The Syria Trials/
S2E7: Operation White Milk


Brigadier General Khaled al-Halabi had made it to Austria - thanks to the help, we thought, of the Austrian intelligence, called the BVT at the time. But as it turns out, there may have been another intelligence service helping the former Syrian intelligence officer escape France and set up a life in Austria...


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Episode Transcript

Eric Emeraux: The problem is that he was at the head of this intelligence branch. Syrian intelligence branch. So he's involved in torture, or as a commander. So it was not possible for him to get asylum. So when he realised that he will not be able to get this in France, he was disappointed. I think he didn't wait for the answer. 

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: We think that also it was pretty clear that asylum authorities in France, they had suspected him already and that also maybe the French prosecutors might start an investigation into him. So Austria looked like a safer place. It's a small place. And maybe he could just start a life there and nobody would recognise him as easily as in France. 

Fritz Streiff: Brigadier General Khaled al-Halabi was now in Austria, thanks to the help of the Austrian intelligence, called the BVT at the time. But how had Halabi made contact with the BVT in the first place? And why had the BVT decided to smuggle Halabi, a senior Syrian intelligence officer with, at the very least a questionable CV, out of France and into Austria? What use was Halabi to them? There may be answers if we look at who was driving the car that brought Halabi to the hotel in Salzburg in June 2015. According to reporting, it wasn't Austrian intelligence officials that smuggled Halabi into Austria. It was Israeli intelligence officials. Colonel Eric Emeraux. 

Eric Emeraux: When he saw that everything went wrong, maybe he was in contact with the Israeli intelligence service, I mean, the Mossad. And so suppose that he asked them to organise the move to Austria. 

Fritz Streiff: The Mossad is the National Intelligence Agency of Israel. Journalist Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt of German Weekly Der Spiegel, investigated the Halabi story in 2021. 

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: There were some kind of meeting between Israeli and Austrian officials if Austria was willing to hide him in Austria. And that's pretty much what happened. As far as we know, they drove Halabi from France via Germany in a car, probably a diplomatic car. And then he crossed the border into Austria, close to Salzburg, and that was in June 2015. 

Fritz Streiff: So it appears to have been the Israelis who were behind moving Halabi to Austria. They met up with the BVT at the hotel in Salzburg, to hand Halabi over. But how on earth did Halabi have connections with Israeli intelligence? And why were they willing to help him escape France? 

Welcome to The Syria Trials: The Disappearing General. I'm Fritz Streiff and this is Episode Seven - Operation White Milk. 

CIJA, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, had also discovered that the Israelis have been involved in moving Halabi to Austria. Bill Wiley is CIJA’s executive director.

Bill Wiley: When we started to hear rumours about al-Halabi being protected and then at the behest of the Israelis, it made no sense. And it took me a bit of time to get my head around the Israeli angle because I didn't see the profit for them.

Fritz Streiff: As it turned out, Halabi’s connections with the Israelis might have gone way back. All the way to the early days of his career in the Syrian intelligence services. 

Bill Wiley: He managed to get a hold of the Israelis, which suggests to us that at one point, probably around 20 or more years ago, he was an Israeli military intelligence source. And we suspect that he was - it's only an educated guess - he was recruited at that time. 

Fritz Streiff: Halabi is said to have worked for the espionage branch of the General Intelligence Directorate in Damascus. It was perhaps during his time here that he possibly became a spy for the Israelis, leaking information that passed across his desk to them, perhaps about the inner workings of the Syrian intelligence. This information would have been of value to the Israelis due to the fact that Syria and Israel have basically been enemies since Israel was founded in 1948. Syria does not recognise Israel as a legitimate state, and likewise Israel regards Syria as a hostile state too.

Bill Wiley: Also, we didn't realise that he was a Druze. Druze serve in the Israeli Defence Forces and so forth. So Lebanese Druze, tribally similar to Syrian. So Druze are occasionally allies of Israel in Lebanon and and through, we assume, through familial networks, they were able to get to him. But that's only supposition on our part. 

Fritz Streiff: Perhaps Halabi’s Druze background singled him out as someone who could be useful to the Israelis. But as Bill says, we can only really guess if and why Halabi was recruited by the Mossad, and what information he may have passed to them. If the Israelis were willing to help him now, all these years later, is it likely that Halabi had been an important source to them back when he was a Syrian intelligence officer? A sort of quid pro quo? Journalist Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt studied files from the Austrian authorities during his investigation into the Halabi story. 

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: The question is, when did Israeli intelligence get in touch with him? Was he a source for them for a long time? Maybe so. We don't know a lot of the things we know, we just know from Austrian files. In those files it seems like Israel was really interested in him because he was a high ranking Syrian intelligence officer. And before he came to Raqqa, he had been working in counter-espionage, I think it was in Damascus. So for them, obviously, he was a high level source and had a lot of information about the Syrian intelligence apparatus. And as far as we know, they really thought maybe back then, you know, we were talking about 2015, so they were still thinking maybe as a distinct possibility, Halabi could take an important role in the Syrian state after Assad. So there are several reasons we think that the Israelis thought he might be an important source for them.

Fritz Streiff: In the summer of 2015, it did still look as if the armed opposition forces could take control of Syria and oust the Assad regime. But Bill Wiley isn't convinced that Halabi meant much to the Israelis. 

Bill Wiley: If he had been incredibly important to them, they could have moved him somewhere else. To, well to northern Israel, for example, or some other country. So the best guess is that he had been sufficiently useful 20 years before. That, Well, we owe him a favour, but it's only going to go so far. They're only going to expend so many resources on the guy. Again, I want to stress it's supposition, but I suspect that's what happens.

Fritz Streiff: So as Halabi floundered in France, it appears he reached out to his connections within the Israeli intelligence to see if they could help him out. And the Mossad perhaps felt they owed it to their former source, to see what they could do for him. 

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: Obviously, for Israel, you know, they want to make sure if they say, well, you can trust us, we will protect you if you're a source for us, we'll help you. Then, you know, for them they take it real seriously because it's part of the deal. If you promise people we’ll protect you, if you are a source for us, then you just have to do it if you want to be taken serious. 

Fritz Streiff: But the Mossad couldn't move Halabi around European countries on their own. They needed the help of a European intelligence agency. 

Bill Wiley: So again, an educated guess is Mossad looked for a weak link. Basically, which service in Europe will be stupid enough to do this? And they arrived at the Austrians. Again, it's an educated guess. Would I bet my house on it? No. Would I bet a couple of thousand dollars on it? Wouldn't hesitate.

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: I think there was the first meeting was in Spring 2015. I think there was a BVT delegation travelling to Tel Aviv and there were some follow up meetings later in Vienna. And then they made this agreement, a strictly confidential operation or a cooperation between the two agencies, and they called it Operation White Milk. That's the name of the intelligence operation between those two countries. And in the files, they sometimes referred to Halabi himself as “White Milk”. So when they smuggled him from France through Germany to Austria, they just referred to “the package”, when “the package” was going to arrive. So they called Halabi the package. In some aspect is really kind of like a spy novel. It's a little bit cliché sometimes. 

Fritz Streiff: Clichés are funny like that - because they tend to be true. For the Austrians, Halabi posed no real use to their intelligence services. So why would the BVT help the Mossad, and in turn help this struggling Syrian brigadier general, find refuge in their country?

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: You know, the BVT, the Austrian intelligence service, they don't have that good of a reputation, they’re a small service. And they had some problems in the past. So we think that for them it looked like a great opportunity to work together with a respected intelligence service like the Mossad. 

Fritz Streiff: For whatever reason, the BVT decided to help the Mossad. And so it seems this was how Halabi got to Austria. Halabi was accompanied by one of the BVT officials who had also met him in Salzburg, to an asylum centre in Traiskirchen, just 30 minutes south of the Austrian capital, Vienna.

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: As far as I recall, they set up the meeting and they brought him there to the refugee agency and helped him pretty much get his case processed really fast. That time back then, Austria actually didn't want to have lots of Syrian refugees in the country. So it was a bit odd that in this case it just went like this, very short time that he was accepted as a refugee. 

Fritz Streiff: Halabi received refugee status in Austria, even though he already had an ongoing claim for asylum in France, which meant he wasn't supposed to leave France - and he definitely wasn't supposed to claim asylum in another European Union country. The BVT and the Mossad didn't seem to be too worried about this. They continued to help Halabi get settled in Vienna. 

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: There were some irritating things, you know, that actually they didn't really know what to do, so they hid them, one of the agents just hid him in a place that was owned by his father in law. So it was kind of irritating to see how they actually went through with the operation, it looked a little bit amateurish. After that, they rented a flat and they helped him with everything. So they took good care of him.

Fritz Streiff: Had the BVT officers really not asked the Mossad questions about the man they were helping set up a life in Austria? Were they really not aware about Halabi’s past career? It seems odd that the BVT wouldn't have asked the Mossad for details about Halabi. You know, who he was and why he needed their help, before agreeing to bring him to Austria. It's just hard to believe. Whatever the BVT did or didn't know about the crimes against humanity Halabi could be guilty of, they didn't inform the Austrian justice authorities that a high ranking Syrian intelligence officer was now in the country - and that they were helping him. But outside of Austria, legal investigators were catching up with Halabi. Through their network of Syrian investigators and teams on the ground, CIJA had been made aware of who Halabi was. Activist Abdallah from Raqqa, who was at this point living in Turkey, was also learning what had happened to Halabi.

Abdallah: I guess one of our friends, he saw al-Halabi at the camp. In Vienna. So he recognise them and we start from there. We're hearing, we following,  where he living, which camp, which area, where he's moving, stuff like this. We talk about this and you can see at that time on Facebook pages, the people said we saw this criminal hiding in Europe, moving in Europe. 

Fritz Streiff: And what were people saying about him on Facebook? 

Abdallah: The people like me? They see him like criminal. He just ran away because he has no other choice. And when he saw the Assad regime will not continue as strong as before. They jump on other side. But Halabi he don't jump on the revolution side. They just hide.

Fritz Streiff: Abdallah was shocked to learn that Halabi had made it to Austria.

Abdallah: At the time I couldn't believe it.

Fritz Streiff: Why were you surprised, did you expect him to be somewhere else? 

Abdallah: Yes. Continue his work at the Assad regime.

Fritz Streiff: CIJA’s investigations team had also traced Halabi’s Skype IP address. They were now sure he was in Austria. It was time to finalise the dossier on Halabi, and hand it over to the Austrian authorities.

Bill Wiley: With regime individuals, so as not to overburden our partners in the public sector, we will run searches on the individual once we hear they're in such and such a jurisdiction, and see what we have on the individual. And then we'll go with a dossier, approach the relevant domestic authority. And that's what happened in the Austrian case. 

Fritz Streiff: So what did CIJA actually have on Halabi at this point? CIJA director Nerma Jelacic.

Nerma Jelacic: Okay, so in Raslan he was Head of Interrogations.

Fritz Streiff: Nerma is referring to Anwar Ruslan, who was the Head of Interrogations at General Intelligence Branch 251 in Damascus. He was the first Syrian regime official to be tried for crimes against humanity and war crimes in the world. The trial in Germany began in 2020, and he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2022.

Nerma Jelacic: With Halabi, he was the head of whole branch department in Raqqa. He was in a higher level than Rasslan. So whereas he wouldn't necessarily have to sit or sign off on the interrogation report, it would go to him and then he's the one who would forward it up his chain of command. So his name would appear on those documents. His name would appear on the minutes of the Security Committee meetings, as well as on the decisions and the reports as the Head of Raqqa General Intelligence, up to the actual head of the department in Damascus. And I believe in Halabi, we also had individuals who had worked or served in the area, in that same time, talk and corroborate about how it worked and what his control and communication approach was like. 

Bill Wiley: In principle, the higher ranking a suspect, the easier it should be to build a case and indeed to bring a case. When you get to cases such as Raslan or Halabi, because of the rank they held, there tends to be - and that's certainly the case with both these individuals - a documentary record. So there's materials that show their place in the chain of command. There's materials with their signatures on it. With Halabi, he's much higher ranking than Raslan. And we have documentation, in addition to insider witness testimony, that makes it very clear that his de jury authority, but also his de facto executive authority, over a structure that was engaged in all manner of core international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity, torture, sexual offences, murder, persecution and so forth.

Fritz Streiff: Lawyer at OSJI, the Open Society Justice Initiative, Steve Kostas. 

Steve Kostas: During the conflict, he was jointly responsible with the heads of the other intelligence directorates for organising the security of the government, which included establishing roadblocks, house raids, the policing and arrests of demonstrations. Within the Branch, there were a number of internal divisions or internal sections, I should say. And the most significant for detainee treatment would be the investigations section. And his office in the Branch is right next to the investigation section. The investigation section would interview, often torture detainees, provide him the reports of those, and he would then take decisions on the fate of the detainees. This is all from documents and witnesses. So this is how I understand his role. He would sometimes be present during the interrogations. As I understand it, he at least sometimes lived in the branch. So he was so central to the operation of the branch that he would stay there. 

Fritz Streiff: Halabi could perhaps argue that he wasn't aware of what was going on inside his Branch and that he himself didn't participate in violent interrogations of detainees at his Branch. But Steve doesn't believe this as a line of defence. 

Steve Kostas: The General Intelligence building is not that big. And Halabi’s office was on the first floor, as in one floor up from the ground floor. And next door to his office, as we understand it, was the investigations room, which was where many of the interrogations took place. And as we understand it, they shared a wall. And it would have been very audible through that wall, what was going on in the other room. The screams from torture. That's what's happening in the room next door. But of course, Halabi was in the room for some of the incidents. So there's really no doubt that he's aware that his Branch is engaged in torture.

Fritz Streiff: Steve explains what kind of case had been built against Halabi.

Steve Kostas: The initial case against Halabi as presented to prosecutors was, I would say, really a command responsibility case for crimes against humanity. So command responsibility is, he's responsible because subordinates of his, people who worked for him, carried out terrible crimes and he was in control of them while they did so and/or failed to punish them for doing it. And the crimes against humanity is one of the main international crimes that reflects a widespread or systematic, so organised attack on civilians. And it could be torture, murder, a range of types of violence that become crimes against humanity, as long as it's part of this widespread attack. 

Fritz Streiff:  It didn't take CIJA long to finalise the dossier on Halabi.

Bill Wiley: It was pretty quick. Weeks, a few weeks. Because he was a high ranking individual and because we had done quite a bit of analytical work by that point and had done a number of pre-trial briefs on security intelligence structures in Syria. So it was a question of running his name through the system. What hits do we get? Checking any troves of documents that were picked up by us in Raqqa. And then we identified some insider witnesses, basically officers who had served under Halabi in state security in Raqqa. 

Ambassador Rapp: That information is what we wanted to share with the Austrians. 

Fritz Streiff: Ambassador Stephen Rapp chairs CIJA’s Board of Commissioners. 

Ambassador Rapp: We sought through Eurojust and the European Network a proper meeting with Austrian authorities, going through their judicial representative at Eurojust and were able to schedule a meeting, I believe, on the 29th of January 2016, in which both myself and Chris Engels, the Deputy Director, essentially the Director of Investigations fo CIJA, went to Vienna and met at the Ministry of Justice. 

Fritz Streiff: On the 29th of January 2016, Ambassador Stephen Rapp and Director of Investigations and Operations at CIJA, Chris Engels, walked into a room at the Austrian Ministry of Justice. They were ready to share the dossier they had put together on Brigadier General Khaled al-Halabi. It was the first time that Austrian justice authorities had heard about Halabi, even though he had now been living in the country for eight months. As well as representatives from the Justice Office, it seems that there were also two men from the BVT, the Austrian intelligence, at the meeting. But they didn't introduce themselves to Ambassador Rapp or Chris Engels. They also didn't show in any way that not only did they already know who Halabi was, they had been helping him get settled in Austria. 

Ambassador Rapp: I believe that at least two of them were in the meeting in January 2016 and were not identified certainly as intelligence agents there. And I don't remember there even being a full introduction of everybody that was in the meeting. 

Fritz Streiff: Reporting from Ben Taub in The New Yorker says that one of the BVT intelligence officials present at the meeting, the same officer who had picked Halabi up in Salzburg, had even taken Halabi furniture shopping at Ikea two weeks before. And that the money for the furniture had come from the Israelis. For the moment, it seemed the BVT were keeping quiet on their dealings with Halabi, even from their colleagues at the Ministry of Justice. CIJA handed over the Halabi dossier. It was now up to the Austrian authorities to start their own investigations. 

Bill WIley: When CIJA builds a case file, CIJA case file is built on everything we have gathered to the point that we present the material to the competent domestic authority. We don't continue to investigate after that, unless we’re asked by that authority because we don't want to get in their way. 

Fritz Streiff: The laws of every country are, of course, different. Every country's own national law will also be different when it comes to international crimes, like crimes against humanity. But when a group of states came together in Rome in 1998 to establish the ICC, the International Criminal Court, these states essentially made a promise to also criminalise in their own national legislation, the crimes that the ICC can investigate and prosecute. There are four core international crimes in the Rome Statute of the ICC - genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. But some ICC state parties took their time to implement these crimes into their own national laws. 

Steve Kostas: Unfortunately, Austria had not implemented the Rome Statute, the statute of the International Criminal Court that would give Austrian prosecutors and judges jurisdiction, or the ability to prosecute crimes against humanity or command responsibility. So those two core legal principles underlying the case weren't available in Austria. 

Ambassador Rapp: And so when it comes to things like crimes against humanity, torture, for instance, it would seem to me that they would have some difficulty prosecuting that. And I expected maybe that to become an issue. 

Fritz Streiff: The law did change in Austria in 2015 to be able to prosecute the crimes contained in the Rome Statute, such as crimes against humanity and war crimes. But Halabi left Syria in 2013 and as the crimes he was suspected of occurred way before 2015, Halabi could not be tried for them in Austria. It seems the new legal framework came a couple of years too late. 

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: In contrast to Germany, Austrian law only provides for the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed in 2015 or later. So Halabi had already left Syria by that time.

Fritz Streiff: Austria also didn't have a dedicated police unit, specifically for investigating international crimes. But CIJA had reason to believe that a strong case could still be established in Austria against Halabi. 

Bill Wiley: The Austrian legal framework at that time was not dissimilar to the Swedish legal framework at that time. So not ideal, but more than enough. I read it and I said, okay, they haven't received the Rome Statute into the domestic penal code, but there's enough here. I don't see the problem.

Fritz Streiff: Ambassador Rapp. 

Ambassador Rapp: There was no question that country was under the Convention Against Torture and this would have been official acts. And so as long as they had the proof of the torture, they would just need an official committing torture and they would have jurisdiction. It was also clear to me that they had at least the basics of the Geneva Conventions implemented under their law. 

Fritz Streiff: The Geneva Conventions are humanitarian laws that establish international legal standards for humanitarian conduct and treatment in war. 

Ambassador Rapp: And even though this was a non-international armed conflict, it certainly became such while Halabi was in Ar-Raqqa, losing his city in an armed conflict to the Free Syrian Army. And so there would have been a war crimes torture possibility here. So I was prepared to argue that with them. And I asked, I know you have a new law. Do you think if the facts are as we presented them, this is going to be a problem? And there was a particular legal expert at the meeting who said this would not be a problem. They believed that the law that they had would be sufficient to prosecute this case if the facts could be proven. 

Fritz Streiff: The Austrian justice authorities and CIJA seemed confident there could be a strong case here, but they were still unaware that the BVT, the Austrian intelligence, were helping protect Halabi, the very man they wanted to catch.

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt: Obviously, they didn't want their Operation White Milk to be uncovered and found out about. So they thought ok, it’s better we shut up and don't mention this and I don’t know, hope it will blow over.

Fritz Streiff: After handing over the Halabi dossier, CIJA waited. And waited. And waited. But they didn't hear anything from the Austrians for months - and then years.

Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt:I mean, the Austrian authorities did start an investigation then already in 2016, but it was really kind of slow. 

Nerma Jelacic: We were really, I wouldn't say kept in the dark by the Austrians, we never demand to be constantly informed by our law enforcement partners. But with this one, there was just such a level of deafening silence that there was something odd about it and we couldn't understand why nothing was happening. 

Bill Wiley: My very first case as a war crimes investigator back in 1997, when I started at the Canadian War Crimes program in the Justice Department in Ottawa, was an Austrian who had been engaged in the Holocaust in what is today western Ukraine. So I am personally well versed from the beginning of my career in the rather uneven record of the Austrian state in dealing with serious perpetrators in its midst. So for me, the failure to take action against al-Halabi, in some respects it seems to be more of the same. I know Austria is a particularly in some respects a unique country within Europe. The facade of the old Habsburg empire, the palaces and Mozart balls and opera and all this stuff, I think… hides what is a very, very narrow tight political culture. Where people may belong to different parties, but everyone knows everyone else. There seems to be a consensus not to rock the boat too much. But how that comes to protect Halabi, again remains a mystery to me.

Fritz Streiff: Frustrated with a lack of progress in the Halabi case, Bill tried to find out what was going on. 

Bill Wiley: So we couldn't understand why al-Halabi had not been arrested two and three years after the initial contact had been made with the Austrian authorities. It never crossed our mind that he was being protected there. And indeed, at that time the Austrian government tended to be somewhat to the right. Austria has a reputation for not being particularly welcoming of, most especially non-Christian asylum seekers. I know in the office we were saying, what's the issue? Here's a great opportunity to deal with, well he's Druze in this case. But that nuance would be lost, I think, on most people, including Austrians. You see where I'm coming from here? He's not a white Christian guy. Yeah, we'll hammer him. That sends a signal to everyone else. Keep moving. Germany's this way. Yeah. Or Sweden this way. Just keep going. It never crossed our mind that they'd be protecting him. So the answer that came back to me through the informal channel I'd established, originating with the Ministry of Justice and the prosecution office, the prosecutors responsible at that time, was that the legal framework is insufficient. 

Fritz Streiff: It seemed the issues with Austrian law, as somewhat anticipated, were creating problems with actually being able to pursue a legal case against Halabi.

Ambassador Rapp: And about a year and a half or so into the process, we sort of got the impression that they were going to close the case because of this legal issue. They were going to use that as basically the excuse - I’m relaying what Chris told me - they were kind of saying, well, you know, why aren't you bringing us somebody that was tortured after 2015, or did torturing after 2015, etc., then we'll do something. But otherwise, this is too old and we can't touch it. And so we had the impression that the case had been put away. 

Bill Wiley: It's the higher ranking perpetrators, suspected perpetrators, that should be the slam dunk cases. And we did see that in Raslan. I'm convinced if al-Halabi had knocked up anywhere else in Europe - frankly, in the Western world - the case would have been done and dusted several years ago. He'd have been charged, prosecuted, judged and sentenced by now. The evidence is overwhelming in his case. 

Fritz Streiff: The frustration must have been unbearable. Here was the highest ranking Syrian regime official that legal investigators could find in Europe. He was within the grasp of European legal systems. And yet, because of the country he had been found in, huge obstacles were getting in the way of him being apprehended and brought to trial. At this point, the CIJA team, and likely the Austrian justice authorities too, were unaware that there was another obstacle getting in the way to help - the Halabi was getting from the BVT and the Mossad. Was there anything the legal investigators could do next? Could they find another way to catch Khaled al-Halabi? That's next time, in Episode Eight of The Syria Trials. 

This Syria Trials: The Disappearing General is hosted by me, Fritz Streiff. Please follow or subscribe if you've been enjoying this new season and do leave us a review or comment if you can. It'll really help us tell more people about the story of Brigadier General al-Halabi. And if you're an Arabic speaker, why not try out our sister series in Arabic? You can find us both at or on social media @75podcasts. Thank you very much for listening.