'Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War'WSJ
By Bob Drogin
October 13, 2007
Staring out the window, Ahmed Hassan Mohammed could see little of his new home.
In the spring or summer, arriving passengers at Munich's Franz Josef Strauss International Airport normally glimpse the rugged foothills of the Bavarian Alps jutting above the horizon. The distant mountains gleam softly in the morning light, and shimmer in the rich pastels of the setting sun.
But in November 1999, when Ahmed's plane landed, gray mist usually veiled the view. On most days, heavy clouds swirled across the leaden sky. Rain pelted down from passing squalls and driving storms. Sharp gusts skittered across the runway puddles and flattened the nearby grass. Droplets streamed down the windows like tears.
Ahmed's plane ?ew from North Africa, and the stale air in the cabin would smell of sweet anise and cheap cologne. Foreign workers heading home traveled heavy and happy. They forgot their dismal jobs and cramped ?ats. They shrugged off the suspicious eyes and sudden silences in German shops. Their bags betrayed their new riches. They hauled television sets and fancy stereos. They dragged cheap suitcases, cardboard boxes wrapped with rope, and plastic sacks full of duty-free cigarettes. But the return ?ights, like this one, from the desert villages and urban slums of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, seemed sadder. The men brought back stuffed dates and preserved lemons, kif candy and almond cookies. They suffused the plane with the scent of regret and wrenching farewells.
The airplane aisle ?lled quickly as passengers climbed out of their seats and yanked overstuffed bags down from overhead bins. They pulled on worn leather coats and thick ski parkas. They pushed their tired children and each other toward the exit door and shuf?ed down the metal stairs. Ahmed followed.
Airport workers in neon yellow slickers scurried near the plane. Utility vehicles painted cautionary orange chugged and hauled silver containers bulging with bags. Boxy white Sky Chefs delivery trucks disgorged supplies or took others on. Airport vans, all the same olive green, rushed in one direction and then back again. Ahmed couldn't help but notice. Germany was so orderly. So color-coordinated. So different from the cacophony of life back home. An elongated blue bus, the two parts joined by a black rubber accordion neck, pulled up beside the plane. On the side, black letters read "Flughafen Munchen." Munich Airport.
He boarded the bus to the terminal for international arrivals and was swept along as the throng pushed inside. White acoustic tiles and the drone of hidden machinery suddenly muffled the crowd's chatter. He stepped on a moving sidewalk that glided silently past glittering ads for gold watches, sleek cars, and high-priced appliances. Gorgeous women, tall and young, beckoned to him from the posters. The light was blindingly bright.
The long hall emptied into a smaller area, where other passengers already were shuffling into lines in front of four booths. A large sign on top read, Passkontrolle—Alle Posse. Ahmed didn't speak German, but a translation was posted underneath in English and he could read and write enough of that. Passport Control—All Passports. Each booth featured a large glass window at eye level, but the lower portion was frosted white so someone waiting in line or even standing a foot away could only see the face and chest of the federal border police officer sitting inside. The officer wore a starched, military-style khaki shirt and a white plastic ID card in a red border hung from the right pocket. Small stars embroidered his shoulder boards. A patch on the left shoulder read "Polizei."
The long line moved slowly, but the traveler was patient. He knew how to wait in submissive silence for hard-eyed men in military uniforms. Finally his turn came. He steeled himself and stepped up to the window. The officer inside could extend his right arm and his open palm would appear in a small, semicircular opening. Ahmed handed his dark brown passport to the pink fingers that suddenly poked out.
The document was from Iraq, issued in Baghdad. Lea?ng through the stiff pages, the officer could see several large, colorful visas, plus the usual entry and exit stamps. Small countries invariably issue the biggest, most ?orid visas, perhaps to compensate for their insigni?cance.
These showed he had visited Turkey and, more recently, Jordan, Cyprus, Morocco, and Spain, traveling for about six months. His passport held no visa for Germany.
Just outside each booth, a rectangular mirror hung on a metal arm from the ceiling. It was positioned so the border officer could tilt his head and peer up to his right, and get a clear view of the applicant waiting in front of him. This one didn't stand out.
He was a good-looking man, solidly built, of olive complexion and medium height. He looked in his late twenties, perhaps a little older. He had jet black hair, parted on the left, and a thick shock draped low on his forehead. His eyes were large and heavy-lidded, pensive and brooding, set far apart. A broad, hawkish nose sat over full lips and a strong chin. A full mustache curled around the corners of his mouth like a sneer. It seemed notable only because most Iraqi men raised shaggy brush mustaches to mimic Saddam. Perhaps he was cold, or tense, but the traveler seemed to tremble. Later, German intelligence authorities would say he often quivered with nervous energy.
The border officer studied the document and then looked up at the Iraqi. Ahmed would have stared back. He usually held people in a frank gaze, tilting his head just so. It conjured an impression of serious endeavor. If he ?ashed a shy smile, as he often did, the officer would have noticed teeth stained with tobacco tar. Ahmed didn't just smoke. He embraced the habit, almost tenderly. He carefully cupped his lighter with his slender ?ngers, as if facing a vigorous wind. Then he ?icked the blue ?ame alive, closed his dark eyes, and leaned back, letting the smoke wreathe up to caress his face.
No record was kept of their conversation, but it would be brief and to the point.
Where is your visa? The border officer spoke in English. Few Iraqis knew decent German.
Please, I want political asylum. He replied in slow, thickly accented English. Few Germans spoke any Arabic.
The officer was not, as one might think, surprised. Germany was the travel hub of modern Europe and its economy was booming. Every day—every hour—refugees showed up from one hellhole or another and appealed for safe haven from war, famine, ethnic persecution, and political oppression. Nearly half of all refugees who applied for asylum in the promised lands of Western Europe ?led their claims in Germany. Immigration records showed 7,476 people sought asylum in Germany the month Ahmed arrived. A total of 95,113 ?ooded in that year.
Most ?ed the vicious civil war in the Balkans, then rupturing along ethnic fault lines. But southern Germany also was refuge of choice for Iraqis on the run. Thousands ?owed in each year, wave upon wave of businessmen, engineers, scientists, and soldiers, all ?eeing Saddam's tyranny. More than sixty thousand Iraqi refugees and emigres lived in Germany, and at least half of them clustered around the cities of Munich, Nuremberg, and Augsburg in the southern state of Bavaria.
They had good reason to come. Germany provided greater bene?ts to refugees than nearly any other nation in Europe. It was especially tolerant and benevolent to those seeking sanctuary from the misery of Iraq. Saddam's secret police picked up and tortured people at whim, or shot them in front of their homes and hung the bodies from lampposts. The U.N. had imposed strict military and economic sanctions, and guilt-stricken postwar Germany wasn't going to forcibly repatriate anyone to one of the most repressive regimes on the planet.
The border officer pressed a button on his desk, and another man in a starched khaki shirt appeared and escorted the traveler across the hall to a small of?ce with a desk. Ahmed sat down on a hard metal chair, and an Arabic translator soon arrived so the German officer could ask a series of questions and take down the answers. German of?cials later would describe the story that Ahmed blurted out in a smoker's voice, thick and gravelly.
I am from Baghdad, northeast Baghdad. I live with my mother and father. I am a chemical engineer. I attended the University of Baghdad. I worked at the government Chemical Engineering and Design Center. I worked in a program to help Iraqi farmers. We improved their seeds.
Yes, I am married. No, she is still in Baghdad. Ahmed Hassan Mohammed is a false name. I used this passport to escape Iraq. I cannot go back. I am against Saddam. They know this. I had serious problems with the authorities. If I go back, they will put me in prison and torture or kill me.
The lengthy interview and paperwork took several hours but the translator ?nally wrote out careful instructions and helped Ahmed buy the necessary bus and train tickets at a kiosk just outside the customs hall so he wouldn't get lost. Clutching the slips of paper and his bag, he walked purposefully through the huge airport to reach the bus stand outside.
He boarded the local bus to the town of Friesing, about twenty minutes away past dark russet ?elds lined by thick hedgerows. He got out at the town center and entered a small Tyrolean train station with carved wooden benches and a red-gabled roof, like a model for a toy train set. He descended into a small tunnel under the tracks, and climbed back up into the biting wind on Platform 4. A red suburban train soon roared up, and when the door slid open, he entered the second-class compartment and found a seat. The doors whooshed to a close, and the train roared away again on the two-hour journey to Nuremberg.
From the train, Ahmed could see rolling hills, ice-?ecked rivers, and desolate winter ?elds of rapeseed and ?ax. The view was surprisingly rural. Horses grazed in small paddocks, stamping their feet and snorting steam in the cold air. Every so often, the train entered a deep forest glen, and the light grew dim and mossy under broad chestnuts and oaks, or stately stands of ?r and spruce. Back in the open, tall cable pylons counted off in strict cadence for a few miles beside the tracks before they pivoted away into a side valley. A power plant cooling tower, shaped like an hourglass, puffed in the distance. Further along, low-lying fog shrouded an entire ?eld or a farmhouse. But the mist soon freed other pastures and outbuildings, ghostly and drained of color.
The villages along the tracks all seemed alike: spotless streets lined by tidy stucco houses under steep roofs of rust red tiles. Soon small towns and then cities appeared, with glass-fronted of?ces and department stores along busy shopping districts. Burly men in green loden coats hunched against the chill. Stylish women hurried down the cobblestone street, faces red and raw in the wind, pulling children with mittens. Teens conspired and smoked in doorways. Mostly, however, Ahmed saw turrets and spires poking into the pewter sky. They were medieval church towers, neo-Baroque clock towers, and ornate bell towers. He was used to the simple, unadorned minarets of the mosques back home, where the devout muezzin calls the faithful to prayer ?ve times a day.
Ahmed was not especially faithful. Not about Islam. Not to his native country. Certainly not to the long-suffering wife he had abandoned back in Baghdad. Faith was a luxury in his life. Life under Saddam was too fragile and too dangerous for such naive virtues. Iraqis made painful moral compromises every day to survive. But that was the past.
Ahmed intended to start a new life in Germany. He was certain of that. He would ?nd a huge house and buy a gleaming Mercedes sedan with buttery soft leather seats. As an engineer, he liked huge cars and machines, the bigger the better. He would ?nd work as a high-paid chemical engineer in a color-coordinated factory. Go to beer halls. Learn German.
The last leg of Ahmed's journey was not far, perhaps twenty minutes or so by bus from the Nuremberg train station to the western suburb of Zirndorf. But the scenery shifted dramatically. Zirndorf perched on the upper lip of a wide valley. Down below he could see factories and industrial yards stretching into the winter haze. A bitter wind whipped up over the ridgeline, and scraps of paper and loose trash tumbled along the dirt verge. Auto garages and repair shops, smoky pilaf and kebab cafes, and shabby apartment blocks crowded the street.
Rounding a bend in the road, Ahmed ?nally approached his destination. The Zirndorf refugee center stood atop a small hill, stark and severe, protected by high walls and a metal gate. A police post guarded one side of the driveway. Across from it, a two-story building stood behind a chain link fence topped by barbed wire. A tarnished brass sign identi?ed it as the Hauptstelle für Befragundswegen, or the Main Of?ce for Questioning. It meant nothing to him.
He walked up the driveway to a small guardhouse beside the gate and slid his passport and airport documents through a slot under the window. After a few moments, the sentry returned his papers and signaled for him to pass. He pressed a button and the gate clicked open. Ahmed gratefully pushed through a turnstile enclosed in a steel cage. It was clear no one could come or go from Zirndorf, as the refugee center was known, without permission.
Inside the courtyard, he could see three imposing barracks aligned in soldierly rows. They looked as inviting as penal blocks. Off on the left, a small Catholic church appeared abandoned and forlorn. Few people used the old church anymore. Most recent refugees were Muslims but the center had no mosque. Across from the church, a gaudy Bavarian clock tower overlooked the compound from atop the administration building. But both hands were missing from the face, as if time no longer mattered.
Ahmed walked to the administration building and pushed the metal door open. The walls were moldering yellow plaster and the halls reeked of curry and sweat, of too many people in too small a place. But the German staff seemed ef?cient. After checking his papers, they took his picture and issued him a color photo ID in a plastic sleeve. They led him to a supply room and gave him a bar of soap, a toothbrush, and other toiletries. They furnished him coarse sheets, a small pillow, and a thin blue blanket. They brought him to another room stuffed with donated clothes, and let him choose a warmer coat, boots, and anything else for the winter.
They showed him the small coffee shop, where strict rules against ?ghting, alcohol, and other infractions were posted in eight languages above a black stand-up piano. It was battered, and badly out of tune, apparently the victim of a rule breach or two. A refugee had painted a mural on the wall of smiling African women in bright wraparound dresses, with rich head-ties of stiff brocade, a colorful reminder of another world, another time. An old TV blared loudly in the corner, and the multi-language warning tacked to the front was mangled if clear in English: Don't Tuch It!
The staff assigned Ahmed a bed upstairs with other single men. He climbed the broad stone staircase and looked in. His room contained six bunk beds, three on each side wall. A small metal table sat between them. Graf?ti scarred the walls, the only decoration. A yellow bulb hanging from the ceiling re?ected dully on the door, and it took a moment to realize it was heavy galvanized metal, several inches thick, secured with reinforced locks.
Zirndorf had ?ve hundred beds for refugees and one cafeteria, back down on the ?rst ?oor. Years ago, mobs of hungry men fought to squeeze through the single narrow door that led to the dining hall. To ease the crush, authorities installed ?oor-to-ceiling steel bars and chicken mesh to funnel diners into single-?le lines. The angry crowds thinned out over time but the barred pens and coops remained. Zirndorf looked more like a prison than a place of refuge.
The Nazis built Zirndorf early in World War II to house motorized military police, and the nearly two-foot-thick stone walls somehow survived the British and American air raids that obliterated most of Nuremberg. After the war, Zirndorf lay deep in the American occupation zone. U.S. authorities turned it into an interrogation center and holding camp—the largest in the country—for Soviet bloc defectors and refugees. As the Cold War raged on, decade after decade, tens of thousands of East Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, and other asylum seekers passed through the dismal compound as authorities weighed their words and their fates.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Zirndorf became a focal point for the ?ood of hope released by the collapse of communism. Refugees poured in as borders and regulations fell across Eastern Europe. When those rivers began to ebb, other streams suddenly swelled. In the mid1990s, the aging barracks over?owed with families ?eeing the bloodletting in the Balkans. Mostly men came, but some brought fearful women clutching wide-eyed children, and they jostled for room with runaways from Algeria, Belarus, Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mongolia, Sudan, and almost everywhere else. The dispossessed of the world, it seemed, passed through Zirndorf.
The administrators tried to keep abreast of headlines since each new civil war or blast of ethnic cleansing sent another wave crashing their way. But they also kept a weather eye on older animosities. So they assigned Iraqis separate rooms from Iranians, their traditional enemies. They housed Serbs apart from Croats, and kept Muslims who only ate halal foods separate from pork eaters. After several racial altercations, they learned to separate Russians from Africans. And they isolated the Gypsies, known as Roma, from everyone.
Newcomers got free medical care and a small stipend, just cigarette money, really. They could take classes to study local food and culture, or study introductory German: Guten Morgen. Willkommen in Zirndorf! The computer-literate could work on a couple of aging desktops. Ahmed had heard of e-mail and Internet Web sites, of course, and now he could try them ?rsthand. His physical freedom was sharply restricted, however. He could walk to nearby parks or cafes. But strict rules barred refugees from going into Nuremberg or anywhere else unless they obtained a special written pass.
More important, Ahmed and the others could only stay at Zirndorf for ninety days. Each month, authorities hauled hundreds of refugees to grim government-run group homes and barracks, especially in the harsh factory towns of the former East Germany, to await word of their asylum applications. A year or three might disappear in paperwork, interviews, and hearings. If the authorities ultimately granted political asylum, if they determined the applicant had a well-founded fear of persecution, they issued a small three-page residence permit. It permitted the bearer to ?nd work, travel outside the country, and stay inde?nitely in Germany. After ?ve years, he could apply for citizenship.
But German immigration of?cials granted asylum, on average, to only one in twenty-?ve applicants. They rejected nearly all the rest as economic migrants who simply sought a better life in the West. Such ambition was understandable. It was even laudable. But it wasn't permitted. So rejected applicants appealed to higher courts. Five years would pass, maybe seven. In many cases, courts ?nally ordered them to leave the country or face deportation. But most refugees found ways to prolong their appeals. And German immigration authorities tended to be tolerant, rarely forcing them out.
As a result, several hundred thousand refugees lived in legal limbo. Some stayed in the bleak halfway houses and depressing dormitories. Others submerged deeper into the shadows, struggling to survive in the margins. Laws sharply limited how and where they could work.
The Federal Employment Ministry acknowledged their plight the month Ahmed arrived. "In the future," the ministry announced, "asylum seekers and recognized refugees will be able to submit applications for work permits after two years instead of four to six years." Even then, they were permitted to work only if no German or another citizen of the European Union had applied for the job. It usually meant menial labor at minimum wage or less. Refugees worked at McDonald's and Burger King, or scrubbed lavatories and scraped gum as airport cleaning crews. Some sold ?owers in bars at night, going table to table with plaintive looks and wilted bouquets.
For Iraqis on the run, the route to Zirndorf was more a maze than a pipeline. Most spent weeks or months en route, escaping to Turkey or Jordan and then slipping across porous borders in Eastern Europe with the help of human smugglers. No matter how they came, however, most Iraqis insisted that they simply climbed into the back of a closed truck and were driven straight to Germany and never knew the route. That way, they couldn't be pushed back to the last country they had transited. Nearly every Iraqi asylum seeker shared that one constant. They lied to immigration and intelligence authorities about their travels. "We hear all kinds of stories," explained Robert Dirrigl, the deputy director of Zirndorf. "Most of them are not true."
After their initial processing, Iraqis usually were ordered to appear at the fenced-off building back down the driveway. The main of?ce for questioning housed a special team from the Bundesnachrichtendienst, the Federal Intelligence Service. The BND, as it was known, was Germany's primary spy service.
BND of?cials knew that Germany's generosity to Iraqis was much admired in the Arab world. Enterprising Egyptians, Palestinians, and others often posed as exiles from Saddam's regime in hopes of gaining quick asylum. So the intelligence of?cers ?rst sought to ensure the applicant was not a pretender. They had a checklist of questions.
What is the color of the Iraqi dinar? Describe the coins.
You say you are from Diwaniya. What is the distance from there to Najaf? How far is it to Baghdad? What road do you take? How long does it take?
Once satis?ed that the applicant was indeed an Iraqi, they pulled out more relevant queries.
What was your job? Were you a member of the Ba'ath Party?
Did you serve in the army? Where did you serve? Who were your of?cers? Did you work for the government? What was your role?
It usually proved a futile exercise. Many Iraqis could describe the inside of a jail cell or torture chamber. But few knew useful intelligence about Saddam's regime. In the vast majority of cases, the interviewers said thanks and sent the asylum seeker back up the driveway to resume his long wait.
The BND provided a far warmer welcome to the rare refugee who offered solid intelligence about Saddam's inner circle or his security apparatus. Even more prized were those few who brought credible eyewitness details about Iraq's efforts to build illegal weapons of mass destruction. Those refugees were escorted to the front of the asylum line at Zirndorf and given red-carpet treatment.
"If they had good information, the Germans gave them a fabulous package," said a U.S. intelligence of?cial who worked in Germany at the time. "They got a stipend, a house, a job. Germany was the best in Europe. Not only was it the best program, but there was a huge Iraqi population around Munich. Everybody knew about it back in Baghdad."
Bitter cold gripped Zirndorf by the time a visiting BND team scheduled an interview with Ahmed. It was nearly Christmas 1999, about six weeks after he had arrived. Someone ?nally had reviewed the Iraqi's paperwork and noticed that he was a chemical engineer who worked for a military commission in Baghdad.
"We said, 'Okay, let's talk to this guy,'" a BND supervisor later recalled. "We were trolling for sources. And we ?shed him out of the net." No one foresaw a special prize. Saddam largely had faded from the headlines in late 1999. "Iraq was not a prime target for us."
But Ahmed obviously was primed for them. He told the BND of?cers that he was miserable in the ghastly con?nes of Zirndorf. He recoiled at the prisonlike bars, the clanging metal doors, and the strict rules about coming and going. He dreaded the notion of winding up in a ?ophouse and ?ipping bratwurst or cleaning toilets for the rest of his life. It wasn't the freedom he expected, the bold new life he had planned for so long.
Thanks to misinformation in the refugee rumor mill, Ahmed feared that the Germans might deport him back to Iraq. Even if he didn't get thrown out, he knew he might wait years for asylum, especially after a Zirndorf official told him "the end of the line is over there" behind all the other friendless refugees clogging the system. Most important, Ahmed had learned that he could shorten the wait if he gave the Germans the information they sought.
The room was small and stuffy when Ahmed finnally sat across a table from the BND team at the federal questioning center. But he motioned them closer to take them into his con?dence. He wanted to share a secret. He would enlighten them about his vital job back in Baghdad, he said. He was ready to trade his valuable information for his fantastic asylum package. He was all set for his muni?cent stipend, fancy manor house, and silver Mercedes. He would happily assist his new German friends, he vowed.
He began to tell them of Saddam's secret program to churn out what BND reports later memorably would describe as Biowaffen.
In English, it meant germ weapons.
From the Book: CURVEBALL: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War by Bob Drogin (c) 2007 by Bob Drogin. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.