What Al-Qaeda Taught Me About the Frailty of Loyalty – Redux Reply

Al-Qaeda in Iraq (Courtesy: Fox News)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This award-winning post was originally published on May 29, 2013.

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.

Spy Catcher Chris Simmons on Hartford’s Fox CT 1

Chris Simmons is an internationally known authority on espionage issues, especially Cuba’s intelligence services.

Simmons was the lead military official involved in the May 2003 expulsion of 14 Cuban spies serving under diplomatic cover, the third largest expulsion of diplomats in U.S. history. As a result of Simmons and other agents actions, Alberto Coll, a professor and former deputy assistant secretary of defense was arrested.

Simmons served in Grenada, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan and interrogated more than 732 terrorists and other “high-value individuals” throughout his career. He was part of the special operations unit “Task Force 6-26″ and spent a total of 28 years in government service.

For more information visit www.humanchess.co.

(Courtesy:  Fox CT)

Failing to Foresee the Inevitable: How & Why Al Qaeda Turned On Assad 1

By Chris Simmons

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” So thought Syrian President Bashar Assad when he allowed Al Qaeda (AQ) to create and sustain a “Rat Line” funneling a torrent of foreign fighters into Iraq. Now the stream has reversed course and AQ-trained and equipped fighters are flowing into Syria to fight with the Al Nusra Front. Benefitting greatly from the terrorist group’s extensive infrastructure in Iraq, its Syrian-based affiliate has swelled to 6000 fighters since its establishment in January 2012.Not surprisingly; Al Nusra seeks to replace Syria with a Sunni Islamic state.

For nine long years (2003-2011), Assad allowed AQ foot soldiers to fly into Damascus. There they entered an intricate network of safehouses whose staff smuggled them covertly into northeastern Iraq. Assad helped AQ kill Americans to undermine the US effort in Iraq. According to US media sources, no other leader in the Middle East did more to aid AQ operations in Iraq than President Assad. Yesterday The Washington Times cited retired US General John Keane as claiming even Syrian Intelligence was involved with directly helping AQ in its deadly mission.

Now his former “friends” have used their expertise to create the most powerful force within the diverse array of Syrian opposition groups. Combat seasoned, well-armed and disciplined, the Al Nusra Front has already proven itself capable of coordinated operations with other opposition entities. More importantly, AQ has the ability to make things much worse for Assad. US troops have left Iraq and Baghdad’s military does not threaten AQ the way American forces did. Additionally, AQ has increased the resources available for reassignment to Syria by recently freeing many of its captured combatants from Iraqi jails.

For unknown reasons, Assad did not anticipate AQ’s likely responses to a political opening occurring in Syria. In his dangerous game of “Human Chess,” he not only failed to understand his supposed ally, he also focused solely on his next move instead of his next several moves. President Assad never understood that while his self-interest and that of Al Qaeda’s did overlap on the sole issue of killing Americans, their overall interests could not have been more divergent. Their previous collaboration was merely a short-term marriage of convenience and as so often happens, the divorce has proven itself quite messy.

“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.

The Crazy Professor and “Machine Gun Hill” Reply

By Chris Simmons

Major Gunsberg was one of my History professors when I was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). The Major taught an infamous but highly desired, year-long course called The History of Warfare. Having served two tours in Vietnam as an Infantryman, he brought an edgy, philosophical, yet confrontational style of teaching to the classroom. It was pure theater and it kept us challenged and engaged.

Every day, Major Gunsberg tormented us with the same scenario:  You are leading an Infantry unit. You’ve just been ordered to take a hilltop so well fortified it is now called “Machine Gun Hill.” It’s a daylight attack. No artillery or air support is available. The hill offers no cover or concealment, so friendly casualties will be high. It cannot be bypassed – it must be captured. Pausing long enough for the words to sink in, he would then ask:  “So, how do you capture “Machine Gun Hill?”

Every possible answer we provided was wrong. Finally, on the last day of class, he told us the secret. We had been looking at the problem too narrowly. The only way to lead our men on a charge up “Machine Gun Hill” was to give them a cause in which they could believe. When committed to a cause, Gunsberg assured us, people freely make amazing – and sometimes life ending – sacrifices.

I was reminded of Major Gunsberg years later while running interrogation operations in Iraq. Many of the lower-level terrorists we’d captured began telling us they were fighting neither for Al Qaeda (AQ) or Islam. They explained to us that they did not hate Americans or members of the coalition forces. They fought because AQ had inspired them to fight for a cause – a cause worth dying for. It was a brilliantly cost-efficient and effective marketing strategy.

AQ recruiters had begun canvassing villages where poorly or uneducated residents had long ago abandoned all hope of a better tomorrow. Focusing on the young men and women, AQ wasted no time reinforcing the hopelessness of their lives and their village. The locals had little or no formal education, no schools, no hospitals or clinics, and in all likelihood, would die an early death from diseases that are treatable or preventable in many places of the world. To the young, impressionable men and women of the village, AQ’s grasp of the obvious captured their attention because the recruiters trafficked in that dangerous emotion called hope.

Their offer was surprisingly simple. If enough of them joined AQ, they would become the saviors of their village. They would do what none of their ancestors could accomplish – provide a better life for their family and the village. If enough volunteered, AQ pledged to drill a well and build a school, or at least provide a visiting teacher on a regular schedule. Likewise, an AQ medic would provide medical care for the volunteers and their families. Once again, if enough volunteered, medical care would be provided to the entire village. In some cases, a clinic was built. Recruits were told if they died serving with Al Qaeda, their families would be taken care of for the rest of their lives. By volunteering, the young men and women became immortal in the eyes of their families and friends. The message resonated and brought in a lot of “foot soldiers” to the cause.

AQ ensured they kept hope alive by fulfilling their promises to the villagers. These recruits fought us not because they believed in AQ, but simply because it provided a better life for their family while making them village heroes.

A cause to believe in – an inspirational albeit sometimes deadly thing indeed!

Suspicious? Use This 30-Second Ploy to Discover the Truth Reply

By Chris Simmons

When you suspect someone of wrongdoing, you can use a simple psychological ploy to force them to reveal what they’re hiding. Known as the similar scenario or the allusion power play, this technique uses a query to expose an individual’s unconscious attitudes and thoughts. According to Dr. David Lieberman, a noted expert in the field of human behavior, this protocol is the verbal equivalent of the inkblot test (also known as the Rorschach test).

In using this tactic, do not refer to the suspected misconduct, but tell a story about a third party engaged in identical behavior. Since the individual is not being accused, he/she will not be defensive. However, their response will clearly demonstrate whether they are being truthful.

To demonstrate, let’s use a frequent area of concern – a cheating spouse/significant other. Rather than accusing your loved one of having an affair, tell him/her that you think a colleague is having an affair. Do it rather casually when you are face-to-face so you can watch for body language “tells.” Deliver your story quickly to maximize the element of surprise. Do not “buildup” the event as this could give your partner time to prepare or make them apprehensive.

For example, while clearing the table after dinner, you could turn to your significant other and say:  “Hey Gorgeous, guess what happened at work? I think my boss is having an affair with that new 20-something he just hired.” Now watch the reaction. An innocent person will immediately ask questions and willingly discuss the topic with you. Conversely, a guilty party will be uncomfortable and seek to change the subject as a means of putting distance between themselves and the errant behavior.

I recall a time we used the allusion power play in Afghanistan. We had an intelligence source we began to suspect was working for the Taliban, or possibly al-Qaeda. Had we accused him, he would have denied it (and if he was a double agent, he would have employed countermeasures to mask his exploits). Instead, we told him we appeared to have a problem with Taliban penetration of our spy network and needed his help in creating more safeguards to protect our operations and personnel. Rather than reacting negatively and asking if he was a suspect, our source was proud we respected him so much that we had sought his assistance.

He created a list of detailed recommendations. Although he had displayed the “innocence response,” we were concerned that his espionage service might have played a role in his reaction. As a result, still not absolutely convinced of his loyalty, we thanked him for his efforts and told him we needed more options in our array of tactics, techniques, and procedures. He happily developed a diverse range of additional alternatives. Still not satisfied, we pressed him to develop even more sophisticated options. He complied – quite successfully. Now absolutely convinced of his loyalty, we “promoted” him and shortly thereafter (based on hard evidence) jailed several of his colleagues for having attempted to frame him.

I have never known the allusion ploy to fail, even when it appeared highly likely that an individual was guilty, as in the above scenario. It is, in essence, an instant psychological test. By not accusing an individual, you side-step their natural defensive behavior. Then, by telling a story or asking for their help in stopping the suspected behavior, you create an artificial trap – one that’s smart enough only to catch the guilty ones.

Death by Vanity Reply

Self-Interest Can Be Fatal

By Chris Simmons

On January 15th of 2005, U.S. military forces conducted a raid to capture Abu Omar al-Kurdi. Credible media outlets characterized al-Kurdi as a veteran of training camps in Afghanistan before arriving in Iraq in August 2003 to become Al Qaeda’s chief bomb-maker in-country. Since then, he had been responsible for making 75% of all car bombs in Iraq. At the time of his capture, he was orchestrating a wave of bomb attacks against Iraqi polling centers in an effort to derail the national elections on January 30th.

When captured, he did something we’d never before seen: he congratulated us and immediately identified himself as the master bomb-maker for Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Kurdi. Let’s step back and put this in context. Terrorists never identify themselves. They give their captors false names, they stall, they do anything they can to buy time so their colleagues can move to new locations. They do this out of self-interest.

In contrast, al-Kurdi did the exact opposite. Why? Because self-interest is emotional, not rational. It shapes our identity and values (see the June 8th posting, The Secret to Never Getting Blindsided/). Al-Kurdi wanted his 15 minutes of fame. He knew he was a dead man. He accurately assumed we would eventually turn him over to the Iraqi government, which would execute him. In his mind, the only thing that mattered was his legacy. He wanted the world to know he was a bombing mastermind. Convinced we were the path to his immortality, he would not stop talking. He acted on his self-interest, convincingly revealing his role in numerous unsolved bombings. In doing so, Abu Omar al-Kurdi satisfied his insatiable vanity, all the while knowing that his actions provided immeasurable help to allied forces and the Iraqi government.

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.