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Money and attention: The world of police informants

Notker Oberhäuser
November 15, 2018

Despite the use of several informants, police weren’t able to stop terrorist Anis Amri. Still, authorities continue to rely on such sources. How does it work? What do they get paid? DW asks the experts.

A man looks at his cellphone as he walks on the street
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/F. Seco

For the head of the Berlin state police (LKA), recent reports that his office likely had an informant in the same mosque frequented by Berlin Christmas market attacker Anis Amri did not come as a surprise. When questioned by state parliamentarians investigating the Islamist terror attack in 2016, Christian Steiof maintained that he could not say if and when the LKA informant was at the Fussilet mosque, which, at the time, was known as a hotspot for radical Salafists (it has since been closed).

He said that police have been working with informants for years in the fight against Islamic extremism, but that he doesn't know the individuals or their locations.

According to media reports, an LKA anti-terror unit ran an informant with contacts to the mosque. But this is not the first informant linked to the Anis Amri case. It's emerged previously that informants working with the LKA in North Rhine-Westphalia, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and Germany's domestic intelligence agency also frequented the mosque. 

Anis Amri drove his truck into crowds at the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market on December 19, 2016. He killed 12 people, and wounded more than 70. But not a single informant was able to tip police off to the impending attack.

Despite this, terrorism expert for public broadcaster ARD Holger Schmidt says it would have been wrong for Berlin police not to have had any informants in place. In an interview with DW, Schmidt said he expects the authorities in charge of security to use such strategies, particularly in the fight against Islamic extremism.

Three different types

Both Germany's domestic and foreign intelligence services rely on informants, as do the police. But unlike the spies, the police are not supposed to take any liberties in the event that undercover informants break the law. According to Schmidt, the police are bound to quickly investigate any crimes committed by informants.

Generally speaking, there are three ways that informants cooperate with security officials:

  • The informant sporadically passes information to the authorities.
  • The authorities enter into a medium or long-term cooperation with an informant, who typically comes from the milieu that is under investigation.
  • The authorities send one of their own into the relevant milieu as an undercover agent. 

Informants are used in a variety of milieus: organized crime, red-light districts, drug gangs, far-right and far-left political scenes, and the fight against radical Islamism.

Every informant is managed by a contact person from the relevant authority. "These managers usually have pretty free rein. Within the authority, informants are referred to only by code names or numbers," said Michael Müller, an expert on Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, and author of several publications on secret services.

Informant managers play the role of the helpful acquaintance — the person who remembers your birthday, and helps you out in a crisis. One such manager can be overseeing the work of up to eight informants. And they are extremely careful in ensuring that these various informants never meet each other, Müller told DW.

Just like in the movies

Usually, the authorities will actively seek out an informant in the relevant milieu. There can be very different motivations for their cooperation. ARD expert Schmidt relates one instance where authorities ensured that an informant's son's diploma was fast tracked. But sometimes, authorities will use threats. "We'll report you to child protective services about the way you treat your kid, for example," said Schmidt.

He says it's just like what we see in the movies. In criminal milieus, informants are typically recruited directly in prison. Prisoners can then negotiate lighter sentences, or plea deals for upcoming trials. 

Only rarely do would-be informants approach the authorities. Schmidt says it's the situation authorities least like, because it means they have to figure out what the person's motivation might be. In most cases, it's money, attention, or both.

Confidential pay scale

There are no rules when it comes to compensating informants for their services. "One person might get €300 ($340) a day, while someone else is paid €100 for a piece of valuable information. Others might not be compensated at all if they don’t want to feel they’re being bought. On the other hand, gifts for children are very popular," said terrorism expert Schmidt.

Germany’s "Stern" magazine has reported on its website about a confidential, 25-page list of basic principles for compensating informants, supposedly from the BKA. It states that "financial incentives" need to be created, "since the use of informants is often cheaper than the use of other instruments."

In the area of drug crime, there is a detailed payment scale, dependent on the current wholesale and middleman rates. Hashish, for example, costs €130 per kilo, or €78 per kilo from 20 kilos or more. According to the report on stern.de, the BKA also offers important tips, such as: "The informant must be informed about a possible duty to report to the employment and social services."

'We only hear about the scandals'

Intelligence services and the police clearly support the use of informants. But does their deployment really make sense? "We can only speculate, as we rarely hear about any success stories. We only hear about the scandals and failures," said Steffen Kailitz of the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Research at the Technical University of Dresden. Kailitz is an expert on the use of informants in the German government’s first, failed attempt to ban the far-right, neo-Nazi NPD party.

Wolfgang Frenz
Wolfgang Frenz worked as a police informant whilst in a top job within the neo-Nazi NPDImage: AP

The domestic intelligence agency had to stop the operation in March of 2003 after it emerged that its informants were active in the NPD’s leadership. Wolfgang Frenz, for example, was the former NPD vice-chairman for North Rhine-Westphalia. He was also one of the domestic intelligence agency’s top informants.

For more than 30 years, he received monthly payments of between 600 and 800 Deutschmarks (approximately €300-410, $340-450 at last conversion rate before its phaseout) for passing on information about the inner workings of the NPD — money he then funnelled into the party coffers. Critics were outraged, blaming the state for financially supporting an unconstitutional organization.

According to Kailitz, the failed bid to ban the NPD is a lesson against the use of informants, for example, in any possible intelligence operations to monitor the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

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