Meet a juicy story: The German Spy Ship off Syria

We journalists know what it takes to write a juicy story. Use strong words, like spy ship. Combine them with ongoing events the world is looking at, like what is going on in Syria. Include German intelligence services aiding the Syrian rebels, and here it is: Germany is helping Syrian rebels by providing them with information gathered by a German navy vessel off the coast of Syria, a newspaper said on Sunday, without citing sources.

Now,there are some minor flaws to this story. When it was published on Sunday, Aug. 19, neither the mysterious spy ship nor one of its two sister ships had been in the vicinity of the Syrian coast for at last two months. In fact, the Oker, an Oste class fleet service ship, had entered the Mediterannean from the Straits of Gibraltar just a few days ago, having left its home harbour of Eckernförde on the Baltic on August 8. Since August 17, the Oker had been berthed in the port of Cagliari on the Italian island of Sardinia, which it left for an unknown destination on August 20. (It’s sister ship Alster is currently in the docks for maintenance, while the other ship Oste is in its home port Eckernförde.)

Flottendienstboot „Oker“ on the River Elbe (file photo May 2009, Foto Gunnar Ries via flickr , CC-BY-NC-ND-License)

Even if you don’t believe the German Fleet Command saying so, you could check this. By looking at Oker’s AIS signal on

Well, and what’s this magic mystery ship anyway? It’s an intelligence gathering platform, using electronic, optoelectronic and optic sensors for, well, intelligence gathering. (Originally, these ships were built during the Cold War, operating along the bloc lines in the Baltic Sea.) These ships are unarmed and designed to stay out of harms way, if possible. If the claim is true that a ship with a sensor at maximum height of 20 meters above sea level is able to pick up signals 600 kilometers inland, is a question physicists have to decide.

Indeed, there’s truth to one point: the signal and electronic intelligence Oker and its siblings gather will be provided to the German intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). As any national intelligence gathering organisation would do. And, indeed, Germany and the U.S. as well the UK are NATO partners, so it’s an open secret that they do some pooling and sharing of their intel operations.

But does this mean the (future) data collected by the Oker crew will go directly to Syrian rebels? Or did the data its sister ships Alster and Oste collected when on assignment in the Eastern Mediterranean last year and in spring this year? Well, uhm, yes, you could assume that. However, that would be a strange behaviour for any intelligence gathering organisation. I would prefer to have some more on this than speculation.

By the way: the Alster got in the way of the Syrian Navy last year…

(An meine deutschen Leser: Ich bitte um Verständnis, dass ich die Geschichte noch mal für ein internationales Publikum aufbereitet habe. Die hat sich inzwischen so massiv weltweit verbreitet… )