Home Breaking News How a Syrian War Criminal and Double Agent Disappeared in Europe

How a Syrian War Criminal and Double Agent Disappeared in Europe

How a Syrian War Criminal and Double Agent Disappeared in Europe

On a September day in 1961, a thin man with a small mustache walked into a post place of labor in Damascus to desire up a parcel addressed to Georg Fischer. Few individuals knew that Fischer, an in unpleasant health-tempered Austrian weapons merchant, was actually the S.S. Hauptsturmführer Alois Brunner, “the erstwhile assistant of Adolf Eichmann in the annihilation of Jews,” as a classified U.S. cable assign it. But among those who were aware of his identification was a Mossad operative who had infiltrated the Syrian élite. When Brunner opened the package, it exploded, killing two postal workers and blinding him in the left watch.

The Israeli stare was later caught, tortured, and finished; Brunner lived brazenly in Damascus for the following several decades, in the third-floor apartment of seven Rue Haddad. “Among Third Reich criminals level-headed alive, Alois Brunner is with out a doubt the worst,” the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal wrote, in 1988. France sentenced Brunner to death in absentia. Israel tried to abolish him a second time, however the bomb took handiest some fingers. Brunner instructed a German magazine that his chief remorse was now not having killed extra Jews.

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Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, disregarded a couple of requests for Brunner’s extradition. Brunner was practical—as an assertion of Syrian state sovereignty, a mockery of global norms and values, and an affront to Israel, Syria’s neighbor and enemy. He was, as any individual in Assad’s inner circle later assign it, “a card that the regime kept in its hand.”

But, in the late nineties, as Assad’s health was failing, he became dedicated to the task of preparing his ruthless world for his son. After inheriting the Presidency, Bashar al-Assad would portray himself as a reformer; it may be a liability to have an avowed génocidaire in the diplomatic quarter, flanked by Syrian guards. For the following fifteen years, Nazi hunters assumed that Brunner was hidden away on Rue Haddad, perhaps even past his hundredth birthday. But no person saw him, so no person knew for clear.

Brunner and various Nazis had helped development Syria’s intelligence providers and products, and trained its officers in the arts of interrogation. In Syrian detention centers, their ways are stale to this day. Among the practitioners was Khaled al-Halabi, a Syrian Army officer who was assigned to the intelligence providers and products in 2001. By his luxuriate in account, he was a reluctant stare—he wanted to remain a soldier. Nevertheless, he served for the following twelve years, ascending via the ranks.

When Syria erupted in revolution, in 2011, Assad and his deputies blamed the protests on outdoors forces. They jailed activists who spoke to overseas information shops, and targeted for arrest individuals whose phones contained songs that were “rather offensive to Mr. President.” Even internal govt communications asserted that the instability in Syria was the final result of “Zionist-American plots.” But Halabi understood that the disaster was real. He raised his considerations along with his boss. “Ninety-five per cent of the population is against the regime,” Halabi later recalled saying. “I asked him if we must always level-headed abolish all individuals. He couldn’t answer me.”

In the following decade, Halabi would change into the unwitting successor to Brunner’s circumstances. Diplomats and spies from various governments weighed Halabi’s and Brunner’s past carrier and perceived utility against potential future risks—and generally miscalculated. The two males even traded international locations. In some ways, they were nothing alike: the Austrian was a monster; the Syrian, by most accounts, is now not. But each man carried out the capabilities of a murderous regime. And, in the tip, their actions as intelligence officers came to be their handiest safety—and the reason they wanted it.

By the tip of February, 2013, Khaled al-Halabi was running out of time. For the previous five years, he had served as the chief of the General Intelligence Directorate branch in Raqqa, a vast desolate tract province in the northeastern part of Syria, far from his wife and adolescents. To the locals, he was an outsider with the authority to detain, torture, and abolish them. But Halabi, who was a fifty-year-stale brigadier general, felt insecure within Syria’s intelligence apparatus. An employee at his branch of the directorate described him as a “successfully-educated and decent man” who was now not a solid or decisive leader. Another famous that Halabi, who belonged to a non secular minority identified as the Druze, was afraid of two of his subordinates who, like Assad, were Alawites. He overpassed their rampant corruption and abuses.

It was partly via this sectarian lens that Halabi gave the impression to make sense of his professional disappointments. He belief of himself as a “brilliant officer,” he later said, and was the handiest Druze in Syrian intelligence to change into a regional director. But, he added, “to be frank, Raqqa is the least important bother in the country. That’s why they stationed me there. It was like putting me in a closet.”

Halabi regarded the local population with sympathetic disdain. They were tribal and conservative; he was a secular man with a law degree, who drank alcohol and read Marxist literature. To the extent that he had political beliefs, they were aligned with those of a few of the leftist intellectuals whom he was occasionally ordered to arrest. His wife and adolescents refused to hunt advice from Raqqa; they stayed a entire lot of miles away, in Damascus and in Suweida, the predominantly Druze metropolis Halabi was from. In time, Halabi began an affair with a woman who labored in the environmental ministry. A nurse recalled him asking for Viagra.

His rivals exploited such transgressions. Syria’s security-intelligence apparatus includes four parallel agencies with overlapping tasks, and Halabi’s counterpart in Military Intelligence, an Alawite named Jameh Jameh, had taken a particular abominate to him. “He spread rumors that I was under the influence of alcohol all the time, that I don’t work, that I don’t leave the place of labor because there are younger boys coming to scrutinize me,” Halabi complained. One day, after Halabi left Raqqa to hunt advice from his family in Suweida, his car was ambushed at a checkpoint. He narrowly escaped assassination, he later said, and was convinced that Jameh had ordered the hit. If Halabi’s assessment was paranoid, it wasn’t baseless; Military Intelligence was wiretapping his mobile phone.

The individuals of Raqqa were overwhelmingly Sunni and rural, and had benefitted itsy-bitsy from the governmentin Damascus. When the protests began, the regional governor advised his security committee that “handiest threats and intimidation labored.” Halabi initially tried to act as a exclaim of moderation. According to a defector, he instructed his officers now not to arrest minors, and, when that you can imagine, to patrol with out arms. But, in March, 2012, after security forces killed a local teen-ager, armed warfare broke out in the province. One day, Halabi gathered his part heads and instructed them to initiate fireplace on any gathering of extra than four individuals. It wasn’t his choice, he said; he had obtained the reveal from his boss in Damascus, Ali Mamlouk.

As Halabi saw it, Assad’s inner circle treated Raqqa as a limb to be sacrificed in reveal to guard “the heart of the country.” They deployed handiest a thousand troops to the province, which is about the scale of Tranquil Jersey. By the tip of 2012, the Free Syrian Army—a constellation of insurrection factions with disparate ideologies—had captured key portions of the route from Raqqa to Damascus. It joined forces with Islamist and jihadi groups in the surrounding countryside. In Halabi’s assessment, the battle was over before it began. “Anyone who belief otherwise is an imbecile,” he said.

There are five main entrances to Raqqa, and by February, 2013, the metropolis was beneath threat from all of them. Four were guarded by contributors of the various intelligence branches. The fifth, which led to Raqqa’s eastern suburbs, was the accountability of Halabi’s males in General Intelligence. A entire bunch of police, military officers, and intelligence officers had already defected to the rebels or fled—including almost half Halabi’s subordinates. Many of them entreated Halabi to join the revolution, but he stayed in his post.

“We’re expecting you to advance as a rich and successful artist.”
Cartoon by Frank Cotham

On March 2nd, rebels stormed into Raqqa metropolis via Halabi’s checkpoints, where they encountered no meaningful resistance. By lunchtime, the revolutionaries had conquered their first regional capital. Locals toppled a gold-painted statue of Hafez al-Assad in Raqqa’s main roundabout, and warring parties ransacked govt buildings and smashed portraits of Bashar. The corpse of Jameh’s lead interrogator was thrown off a building, then dragged via the streets. Meanwhile, Islamist brigades captured the governor’s mansion and took hostage the regional head of the Baath Party and the governor of Raqqa. By the tip of the week, regime intelligence officers who hadn’t escaped to a nearby military base were prisoners, defectors, or dead. Only one senior official was unaccounted for. Khaled al-Halabi had disappeared.

Extra than a year passed, and Raqqa’s instant collapse served as fodder for regional conspiracy. A Lebanese newspaper printed rumors that Halabi may be “lying low in Mount Lebanon.” An Iranian outlet claimed that Western powers had paid him extra than a hundred thousand dollars to abet jihadis bring down the regime.

One day in 2014, a Syrian dissident author and poet named Najati Tayara acquired an unnerving mobile phone call. Tayara, who was almost seventy years stale and living in exile in France, had been in and out of Syrian detention several occasions in the past decade, for criticizing Assad’s govt. Now, Tayara learned, Halabi was in Paris, and wanted to satisfy with him.

“I was involved,” Tayara instructed me. “Sooner than I came to France, I was in jail. And now here is an intelligence officer—he came here, he’s asking for me.”

Halabi had detained Tayara twice in the mid-two-thousands, when he was stationed in Homs, in central Syria. Tayara was part of a circle of dissidents and intellectuals who held salons in their homes. After each arrest, he sensed that Halabi had been reluctant to take him in for questioning. “He was a cultured man—very delicate and polite with me,” Tayara recalled. “He instructed me, ‘I am obliged to send you to Damascus for interrogation. Excuse me—I cannot refuse the reveal.’ ” Halabi gave Tayara his cell-mobile phone quantity, and instructed him to call if anyone threatened or abused him in custody. “That was how al-Halabi handled individuals like me—human-rights advocates and public intellectuals,” Tayara instructed me. “But with the Islamists? Maybe he is a various man. I cannot be a see for a way he was with others.” When Halabi reached out in Paris, Tayara agreed to satisfy.

Halabi instructed Tayara that he hadn’t viewed his wife or adolescents in extra than three years. After the fall of Raqqa, his eldest daughter, who had been studying in Damascus, was forced out of faculty and in temporary detained. In Suweida, her mother and siblings were beneath constant surveillance by the regime. Halabi had by no means publicly defected to the opposition. But, Tayara recalled, “he instructed me that he left Syria because he made contact with the Free Syrian Army—that he gave them the keys to Raqqa.”

According to contributors of the invading pressure, negotiations had begun weeks in advance. “To insure that he wasn’t manipulating us, we asked him to enact things in the metropolis that made it easier for protesters and revolutionaries,” a insurrection-affiliated activist recalled, in a fresh mobile phone call from Raqqa. “I was wanted by his security branch, but he shelved the arrest warrant, so that I may transfer freely.”

A few days before the attack, a commander from a mighty Islamist brigade reached out to Halabi. He promised to arrange Halabi’s escape, and to spare the lives of his subordinates, if the rebels may enter Raqqa from the metropolis’s eastern suburbs. On the eve of the attack, armed rebels smuggled Halabi to Tabqa, a metropolis by the Euphrates Dam. They handed him off to another brigade, which took him to a safe home near the Turkish border, owned by a local tribal leader, Abdul Hamid al-Nasser. “One of the crucial crucial Free Syrian Army contributors wanted to arrest him, but, since my father was a revered local figure, no person may enact anything,” Nasser’s son Mohammed recalled. The following morning, Nasser drove Halabi to the Turkish border. He crossed on foot, whereas officers from the various intelligence branches were slaughtered at their posts.

The Turkish border areas were filled with refugees, jihadi recruits, and spies. Halabi remained in touch with the Islamist commander, but he was by no means at ease in Turkey. Thru intermediaries, he contacted Walid Joumblatt, a Lebanese politician and venerable warlord who’s the de-facto leader of the Druze neighborhood. In the nineteenth century, Joumblatt’s great-great-great-grandfather Bashir led an exodus of persecuted Druze, including Halabi’s ancestors, out of Aleppo Province. (The Arabic name for Aleppo is Halab.) Now Halabi asked if he may inspect refuge in Lebanon. But Joumblatt relayed that Halabi would by no means procure there—that Hezbollah, which had sent warring parties into Syria to enhance the regime, had a controlling presence at the Beirut airport. Instead, Halabi later recalled, “he advised me to travel to Jordan.”

The lumber was now not attainable by land. So, in May, 2013, Joumblatt sent an emissary to Istanbul, who escorted Halabi onto a plane. Halabi had no passport—handiest a Syrian military I.D. But, in Amman, Jordan’s capital, Joumblatt’s contacts escorted Halabi via immigration. “It was Walid Joumblatt who coördinated everything with the Turks and the Jordanians,” Halabi later said. “I enact now not know the way he did it.”

Joumblatt’s males arranged for Halabi to satisfy with various Druze officers, Syrian defectors, and Jordanian intelligence, to enhance the revolution. (Joumblatt’s father was assassinated in 1977, and he has always believed that Hafez al-Assad ordered the hit.) But a lot of the Druze came to suspect that Halabi was level-headed working for the regime. “We came upon that he had played a very nasty role in Raqqa,” Joumblatt instructed me. “We think he did his easiest to reveal the regime the weaknesses of the Raqqa resistance,” and flipped handiest in the final moments, to save his luxuriate in skin. Joumblatt and his followers severed all contact with Halabi. “And now I don’t know where he is,” Joumblatt said.

Later in 2013, having been turned away by his fellow-Druze, Halabi walked into the French Embassy in Amman. He introduced himself as a reluctant intelligence chief whose political and cultural tastes aligned with those of the French. “I love alcohol and secularism,” he later said. “France. Food. Napoleon.” He added that since the beginning of the Syrian war he had been “convinced that this regime is now not going to last—that anyone who talks about longevity is a moron.” By this point, even the tip general accountable for preventing defections had himself defected. After decades of carrier to the regime, “I determined now not to tie my fate to it,” Halabi said.

The French govt had spent extra than a year debriefing excessive-ranking Syrian military and intelligence defectors—partly in anticipation of Assad’s losing the war, partly to facilitate that final result. A hundred years ago, France occupied Syria and Lebanon, as part of a post-Ottoman mandate. Now it feature out to make deals with anyone it belief-about acceptable to lead in a post-Assad era—an era that regarded increasingly likely. At one point in 2012, there was gunfire so shut to Assad’s bother that he and his family reportedly fled to Latakia, an Alawite stronghold on the Syrian coast. “If we didn’t want a collapse of the regime—perhaps as happened in Iraq, with dramatic consequences after the U.S. intervention—then we had to find a answer that blended the moderate resistance with aspects of the regime who weren’t heavily compromised,” the French overseas minister Laurent Fabius instructed Sam Dagher, for his e book “Assad or We Burn the Nation,” from 2019. Assad, meanwhile, eliminated several that you can imagine candidates to be triumphant him—including, it seems, his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who was in touch with French officials before dying in a bombing that was widely belief-about an inside job.

Halabi trod a careful line. “If the regime hadn’t killed individuals—if I wasn’t going to procure my hands soiled with blood—it’s that you can imagine that I’d now not have left,” he instructed the French. “That’s why the extremist opposition hates me. And the regime considers me a traitor, because I didn’t abolish with them.” As long as his family was level-headed in Suweida, he said, “I am caught between these two fires.”

After months of dealing with Embassy officials, Halabi was introduced to a man whom he knew handiest as Julien. “As rapidly as I saw him, I understood that he was from the intelligence carrier, because I am in the business,” Halabi later said. Julien apparently dangled the chance of a relationship with French intelligence, but Halabi refused to share his insights with out cost. “I am now not a baby, I am an intelligence officer,” he said. He instructed Julien that he would take into account helping the French handiest if he were first dropped at Paris and granted political asylum, and if his family were smuggled out of Suweida.

In February, 2014, the French Embassy in Amman issued Halabi a single-expend travel document and a visa. He landed in Paris on February 27th, according to the entry stamp, and checked into a resort. Then began an “intelligence game,” as Halabi assign it. “I wanted cash. They wanted to stress me, to make me needy.”

According to Halabi, Julien was aware that he had handiest five hundred euros and a thousand dollars. Anyone was speculated to satisfy him at the resort within two days of arrival, to take care of the invoice, abet him apply for asylum and housing, and start debriefing him. But no person came. After two weeks, Halabi ran out of cash. Desperate, he reached out to a Druze financier in Paris who had connections to spies in the Middle East. After a cash handoff, a French intelligence officer turned up at Halabi’s door.

“They didn’t like the fact that I called on some chums,” Halabi recalled. The intelligence officer, who introduced herself as Mme. Hélène, cited the Druze connection as proof that Halabi was associated with another overseas intelligence agency. She added that it can be ineffective for him to apply for asylum. Halabi by no means saw her again.

After ninety days, Halabi’s visa expired, and he applied for asylum anyway. “They introduced me here and abandoned me,” Halabi complained to the asylum officer, of his skills with French intelligence. “In the occasion that they were professional, they would attempt to win me over.”

Halabi declined to speak with me. But his French asylum interview—which lasted for extra than four hours, and was carried out by any individual with deep information of Syrian affairs—gives a gape into his character, background, priorities, and state of mind. “I’ve been cheated—it doesn’t travel along with French ethics,” Halabi insisted, in the interview. “They may enact this to a itsy-bitsy soldier, but now not to a general like me.”

“Ethics and intelligence providers and products—they’re now not the same thing,” the asylum officer replied.

“I am clear they’re going to intervene,” Halabi said. “I know that I deserve a ten-year residency document—ask your judgment of right and wrong.”

“In the occasion that they intervene, they intervene, but we is now not going to contact them,” the officer said. “We can make our luxuriate in choice.”

“Inquire your judgment of right and wrong! No person is extra threatened than me in Syria.”

“We can enact our due diligence,” the asylum officer continued. “As you can imagine, in light of your career, we are going to have to think about it for a whereas. We can’t make a choice today.”

By the tip of 2015, nearly a million Syrians had crossed into Europe, fleeing the warfare. Across the Continent, survivors of detention and torture began spotting their venerable tormentors in grocery stores and asylum centers. The exodus had forced victims and perpetrators into the same choke points—Greek coastlines, Balkan roads, Central European bus depots. Local European police agencies were inundated with reports that they had no capacity to pursue.

One day that fall, a Canadian war-crimes investigator named Invoice Wiley led me to a padlocked door in a basement in Western Europe. Inside was a large room containing a dehumidifier, metal shelving, and cardboard packing containers stacked floor to ceiling. The packing containers held extra than 600 thousand Syrian govt paperwork, mostly taken from security-intelligence facilities that had been overrun by insurrection groups. Using these paperwork, Wiley’s neighborhood, an N.G.O. called the Charge for International Justice and Accountability, had reconstructed worthy of the Syrian chain of command.

“I think you’ll find this wine to be fairly infuriating.”
Cartoon by Christopher Weyant

Wiley and his colleagues shaped the CIJA in response to what they perceived as major deficiencies in the international justice scheme. Because Assad’s govt had now not ratified the founding document of the International Criminal Court docket, the court docket may now not initiate an investigation into its crimes. Only the U.N. Security Council may rectify this, and the governments of Russia and China have blocked efforts to enact so. It was the ultimate symbol of international failure: there was no clear path to prosecuting the most successfully-documented campaign of war crimes and crimes against humanity since the Holocaust.

International criminal trials repeatedly point of interest on authority, accountability, chain of command. The pressure of the endeavor is in deterrence—in making plain that there are inflexible standards for behavior in war. A lack of enthusiasm does now not amount to a protection. What matters is what is finished—now not how an officer felt about doing it. Underneath a mode of liability identified as “command accountability,” a senior officer, for example, can be prosecuted for failing to forestall or punish widespread, systematic criminality among his subordinates.

This distinction was apparently lost on Halabi, who seems to have belief of “law” handiest as whatever he was instructed to enact. “At the same time as you receive an reveal, as a soldier, you have to carry it out,” Halabi instructed the French asylum officer. He didn’t appear to connect his obedience to what adopted: extra than Two hundred contributors of the Raqqa branch of the General Intelligence Directorate would receive his reveal, and have to put in pressure it. “I by no means did anything illegal in Syria, with the exception of helping individuals,” he said. “If there is an international tribunal for these individuals”—Assad and his deputies—“I can be the primary to reveal up.”

The CIJA had prepared a four-hundred-page legal temporary that established the criminal culpability of Assad and about a dozen of his top security officials. The temporary links the systematic torture and abolish of tens of thousands of Syrian detainees to orders that were drafted by the country’s best-stage security committee, approved by Assad, and sent down parallel chains of command. The CIJA’s paperwork contain a entire lot of thousands, if now not thousands and thousands of names—arrestees and their interrogators, Baathist informants, the heads of each security agency—and have served as the basis for financial sanctions targeting regime officials. In fresh years, the CIJA has change into a offer of Syrian-regime paperwork for civil and criminal cases all over the arena. A tip from one in every of its investigators in ISIS territory averted a terrorist attack in Australia. Meanwhile, the neighborhood has fielded requests from European law-enforcement agencies concerning extra than two thousand Syrians. According to Stephen Rapp, a venerable international prosecutor who served as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Problems and is now the chair of the CIJA’s board of administrators, the proof in the CIJA’s possession is extra comprehensive than that which was introduced at the Nuremberg trials.

Assad and his deputies may by no means feature foot in a jurisdiction where they’re going to be charged. But, in 2015, Chris Engels, the CIJA’s head of operations, obtained a tip from an investigator in Syria that Khaled al-Halabi had slipped into Europe. At first, Engels hoped to interview him as a defector, for the Assad temporary. But, as CIJA analysts began building a file on Halabi—drawing on internal regime paperwork, and also on testimony from his subordinates—Engels began to think of Halabi as a that you can imagine target for prosecution instead.

“How many arrests were you ordered to make?” the French asylum officer had asked Halabi.

“I don’t be aware—in Suweida, none.”

“And in Raqqa?”

“Four or five.”

By the heart of 2012, according to the CIJA’s investigation, Halabi’s branch of the directorate was arresting some fifteen individuals a day. Detainees were stripped to their underwear and assign in filthy, overcrowded cells, where they suffered from hunger, disease, and infection. The branch transformed storage gadgets in the basement into individual cells that ultimately held ten or extra individuals.

“Detainees can be taken into the interrogation place of labor, and typically soaked in cool water, and then placed into a large spare tire,” one in every of Halabi’s venerable subordinates said. “Then they were rolled onto their backs and beaten with electrical wires, fan belts, sticks, or batons.” Survivors recalled receiving electrical shocks, and being hung from the walls or ceiling by their wrists. Screams may very successfully be heard at some point of the three-anecdote building. After interrogations, detainees were routinely forced to signal or place their fingerprints on paperwork that they had now not been accepted to read.

The CIJA saw no proof of the restrained treatment that Tayara had described. The care that Halabi had shown him before the revolution was far from the brutality later endured by various human-rights activists and intellectuals.

Many of the worst abuses were carried out by Halabi’s head of investigations and his chief of staff, the 2 Alawites he was apparently afraid of. These males and others regularly stale the threat of rape, or rape itself, during interrogations. Defectors said that Halabi, whose place of labor shared a wall with the interrogation room, was “absolutely aware” of what was going on. “No person would enact anything with out his information,” a venerable officer at the branch recalled. “Commonly, he would enter and watch the torturing.” As the head of the branch, Halabi signed each reveal to transfer a detainee, for extra interrogation, to Damascus, where thousands of individuals have been tortured to death.

A few weeks after the fall of Raqqa, Nadim Houry, who was then the lead Syria analyst for Human Rights Watch, travelled to the metropolis. He had been studying the constructions and abuses of Syria’s intelligence providers and products since 2006. Now he made his way to Halabi’s ransacked branch.

“You travel in, and on the primary floor it almost seemed like a regular Syrian bureaucratic building—places of work, information scattered about, the same outdated furniture,” Houry instructed me. “Then you travel down the stairs. You gape the cells. I’d spent years documenting how they’d cram individuals into solitary-confinement cells. And now it kind of materialized in entrance of my eyes.” In a room near Halabi’s place of labor, he came upon a bsat al-reeh, a large wood torture tool similar to a crucifix but with a hinge in the heart, stale to bend individuals’s backs, generally except they broke.

“Here’s what the Syrian regime is, at its core,” Houry said. “It is miles a up to date bureaucracy, with masses of presentable individuals in it, but it’s based on torture and death.”

Halabi and Tayara met two or three occasions in Paris. The encounters were cordial, if fraught; Tayara by no means absolutely understood Halabi’s motivation for reaching out to him. Perhaps it was loneliness, he said, or a want for forgiveness.

The poet and the stare sipped black coffee with sugar by the Seine. They strolled via the metropolis’s gardens, discussing the challenges of living in exile as older males. Their lives as opponents felt distant. Each were broke and alone, unable to master the local language, displaced in a land of safety that felt indifferent to everything they cared about and all individuals they cherished. Tayara lived in a tiny studio; Halabi instructed his venerable captive that he was staying in the spare room of an Algerian who lived in the suburbs. France was deeply involved in Syrian affairs. But in France famous Syrians from every faction drifted about in anonymity, longing to advance home, agonizing over events that, to the individuals around them—in buses, Métro cars, parks, and cafés—weren’t so worthy viewed as irrelevant as simply now not seen at all.

I asked Tayara whether or now not Halabi had ever requested his abet. “No, no, no,” he said. “It was factual to inquire about my health, my family. It was all very beautiful. He didn’t want anything from me.”

But it certainly appears as although Halabi was grooming a see—that he planned for the French authorities to contact Tayara, and was taking advantage of his target’s solitude and nostalgia. When the French asylum officer asked about Halabi’s role in repressive measures against protesters, he introduced up Tayara.

“There may be a individual here in France,” Halabi said.

“Whom you arrested?”

“He is a pal,” Halabi said. “A famous member of the opposition.”

He launched into the anecdote of Tayara’s first arrest. “He knew full successfully that the reveal came from on excessive—that I had nothing to enact with it,” Halabi said. “I even equipped him a pair of pajamas, with my luxuriate in cash, because I cherished him. I prohibited my males from blindfolding and handcuffing him—successfully, to blindfold him handiest when he was entering national-security facilities. He went, he came back, we stayed chums. . . . You can ask him.”

“I understand that you are minimizing your role a itsy-bitsy bit,” the French officer said. “You say that you were against violence, torture, and deaths, but you continued to be chief of intelligence for a regime that was identified for its repression. Why did you stay working for this regime for thus long?”

Halabi didn’t wait for a choice on his asylum status; after several months with out information, he opted to once again vanish. Sooner than leaving Paris, he mentioned to Tayara that, according to a pal, Austria was a extra welcoming place for refugees. It was a strange assertion; Austria’s increasingly factual-wing govt was taking the reverse stance. “We attempt to eliminate asylum seekers from the second they touch our soil,” Stephanie Krisper, a centrist Austrian parliamentarian, who’s appalled by this approach, instructed me.

I met Tayara in Paris, on a rainy November afternoon in 2019; he and Halabi hadn’t spoken in years. I asked for abet contacting Halabi, but Tayara gently declined. “I am an stale man,” he said. “I search for peace. I search for beauty, for poetry. I love watching ballet! This thriller—it’s extraordinarily hard. I don’t want to continue with it.” He sighed, and adjusted his scarf, which partly obscured his face. “I am afraid to continue investigations about him,” he said. “There are so many of them—so many Syrian officers here.”

At the CIJA headquarters, Engels and Wiley had concluded that there was no extra important target within reach of European authorities than Khaled al-Halabi: as a brigadier general and the head of a regional intelligence branch, he was the ideally suited-ranking Syrian war criminal identified to be on the Continent.

The CIJA shaped a tracking team to find him and various targets: investigators labored sources and defectors, analysts pored over captured paperwork, a cyber unit hunted for digital traces. Sooner than long, the tracking team had Halabi’s social-media accounts. On Facebook, he glided by Achilles; on Skype, he was Abu Kotaiba, meaning “Father of Kotaiba”—Halabi’s son. Online, Halabi claimed to are living in Argentina. But Skype metadata revealed that he had instructed Tayara the reality about his plans; he persistently logged in from a cell mobile phone tied to an I.P. address in Vienna.

Now and again, CIJA investigators receive strategies about ISIS contributors in Europe, and Wiley immediately alerts the local authorities. But, in terms of venerable Syrian military and intelligence officers, who pose less of an immediate threat, his organization is extra even handed. “We don’t travel to the domestic authorities and say, ‘Yeah, we hear So-and-So is in your country,’ ” Wiley said. “If these guys are level-headed loyal to the regime, they may be a threat to various Syrians in the diaspora in Europe, but they’re now not going to be blowing up or stabbing individuals in the shopping district.” In addition to, a leaked notification may trigger any individual like Halabi to travel underground.

By January, 2016, the CIJA’s Halabi file was total. For four months, the location of his Skype log-ins had now not changed. Stephen Rapp requested a meeting with the Austrian Justice Ministry. A answer came back on official letterhead, with a date from the defective year: “Dear Mr. Rapp! I am glad to invite you and Mr. Engels to the Austrian Federal Ministry of Justice.” It continued, “All prices of the delegation, including interpretation and/or translation, accommodation, transportation, meals, guides and insurance during your stay in Austria will be borne by your aspect.”

“We hadn’t labored with the Austrians before—they’re now not very active in the international war-crimes space,” Engels instructed me. “But normally here is a very coöperative task. And fast.”

On the morning of January 29, 2016, Rapp and Engels walked into Room 410 at the Austrian Ministry of Justice. Five officials awaited them—a desire, a senior administrator, the deputy head of the International Crimes Division, and two males who didn’t give their names. After Engels and Rapp laid out the CIJA’s proof, one in every of the officials searched a govt database and affirmed that a Khaled al-Halabi was registered to an address in Vienna.

The meeting drew to a shut. Engels and Rapp handed over the Halabi file. When they left the room, the 2 unnamed males—who labored for the B.V.T., Austria’s civilian security-intelligence agency—were asked to opinion into whether or now not the man described by the CIJA was the man at the Vienna address. They agreed to enact so, giving no indication that they had ever heard of Halabi before that morning. In fact, two weeks earlier, one in every of them, an intelligence officer named Oliver Lang, had taken Halabi shopping for storage drawers at Ikea, and had written the provision address using his operational veil name.

Lang kept the receipt, and later filed it for prices. It also had Halabi’s signature, which he hadn’t modified since his days of signing arrest warrants in Raqqa. The cash for the drawers had advance in the invent of a cash fall from Halabi’s secret longtime handlers: the Israeli intelligence providers and products.

After the 2nd World War, the Austrian govt maintained that its individuals were the Nazis’ first victims, instead of their enthusiastic backers. Schoolchildren weren’t taught about the Holocaust, and, for almost half a century, Jews who returned to Vienna were unable to recuperate expropriated property. In 1975, Austria halted all prosecutions of venerable Nazis. Ten years later, the Occasions reported that the country had “abandoned any serious attempt to arrest Mr. Brunner,” the Nazi then living in Damascus, who had deported extra than a hundred and twenty-five thousand individuals to concentration and extermination camps. From his apartment on Rue Haddad, Brunner sent cash to his wife and daughter in Vienna, where he had led the place of labor that rid the metropolis of its Jewish population. The Austrian chancellor, in a dismissive conversation with Nazi hunters, gave the impression to accept the Syrian govt’s official place—that it had no idea where Brunner was.

In 1986, it emerged that Austria’s easiest-identified diplomat, Kurt Waldheim—who had served for a lot of the previous decade as the Secretary-General of the United Nations—had been a Nazi military-intelligence officer during the war. At first, Waldheim, who was running for President of Austria, denied the allegation. But, as extra information came out, he began to defend himself as a “decent soldier,” and claimed that the accurate “scandal” was the effort to dredge up the past. Other politicians came to his protection. “As long as it cannot be proved that he personally strangled six Jews, there is now not any situation,” the head of Waldheim’s party instructed a French magazine. Waldheim won the election, and served except 1992. The U.S. Department of Justice concluded that he had taken part in a lot of Nazi war crimes, including the transfer of civilians for slave labor, executions of civilians and prisoners of war, and mass deportations to concentration and extermination camps. For the remainder of his length of time, Waldheim was welcome handiest in some Arab international locations and at the Vatican.

It took except after Waldheim’s Presidency for the Austrian govt to begin acknowledging decades-stale crimes. And handiest last year did Austria begin offering citizenship to descendants of victims of Nazi persecution. A shadow level-headed hangs over the country. “The Austrians, in European war-crimes circles, have a reputation for being particularly fucking ineffective,” said Invoice Wiley, whose first war-crimes investigation, in the nineties, was of an Austrian Nazi who had escaped to Canada. “You factual by no means know what is pushed by incompetence and laziness and disinterest, and what’s pushed by venality.”

In fresh years, Austria has been decrease out of European intelligence-sharing agreements, including the Membership de Berne—an informal intelligence community that involves most European nations, the U.Okay., the U.S., and Israel. (Austria withdrew after the Membership’s secret assessment of the B.V.T.’s cyber-infrastructure, building-security, and counter-proliferation measures—all of which it came upon to be abysmal—was leaked to the Austrian press.) Senior Austrian intelligence officers have been accused of spying for Russia and Iran, and also of smuggling a excessive-profile fugitive out of Austria on a private plane. An Iranian stare, who was operating beneath diplomatic veil in Vienna and was listed in a B.V.T. document as a “that you can imagine target for recruitment,” was convicted of planning a terrorist attack on a convention in France; Belgian prosecutors later determined that he’d smuggled explosives via the Vienna airport, in a diplomatic pouch. “The Austrians are now not belief-about to have a particularly lawful carrier,” a retired senior C.I.A. officer instructed me. The general glance within Western European intelligence agencies is that what is shared with Vienna rapidly makes its way to Moscow—a situation that was amplified when Vladimir Putin danced with Austria’s overseas minister at her wedding, in 2018.

But in March of 2015, the Mossad invited the B.V.T. leadership to participate in an operation that sounded meaningful: an Israeli intelligence asset was in want of Austrian assistance. Three months had passed since Halabi’s French asylum interview, and he was simultaneously hiding and overexposed, searching for a way in a overseas country.

The deputy director of the B.V.T. travelled to Tel Aviv. According to a top-secret B.V.T. memo, the Israelis said that, owing to Halabi’s “cultural origins,” he was poised to “assume an important role in the Syrian state development after the fall of the Assad regime.” Halabi wouldn’t be working for the B.V.T., however the Israelis promised to share relevant information with the agency every so repeatedly. All the Austrians had to enact was bring Halabi to Vienna and abet him feature up his existence.

Bernhard Pircher, the head of the B.V.T.’s intelligence unit, created a file with a code name for Halabi: White Milk. He assigned the case to 2 officers, Oliver Lang and Martin Filipovits. Rapidly afterward, they obtained orders to travel to Paris, meet with French counterintelligence, and return to Vienna the following day, with Halabi. There have been no obvious challenges. The Mossad had cleared the exfiltration with French intelligence, according to a B.V.T. document, and Israeli operatives were in “constant contact” with Halabi in Paris.

Lang and Filipovits spark off at dawn on May 11th, and boarded a flight to Charles de Gaulle—Row 6, aisle seats C and D, billed to the Mossad. After they landed, they glided by Métro to the headquarters of France’s domestic-intelligence agency, the D.G.S.I. There, according to Lang’s official account of the meeting, they sat down with the deputy head of counterintelligence, a Syria specialist, and an interpreter. Also fresh were three representatives of the Mossad, including the Paris station chief and Halabi’s local handler.

The Austrian and Israeli officers asked permission to fly Halabi out of France on a commercial plane, a inquire of that they assumed was a formality. However the D.G.S.I. refused. Halabi had applied for asylum, a French officer said, and domestic law stipulates that asylum seekers cannot travel past French borders except a choice has been made. The Austrians and the Israelis proposed that Halabi retract his French asylum inquire of, however the D.G.S.I. replied that, in that case, Halabi can be in France illegally. After the meeting, according to Lang’s notes, the Israelis instructed Lang that the French had changed their place since learning that “the B.V.T. is also involved.”

Lang suggested that the Israelis smuggle Halabi out of France in a diplomatic car, via Switzerland or Germany. The B.V.T. would wait at the Austrian border and escort them to Vienna. “The proposal was successfully obtained,” he wrote. However the Mossad team would first have to examine with headquarters, in Tel Aviv, “as this approach may have a lasting impact on relations” between Israeli and French intelligence agencies.

In the early twenty-tens, the Mossad had made something of a habit of operating in Paris with out French permission. The agency, which is now not area to Israel’s legal framework, and answers handiest to the High Minister, had reportedly lured French intelligence officers into inappropriate relationships; attempted to promote compromised communications equipment, via a entrance company, to the French national police and the domestic intelligence carrier; and stale a Paris resort room as a staging floor for a abolish operation in Dubai. Contributors of the abolish team entered and exited the United Arab Emirates on false passports that stale the identities of real French residents—an incident that a judicial-police chief in Paris later described to Le Monde as “an unacceptable attack on our sovereignty.”

On June 2nd, Lang, Filipovits, and Pircher met with officers from the Mossad. “It was agreed that the ‘package’ can be delivered” in eleven days, Lang wrote. The Israelis may have quietly labored out an agreement with French intelligence, to avoid friction, however the Austrians by no means learned of any such arrangement; as far as they were involved, the D.G.S.I. would remain in the dark.

Not like France, Israel didn’t overtly inspect to fall Assad’s regime. Its operations in Syria were centered on matters in which it perceived a announce threat: Iranian personnel, weapons transfers, and enhance for Hezbollah. Since 2013, Israeli warplanes have carried out a entire lot of bombings on Iran-linked targets in Syria. The Syrian govt rarely objects; to acknowledge the strikes can be to admit that it’s powerless to forestall them. It is now not likely that Halabi, from his hiding places in Europe, was in any way practical to Israeli intelligence.

Two days before Halabi’s extraction, Lang’s security clearance was upgraded to High Secret. Outdoors of the B.V.T. leadership, handiest he and Filipovits knew about the operation. Lang level-headed believed that Halabi had access to information that was of “substantial importance” to the Austrian state. “Miracles happen,” Lang wrote to Pircher.

“Today is factual like the 24th of December,” Pircher replied.

“Successfully then . . . MERRY CHRISTMAS.”

On June 13th, Lang waited at the Walserberg crossing, at the border with Germany, for the Israelis to arrive. It is miles unclear whether or now not the German govt was aware that the Mossad was moving a Syrian general out of France and via its territory in a diplomatic car. Lang booked resort rooms in Salzburg for himself, the Israelis, and the man he would start referring to as White Milk in his reports. Once again, the Mossad took care of the invoice.

“To betray, or now not it’s important to first belong,” Kim Philby, a British stare who defected to the Soviet Union, said, in 1967. “I by no means belonged.”

In the past two years, I have mentioned Halabi’s case with spies, politicians, activists, defectors, victims, lawyers, and criminal investigators in six international locations, and have reviewed thousands of pages of classified and confidential paperwork in Arabic, French, English, and German. The task has been beset with false leads, misinformation, recycled rumors, and unanswerable questions—a central one in every of which is the exact timing and nature of Halabi’s recruitment by Israeli intelligence. No person had a clear explanation, or may say what he contributed to Israeli interests. But, slowly, a image began to emerge.

“You can level-headed change your mind—there’s a subway arriving at 110th Avenue in exactly four minutes.”
Cartoon by Carolita Johnson

A leaked B.V.T. memo describes Israel, in its exfiltration of Halabi from Paris, as being “committed to its agents who have already accomplished their tasks.” This resolved the matter of whether or now not he had been recruited in Europe. “No person really wants defectors,” the retired senior C.I.A. officer, who has decades of skills in the Middle East, instructed me. “What you really want is an agent in place.” In moving Halabi to Vienna, the Israelis were fulfilling a debt to a longtime offer. So how did the relationship begin?

Halabi graduated from the Syrian military academy in Homs in 1984, when he was twenty-one. Sixteen years later, he earned a law degree in Damascus—a qualification that resulted in his being seconded to the General Intelligence Directorate. “I didn’t desire to work in the safety carrier—it was a military reveal,” he instructed the French asylum representative. “I was a brilliant military officer. I was angry to have been transferred to the intelligence carrier.” He served the directorate in Damascus for four years; in 2005, he became a regional director—first in Suweida, then in Homs, in Tartous, and in Raqqa.

In asylum interviews, Halabi glossed over the particular nature of his first job at the directorate in Damascus, and his interrogators were focussed on what he had accomplished in his final post. But, in a top-secret meeting, the Israelis blundered. According to the B.V.T.’s meeting notes, a Mossad officer said that Halabi couldn’t have been involved in war crimes, because he was the “head of ‘Branch 300,’ in Raqqa,” which was “exclusively accountable” for thwarting the activities of overseas intelligence providers and products.

The B.V.T. didn’t register the mistake: there is now not any Branch 300 in Raqqa—Halabi’s branch was 335. And but the Mossad operative had accurately described the counterintelligence tasks of the real Branch 300, which is in Damascus.

I began searching for references to Branch 300 and counterintelligence in various Halabi dossiers and leaks. A defector had instructed the CIJA that Halabi may have served at Branch 300 but didn’t specify when. By now, there were a entire lot of pages of govt paperwork scattered on my floor. One day, I revisited a scan of Halabi’s handwritten asylum claim from France, from the summer season of 2014. There it was, in a description of his work history, his first job at the directorate: “I served in Damascus (counterintelligence carrier).”

By Halabi’s luxuriate in account of his existence, he would have been a classic target: approaching middle age, feeling as if his military prowess had gone unappreciated; aggrieved at the notion that, no matter how successfully he served, in a state accelerate by sectarian Alawite élites he would by no means attain recognition or vitality. Even after his promotion to regional director, “as a member of the Druze minority, I was marginalized,” Halabi instructed the French asylum interviewer. He seems to think of himself as Druze first and Syrian second. The Druze are now not especially committed to the politics of any country; they simply make pragmatic arrangements in reveal to outlive.

Syria’s counterintelligence branch is incredibly sophisticated to penetrate from the outdoors. However the remainder of the Syrian protection apparatus is now not. In the decades before the revolution, “all individuals was spying for any individual—if now not the Israelis, then us and the Jordanians,” a venerable member of the U.S. intelligence neighborhood instructed me. “The entire Syrian military—they were factual a criminal endeavor, a mafia. They had no loyalty in addition to, perhaps, the really, really small inner circle. It was hard to work, because they were also spying on each various. But there weren’t a lot of secrets.”

Halabi appears to have stayed in Syria for most, if now not all, of his career. For this reason, among others, it’s extra likely that his recruitment was the work of Israeli military intelligence than that of the Mossad. A secretive military-intelligence ingredient identified as Unit 504 recruits and handles sources in neighboring areas of warfare and tensions, including Syria, and it routinely targets promising younger military officers. If Unit 504 acquired to Halabi when he was a soldier, his appointment to Branch 300 would have been an extraordinary intelligence coup.

Halabi may now not have identified for a whereas that he was working for Israel; its spies routinely pose as foreigners from various international locations, especially during operations in the Middle East. Or perhaps he was given a narrow assignment regarding a shared interest. Halabi was disgusted by Iran’s growing influence over Syria, and has described Assad as an “Iranian puppet” who’s “now not fit to manipulate a country.”

The extent of Halabi’s carrier for Israel is unknown. But I have came upon no proof of Israeli involvement in his escape from Raqqa to Turkey, or in his efforts to persuade the French Embassy in Jordan to send him to France—where his contact with the Druze financier was uncovered. Something similar caught Walid Joumblatt’s attention—his males have detected an unusual travel of cash and communications into the Syrian Druze neighborhood via Paris. “This cash was now not coming from here,” he instructed me, from his elegant stone palace, in Mt. Lebanon. It was coming from Israel. “We think this Halabi is working with our various nasty neighbors, the Israelis.”

With Halabi abandoned in Paris, it fell to the Mossad to abet an Israeli asset. (Unit 504 is now not identified to operate in Europe.) According to a B.V.T. memo, the Mossad created a “phased plan” for Halabi—exfiltration to Austria, plus an initial stipend of several thousand euros a month. The long-length of time goal was for Halabi to change into “financially self-sustainable.” But he wasn’t, as the memo assign it, “out in the cool.”

Oliver Lang was also a counterintelligence officer, and his specialty at the B.V.T. was Arab affairs. But he had by no means learned Arabic, so Pircher, his boss, introduced in another officer, Ralph Pöchhacker, who had claimed linguistic skillability. When Lang introduced him to Halabi, on the opposite hand, the 2 males couldn’t communicate. “Oh, successfully, you can omit about Ralph,” Lang informed Pircher. “Ralph kind of doesn’t understand his dialect.”

Pircher is fast, with long blond hair, and a frenetic social vitality. (Behind his back, individuals call him Rumpelstiltskin.) Sooner than he became the head of the B.V.T.’s intelligence unit, via his political party, in 2010, he had itsy-bitsy understanding of policing or intelligence.

Two days after Halabi crossed into Austria, Lang paid an interpreter to accompany him and Halabi to an interview at an asylum middle in Traiskirchen, thirty minutes south of Vienna. In the preceding weeks, Filipovits had examined legal choices for Halabi’s residency, and determined that asylum came with a key advantage: any govt officials involved in the approach can be “area to a comprehensive accountability of confidentiality.”

In Traiskirchen, Lang made clear that Halabi was “isolated, and now not viewed by various asylum seekers,” Natascha Thallmayer, the asylum officer who carried out the interview, later said. “I was now not given a reason for this.” Lang by no means introduced himself; although his presence is disregarded from the document, he sat in on the interview. “Why and according to which legal basis the B.V.T. official took part, I can now not say,” Thallmayer said. “He factual stayed there.”

Halabi lied to Thallmayer about his entry into Austria. A pal in Paris “equipped me a train imprint,” he said, and assign him on a train to Vienna—in which route, exactly, he didn’t know. The anecdote was clearly absurd; the B.V.T. had arranged the interview with the asylum place of labor long before Halabi’s supposedly spontaneous arrival by train. Nevertheless, Thallmayer asked no note-up questions. “The special interest of the B.V.T. was obvious,” she said.

At the beginning of Operation White Milk, Pircher had famous in his information that Halabi “must leave France” but faced “no danger.” Now Lang fabricated a mortal chance. “The situation in France is such that there are repeated, generally violent clashes between regime supporters and opponents, a few of which result in serious injuries and deaths,” he wrote. He added that, owing to Halabi’s “information of top Syrian state secrets, it ought to be assumed that, if Al-Halabi is captured by the various Syrian intelligence providers and products, he will be liquidated.” The B.V.T. submitted Lang’s memos to the asylum agency, whose director, Wolfgang Taucher, ordered that Halabi’s file be placed “beneath lock and key.”

The B.V.T. had no safe properties or operational black budgets, so it rented Halabi an apartment from Pircher’s father-in-law. For the following six months, Lang carried out menial tasks on behalf of the Mossad. “Dear Bernhard! Please be aware to call your father-in-law about the apartment!” he wrote to Pircher. “Dear Bernhard! Please be so kind as to be aware the letter regarding the registration block!”

“God you are annoying,” Pircher replied.

“Dear Bernhard!” Lang wrote, in early July. He didn’t like the fact that, for all these petty tasks, he had to expend his real name. “It would certainly now not be bad to be equipped with a veil name,” he wrote. “What enact you think?” By the tip of the month, Lang was introducing himself around the metropolis—at Ikea, the bank, the post place of labor, Bob & Ben’s Digital Installation Companies and products—as Alexander Lamberg.

The Israelis gave Lang about five thousand euros a month for Halabi’s accounts, passed via the Mossad’s Vienna station. Lang kept meticulous information, generally even noting the names of Israeli officers he met. Halabi came upon Pircher’s father-in-law’s apartment too small, so, after a few months, Lang started searching for another place. “Dear Bernhard!” Lang wrote, in July, 2015. “If we are successful, the month-to-month lease we agreed on with our chums will certainly increase a bit. Nevertheless, my opinion is that they’re going to factual have to are living with it.”

On October Seventh, Halabi equipped Lang with intelligence that a that you can imagine ISIS fighter had applied for asylum in Austria. Lang filed a document, citing “a reliable offer,” and sent it to Pircher, who passed it along to the terrorism unit. An officer there was underwhelmed by the tip. “Perhaps the provision handler may talk to us,” he replied. The same information was all over Facebook and the information.

The following week, Lang and Filipovits went to a meeting in Tel Aviv. After they returned, Lang accompanied Halabi to a second asylum interview. Since Halabi had already applied for asylum in France, the officer asked his permission to contact the French govt. “I am afraid for my existence, and therefore I enact now not agree,” Halabi said, according to a copy of the transcript.

“There are also many Syrians in Austria,” the interviewer famous. “Are you now not afraid here?”

“The alternative of Syrians in Austria does now not advance shut to that of France, so it’s easy for me to stay away from them here,” Halabi said. “And, above all, from Arabs. I stay away from all of these individuals.”

In fact, in each international locations, Halabi was in touch with a neighborhood of Syrians who were trying to feature up civil-society initiatives in insurrection-held territory. But they suspected that he was gathering intelligence on their contributors. “All the various defectors and officers knew now not to ask a lot of questions, to avoid suspicion among ourselves,” a member of the neighborhood instructed me. “But Halabi was the reverse. He was always asking questions. ‘How many individuals are attending the meeting?’ ‘The place is the meeting?’ ‘Can I have all individuals’s names?’ ‘All individuals’s mobile phone numbers?’ ” They decrease him out of the travel of information. The member continued, “One chance is that he simply may now not leave his intelligence mentality behind. The various—which we began to suspect extra and extra, over time—is that he level-headed had connections to the regime.”

In Vienna, Halabi hosted regime-affiliated contributors of the Syrian diaspora in his flat. According to any individual who attended one in every of these events, several Syrians in his orbit flaunted their connections to overseas intelligence providers and products, and the existence fashion that came with them. The availability, a successfully-connected Syrian exile, independently deduced Halabi’s relationship to the Israelis, and said that he believed it dated back to the previous decade and was likely narrow in scope—reporting on Iranian weapons shipments, for example, or on matters related to Hezbollah.

“Now that I’ve invented it, I have this outlandish compulsion to maintain it in my hand wherever I’m going and glance at it incessantly.”
Cartoon by Paul Karasik

The second Halabi left Syria, in 2013, he became “the weakest, the least relevant in the context of the war,” the man said. “Most those that are linked to overseas agencies participated—and in some cases continue to participate—in far worse crimes.” He added, “They have total access to Russia and the West, with all the cash they want, all the diplomatic protections.” In the search for intelligence, now not every practical individual is a lawful one—and a lot of the lawful ones aren’t practical.

On December 2, 2015, Austria granted Halabi asylum. Within days, he was issued a five-year passport. Lang helped Halabi apply for advantages from the Austrian state. The B.V.T. had supported his application, noting that it had “no information” that he had ever “been involved in war crimes or various criminal acts in Syria.”

Seven weeks later, the Austrian Justice Ministry alerted the B.V.T. that the CIJA had identified a excessive-ranking Syrian war criminal in Austria. The Justice officials had by no means heard of Halabi, and were unaware that a member of their intelligence carrier was, at the behest of a overseas agency, tending to his every want. In Austria, war crimes fall beneath the investigative purview of the B.V.T.’s extremism unit. But no person in that unit was aware of Operation White Milk, and the B.V.T. sent Lang and Pircher to the January 29th meeting with the CIJA officials instead.

The Justice Ministry kept detailed meeting minutes. At one point, Stephen Rapp, the chair of the CIJA board of administrators and venerable international prosecutor, famous that the CIJA’s witnesses included several of Halabi’s subordinates from the intelligence branch, testifying against their venerable boss.

Lang wrote down handiest one sentence during the meeting: “Deputy of Al-Halabi is in Sweden and is a see against Al-Halabi.” It was as if the handiest thing he had absorbed was the urgency of the threat. Lang and Pircher instructed the Justice Ministry that they would opinion into whether or now not Halabi was in the country. In secret, on the opposite hand, they feature out to gather intelligence on the CIJA’s staff and its witnesses, and to discredit the organization, beneath the heading “Operation Pink Bull.”

Days before the meeting with the CIJA, a miscommunication between the B.V.T. and the Justice Ministry had led Pircher and Lang to assume that Rapp and Engels, the CIJA’s head of operations, were part of an official U.S. delegation. After they finally understood that the CIJA is an N.G.O., they were startled by its investigative competence, and surmised that the neighborhood’s ability to track Halabi to Vienna signalled ties to an intelligence agency. Many of the CIJA’s staffers are from Europe and the Middle East. But, since the males across the table were American, Pircher and Lang inferred that the CIJA’s case against Halabi reflected a atomize in relations between the Mossad and the C.I.A. Rapp was especially suspect, they belief, since he had previously served in govt.

Lang started researching Rapp, and e-mailed his findings to Pircher and Pircher’s boss, Martin Weiss, the head of operations.

Area: Information about Stephen RAPP

Revered Leadership! On your information, in the occasion you model Stephen Rapp in Google . . .

Lang had unearthed the same basic biographical information that he and Pircher would have identified in the occasion that they had been listening during the meeting—or in the occasion that they had read the meeting minutes, which the Justice Ministry had already shared with them.

Area: Information on Operation Pink Bull

Dear Bernhard!

Pircher had sent Lang an article from a Vienna newspaper, which Lang now summarized for him: a thirty-one-year-stale Syrian refugee named Mohamad Abdullah had been arrested in Sweden, on suspicion of participating in war crimes someplace in Syria, someday in the previous several years. “Swedish authorities acquired on Abdullah’s trail via entries and photos on the Internet. Sounds suspiciously like the CIJA’s modus operandi to me,” Lang wrote. “Assuming that there are now not umpteen war-crimes trials in Sweden, Abdullah ought to be the alleged deputy.” (Abdullah has no apparent connection to Halabi.)

On February 15, 2016, representatives of the B.V.T. and the Mossad met to talk about the CIJA and its findings; according to a top-secret memo drafted by Weiss, the Mossad team famous that the CIJA is a “private organization with out a governmental or international mandate”—nothing to grief about, in various phrases, since it couldn’t prosecute anyone. Courts in Europe and the U.S. have opened cases that count on the CIJA’s proof. But that didn’t mean Austria had to enact the same.

In mid-April, Pircher instructed Lang to find the address of the CIJA’s headquarters. For security reasons, the organization tries to desire its location private; paperwork in its possession indicate that the Syrian regime is trying to find its investigators. Lang concluded that the CIJA shared an place of labor with The Hague Institute for Global Justice, in the Netherlands, where Rapp had a non-resident fellowship.

A few days later, Pircher and another B.V.T. officer, Monika Gaschl, spark off for The Hague. Their official reason was to attend a firearms conference. But Pircher sent Gaschl to examine out The Hague Institute. “Working persons are brazenly visible in entrance of their monitors,” Gaschl reported. “At lunchtime, food was introduced into the building. Obviously, food was ordered.” Gaschl took at least eight photographs—huge-angle images, showing the road, the sidewalk, the entrance, and the building façade—and submitted them to Pircher, who had sent her an e-mail requesting “tourist photos from the Hague.”

But Lang had equipped the defective address, so Gaschl spied on a random place of labor of individuals waiting for lunch. The CIJA has no affiliation with The Hague Institute. It isn’t even based in the Netherlands.

Austria’s Justice Ministry agreed that the CIJA’s file amounted to “ample” floor for an investigation—as long as the B.V.T. confirmed that Khaled al-Halabi, the Vienna resident, was the man in the file. (After three weeks with out a update, the need who had attended the CIJA meeting called Lang, who informed her that the outcomes of his investigation confirmed that Halabi “was, to all appearances, actually staying in Vienna.”) But, after the CIJA sent extra proof and paperwork, “we heard nothing,” Engels said. During the following five years, the CIJA adopted up with the Austrians at least fifteen occasions. A Vienna prosecutor named Edgar Luschin had formally opened an investigation, but he confirmed itsy-bitsy interest in it. At first, according to the CIJA, Luschin brushed aside the proof as insufficient. He later clarified that the quality of war-crimes proof was immaterial; he simply may now not proceed.

Austria has been a member of the International Criminal Court docket for extra than twenty years. But it certainly wasn’t except 2015 that the Austrian parliament updated the list of crimes covered by its universal-jurisdiction statute—an assertion that the accountability to prosecute certain heinous crimes transcends all borders—in a way that would definitively apply to Halabi. For this reason, Luschin determined, Austria had no authority to examine out Halabi for war crimes or for crimes against humanity; whatever happened beneath his command had taken place before 2015.

“Why here is the Austrian place, I may handiest speculate,” Wiley, the CIJA founder, instructed me. Other European international locations have overcome similar legal hurdles. “It may very successfully be that the Ministry of Justice, as part of the broader Austrian tradition, factual couldn’t be arsed to enact a war-crimes case,” he added.

In fact, Luschin’s place guaranteed that there can be no meaningful investigation—and he promised as worthy to the B.V.T. In December, 2016, Lang’s partner, Martin Filipovits, asked Luschin about the status of his case. But when Filipovits stale the phrases “war criminal” in reference to Halabi, Luschin stopped him. The length of time “is now not applicable from a legal point of glance,” Luschin said. He added that he may interview Halabi, but handiest to ask whether or now not he had ever personally tortured any individual—now 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 reveal will be issued to the B.V.T.”

A year passed. Then the French asylum agency sent a rejection letter to Halabi’s stale Paris address. “The fact that he didn’t desolate tract except two years after the beginning of the Syrian warfare, and handiest when it had change into evident that his males were incapable of resisting the insurrection advance on Raqqa, casts doubt on his supposed motivation for desertion,” the letter read. It added that the asylum agency had “serious reasons” to assume that, owing to Halabi’s “elevated tasks” within the regime, he was “straight implicated in repression and human rights violations.” In April, 2018, the agency sent Halabi’s file to French prosecutors, who also requested paperwork from the CIJA. After it became clear that Halabi was now not in French territory, prosecutors issued a inquire of to all European police agencies for assistance tracking him down. The alert precipitated an internal disaster at the B.V.T.; it was the primary time that the extremism unit, which handles war-crimes investigations, had heard Halabi’s name.

In late July, Lang was forced to temporary Sybille Geissler, the head of the extremism unit, on everything that had happened in the preceding years. She informed Luschin that Halabi was level-headed living in the Vienna apartment that Lang had rented for him. She also handed him the CIJA’s file, which had factual been equipped to her place of labor by the French. Luschin acted as if he were seeing it for the primary time.

That week, there was a flurry of correspondence between the B.V.T. and the Mossad. Lang was desperate to procure Halabi out of 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, the B.V.T. formally ended Operation White Milk. During the B.V.T.’s final case discussion with the Israelis, the Mossad requested that Halabi remain in Austria.

Seven weeks later, on November 27th, B.V.T. officers accompanied Austrian police to Halabi’s apartment and unlocked it with a spare key. Attire were strewn about, and there was rotting food in the refrigerator. “The brand new whereabouts of al-Halabi may now not be determined,” a B.V.T. officer famous, according to the police document. “The investigations are continuing.”

Oliver Lang level-headed works at the B.V.T. His boss, Bernhard Pircher, was brushed aside, after a various scandal. Pircher’s boss, Martin Weiss, was these days arrested, reportedly for selling classified information to the Russian state.

Three years ago, when Lang briefed Geissler on Operation White Milk, she asked him what Austria had gained from it. “Lang replied by saying that we may obtain information on internal constructions of the Syrian intelligence carrier,” she later said. “I assumed-about this pointless.”

Nazi hunters by no means gave up the pursuit for Alois Brunner. But, by 2014, when Brunner would have been a hundred and two, there had been no confirmed sighting in extra than a decade. A German intelligence official informed a neighborhood of investigators that Brunner was almost certainly dead. “We were by no means able to substantiate it forensically,” one in every of them instructed the Occasions. Nevertheless, he added, “I took his name off the list.”

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 shut to death, his preparations for Bashar’s succession included hiding the stale Nazi in a pest-ridden basement. Brunner was “very drained, very in unpleasant health,” one in every of the guards recalled. “He suffered and he cried a lot. All individuals heard him.” The guard added that Brunner couldn’t even wash himself. “Even animals—you couldn’t assign them in a place like that,” he said. Rapidly after Bashar took over, the door closed, and Brunner by no means saw it initiate again. “He died a million occasions.”

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 successfully have been in the building during Brunner’s final weeks. Now Austria deflected attention from Halabi’s case, worthy as Syria had accomplished with Brunner’s. A year after Halabi hastily moved out of his B.V.T. apartment, Rapp met with Christian Pilnacek, Austria’s second-best Justice Ministry official. According to Rapp’s notes, Pilnacek said that, if the CIJA really wanted Halabi arrested, perhaps it ought to declare the ministry where he was. Last fall, Rapp returned to Vienna for an appointment with the justice minister—but she didn’t reveal up.

Of Halabi’s fresh mobile phone numbers, two had Austrian country codes, and a third was Hungarian. Till last fall, his WhatsApp profile image confirmed him posing in sunglasses on the Széchenyi bridge, in Budapest. There have been unconfirmed sightings of him in Switzerland, and speculation that he escaped Vienna on a ferry down the Danube, to Bratislava, Slovakia. However the most reliable strategies, from Syrians who know him, level-headed place him in Austria.

Such a 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. factions. In a fresh mobile phone call from Sweden, he described Halabi as his “easiest pal.” “General Halabi is one in every of the ideally suited individuals in the Syrian revolution,” Sheikh insisted. He said that Halabi’s links to war crimes and overseas intelligence agencies were lies, conjured by Syrian intelligence and laundered via “deep state” networks in Europe, as part of a bother to undermine Halabi as a potential replacement for Assad. “I am clear that it’s the French and the Austrians who are trying to decrease Halabi’s wings, because individuals like him undermine their agendas in Syria,” he said.

But Halabi has reported on Sheikh’s activities to the Mossad. On January 4, 2017, a Mossad operative informed Oliver Lang that Halabi can be travelling abroad, because a pal of his had been invited by a overseas ministry to talk about a political settlement for Syria. “The pal wants Milk to participate in the negotiations,” Lang famous, in a top-secret memo, adding that the Mossad would debrief Halabi on 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 overseas minister, Mikhail Bogdanov. In the previous months, the Russians had helped the Syrian Army, and associated Shia militias, forcibly displace tens of thousands of civilians from insurrection-held areas of Aleppo. Now the Russian govt framed its discussions with Sheikh and Halabi as a “meeting with a neighborhood of Syrian opposition contributors,” with an “emphasis on the have to finish the bloodshed.” Sheikh appeared on Russian state television and said that he hoped Russia would enact to the remainder of Syria what it had accomplished in Aleppo—a statement that drew accusations of treason from his venerable insurrection partners. Halabi remained in the shadows. I have heard rumors that he made three extra journeys to Moscow, but have came upon no proof of this. His Austrian passport expired last December and has now not been renewed.

In late August, I flew to Vienna and journeyed on to Bratislava. Each day for the following four days, I crossed the Slovak border into Austria by train presently after dawn. I may gape an array of satellite dishes on the hill at Königswarte—an stale Chilly War listening station, for spying on the East, now updated and operated by the N.S.A. In the past century, Vienna has change into identified as a metropolis of spies. It is miles situated on the fringe of East and West, by Chilly War standards, and Austria has been committed to neutrality, in the manner of the Swiss, since the nineteen-fifties. These conditions have attracted many international organizations, and, in fresh decades, Vienna has been the location of excessive-profile stare swaps, peace negotiations, and unsolved assassinations. Now, as my colleague Adam Entous reported, it’s the epicenter of Havana Syndrome—invisible attacks, of uncertain origin, directed at U.S. Embassy officials.

Austria’s legal framework successfully allows overseas intelligence agencies to act as they gape fit, as long as they don’t target the host nation. But Austria has itsy-bitsy capacity to put in pressure even this. According to Siegfried Beer, an Austrian historian of espionage, “At any time when we opinion a mole within our luxuriate in providers and products, it’s now not because we’re any lawful at counterintelligence—it’s because we procure a hint from another country.

“The largest situation with the B.V.T. is the quality of the individuals,” he went on. With few exceptions, “it’s staffed with incompetents, who acquired there via police departments or political parties.” Most officers have no linguistic training or international skills.

In 2018, after a sequence of scandals, the Ministry of the Interior determined to dissolve the B.V.T., which it oversees, and replace it with a new organization, to be called the Directorate of State Security and Intelligence. Officers are at the second reapplying for his or her luxuriate in positions within the brand new development, which is able to be launched at the beginning of subsequent year. But, as Beer sees it, the effort is futile: “The place are you going to procure 600 those that, all of a sudden, can enact intelligence work?”

Press officers at the Interior Ministry insinuated that it may very successfully be illegal for them to comment on this anecdote. Pircher declined to comment; lawyers for Weiss and Lang didn’t engage. The Justice Ministry’s Economic Crimes and Corruption Place of labor, which is investigating the circumstances beneath which Halabi was granted asylum, said that it “doesn’t have any information against Khaled al-Halabi”—but I have several thousand leaked pages from its investigation.

A week before my arrival in Austria, I sent a detailed inquire of to the Mossad; it went unanswered. So did three requests to the Israeli Embassy in Vienna, and one to Unit 504. On a sunny morning, I walked to the Embassy, on a calm, tree-lined road. “We didn’t answer you, because we enact now not want to answer you!” an Israeli official bellowed via a speaker at the gate. “Publish whatever you want! We is now not going to read it.”

From there, I walked to Halabi’s last identified address. As I approached, I realized that, on Google Maps, the name of the building was denoted in Arabic script, al-beit—“home.” For several minutes, I sat on a bench near the entrance listening, via an initiate window, to an Arabic-speaking woman who was cooking in Halabi’s stale flat, 1-A. Then I checked the doorbell: “Lamberg”—Oliver Lang’s veil name.

A teen-age boy answered the door, but he was far too younger to be Halabi’s son, Kotaiba. I asked if Halabi was there. “He left long ago,” the boy said. I asked how he knew the name; he replied that Austrian journalists had advance to the flat before.

The following day, I visited Halabi’s lawyer, Timo Gerersdorfer, at his place of labor, in Vienna’s Tenth District. He said that the governmenthad revoked Halabi’s asylum status, since it had been obtained via deception, and that he has appealed the choice, arguing that the revelation of Halabi’s work for Israeli intelligence poses such a threat to his existence that Austria must offer protection to him eternally. “No person may procure asylum in Austria in the occasion that they instructed the reality,” he said. According to Gerersdorfer, Halabi is broke; it seems that the Mossad has stopped paying his prices. A few months ago, Halabi tried to stay in a refuge with various refugees, however the refuge regarded into his background and turned him away.

I came upon a new address for Halabi, in the Twelfth District, an area that is home to many immigrants from Turkey and the Balkans. Later that afternoon, I walked the streets near his block, as individuals returned home from work. The neighborhood was filled with males who seemed like him—late middle age, chubby, five and a half ft tall. I have to have checked a thousand faces. But none of them were his.

Luschin’s place of labor says that its investigation into Halabi is “level-headed pending.” But, according to any individual who’s familiar with Luschin’s thinking, the general glance at the Justice Ministry is that “it’s Syria, and it’s a war. All individuals tortures.” Other European governments have expressed openness to normalizing diplomatic relations with Assad, and have taken steps to deport refugees back to Syria and the surrounding international locations.

If Halabi is the ideally suited-ranking Syrian war criminal who can be arrested, it’s handiest because the greater monsters are get. The obstacle to prosecuting Assad and his deputies is political will at the U.N. Security Council. Halabi’s venerable boss in Damascus, Ali Mamlouk, reportedly travelled to Italy on a private jet in 2018. Mamlouk is one in every of the war’s worst offenders—it was his reveal, which Halabi passed along, to shoot at gatherings of extra than four individuals in Raqqa. But Mamlouk—who has been sanctioned since 2011, and was prohibited from travelling to the European Union—had a meeting with Italy’s intelligence director, so he came and went.

After twenty hours of searching for Halabi, I walked to his apartment complicated and buzzed his door. A younger Austrian woman answered; she had by no means heard of Halabi, and had no interest in who he was. I confirmed Halabi’s photograph at every store and restaurant in a three-block radius of the address. “We know a lot of individuals in this neighborhood,” a Balkan man with a gray goatee instructed me. He squinted at the image a second time, and shook his head. “I have by no means viewed this man.”

On my way out of the Twelfth District, I walked past the western aspect of the apartment building, where balconies fail to take into account a garden. At once above the Austrian woman’s apartment, a man who seemed like Khaled al-Halabi sat on his balcony, protected from the late-morning sun. But I was unable to substantiate that it was him. A knock on the door went unanswered; according to a neighbor, the flat is empty. A lie uttered by Syria’s overseas minister, thirty years ago, kept playing in my head: “This Brunner is a ghost.” ♦

How a Syrian War Criminal and Double Agent Disappeared in Europe