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Career Air Force interrogator Matthew Alexander, who won the Bronze Star for leading a team in a series of intelligence breakthroughs in Iraq, has written a dramatic account of the pursuit and capture of a key Al Qaeda leader named Zafar in northern Iraq. Alexander also sifts through the current interrogation policy debate in Washington, separating nonsense from fact and offering the reader an intelligent and critical take on the issues. I put six questions to him about his new book, Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist.
1. At the core of your book is the tense tale of how a terrorist leader named Zafar was tracked and taken. Who was Zafar and why was he such an important target?
Zafar was the leader of Al Qaeda in northern Iraq. He was the man behind the suicide bombing campaign in the region. Suicide bombings were especially problematic because they targeted Shi’a civilians in public places, such as markets and mosques, which often resulted in retaliatory attacks from Shi’a militias. This was the cycle of violence. Ninety percent of these suicide bombers in Iraq were foreign fighters, and Zafar, being Syrian, had international connections that allowed him to recruit, train, and equip them for their missions.
Zafar was important for the same reasons that Abu Musab al Zarqawi was important (whom we located and killed a week before I was assigned to the raid team in northern Iraq). The suicide bombings inflamed the tensions between Sunni and Shi’a and thwarted the transition of security responsibilities to the Iraqi police and military. In this regard, capturing or killing him was seen as vital to the stability of the country.
2. When Donald Rumsfeld first formally authorized the use of torture techniques, he scrawled a note in the margin of the memo asking why the time limitation on standing was so short. Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora later said he was troubled that this would be seen as encouragement to mistreat prisoners. Now in his memoirs, Rumsfeld expresses horror over what happened at Abu Ghraib while defending the use of torture techniques on prisoners. How do you think Rumsfeld’s attitude towards torture techniques affected what happened on the ground in Iraq?
First, let me be clear that the large majority of interrogators in Iraq did not torture or abuse detainees and that by the time I arrived in Iraq in 2006 (post passage of the Detainee Treatment Act), these types of interrogators were definitely a small, but powerful, minority. The formation of these groups of lawbreaking interrogators, however, is directly attributable to Rumsfeld’s memo.
Rumsfeld, President Bush, and Vice-President Cheney, along with many senior military officers, effectively told every troop in the field that the rules don’t apply, to ignore their training, and that our security is more important than our principles. Of course, that’s in direct opposition to our oath of office, which requires us to defend the Constitution and makes explicit that ratified treaties are the law of the land, such as the Convention Against Torture, which President Reagan endorsed and signed, and the Geneva Conventions. Unethical decision-making was at the very core of the numerous cases of torture and abuse that occurred in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantánamo Bay, and the CIA’s black sites.
I witnessed many instances of torture and abuse, mostly minor but some severe. For example, as I describe in Kill or Capture, while I was interrogating a detainee in the field directly after his capture, our mission commander grabbed the detainee by the throat and began choking him. I immediately intervened, but it was too late. The detainee quit talking. In another instance, a detainee determined by a doctor to be mentally ill was harshly interrogated and threatened by two interrogators who were convinced he was faking even though I had already proven that he was truly disabled.
Another shocking aspect of Rumsfeld’s memo is that it is an order to violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which explicity outlaws cruelty and mistreatment (Article 93), murder (Article 118), maiming (Article 124), and assault (Article 128). Military investigators have repeatedly refused to open up criminal cases to investigate this unlawful order. The military has investigated, tried, and convicted those who carried out torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, but never the people at the top. As a former commander of investigative units and a criminal investigator, I can tell you that we’ve investigated individuals for much less. Rumsfeld’s reaction of shock to Abu Ghraib is ironic, considering that he is responsible for creating the atmosphere that led to that outrageous tragedy.
Although I believe torture was the result of several factors (prejudice, inadequate training, and misconceptions about interrogations), ultimately the decisive factor was unethical decision-making. The inability of senior leaders like Donald Rumsfeld to separate their personal emotions from their professional obligations directly led to one of the worst stains on the U.S. military in its history. Leadership will always be a key component in preventing torture and abuse.
One anecdote to illustrate the point. My last commander in Iraq gathered everyone in a room the first day and said, “I came to Iraq with two things and I’m leaving with both. My father’s last name and my integrity.” After that, no one ever questioned that we would treat all detainees humanely.
3. As you note, not a shot was fired by the elite unit that conduct the kill-or-capture missions that ultimately took Zafar. Was this good luck or good training or both?
It was both. Shortly before my arrival on the team, they had lost two soldiers who entered a house with suicide bombers. The quickest shot in the world can’t eliminate every opportunity the enemy has to respond during a raid, which is why they are so risky. That said, our raid team was composed of our country’s most elite soldiers and the raids were swift and efficient. Often, the terrorists we captured were caught in their beds, sleeping in their pajamas. An interrogator always prefers a capture to a kill, as it gives them an opportunity to interrogate and obtain additional information.
4. Today, the attention of the world is focused on Egypt. Hosni Mubarak came to power after the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Anwar Sadat. He moved quickly to suppress the Brotherhood, authorizing his security forces to use brutal methods against them. Al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups are often said to have been forged in the crucible of Mubarak’s Egypt. What lessons do you draw from the Egyptian experience with torture?
Al Qaeda’s beginnings trace back to the prisons of Egypt and Mubarak’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sayyid Qutb, whose writings have inspired many Al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden, was imprisoned for years and witnessed and experienced torture that convinced him that violent extremism is a legitimate response to authoritarian dictatorships. As I saw in Iraq, torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay were the number one reasons foreign fighters gave for coming there to fight. This was especially true because of the nature of the torture, which often included sexual, cultural, and religious humiliation. Anyone who says torture works is not looking at the long-term ramifications.
The recent successful revolution in Egypt started as a result of the torture of a regular citizen who planned to expose police corruption. Twenty-eight-year-old Egyptian blogger Khaled Said was taken by the police from an Internet café in Alexandria and beaten to death in a residential building as witnessed by several citizens. The death of Said became symbolic of the routine and widespread use of torture by Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Of course, Mubarak and his intelligence apparatus, including the chief of the Egyptian intelligence service, Omar Suleiman, worked closely with the CIA in the rendition and torture program. One of the victims of that program was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was rendered to Egypt by the CIA and tortured by Egyptian interrogators, whereupon he provided the false information that Saddam Hussein was working with Al Qaeda. This lie was cited as one of the primary reasons for going to war in Iraq. The irony of this grand circle of torture could not have been written by Shakespeare. Torture is woven throughout the history of the conflict between violent Islamic extremists, the United States and its allies, and dictatorships in the Middle East.
5. One American-authored tactic in Afghanistan has proven particularly unpopular with the Afghans: night raids. The Kabul Government has protested against them, but General Petraeus appears to remain wedded to the tactic. What does your experience in Iraq teach you about night raids?
The majority of raids are night raids simply because that’s when targets are most easily identified by time and location (at home), but raids can occur at all hours of the day or night. It depends on when you locate a target and assess that you can kill or capture them. Raids are controversial because of the way in which they are conducted.
In Iraq, over half the houses we raided were the wrong houses. I don’t blame the Army for that—counterinsurgency is complex, accurate intelligence information is difficult to obtain, and the insurgents/terrorists hide among the civilian population. What’s important is how soldiers conduct themselves during a raid. When I first arrived on the raid team, the Army was not paying compensation to innocent victims of raids. I convinced the commander of our unit to pay compensation and allow me to apologize to the head of household to restore their honor and respect. We even compensated families of the guilty men we captured. This was purely out of compassion.
I’m told that General Petraeus while in Iraq told his troops to consider before every raid mission whether the mission would create more enemies than it would eliminate. That is solid advice.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, General Petraeus said that targeted raids by special operations forces in Afghanistan have increased substantially over the past six months, especially in their precision. He went on to say:
The key to those operations is not the operators themselves, it’s not the so-called door kickers, or the assaulters, it’s the enablers, it’s the full-motion video platforms, it’s the various other intelligence elements and assets, it’s analysts, it’s interrogators, it’s linguists, it’s a host of those and we have added enormous numbers of various types of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities over the course of the last six months in particular, and we’re going to add a substantial number more.
In other words, you have to increase your precision. One way to do that is to get locals to assist you by providing information. As described in Kill or Capture, during the hunt for Zafar, several times civilians who were not involved in the insurgency provided us vital information because we treated them with respect and compensated them for damages. My partner and I convinced family members to assist in our interrogations. I even had Iraqis thank us after raiding their house for our efforts to try and eliminate Al Qaeda.
6. Every time the FBI or military foils a planned terrorist mission targeting the United States, we hear calls for the use of torture, with the implicit assumption that this is the most efficient way to gain intelligence. As a career interrogator, how do you react when you hear these appeals?
I think it’s important to emphasize that torture should not be a question of efficacy but of morality. Chemical weapons and flamethrowers work quite well, but we don’t use them because they cause unnecessary human suffering.
Still, if we want to argue short-term efficacy, we should discuss how most people give false information under torture and how stress affects memory. We should also point out that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed took 183 times because each time he was giving only the minimum amount of information to stop the pain. An interrogator’s objective should never be the minimum amount of information. And we shouldn’t forget that ultimately the one thing that KSM could have provided but didn’t is the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. That is a glaring failure of KSM’s waterboarding.
Those who still call for the use of torture and abuse as interrogation methods have their heads buried in the sand. This country made it through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, two World Wars, and many other conflicts without a policy advocating the use of torture to gain intelligence information. The threat from Al Qaeda is exponentially smaller than the threats we faced during previous conflicts.
American interrogators have always successfully served this country. Just as we trust the infantry to do their jobs without the use of chemical weapons, so we can trust interrogators to do their jobs without torture. They are plenty smart enough to win the battle of wits against Al Qaeda. The fact that my task force killed or captured Zarqawi, Zafar, and numerous other terrorists in Iraq based on intelligence derived from non-coercive interrogations is ample proof that it can be done.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm
Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”