How a Syrian War Criminal and Double Agent Disappeared in Europe

But Lang had supplied the wrong address, so Gaschl spied on a random office of people 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 dossier amounted to “sufficient” ground 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 no update, the judge who had attended the CIJA meeting called Lang, who informed her that the results of his investigation showed that Halabi “was, to all appearances, actually staying in Vienna.”) But, after the CIJA sent more evidence and documents, “we heard nothing,” Engels said. During the next five years, the CIJA followed up with the Austrians at least fifteen times. A Vienna prosecutor named Edgar Luschin had formally opened an investigation, but he showed little interest in it. At first, according to the CIJA, Luschin dismissed the evidence as insufficient. He later clarified that the quality of war-crimes evidence was immaterial; he simply could not proceed.

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

“Why this is the Austrian position, I could only speculate,” Wiley, the CIJA founder, told me. Other European countries have overcome similar legal hurdles. “It could be that the Ministry of Justice, as part of the broader Austrian tradition, just couldn’t be arsed to do a war-crimes case,” he added.

In fact, Luschin’s position guaranteed that there would be no meaningful investigation—and he promised as much to the B.V.T. In December, 2016, Lang’s partner, Martin Filipovits, asked Luschin about the status of his case. But when Filipovits used the words “war criminal” in reference to Halabi, Luschin stopped him. The term “is not applicable from a legal point of view,” Luschin said. He added that he might interview Halabi, but only to ask whether he had ever personally tortured someone—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 order will be issued to the B.V.T.”

A year passed. Then the French asylum agency sent a rejection letter to Halabi’s old Paris address. “The fact that he didn’t desert until two years after the beginning of the Syrian conflict, and only when it had become evident that his men were incapable of resisting the rebel advance on Raqqa, casts doubt on his supposed motivation for desertion,” the letter read. It added that the asylum agency had “serious reasons” to believe that, owing to Halabi’s “elevated responsibilities” within the regime, he was “directly implicated in repression and human rights violations.” In April, 2018, the agency sent Halabi’s file to French prosecutors, who also requested documents from the CIJA. After it became clear that Halabi was no longer in French territory, prosecutors issued a request to all European police agencies for assistance tracking him down. The alert triggered an internal crisis at the B.V.T.; it was the first time that the extremism unit, which handles war-crimes investigations, had heard Halabi’s name.

In late July, Lang was forced to brief Sybille Geissler, the head of the extremism unit, on everything that had happened in the preceding years. She informed Luschin that Halabi was still living in the Vienna apartment that Lang had rented for him. She also handed him the CIJA’s dossier, which had just been supplied to her office by the French. Luschin acted as if he were seeing it for the first time.

That week, there was a flurry of correspondence between the B.V.T. and the Mossad. Lang was desperate to get 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. Clothes were strewn about, and there was rotting food in the refrigerator. “The current whereabouts of al-Halabi could not be determined,” a B.V.T. officer noted, according to the police report. “The investigations are continuing.”

Oliver Lang still works at the B.V.T. His boss, Bernhard Pircher, was dismissed, after a different scandal. Pircher’s boss, Martin Weiss, was recently 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 responded by saying that we might obtain information on internal structures of the Syrian intelligence service,” she later said. “I considered this pointless.”

Nazi hunters never 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 more than a decade. A German intelligence official informed a group of investigators that Brunner was almost certainly dead. “We were never able to confirm it forensically,” one of them told the Times. Nevertheless, he added, “I took his name off the list.”

Cartoon by Liana Finck

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 close to death, his preparations for Bashar’s succession included hiding the old Nazi in a pest-ridden basement. Brunner was “very tired, very sick,” one of the guards recalled. “He suffered and he cried a lot. Everyone heard him.” The guard added that Brunner couldn’t even wash himself. “Even animals—you couldn’t put them in a place like that,” he said. Soon after Bashar took over, the door closed, and Brunner never saw it open again. “He died a million times.”

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

Of Halabi’s recent phone numbers, two had Austrian country codes, and a third was Hungarian. Until last fall, his WhatsApp profile picture showed 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. But the most reliable tips, from Syrians who know him, still place him in Austria.

One of these 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 recent phone call from Sweden, he described Halabi as his “best friend.” “General Halabi is one of the best people in the Syrian revolution,” Sheikh insisted. He said that Halabi’s links to war crimes and foreign intelligence agencies were lies, conjured by Syrian intelligence and laundered through “deep state” networks in Europe, as part of a plot to undermine Halabi as a potential replacement for Assad. “I am positive that it is the French and the Austrians who are trying to cut Halabi’s wings, because people 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 would be travelling abroad, because a friend of his had been invited by a foreign ministry to discuss a political settlement for Syria. “The friend wants Milk to participate in the negotiations,” Lang noted, 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 foreign 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 rebel-held areas of Aleppo. Now the Russian government framed its discussions with Sheikh and Halabi as a “meeting with a group of Syrian opposition members,” with an “emphasis on the need to end the bloodshed.” Sheikh appeared on Russian state television and said that he hoped Russia would do to the rest of Syria what it had done in Aleppo—a statement that drew accusations of treason from his former rebel partners. Halabi remained in the shadows. I have heard rumors that he made three more trips to Moscow, but have found no evidence of this. His Austrian passport expired last December and has not been renewed.

In late August, I flew to Vienna and journeyed on to Bratislava. Every day for the next four days, I crossed the Slovak border into Austria by train shortly after dawn. I could see an array of satellite dishes on the hill at Königswarte—an old Cold War listening station, for spying on the East, now updated and operated by the N.S.A. In the past century, Vienna has become known as a city of spies. It is situated on the fringe of East and West, by Cold 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 recent decades, Vienna has been the site of high-profile spy swaps, peace negotiations, and unsolved assassinations. Now, as my colleague Adam Entous reported, it is the epicenter of Havana Syndrome—invisible attacks, of uncertain origin, directed at U.S. Embassy officials.

Austria’s legal framework effectively allows foreign intelligence agencies to act as they see fit, as long as they don’t target the host nation. But Austria has little capacity to enforce even this. According to Siegfried Beer, an Austrian historian of espionage, “Whenever we discover a mole within our own services, it’s not because we’re any good at counterintelligence—it’s because we get a hint from another country.

“The biggest problem with the B.V.T. is the quality of the people,” he went on. With few exceptions, “it is staffed with incompetents, who got there through police departments or political parties.” Most officers have no linguistic training or international experience.

In 2018, after a series of scandals, the Ministry of the Interior decided 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 currently reapplying for their own positions within the new structure, which will be launched at the beginning of next year. But, as Beer sees it, the effort is futile: “Where are you going to get six hundred people who, all of a sudden, can do intelligence work?”

Press officers at the Interior Ministry insinuated that it could be illegal for them to comment on this story. Pircher declined to comment; lawyers for Weiss and Lang did not engage. The Justice Ministry’s Economic Crimes and Corruption Office, which is investigating the circumstances under which Halabi was granted asylum, said that it “doesn’t have any files 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 request 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 quiet, tree-lined street. “We did not answer you, because we do not want to answer you!” an Israeli official bellowed through a speaker at the gate. “Publish whatever you want! We will not read it.”


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