Sunday, April 12, 2009

How to Break a Terrorist: The US Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq - Matthew Alexander

Summary: Finding Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, had long been the U.S. military's top priority--trumping even the search for Osama bin Laden. No brutality was spared in trying to squeeze intelligence from Zarqawi's suspected associates. But these "force on force" techniques yielded exactly nothing, and, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the military rushed a new breed of interrogator to Iraq.

Matthew Alexander, a former criminal investigator and head of a handpicked interrogation team, gives us the first inside look at the US military's attempt at more civilized interrogation techniques--and their astounding success. The intelligence coup that enabled the June 7, 2006 air strike on Zarqawi's rural safe house was the result of several keenly strategized interrogations, none of which involved torture, or even "control" tactics.

Matthew and his team decided instead to get to know their opponents. Who were these monsters? Who were they working for? What were they trying to protect? With most prisoners, negotiation was possible and psychological manipulation stunningly effective...

This account is an unputdownable thriller--more of a psychological suspense story than a war memoir. And indeed, the story reaches far past the current conflict in Iraq with a reminder that we don't have to become our enemy to defeat him. Matthew Alexander and his ilk, subtle enough and flexible enough to adapt to the challenges of modern, asymmetrical warfare, have proved to be our best weapons against terrorists all over the world.

My review: After the scandalous treatment of prisoners as Abu Ghraib, the US government is looking for new, more effective ways to interrogate detainees without breaking any rules set forth by the Geneva Convention. Enter our pseudonymed author, Matthew Alexander, a new breed of interrogator. He and his team have trained from the beginning for a different type of interrogation that relies less on force, fear, and control and more on building rapport, psychological games, and a thorough understanding of Islamic culture. Matthew is fought every step of the way by old-school interrogators who insist that the only way to “break a terrorist” is to exert complete control over them. While these men and women have little success in the way of new information, Matthew manages to obtain intel from detainee after detainee. His way is working. I admire Matthew’s commitment to non-violent interrogation and his extensive knowledge of Arab culture, language, dialects, and religious beliefs. His understanding allows him to use strategy and intellect in place of threats, violence, and coercion. He also has an uncanny ability to morph into whoever he needs to be to build rapport and get information from a detainee. I was amazed at the sheer intensity of the head games that were being played and how even the tiniest expression or vocal intonation was analyzed. In the end, Matthew and his team finds themselves in a race against the clock—pitching old techniques against new ones—in a last ditch attempt to find the final links in the Iraqi Al Qaida organization and take down one of the deadliest men in Iraq. Get ready, it goes down to the absolute wire.

It was interesting to read about the process of interrogation, the many roles, approaches, and tricks of the trade that an interrogator can use to uncover the truth. However, I don’t think that I’m quite fool enough to believe that this book presented me with the absolute truth. I’ve no doubt that it was mostly true, but if there is one thing that James Frey taught us all, it is that the past is open to interpretation. The one thing that really bothered me about this book was it’s blacked out sections (pieces of the text that were completely blacked out). These omissions were explained by saying that the book had been submitted to the Department of Defense for prepublication review and that the blacked out materials reflect deletions made by the DoD. Okay. Fine. Whatever. So, why leave them in? I can think of only one reason (and Em, you’re not going to like it). I believe that they were left in intentionally to lend a sort of authenticity to the book--an obvious attempt to make me feel like I was reading a highly classified document, as opposed to someone’s personal recollection and interpretation of events. It was sort of insulting that they thought I’d be duped by something so transparent and it actually backfired by making me doubt the truthfulness of the rest of what I was reading. Also, the authors frequent use of words like terp and ‘gator in place of interpreter and interrogator seemed a bit juvenile--as if the author was too busy to actually write or use the full word.

While I appreciated the insight this book offered, I don’t know if I would consider it an “unputtdownable thriller.” Matthew's story did help me to see certain alleged terrorists as human beings—with families, businesses, and strong religious beliefs. Many alleged terrorists joined Al Qaida because it offered them protection from Shia death squads that were running rampant (unleashed with a vendetta at the fall of the Saddam’s Sunni leadership ). Though this book definitely has an agenda, I’m not altogether convinced that that is a bad thing. In the following statement, I felt Matthew made an excellent observation in regards to the 2006 situation in Iraq. “The US military came in, shattered the civil order, however brutal, and unleashed chaos instead of imposing order and democracy. As a result, Baghdad in 2006 is a playground for opportunists, thieves, murderers, and fanatics. Caught in the middle are plenty of good people just trying to make a living even as their neighborhoods turn into battlegrounds. Every day, we see the players in this chaos. We see the guilty; we see the blameless. Sorting out one form another is part of our job...” If anything, this book really tries hard to prove that we don’t have to become our enemies to defeat them.

Rating:
3 Stars. A good read but watch out for the profanity and graphic depictions of executions. Not the focal point of the book, by any means, but definitely something that the author expressed and dealt with while he was in Iraq.

Sum it up in one phrase: A fascinating look inside the mind (and mind games) of an interrogator.

2 comments:

Sweet Em said...

Hum, actually when I read your descriptions of the blacked out sections it made me think that they want us to know that there are things they are "hiding," sort of a cynical make-us-question-the-man sort of thing. But I almost always agree that shortened words like 'gator, that you describe make my skin crawl.

It is reassuring to hear that there is more going on than the inhumane interrogations talked about on the news and that there are members of the government/military that are trying to see the world from less biased viewpoint.

Kim said...

I am anxious to get to pick this book up. It seems kind of on par with a couple of others that I have read. I am glad to see that we, as a leading influence in the world , are thinking "outside the box' with this sort of thing. I am curious as to why you picked this one up? Had the hubby read it? Just looking for something a little different?

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