if you try to plan a terrorist attack in the broader scope, then you need more personnel, you need communication and that enables law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies to have an opportunity to discover all these efforts in the beginning of the planning phase. Therefore, it’s very important to have these kind of tools.
SS: But how do you make sure that the powers give to these authorities aren’t being abused?
AH: I think you’ll never get 100% security, but probability to discover in time plans for terrorist attacks is far more higher if you have proper equipment, if you have proper personnel resources.
SS: There has been a report in the media talking about, in the newspaper Bild specifically, that the Italian security forces have warned that they have information about planned ISIS attacks on European resorts in Spain, in Italy, in France. Do intelligence services actually have capacity to find potential suspects? Because, there’s so many arriving, all these refugees arriving.
AH: The problem is, if you are a head of the intelligence, and I was him for seven years, you get a lot of warnings, and now the German authorities are getting day-by-day, between 2 and 4 warnings.
SS: From outside?
AH: From outside, from inside, from all the different sources, day by day.
SS: Do you usually listen to the intelligence data that is given to you? Do you listen to other people?
AH: Yes, we have to get this into consideration, to check it, and that is not so easy, because among all of these terrorist warnings, I think 1 or 2% are really serious, and 98% are not serious, but if something has happened and you have got this warning in advance and you haven’t been lucky to make the right decision, then you have a huge problem.
SS: Like it happened in France, because the Turkish intelligence has warned them before of the terrorists who actually crossed the border, but they probably thought it wasn’t that serious.
AH: You see, it’s always the search of the needle in the haystack, and that is very difficult. If you have all these warnings, you see all these suspects, it’s very difficult to make the right decision. Afterwards, it’s very easy, because you can say “there was a warning” and “why didn’t you undertake this measure and that measure” - afterwards. But, if you are responsible, you have small resources, you have all these warnings, and it’s very difficult to handle these issues in the very proper manner.
SS: What you are describing does seem to me like a dead-end situation. I mean, you’re saying we do get all these warnings, but we’re unable to process all of them, because 99% aren’t serious.
AH: Yes, it’s very difficult. And you see, you have mentioned the refugee problem in Germany. We have gone in Germany between 200-300 thousand persons without any control, without any registration, mainly young people between the age of 20 and 35, 80% of them. They are now in Germany, and we don’t know their names, we don’t know the identification of these people, and that makes it very difficult for our law enforcement agencies - if they get names, for example, this one is a suspect, this one is dangerous, and you don’t know whether they are in Germany or not, you can imagine, it’s not easy to handle these problems. One part of the problem, on behalf of this refugee problem that we are facing in Germany.
SS: So, all these intelligence agencies, they all spy on each other. You have the BND which spied on Kerry, you had the NSA which spied on Merkel, et cetera, et cetera. Is there even room for trust between these agencies?
AH: Of course.
SS: Really? How does that happen when you constantly spy on each other? Surely, trust is required for effective relations and cooperation, no?
AH: Main requirement or task for intelligence agencies is not to spy against friendly heads of state or prime ministers.
SS: Then why do they do it?
AH: Ask the NSA!
SS: BND was spying on Kerry as well?
AH: I can tell you,really, we have never targeted Kerry, but if Kerry is in Syria, if he is in Afghanistan, then you have to try to cover all the information in Afghanistan, elsewhere. Then, it could happen that you have to look Mrs. Clinton or Kerry or whoever you want. But, we don’t have, and I can tell it really, from my own professional view, we have never targeted American top politicians as BND. We never did it.
SS: Who does the BND spy on? Did it spy on Putin?
AH: I don’t know.
SS: Only if he goes to Syria.
AH: I think, for Putin, it’s very interesting to hear what Mrs. Merkel is doing, and for us, it’s very interesting what Mr. Putin is doing.
SS: That’s a very good, diplomatic, answer. Thank you for that. So, wait, in light of this NSA scandal, when it turned out that they were spying on Merkel, you have said that everyone must anticipate eavesdropping.
AH: If they use a mobile phone.
SS: Do you think your phone and your communications are being tapped?
AH: You have to live with this, of course. Everybody have to live with this. If you are using a mobile phone, it’s very easy to intercept this man.
SS: Your former agency, BND is now under investigation by the German parliament for collaborating with Americans to spy on EU officials. The current chief of the intelligence, Gerhard Schindler, he has said that such probes actually hinder and threaten cooperation with other intelligence agencies. What do you think? How will this impede the fight against terrorism?
AH: I think, on behalf of terrorism, we have a very close cooperation inside Europe, with the U.S. and even with Russia and our eastern neighbors. I think, terrorism is a field of a very close cooperation between all intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies, because it’s a common threat for all of us.
SS: So, is it like an unwritten law for all major intelligence agencies, where you have sectors: “Here, we all cooperate”...
SS: ”Here we spy on each other”. How does it happen?
AH: You see, intelligence sources are, let me say, subject to national interests, they are tools for following national interests, and they are sometimes different, and, therefore, of course, for German intelligence it is important what happens in Syria, what’s the Russian behaviour, what’s the behaviour of others in Syria. I think, for the Russian intelligence, it’s interesting what’s the German government thinking - I think it’s a normal business. On the other side, again, we have really common threats, and terrorism or drugs and human trafficking - these are common threats and in these fields we have very good cooperation.
SS: If we talk seriously, terrorism and terrorist attacks, do you think it would be easier to prevent attacks in Europe if there was one, unified, big, pan-European intelligence agency, or an agency of such size would not actually be nimble enough?
AH: Personally, I think it’s not realistic. You see, we have different views inside Europe, Great Britain has special relationship to the U.S., a part of this so-called “Five Eyes”, France has a special view on Africa and other fields, Germany has a special view on the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I think, there are very different views, and I think we should go ahead, step-by-step inside the EU, we have to improve the cooperation, we have achieved a lot but I don’t see a common intelligence service in Europe, I don’t see it, not during my lifetime.
SS: You know, a recent report has highlighted the vulnerability of German nuclear plants to terrorist attacks, such as plane flying into it or a helicopter - in Brussels authorities were also concerned that their country’s nuclear plants have been infiltrated by ISIS. So, would you say that nuclear plants in Europe are the weakest link?
AH: Not the weakest link. Modern societies are very vulnerable, you see, not only nuclear plants, we have other installations, we have chemical industry installations which are very vulnerable. Therefore, we have to undertake all the necessary efforts to make these installations secure and to undertake the necessary protection measures. I think, we are very sophisticated in Germany. Personally, in my former career, I was responsible for these issues, and I know that we have done a lot, and I can assure you, in Germany at least, but I think in other European countries, nuclear power plants and other installations are really protected. It’s a little bit dangerous if you have people from the labor force, inside, who have access to the inner circle, therefore you have to be cautious and that was the case in Belgium. It’s a big point and therefore you have to be very cautious in this.
SS: It’s one thing that I agree that when you have hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving, you can’t filter all of them, but - being able to filter few hundred employees of the nuclear plant, that shouldn’t be that hard?
AH: No, it’s happening, we have a very sophisticated system in Germany. If you are working at the nuclear plant you are checked and these are very sophisticated procedures.
SS: You have mentioned earlier on that Germany may be lucky, because it didn’t face as much terror attacks in the past 10-15 years than other European countries. Eleven Islamist attacks were thwarted in Germany, large part thanks to you as well - and, only one radical religious terrorist act took place. Do you feel like it’s really pure luck or it does seem to me, like, for some reason, maybe, Germany is not targeted as much as other European countries?
AH: Maybe both. We have been lucky on the one side, but we have had, I think, the best expression is “fortune”...
SS: So you think it’s only fortune?
AH: Yeah, you need both. You can’t protect your society for 100%. You need good luck, you need fortune, you need… yeah, you are, to a certain extent, of course, dependent from these terrorist organisations. We have heard sometimes that Germany is a prime target, we have heard it from ISIS, for example, but until now, we have been happy. Hopefully, we will stay being happy.
SS: Well, the terrorists involved in attacks in Paris and Brussels, they were all part of a vast terrorist cell of second-generation immigrants. The attacks really just highlighted the underlying lack of integration of immigrants who come to Europe, into Europe. Does Germany have a similar problem, or is it actually doing much better job in integrating migrants?
AH: I want to say “much better”, but it’s different. France has a special problem with immigrants from Algeria, from Morocco, and the Netherlands have a special problem with people from Morocco. We have many immigrants from Turkey. Turkey is different compared to the situation in Algeria or Tunisia - Tunisia is a hotspot - therefore, the situation in the different European countries is very different.
SS: What’s different in Germany, because I’m just trying to figure out what else makes Germany a bit safer than other European countries, except luck?
AH: It has to do with immigrants from Turkey, they are less dangerous than ones from Algeria or Morocco. You see, there have been an investigation in the Netherlands, that is very interesting: they have compared people coming from Morocco and from Turkey, and immigrants from Morocco have been far better integrated than immigrants from Turkey, but nevertheless, the people from Morocco have been more dangerous than the immigrants from Turkey, because the immigrants from Morocco, they have this problem, these tensions between the two cultures - the cultural background from Morocco and the background from Netherlands, and that leads, obviously, to more extremism, to more radicalism.
SS: I wouldn’t say Turkish and German cultures are very similar either, they are very different too.
AH: No, but the Turkish behaviour is different from the behaviour of the immigrant from Morocco or Algeria or Tunisia - that’s different. So, it has to do with the immigrants.
SS: I’m thinking, in Germany you have 3 million second-generation descents of Turkish migrants who live in Germany, they are German citizens…
AH: Maybe even more.
SS: Yeah, and they did a great job of integrating into the German society - so I’m thinking it’s also probably Germany who’s helping them to integrate more. I mean, you’ve handled this one wave of migration very well. Do you think Germany can handle another wave? People from Syria are very well educated, they speak English…
AH: It has to do with the country of origin. There’s a big difference, coming from Turkey or from Morocco or from Iran. Look, we have got 400,000 immigrants from Iran - they have never caused problems in Germany, not at all. We have had a lot of people from Kosovo, for example, only very few have been dangerous to us. Even from Turkey, we have been lucky. It has to do, maybe, with integration, but it has to do with the countries of origin and with the different character of immigrants.
SS: So now, I mean, the big problem is refugees from Syria. If it were up to you, would allow Syrian refugees to come to Germany? Because, you know, the UN report says that they are very well educated people, they speak very good English…
AH: No, I think, not all of the refugees are very educated and trained. I think, maybe, 20-30%, and 70% are less educated, and we have got not only people from Syria, we have got a lot of people from Afghanistan, and more and more from Africa. Yes, Syrians are a major group, but many of them are coming from other nations. Again, we are trying our best to integrate them, we have achieved some progress, you are right, but it is still a huge problem for us, and it’s a question of numbers and figures. I think it is a problem now. Last year, we have got 1.5 million immigrants, and that’s a lot for the German society. Economically, yes, we can handle this, but from society, from the task to integrate these people, it’s a huge problem now for us. We are trying our best, and hopefully we will be successful.
SS: Just recently, German authorities discovered an underground right-wing extremist group that was planning an attack on refugees. Do you feel like Germany is, maybe, on a brink of a new crisis? Two threats from two different sides, you have, you know, the radical Islam on one side and the extreme right on the other?
AH: No, we see now that German society shows some effects from these refugees, yes. We see it on the left side and on the right side a certain kind of radicalisation. That’s the problem that we have to deal with, we see new parties in Germany, we have in Austria the outcome of the elections there - to a certain extent it is not easy for German society to handle these problems and I feel a little bit that it could that the German society would be more radicalized. But, if you look at a whole of the German society, I think we have done a good job.
SS: Mr. Hanning, thank you very much for this interview, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
AH: Thank you, it was a great pleasure for me.