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One Man Says No To Harsh Interrogation Techniques

Matthew Alexander led the interrogation team that tracked down al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006.

Alexander, a critic of the harsh techniques employed by the military during the administration of George W. Bush, says he used strategic, noncoercive methods of interrogation to find al-Zarqawi, which he wrote about in his book How to Break a Terrorist.

In his second book, Kill or Capture, Alexander — a pseudonym for the author — recounts how his team of interrogators tracked down and captured another wanted man: a Syrian named Zafar, the leader of al-Qaida in northern Iraq.

But finding Zafar was not easy. Alexander says he conducted hundreds of interrogations and supervised more than a thousand more while trying to track down a man who eluded security forces and had never once been photographed by U.S. forces.

In a conversation with Dave Davies on NPR's Fresh Air, Alexander details the interrogation tactics he used while conducting his kill-or-capture missions in the area of Iraq where Zafar was thought to be hiding.

"The first step of any interrogation is to understand your detainee, understand what uniquely motivates them as an individual," he explains. "[You have to understand] why they joined al-Qaida or another insurgent group, why they decided to pick up arms. And if you can analyze them and figure out those motivations, then you can craft an appropriate approach and incentive, but not until you've done that."

But Alexander says he couldn't always give the incentives he thought would provide the best response from his potential informants. For example, he was not allowed to offer money or visas to people who provided information about the location of senior al-Qaida members.

"That's a real change," he says. "In Vietnam, we had real incentives that interrogators could offer captured Vietcong members to get them to turn to our side. But we didn't do that in Iraq, and it wasn't until Gen. [David] Petraeus got there and offered the Sunni tribes money and weapons that they turned against al-Qaida."

Alexander learned to offer things he couldn't necessarily deliver, a technique he says criminal investigators use every day to catch criminals. In one instance, he even forged a divorce application for an informant who wanted to get out of a marriage.

"Deception is a legitimate part of warfare," he says. "We don't question deception if an infantry fakes an attack on the left and sweeps right. And interrogators can use deception, too, but they must be careful about how they use that deception. And the reason why is because somebody else is going to interrogate that detainee one day. And if you've used deception and you've been found out, then they're going to have a harder time establishing trust."

To gain trust with the Sunni combatants he was interviewing, Alexander says, he would admit that the United States had made some strategic mistakes in its approach in Iraq.

"Almost every detainee that I admitted those mistakes to, they all were surprised that I was willing to admit that," he says. "And it moved many of them to hear that, because many of them had lost family members or friends because of these actions — because of allowing the Shia militias to run free. And so when they heard that apology followed by an offer to work together, it was very appealing."

More than anything, Alexander says, it was important for interrogators to understand the detainee and know exactly where they were coming from. Interrogators who believed in misguided stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs, he says, were the single most detrimental factor to undermining interrogations in Iraq.

"A common parlance that was said by some interrogators and analysts was 'Arabs grow up in a culture of violence, so they only understand violence.' We have that documented in an e-mail from a senior interrogator to his commander at one point in Iraq," he says. "And it was that type of stereotype of Arabs and of Muslims that was very counterproductive to try to get people to cooperate. ... Those prejudices worked directly in contrast to what we were trying to accomplish."

Matthew Alexander is an 18-year veteran of the Air Force and Air Force Reserves. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his achievements in Iraq and has contributed to both the Washington Post and The New York Times.

Interview Highlights

On how he would start an interrogation

"Sometimes I would walk in with my copy of the Quran, and I would recite a line. Usually I would use the first line of the Quran, which is 'Praise be to Allah, the most compassionate, the most merciful,' which would help me with compassion toward my enemy who's sitting in front of me but then also put in place an obligation of reciprocity on their part to show compassion toward me, by providing information."

On liars

"I don't really care if anyone admits to participating in terrorist activity. I could have somebody on tape having prepared suicide bombers to go out on missions — we had detainees who we had on tape having cut peoples heads' off with machetes — but I would let them lie about that all day as long as they were telling the truth about the information I needed to kill or capture the next target. ... Some interrogators, even in the military, forgot this — that they're not there to get a confession. In fact, I believe that the confession hurts you because it reminds both them and the interrogator that you're opponents. So I would gladly allow them to lie about their participation in terrorist activity as long as they were telling the truth about the information I needed."

On the harsher techniques used by other interrogators in 2006

"There was a lot of battling at the prison when I was inside the prison between the old-school interrogators and my new school of interrogators. And those old-school interrogators — people who had been at Guantanamo Bay, people who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan early on, who had been allowed to use advanced interrogation techniques, which I believe is a euphemism for abuse, if not torture — believed those methods should still be used. But now we had the Detainee Treatment Act, so what they started to do was manipulate the rules so that they could still do what are basically advanced interrogation techniques, or use abuse, but try and notionally stay within the rules. And that created large differences between the ways we wanted to interrogate certain detainees."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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