“Schooling” Al-Qaeda: How We Learned to Terrify Terrorists Reply

By Chris Simmons

In Iraq, I led interrogation operations so feared by Al-Qaeda that they dubbed my interviewing center, “The Cemetery” and “The Devil’s Den.” The terrorist group’s fear was well founded, as our success rate in getting useful information from detainees was unprecedented, exceeding 99 percent.

This achievement came about because I ensured every one of my people understood that interrogation is not about the physical act of talking to someone. Interrogation is a performance – it is theater of the mind.

We are all familiar with the adage, “Perception is reality.” I believe this axiom doesn’t go far enough. Perceptions, be they short-term or permanent, are living “beings.” They can grow, shrink, bend, twist, or die. For us, perception management was a key tool in mentally wearing down detainees before we ever spoke to them. A premium was placed on their perceived self-interest and total lack of control.

For example, a classic resistance technique used by detainees was to focus on anything that had a schedule. The predictability of routines was often quite reassuring. It could also help measure time or provide a comforting feeling of stability.

We shattered this detainee countermeasure by eliminating every trace of patterns. Watches, clocks, and all verbal references to time were prohibited. Our guards did not appear to keep a set schedule and equally important, seemed to randomly move to other shifts. We began feeding detainees two to six times a day. Detainees were also arbitrarily removed from their cells and taken to the toilet. To complete the effect, the location where our guests were quartered had no windows or doors to the outside world.

For our detainees, time ceased to exist. From a psychological perspective, this is critical as the brain – when striped of any means to measure time – actually compresses it. I recall one detainee who, six hours after arriving at my facility, was absolutely convinced he had been with us for three days.

Another protocol we developed to sow mistrust and further wear down detainees was to change at least one standard procedure on a biweekly basis. You see, when we finished questioning a detainee, we would often transfer him/her to the prison at Abu Ghraib. This compound essentially operated as a “catch and release” program. Prisoners were required to be released within six months of their arrival. This enabled Al-Qaeda to establish a “snitch line” within the stream of prisoners being steadily released.

In this manner, the terrorists sought to maintain an awareness of our latest interrogation procedures. They then shared this information with other terrorists in an effort to make their resistance (after capture) more successful. By training its members in our procedures and routines, Al-Qaeda became more effective in defeating my interrogators. However, the afore-mentioned biweekly changes negated Al-Qaeda efforts. For example, if we held a detainee for several weeks, he/she experienced several of our new procedures. The detainee then went to Abu Ghraib where he/she was debriefed by other Al-Qaeda members and their “new” information passed to a soon-to-be released snitch. This step could take days-weeks, possibly allowing us to introduce yet another new tactic. As a result, Al-Qaeda was suddenly playing catch-up.

This also opened the door to us applying more psychological pressure on detainees, as we could then estimate what U.S. tactics they had been taught based on their date-of-capture. This enabled us to confront the detainee and tell them we knew Al-Qaeda had trained him/her that we would do “x, y, and z.” We then lied to the detainee and told him/her we stopped using those tactics a long time ago. We would tell the detainee that Al-Qaeda taught them these old procedures because they were incompetent, grossly uninformed, or simply because they viewed their personnel as “disposable.” We then appealed directly to their self-interest, asking them why they should remain loyal to an organization that had so clearly betrayed them.

For the most part, interrogation techniques have changed little over the last millennium. That said, our ability to get valuable information from detainees far exceeded every other organization in Iraq. While many items factored into our success, the three key components were:

  • Our creative latitude;
  • The speed in which we could move from one tactic/procedure to another, and
  • Our willingness to take calculated risks.

As any fan of American football will tell you, the only thing that matters is the size of your “Play Book” and your ability to execute the plays.

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