It was my last night in Kurdistan before catching a 4 a.m. flight back home. That morning, the commander of German coalition forces in Kurdistan, Colonel Stephan Spoettel, had been found dead in his room at the Crystal Hotel in Erbil. After kebab and beers with former 22SAS operator Phil Campion, I decided to head over to the Crystal Hotel and see if I could find out more about what had happened. The Germans had been doing great work in Kurdistan and the weapons they had been providing were making a tangible difference on the battlefield as the Peshmerga continued to beat back the ISIS hordes. The loss of Colonel Spoettel was no doubt a serious loss to the German troops.
Taking a taxi across Erbil, I found the Crystal Hotel surrounded by concrete barriers. The Germans took their force protection seriously, it seemed. They actually rented out the entire hotel for over a million dollars a month and fortified it to look like an actual forward operating base. As I was snapping a few pictures of the hotel on my cell phone, a gate guard walked up and asked who I was. He wore a black uniform, sported a mohawk, and had an AKM slung over his shoulder. He asked me to wait for his boss to come out and talk to me since he spoke English.
The gate guard’s boss showed up wearing an OD green uniform and began drilling me with questions about who I was and what I was doing taking pictures of the hotel.
“Who are you?” I asked. These guys looked like private security rather than police officers. If so, I was going to hop in my cab and take off.
“Asyaish,” he replied.
Kurdistan’s secret police.
Oh, brother, here we go again. Back in November, I spent about eight hours getting interrogated by these guys. They were professional about it but it was still a huge pain in the ass. During the questioning I fell back on my SERE peacetime detention training. The interrogator knew exactly what I was doing. I brought up my military service in a bid to save my ass from a few nights in the slammer. “Were you on ODA 5220?” he asked me. “Uh, no,” I answered, caught off guard. “I was on 5414.” Eventually he got sick of dealing with me and I was released around three or four in the morning.
So, suffice to say I wasn’t too pleased when the Asyiash guarding the Crystal Hotel asked me to come inside and talk to some other bosses. He apologized for the inconvenience but said he had a job to do. Fair enough. As I got up to the first gate, I was searched. They overlooked the karambit I had clipped inside my pocket, so I took it out and handed it to the secret police official. I have nothing but respect for the Kurdish and German troops and wasn’t concerned about my safety inside the hotel.
Past the checkpoint, we walked behind the concrete barriers and up to the hotel. This is hilarious, I thought to myself. They were worried that I could be a terrorist casing the joint, so now they are escorting me through all of their security and defenses to actually visit the inside!
Up some stairs and through a glass door, I was asked to sit on a plush chair while I waited for the Kurds to have their confab and figure out what to do with me. After a few minutes, I was approached again by the Asyiash official, a second Kurd who introduced himself as being in charge of the hotel’s security, and a German soldier wearing his distinctive desert camo uniform and a pistol on his hip. Again, they quizzed me about who I was and what I was up to. I told them the truth.
“Okay,” the German said in accented English. “If you would, please delete the pictures you took.”
Bargaining for my freedom it seems. I deleted the pictures off of my phone as I was asked.
The Kurdish head of security then asked for my passport. Problem was, I left it back at my hotel. Depending on the situation, I don’t always carry it. Well, this presented a bit of a problem because they wanted the information from my passport before they would let me go. As a solution, they asked for permission to have my hotel send them the scan they took of my passport when I signed into my hotel. I agreed to this and called the hotel.
With some time to kill, the German offered me a seat in the hotel cafe where a dozen or so soldiers from the Bundeswehr were hanging out, drinking beers and Red Bull, and smoking cigarettes. They even gave me an espresso. Hot damn, I like being detained by the Germans! While sitting around waiting for my hotel to email the Asyiash and the Bundeswehr my passport info, I found the whole situation surreal. I was able to gather further information about the German security posture, figure out which command they belonged to, and a whole lot more.
I’ll never say anything about the hotel’s security features or any other details that could put our allies in danger, but a bad guy would. After this article is published, I hope the Bundeswehr reconsider how they handle detaining people. But the best was yet to come. My hotel wasn’t sending over my passport information; we were on Kurdish time, and there is no putting a rush on these things. I was trapped, a guest of the Germans until they had what they needed.
“We just need the information from the front page of your passport,” the head of security said. “Do you have a picture of it on your phone or anything?”
I wasn’t sure, but took a look anyway. As it turned out, yes I did. I’d taken a picture of it months ago and forgotten all about it.
“Great,” the security official said. “Just email it to me and you can go.”
To do so I needed access to the hotel’s WiFi. He escorted me into his adjacent office and gave me the password. While on the WiFi, I quickly messaged a few people to tell them I was detained, then emailed my passport photo. While waiting for him to get the email, I looked around the office. There was a picture of some goofy-looking kid on the wall. Under the picture was his name, and written in capital letters with red marker were the words: EXTREMELY DANGEROUS!!!
“Hey, is that an ISIS guy?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. He’s trying to join ISIS.”
This was one of the biggest security threats from the perspective of the Germans.
I noticed a computer screen displayed an opened email. It revealed which German unit was currently staying in the hotel and what their deployment schedule was. Getting detained was by far the best way to gather information about the Germans, which had never been my intent. I just wanted to take a picture of the hotel and maybe write an article about the German officer who had passed away.
Finally, the email went through, and I was escorted out to the front gate. On the way, I stopped and made sure that they gave me my karambit back. The gate guard looked mildly disappointed, knowing he would get to keep the knife if I failed the scratch-and-sniff test and disappeared into a Kurdish dungeon somewhere.
Waving goodbye, I got in my cab. The driver made a U-turn to head back in the direction we came from and go back to my hotel. While passing by the Crystal Hotel on the way out, I snapped a bunch of photos and called it a night.