What Al-Qaeda Taught Me About the Frailty of Loyalty 28

By Chris Simmons

The most diabolical, manipulative, and extraordinarily successful interrogation ploy I used to interrogate High-Value terrorists in Iraq was the Prisoners’ Dilemma. It LITERALLY never failed. Research the Prisoners’ Dilemma and you will find it called “game theory.” I can assure you its use is neither theoretical nor game-like. It appeals to the strongest and basest instincts in all of us – self-survival –by pitting members of a group against one another for a reward.

More was always better with this technique, but a two detainee minimum was sufficient. In our case, we always began our “theater of the mind” in the Black Room, so named as its floor, ceiling, and walls were painted matte black. We’d also found a way to give the room a slight echo-effect, which many found unsettling. Having captured several Al-Qaeda associates (all believed to have similar information) in a given raid, we would move them from their individual cells to the Black Room. While being moved, our detainees wore blacked-out goggles to increase stress and anxiety.

My guards would place the detainees against opposing walls. Once everyone was in position, they would quickly and briefly lift the detainees’ goggles so they could see their associates. In an amazing performance, one of my staff – in a very calm and confident voice – would then tell the group they needed to listen carefully as we were about to make a limited-time offer. They were told we knew who they were and that they shared similar experiences and knowledge. As a result, we explained, there was no need for us to question all of them. So, the first one (or two, or three – depending on group size) to cooperate would receive lenient treatment and be quickly released. The others would be identified as “uncooperative” and held indefinitely (Note: We were under no obligation to be truthful with our High-Value Individuals).

Pacing back and forth down the center of the room, my “choreographer” would then announce that all those ready to cooperate and be quickly processed for release should raise their right hand – NOW. Since our performance was based exclusively on auditory cues, nothing was left to chance. Regardless of whether anyone raised their hand, my “choreographer” would then loudly announce “Alright, we have one…now two..” (Note: His response was tailored based on group size).

Extra guards we had stationed in the Black Room would then noisily shuffle off, creating the illusion of cooperating detainees. The words and sounds exploited their worst fears. Within seconds, hands would go up (if they hadn’t initially). Paranoia soared as the sound of more exiting detainees echoed throughout the room.

In some cases, every detainee volunteered, creating a vicious race to see who could reveal the most information the fastest. For any that were left, we would wait until the room was again silent and as their goggles were lifted, tell them what their eyes knew to be true –several (if not all) of their colleagues had abandoned them. Invariably, the previously reluctant detainee(s) would suddenly agree to “take the deal.” The cut-throat competitiveness of the Prisoners’ Dilemma also precluded detainees from the self-defeating response of lying to one of my interrogators. It simply did not occur.

The most striking and disturbing aspect of this questioning technique was how quickly self-interest shattered not just the existing cohesiveness of the detainee group, but even their individual values, beliefs, and identities. Blood-ties and Al-Qaeda service together meant little when pitted against our appeal. On every occasion, primal self-interest trumped loyalty and collective needs, not it days or weeks, but in just a few short hours.


  1. Pingback: What Al-Qaeda Taught Me About the Frailty of Loyalty | sibte7

  2. I’m seriously surprised you are being allowed to say this without being charged with something. Anyway, I like this technique because not only does it not involve torture but it seems very effective and may have led to the saving of hundreds of people. Thank you for your service to this country.

  3. Please allow me to play devils advocate. It strikes me that one could make the argument that the prisoners in such a situation are tricked into being disloyal to their fellow prisoners. If no prisoner volunteered to cooperate first, and thus receive a lenient treatment, a “choreographer” would create the impression that one or more prisoners actually already had. After this point, the loyalty of the remaining prisoners to their peers isn’t in question, because they believe their fellow prisoners have already sold them out: they can’t be expected to be loyal to someone who has been disloyal to them. This test, additionally, takes place in an extreme situation (the prisoners have been forced to wear goggles to “increase stress and anxiety”), with an explicit threat of long term detention, and an implicit one of torture. Under such duress, the prisoners would be panicked and not fully rational.

    To subject people to such an awful scenario does not necessarily prove their lack of loyalty or humanity. You might agree that if the roles were reversed a similar outcome would also take place. In short, an inhumane experiment does not prove that those who are subjected to it are inhuman. It is NOT a controlled experiment, and they don’t even have the option of being loyal. A truer test would be to take their blindfolds off so that they could know who, if anyone, was being disloyal.

    This is not necessarily my own opinion. I’m just providing a possible counter-argument that could be used in a debate.

    • I suspect that if you tried this without blindfolds no one would be ‘disloyal’. When no one can see what you are doing you would tend to act in a way that benefits you most. Blindfolded, you take the deal, because no one knows your choice. Without a blindfold, your affinity group, if you will, would know you betrayed them, and thus you benefit by not volunteering – volunteering gets you dead at the hands of your comrades-in-arms.

  4. Ah yes, all with a view to ‘check-mate-‘ game over; but on a different playing field and totally unrelated, are we not all but pawns, destined to protect the king of our own choosing??

  5. Pingback: The “Prisoner’s Dillemma” Vs. the “Interrogator’s Dilemma”. | Art of Eric Kuns

  6. Excellent story and a very interesting psychological phenomenon, but are you sure you’re allowed to publish this publicly?

    • James1213,

      Thank you for your interest and comment. To answer your question, yes. Not only is the Prisoners’ Dilemma now used in many countries, but sufficient details were omitted from this story to allow publication.

      • Dear Chris

        I had the same question and please let me congratulate on you on writing this wonderfully gripping and psychologically vibrant piece. It is really interesting how the phantoms of our brains overpower all loyalties, ideologies and relationship for that one wish-the wish to survive. Please continue the great work. I will be following your blog from now on. thank you.

        Warm Regards

  7. Mind games. How clever. I’m sure Al Qaida does much worse than this! I live in the Middle East and I have friends who have witnessed their actions from up close.

    Your writing is excellent.

  8. Btw, when deep seated delusions are at sake, there is no concept of self-survival. God, Allah, are almighty. Hell is imminent. Nothing man can do will save your soul. Only you can, by not ratting. This explains suicide bombers as well as radical political and religious acts of violence. Read Hoffer’s True Believers. I’m curious what you think. It’s holy war.

  9. Hmmm. Very interesting to read this. It does raise the question of when interrogation crosses over into torture. There is certainly an element of psychological torture here. But I suppose that since nobody was actually hurt, it passes the American public conscience test. There is certainly a huge difference between reading an academic rendition of the prisoner’s dilemma and reading about how it is actually put into practice. Thank you for sharing this.

  10. People are all too willing to compromise their values, and it DOESN’T always take interrogation. Take a peak at my blog if you like social commentary/argument. LifeintheEmpire.wordpress.com

  11. Pingback: The Prisoner’s Dilemma in Espionage and in Professional Sports | This Grand Venture

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