The Eclectic

Time moves in one direction, memory in another. – William Gibson

Book Review: How to Break a Terrorist

Posted by David Leslie on January 7, 2009

4 out of 5 stars

What worked:

  • Great examples of how interrogation approaches work
  • Quick read
  • Gets you involved in the fate of the subjects
  • the Randy-isms

What didn’t work:

  • Too short
  • Only discussed the hunt for al-Zaraqwi from the point of view of his unit

2 years ago I was having breakfast with some friends of my uncle’s before a Christmas tree hunt. On the TV a story popped on discussing waterboarding and its use in interrogations. One of the fellas at the table popped off that waterboarding isn’t torture and was the best way to “get them to talk”.

When I tried to interject that waterboarding was great for scaring the crap out of someone but it does little to get real information, I got what I call the “Jack Bauer argument”. You know, <play some really tense music please and read this with a gravely voice of Don LaFontaine> you have a bomber in custody who knows where a nuclear bomb is planted. There is only one way to get him to talk before it is too late <end with a close up of Jack who has the GUTS to do what must be done>.

How to break a Terrorist by Matthew Alexander with John R. Bruning details Alexander’s role in using the ‘new school’ of interrogations techniques based on rapport, respect of culture and approaches that play on the subject’s hope that proved invaluable in the hunt for al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The book is a quick read (finished in about 2 nights) and discusses in very understandable prose how these techniques and approaches arose from ones used in criminal investigations and car sales (ever have a sales person go ‘get their boss’ before you leave? This is an approach), how rapport is built using doppelgangers regardless of what the subject has done, and the frustrations with those who still believe that harsh interrogations are the way to go.

It also talks about the dilemma faced when you have built rapport with the subject and have offered them hope as a way to get them to cooperate but know that in reality the subject’s crimes has sealed their fate.

Yet even with this book detailing how more information was pulled out of a subject in 6 hours using the new techniques than was extracted in a month of the old techniques of fear and control, you still get the believers of the Jack Bauer arguments like Sean Hannity shooting their mouth’s off in this interview with Alexander. If it wasn’t for Ollie North blabbering about al Zarqawi at the opening of the interview, I would have loved to seen Alexander look at Hannity and say “I broke a senior Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader in the 6 hours using rapport! You still thing torturing someone who is expecting it is going to get information faster than that?” when Hannity cut him off for time at the end.

Sad that a comedy show did a better interview with him than a news show.

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4 Responses to “Book Review: How to Break a Terrorist”

  1. Ibrahim said

    The title of the book is misleading. A terrorist is someone who is doing something wrong. A freedom fighter is different. The Iraqis didn’t go to America to torture the Americans and perform water boarding on them. The book forgot to give details of violations of human rights that America advocates all over the world (Muslims are exempted). The whole world is in turmoil because of western interests that have to be fulfilled at any cost aided by co-operation from pro-western corrupt governments mainly in the middle east. Reading the book from a non American point of view tells the reader that it is a punch of lies.

    • Thanks for the comment. While the Iraqis didn’t ask for this fight, I can see how Alexander would still use the term terrorist.

      The team that Alexander was assigned was tasked with the gathering of intel on a non-Iraqi Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of Jordan who had conducted terrorist acts outside of Iraq.

      Also Alexander does note repeatedly that he is against the use for any reason of torture.

  2. Jacob said

    Yes, I agree. Obviously many people in Iraq resorted to violence in the wake of what I think I can accurately describe as an American prompted catastrophe. Many of whom did not embrace terrorist tactics, and many of whom, as Alexander points out, fought to protect themselves or out of economic necessity.

    I don’t think Alexander meant to infer that everyone fighting in Iraq is a terrorist, and on the contrary he makes that very point many times throughout the book to the reader and his colleagues. However, he does focus primarily in his book on the interrogations of actual terrorists and suspected terrorists.

    He clearly sympathizes to some degree with the “freedom fighters” who felt they had to act to counter the brutal Shia attacks, and he never fails to point out that the invasion of Iraq was devastatingly mismanaged by the US.

    • Thanks for the comment Jacob. I think Alexander was trying to push the “24” myth (That with a bomb moments away from going off, you need to use anything you can to get someone to talk.) out of people’s heads. Yet even on his book tour some hosts tried to use the “24” myth to justify having options like water boarding on the table.

      L. Paul Bremer’s call to disband the Iraqi Army will be one debated for years within military history circles. Throw a bunch of guys with guns out of a job, throw in hundreds of years of religious strife and then mix with an army you see as an occupation force and you have post war Iraq.

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