Germany's foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), is facing uncomfortable questions about its possible involvement in the Libya conflict after reports surfaced in the German media that it allegedly knew the whereabouts of ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi long before his capture and that BND agents passed the information on to NATO.
According to a report in German magazine Der Spiegel, the BND knew that the fugitive former dictator was hiding in his hometown of Sirte for weeks before his capture and subsequent death on October 20.
However, the agency has denied that it was involved in Libya and didn't know Gadhafi was still in Sirte at the time of his capture. The BND also rejected claims it had passed on any information that led to the air strike on his convoy which led to him fleeing to a storm drain in which he was eventually caught by rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) forces.
"We were surprised that Gadhafi was there," a BND spokesperson told Deutsche Welle. "We didn't expect him to be there...we just didn't know where he was."
When asked by Deutsche Welle if this meant that BND operatives were on the ground in Libya but had no knowledge of Gadhafi's movements, the spokesperson said: "There was no involvement. This is a non-story. Questions like this are based on reports with no substance and are connecting links - dangerous links - which do not exist."
Despite the BND's denials of involvement and collusion with NATO forces, French warplanes, operating as part of NATO's Operation Unified Protector mission, had precise knowledge of the location of Gadhafi's convoy once the former leader had made the decision to make his dawn escape from Sirte and dash to another loyalist haven in the Libyan desert.
The information needed to target the convoy could only have come from intelligence sources on the ground or from a friendly agency with contacts in Sirte.
The Spiegel report, quoting unnamed German security insiders, revealed that the BND has an extensive network of contacts and sources in North Africa and that the BND had in fact played an important role in intelligence-gathering in Libya.
"German intelligence has taken an interest in Libya's various weapons of mass destruction programs and so presumably has analysts and assets focused on Libya," John Pike, the director of Washington-based analyst group GlobalSecurity.org, told Deutsche Welle. "The BND also has fairly good tradecraft and knows how to keep a secret, so there is no way of knowing what involvement there might have been in Libya."
Former head of the BND, Dr. Hans-Georg Wieck, revealed to Deutsche Welle that the agency is in fact active throughout the world's conflict zones, including North Africa.
"The BND is asked to provide intelligence on all crisis areas of the world or those areas that could get troublesome," Wieck, who led the BND between 1985 and 1990 and is also a former NATO representative for Germany, told Deutsche Welle. "Therefore, the BND has always - always, I stress - been active in the geographical region between the Hindukush and the Mediterranean zone, as well as in North Africa, including Libya, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan."
Dr. Wieck explained that the BND is the only German secret services agency authorized to collect and evaluate information on international affairs of both military and non-military interest and those of importance to the foreign and security policy of the country.
"Intelligence collection and assessment is strictly separated from executive measures, such as conduct of military operations or of conspiracy action," he added. "It is for the German government to decide how to politically use the intelligence provided but it is international practice among members of NATO to share intelligence."
Echoes of Iraq involvement
The reports of BND involvement in Libya echo those which surfaced in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The German government at the time - led by the former Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder - had taken a vehement anti-war stance against US plans to attack Iraq and, along with France, led the European opposition to the invasion.
It was later alleged that, despite Schröder's rhetoric and that of his then foreign minister, the Green Party politician Joschka Fischer, BND agents had been under cover in Baghdad ahead of the "shock and awe" air assault which preceded the land invasion by US and British forces. BND agents were accused of pinpointing targets in the Iraqi capital and passing on coordinates to US air command.
A subsequent three-year-long parliamentary inquiry into the BND's alleged role in the Iraq war was inconclusive. While it was agreed that the two BND operatives at the heart of the investigation were in Baghdad, the inquiry could not agree on whether the agents had provided crucial information to the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in support of US Air Force combat operations.
Questions over anti-intervention stance
In the case of Libya, Germany abstained from the United Nations resolution to enforce a no-fly zone over the North African state, a pact that laid the groundwork for NATO involvement in the country, and opted out entirely of military action despite being a NATO member.
Its politicians, echoing the stance made against involvement or support for the Iraq war, were critical of the intervention - a position which prompted criticism and frustration among Germany's European allies and the United States.
However, if it is now proved that the BND was covertly working in Libya and assisted NATO by providing intelligence, this could be considered involvement on Germany's part.
While also flying in the face of its public anti-intervention stance, BND involvement in Libya could also add to the confusion among its allies over Germany's current foreign policy goals and further muddy its reputation as a reliable global partner on military issues.
Some analysts have suggested that, should the BND claims turn out to be true, the involvement of Germany's secret services in Libya may have been an attempted concession by Chancellor Angela Merkel to repair the political damage sustained by her country's abstention which caused such ructions in the international community.
"Intelligence agencies exist to do in private things which politicians wish to deny in public," said Pike.
If proven, the claims may also drag the BND into the current debate over the circumstances surrounding Gadhafi's death and whether NATO's air strike on the convoy exceeded its mandate to protect Libyan civilians and precipitated the alleged murder of the former dictator by elements of the NTC forces.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge