Chancellor Merkel Shakes up German Intelligence, Bids for Middle East Foothold

Ernst Uhrlau, Angela Merkel’s new head of the BND, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, is revealed by debkafile‘s counter-terror sources as the man behind Berlin’s secret decision to trade German archeologist Susanne Osthoff kidnapped in Iraq on Nov. 25 for the jailed Hizballah terrorist wanted in America, Mohammad Ali Hammadi.
Uhrlau attained international prominence as broker in the Hizballah-Israel prisoner swap and the failed effort to track down the missing Israeli navigator Ron Arad.
Hammadi was serving a life sentence without parole for hijacking a TWA airliner to Beirut in 1985 and killing a Navy SEAL diver, Robert Dean Stethem, whom he threw out of the window. A US extradition warrant was on file in Berlin with a promise it would take effect if the hijacker were ever released. A few days after the terrorist was flown to Beirut, Osthoff was freed by her Iraqi insurgent captors.
This hostage-for-terrorist swap will no doubt raise storms of protest in Washington and Jerusalem and cast a shadow on relations with the Bush administration which Schroeder was at pains to mend.
1. It is the first time since al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in America that a senior European ally in America’s global war on terror has succumbed to enemy pressure and bought a hostage’s release by freeing a convicted terrorist.
2. debkafile‘s counter-terror experts recall that Hammadi was assigned to hijack the TWA airliner by the notorious Imad Mughniyeh, veteran head of the Hizballah’s “security operations” and current organizer of al Qaeda’s infrastructure in Beirut. In the 1980s he specialized in hostage-taking, assassination, hijacking and bombing massacres against Americans and Israelis. Mughniyeh and Osama bin Laden have the same $25 m price on their heads. Hizballah repeatedly attacks Israel and its agents are planted deep inside Palestinian terrorist groups.
3. Hammadi’s repatriation to Lebanon shows that this country is still a haven and hub of operations for terrorists notwithstanding American clean-up efforts since the February assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
4. The swap of a hostage kidnapped by Iraqi guerrillas for a Lebanese Hizballah terrorist exposes for the first time the clandestine operational links between the Hizballah and Iraqi guerrillas and fellow-terrorists. It elevates the Lebanese Shiite group’s standing in Europe to a higher league in a way detrimental to American and Israeli security interests.
5. The shakeup of German intelligence, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, is the off-the-record motive behind the resignation of Detlev Mehlis as head of the UN team on the Hariri case.
He made the decision shortly after Merkel reshuffled Germany’s security and intelligence services, a step she took two days after sitting down in the chancellor’s office in Berlin on Nov. 30.
She made Uhrlau, who was the secret service coordinator in ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s office, head of the BND. The other key appointment was her transfer of Klaus-Dieter Fritsche from the top post at Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, to secret services coordinator in the new chancellery.
Chancellor Merkel is clearly eager to bring into play the close and complex web of ties Uhrlau has cultivated over the years with top Iranian officials and intelligence chiefs, key members of the Syrian regime, Hizballah chiefs, and operatives of Islamist radical groups ideologically close to al Qaeda.
Uhrlau came to international prominence as broker of the Hizballah prisoner exchange last year. The new German chancellor, by promoting him to director of the BND, shows she expects Iranian issues, the war on al Qaeda and the radicalized Middle East to stay at the center of international affairs during her five-year tenure.
Mehlis, an expert in his own right in the labyrinthine intelligence-cum-terror organizations of the Middle East, does not argue with this perception. But in the eight months he has led the Hariri inquiry, he concluded that the majority of the Syrian and Lebanese officials involved in the assassination of the Lebanese leader belong to intelligence or terror establishments with which Uhrlau boasts excellent connections. By pressing ahead with his probe, Mehlis feared he would prejudice the new BND’s connections at the very moment that they might be of use to the new chancellor for promoting German influence in the Middle East. The German investigative prosecutor therefore decided to bow out rather than step into this minefield.

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