German Intelligence Active in Kosovo
By Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis | intelNews | 11/29/2008
THERE IS ADMITTEDLY NOTHING NEW about intelligence activity in the Balkans. That chronically unstable area of southern Europe has been a hotbed of international espionage since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early part of the twentieth century. The postwar division of the Balkan peninsular into zones of influence between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as communist Yugoslavia’s defiance of both Moscow and Washington, intensified the covert war in Balkan capitals to unprecedented degrees. The formal end of the Cold War did little to diffuse the intensity of this clash. On the contrary, ongoing border shifts among the various Balkan nations have prolonged covert activity throughout that area.
The epicenter of the latest round of intelligence positioning in the Balkans is the tiny Albanian-dominated region of Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008. Western governments, eager to encourage the political and cultural westernization of the country’s primarily Sunni Muslim population, were among the first to recognize Kosovo’s controversial independence. France, Britain, the United States, Germany, Australia, Italy and Belgium all recognized Kosovo almost as soon as it called itself an independent republic. American and German support has been particularly strong, prompting native Kosovars to wave some German and numerous American flags, alongside Kosovar banners, during street celebrations of their independence.
On the other hand, a few Western nations, notably Spain and Greece, have refrained from recognizing Kosovo. They are concerned that doing so could potentially encourage separatist tendencies among some of their domestic ethnic minorities. More importantly, Russia and China have refused to endorse the independence of Kosovo, viewing the tiny breakaway republic as part of a pro-American axis that is slowly forming in the Balkans, comprising traditional US ally Turkey and post-Cold War allies Albania, Bosnia and Macedonia.
A COMPLICATED SITUATION
On the ground, however, things are more complicated than they may initially appear. In the early hours of November 14, Kosovo Police arrested three individuals suspected of detonating an explosive device at the International Civilian Office, an urban landmark in capital Pristina that houses the office of the European Union’s (EU) special envoy to Kosovo02. Local authorities claimed that surveillance video showed the three acting in a synchronized fashion, with one of them throwing the dynamite-based explosive into the building and the other two keeping watch08. The moderate quantity of the dynamite —300 grams at most— explains the relatively mild explosion that shattered the building’s glass windows but caused no casualties05.
When the city’s police forces moved in rapidly to assess the situation, they expected to find the usual suspects, i.e. groups of militant young Albanians objecting to the continuing presence of foreign —primarily NATO, UN, and soon EU— law enforcement and military forces in their country. Instead, they found three professional-looking, middle-aged men dressed in black and carrying hi-tech communications equipment. Their suspicion was aroused when one of the three suspects attempted to destroy his cell phone’s Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card when faced with the prospect of an arrest04.
The three turned out to be German Federal Intelligence Service agents, employees of Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service03. Initial suggestions03 that they had been borrowed by the BND from the 2,600-strong German NATO “peacekeeping” force02 stationed in Kosovo were dismissed when their ages —ranging from 41 to 47— became known. Soon afterwards, their operational affiliation was confirmed by Thomas Opperman, chair of the German Parliament’s committee on intelligence operations, who established that the three were indeed BND agents working in Kosovo10. What is more, all of them appeared to be working in deep cover (“in private capacity”, as the Kosovo Police spokesperson put it01), having no affiliation with the German Embassy in Pristina, no diplomatic passports and no diplomatic immunity.
Upon confirming that the three arrestees were in fact BND agents, the German government attempted to deny their involvement in the explosion at the EU offices, saying that the three went to the scene to investigate the explosion and that their charges were fabricated by the Kosovo Police. The Germans failed to explain why they would send deep-cover intelligence agents to investigate a small-scale explosion at the EU headquarters in Pristina, while a 2,600-strong German military force was standing by in nearly walking distance. They also failed to explain why the Kosovars would fabricate charges against Germany, the latter being among their most fervent international supporters, who not only was instrumental in legitimating Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, but also stationed 2,600 “peacekeepers” in the new nation and has pledged “€100 million in development aid over the next two years”03.
On the other hand, German officials make a valid point when they state that it would be nonsensical for German intelligence agents to be attacking the EU mission in Pristina, since it is through that EU mission that most of the German political influence in Kosovo is channeled and applied06. Counterterrorism expert Elmar Thevessen correctly told Deutsche Welle that “[i]t doesn’t make any sense at all for the German intelligence service to get involved in a bomb going off in an office of the European Union [because, a]s a matter of fact, the German government has been known to be one of the biggest supporters of that mission”07.
WHAT IS THE BND DOING IN KOSOVO?
To evaluate this complex situation, it is important to clarify the mission of the BND in Kosovo, which appears to be three-fold. One major purpose is to unearth and discourage tendencies of religiously inspired radical tendencies among primarily Muslim Kosovar youth. A second aim is to monitor the utilization of German financial assistance by the Kosovar government and to increase its propaganda potential among the Kosovar population. The third part of the mission is to check —though not necessarily eliminate— the operational links between the Kosovar government and organized crime in the central Balkans.
Ever since the effective dissolution of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) has been the de facto government in what used to be southwestern Yugoslavia. As early as 1996, the ethnic Albanian KLA was routinely engaging in armed clashes against Yugoslavian government forces. Prior to and during the US-led NATO invasion of Yugoslavia, in 1999, US and Western European support for the KLA was intensified in the form of financial and military assistance13. Support from the BND was critical at that juncture, as well as substantial, to the extent that BND operatives were effectively “in charge of selecting recruits for the KLA command structure”14, according to British observers. The fact that the KLA raised most of its funds through illegal trade in narcotics12 does not appear to have impeded its close relationship with Western intelligence agencies11.
Despite their supposed transformation from paramilitary guerillas to respectable politicians, KLA leaders have maintained their strong ties to the same organized crime syndicates that assisted them during their days of armed resurrection. This applies specifically in the case of Kosovo’s current Prime Minister, Hashim Thaçi, who joined the KLA in 1993 and quickly became the organization’s political leader. In 2005, a BND report that was leaked to the German press described him as one of the leaders of the country’s organized crime syndicate and a key factor in the “interlink between politics, the economy and international organized crime” in Kosovo15. This was not the first time that the BND had implicated a leader in the former Yugoslavia in criminal activity. In 2000, the organization had accused the then President of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, of functioning “as an organized crime syndicate, with at least one-hundred million dollars in ill-gotten funds stashed in foreign accounts”16. The difference, of course, is that Milosevic was the instigator of a “devastating campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo which killed thousands and drove almost a million people from their homes”, according to US former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright17. Thaçi, on the other hand, was praised by Secretary Albright and US former President Bill Clinton as “a responsible and democratic leader”18.
In all these years, the BND has been prepared to allow Thaçi to continue to profit from his illegal ventures for two reasons. First, because he has been able to suppress the real grassroots independence movement in Kosovo, which is neither pro-Serb nor pro-Western. One of the leaders of that movement, which calls itself Vetëvendosje (self-determination), is political activist Albin Kurti. He describes Kosovo’s “independence” under Thaçi as “not the sovereignty that so many of the people of Kosovo fought and died for”, because “the EU will be running the show [...] and the executive power will not be accountable to the people”19. Vetëvendosje describes Kosovo’s “so-called democratically elected leaders” as “neither democratically elected nor leaders”. The latter assumed executive power via a disputed election in which “[l]ess than 50% of the population voted at all, in an externally imposed framework and process from above having nothing to do with democracy”20. Furthermore, Vetëvendosje describes the EU and NATO military and police forces stationed in Kosovo as “not democratic nor [...] promoting democracy. Instead, they are authoritarian [...,] executive [..., and ultimately] self-devaluating” for Kosovo20.
The second reason why the BND has tolerated most of Thaçi’s links with organized crime, is that he has pledged to move Kosovo toward a Western-style liberalized market system, which will be financially and politically dependent on Western Europe and the United States. Under Thaçi’s rule, Kosovo is expected to develop along lines that are essentially similar to that of neighboring Macedonia. The President of that country, Boris Trajkovski, characteristically remarked the following in May of 2003, during a US Pentagon press conference: “millions of Iraqis have been liberated thanks to President Bush’s vision, leadership and courage, and [...] millions of people will remember Iraq’s liberation as an act of democracy. Once again, I would like to applaud Mr. Bush and his administration on their efforts and their support. This means that Macedonia will continue to support US administration policy and activities”21.
THE UPCOMING CHANGE OF GUARD
The UN recently decided to terminate its “peacekeeping” mission in Kosovo and hand over its power to an EU mission, called EULEX Kosovo, composed of troops, law enforcement agents, diplomats and judges. EULEX Kosovo has been described as “the biggest field operation that the EU has ever put on the ground”22. Not surprisingly, the Germans, which are expected to maintain a force of at least 600 troops in the breakaway nation, are among the plan’s most fervent supporters. Among other things, this is because, under normal circumstances, the upcoming change of guard is not expected to affect the BND’s ability to keep a very close eye on Kosovar political developments. In contrast, many ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are angry that the soon-to-depart NATO and UN troops are to be replaced by another foreign “executive power” which “will not be accountable to the people”. In fact, the initial —and probably correct— impression among observers was that the explosion at the EU envoy’s offices in Pristina on November 14 was carried out by militant ethnic Albanians protesting the EU’s continuing presence in Kosovo02.
After arresting the three German intelligence operatives, the Kosovo government reasoned that the action of the BND agents “intended to disrupt [the EU’s] efforts to deploy its new police mission” and that it was meant to “hamper and hinder” the pending handover from the UN to the EU05. Yet this explanation is nonsensical, not only in light of longstanding German policy, but also with respect to the intelligence continuum that the new EU force is expected to provide the BND. What is more likely is that the strained relationship between the German foreign intelligence service and the criminal elements in Hashim Thaçi’s government has reached some sort of culmination, forcing the latter to explore ways of ridding themselves of deep-cover (i.e. non-diplomatic-linked) BND agents in Kosovo. This explains why the three German operatives, who were in fact arrested outside the EU mission building four hours after the explosion23, “were arrested with much fanfare —with photographers on the scene— as if to embarrass them or their spy service”23.
THE END OF AN EPISODE?
As expected, the German government applied immediate and considerable pressure on the Kosovar leadership for the release of the three spies. Although officials denied that Germany considered “reducing its economic aid to Kosovo as a result of the incident”09, it would be naïve to assume that Berlin did not employ the simplest and most effective form of pressure —namely economic pressure— against Pristina, to safeguard its intelligence interests, which were no other than the immediate recovery of its captured operatives. Following intense negotiations with German officials, Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi himself remarked on November 25 that “[n]o one has an interest in politicizing this affair”03. The three BND agents were then promptly released by Kosovar authorities, after Kosovo’s government “appear[ed] to have backed down”04, in the words of Der Spiegel.
However, along with the release of the three German intelligence agents, the Kosovar government communicated a loud and clear message to Berlin: the days of unfettered action by German spies on Kosovar territory are over, and the BND will have to be a lot more careful in the way it operates in the central Balkans. The political significance of this episode is even more serious: Western governments may soon have to face the possibility of another friend-turned-foe, in the face of Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi. Successive US, British, German, and other Western political administrations have consciously chosen to overlook the well-documented links of Thaçi and his cronies to organized crime networks, ranging from narcotics to arms and human trafficking. By maintaining his strong ties to these networks and by choosing to severe his —no less controversial— ties with Western intelligence circles, Thaçi may now be gradually transforming himself into a European version of Manuel Noriega. It will be interesting to see how the West intends to deal with yet another case of a renegade protégé.
REFERENCES CITED IN THIS REPORT:
01 Anon. (2008) “Police Arrest Three Germans Over EU Bomb in Kosovo”, Reuters, November 20
02 Kulish, N., and Bilefsky, D. (2008) “Kosovo Blast Sends Shock Wave to Berlin”, International Herald Tribune, November 24
03 Anon. (2008) “Kosovo Claims to Have Video of ‘Terrorism’”, Der Spiegel, November 25
04 Anon. (2008) “German Agents May Come Home”, Der Spiegel, November 26
05 Adams, J. (2008) “Three Germans Detained Related to Attack on EU Office in Kosovo”, Christian Science Monitor, November 24
06 Kulish, N., and Mekhennet, S., (2008) “Small Blast in Kosovo Chafes Bond With Germany”, The New York Times, November 24
07 Anon. (2008) “German Politicians Demand Clarification on Kosovo Bombing”, Deutsche Welle, November 24
08 Qena, N. (2008) “Kosovo: 3 Germans Intended to Disrupt EU Mission”, Associated Press, November 23
09 Anon. (2008) “Kosovo UN Judges Release Three German Spies”, Reuters, November 28
10 Siebold, S., and Carrel, P. (2008) “Lawmaker Says Germans Arrested in Kosovo Are Spies”, International Herald Tribune, November 28
11 Wood, N. (2000) “Kosovo Gripped by Racketeers”, BBC, April 5
12 Seper, J. (1999) “KLA Finances Fight with Heroin Sales”, The Washington Times, May 3
13 Walker, T., and Laverty, A. (2000) “CIA Aided Kosovo Guerrilla Army”, The Sunday Times, March 12
14 Fallgot, R. (1998) “How Germany Backed KLA”, The European, September 21
15 Roth,J. (2005) “Rechtsstaat? Lieber nicht! Das Kosovo auf dem Weg in die Unabhängigkeit”, Die Weltwoche, 43
16 Anon. (2000) “Milosevic’s Banker Ousted”, BBC, October 17
17 Albright, M. (2000) Address to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Geneva, Switzerland, March 23
18 Djilas, A. (2001) “The Politicized Tribunal”, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, July 25
19 Little, A. (2008) “High Hopes as Kosovo Goes it Alone”, BBC, February 15.
20 Anon. (2008) “Deconstruction of the Declaration of Independence“, Vetëvendosje, February 23
21 Trajkovski, B., and Wolfowitz, P. (2003) “Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Joint Press Conference with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski”, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, US Department of Defense, Washington, D.C., May 17
22 Anon. (2008) “The EU’s Toughest Operation“, BBC, February 21
23 Nicola, S. (2008) “German-Kosovar Terror Scandal”, United Press International, November 25