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In an Interrogation Cell: A Clash of Civilisations

In an Interrogation Cell: A Clash of Civilisations

In September 2001, shortly after President George W Bush announced his intention to invade Afghanistan to avenge the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, Osama bin Laden launched this challenge to his American foes: Do not fight us from 10,000 metres in the sky, come down and fight face to face!

At the time the leader of the Al Qaeda was certain that the Americans who had always fled after being hit by his &#34volunteers for martyrdom&#34 would never enter a land war in Afghanistan. After all when his men had launched their first attack on World Trade Center in New York in 1993, President Bill Clinton had reacted only by launching a few missiles against a pharmaceutical factory near Khartoum, in the Sudan, and empty buildings in south-eastern Afghanistan.

No, bin Laden, was sure, the Americans will never come down to fight. He was mistaken. And as soon as the Marines appeared around the Hindukush, the &#34Sheikh&#34 ran as fast as he could to hide in a cave. His example was followed not only by Al Qaeda &#34Mujahedin&#34 (Holy Warriors) but also by the Taliban who fled Kabul without a shot. The Taliban”s Emir al-Momeneen (Commander of the Faithful), Mullah Muhammad Omar, made a dash for it on his motorcycle.

The self-styled leaders who could send young gullible men to kill and to die in terrorist raids thousands of miles away were not ready to risk their own necks in a showdown with “the enemy.”

Nevertheless, the &#34face to face&#34 battles that bin Laden had promised in his better days did eventually take place in Afghanistan. They happened not on the battlefield but in interrogation booths set up by the Americans in Kandahar, in south-eastern Afghanistan, and Bagram north of Kabul. Over several months the Americans interrogated thousands of &#34Arab Afghans&#34 and their Taliban allies in what was a veritable clash of civilisations.

It is the story of those psychological battles that one of the US Army”s chief interrogators, using Chris Mackey as a nom de guerre, narrates in this fascinating and important book with the help of Los Angles Times reporter Greg Miller.

Interrogating war prisoners is as old as war. But it is only recently that it has been recognised as one of the most important, if not the most important, source of military intelligence. (In The Iliad, we see Odysseus cutting the throat of a Trojan prisoner even though he wants to betray his people to the Achaeans.)

The team of which Mackay was a member represented a miniature of the American &#34rainbow&#34. It included men and women of Latin American, Arab, African, Jewish, Russian and Japanese origins.

Almost all the interrogators were reservists called from civilian life to make use of their training in dealing with war prisoners. Many were linguists, speaking Russian, Spanish and German. (The number of those who knew Arabic, Persian, and Pashto, the languages most useful for the task in Afghanistan, was surprisingly limited.)

Soon it became clear that the training the interrogators had received was of little use in confronting what Mackey recognised as &#34a new type of enemy&#34. The interrogators had been trained during the Cold War to deal with Soviet bloc captives and acted in accordance with logical and psychological skills that proved ineffective in what was an alien universe.

The &#34Arab Afghans&#34 and the Taliban fighters had come fully prepared. They had been trained to deal with the Americans in ways designed to drive the interrogators up the wall and force them to use physical violence. For the Americans this posed a problem:&#34 How to walk the Geneva Conventions tightrope without falling off.&#34

Mackey admits that, on many occasions, the interrogators tripped but never fell to the point that happened at Abu-Ghraib, the notorious Baghdad prison.

The Islamist captives used the technique of &#34multi-layered lying&#34, with a number of well rehearsed lies hiding the one crucial piece of information that the prisoner was instructed never to reveal. The image that comes to mind is that of Russian &#34Matrushka&#34 dolls with the smallest doll representing the one piece of information for which the Islamist captive was prepared to paradise.

The book reveals a number of important facts.

The first is that a large number of &#34Afghan Arabs&#34 were, in fact, citizens of Western European states, notably Britain and France. Some had been born in Europe and never lived in a Muslim country, and yet were committed to the destruction of the West.

The second is the extent to which the Pakistani armed forces and intelligence services had been involved in recruiting, organising, arming, and even leading, the Taliban in their rapid conquest of Afghanistan.

Thirdly, Mackey shows that from the mid-1990s, Arab terrorism was the major source of employment for Afghan youths. Vast sums of money, from the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and &#34charities&#34 in the US and Europe, financed bin Laden”s mini-empire of death. Contrary to a widespread legend, bin Laden never spent any of his own money on “Jihad” preferring to invest it in a wide-range of lucrative projects, especially during his stay in the Sudan.

Finally, Mackey shows that the weakness shown by successive American administrations, not to mention the European reluctance to stand up to terrorists, encouraged Al Qaeda in its belief that it was on the way to conquering the world for its brand of Islam. An Al Qaeda guidebook for Jihadists, who might become war prisoners, described the Americans as &#34pussies&#34 who would run away at the first sight of blood.

Despite Mackey”s claim that none of the prisoners left the interrogations &#34unbroken&#34, the book shows that most Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners, who were later transferred to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, revealed little of significance. And this may well be the reason for the delay in their trial.

Without saying so in so many words Mackey shows that even

the best of interrogators have little chance of breaking an Al Qaeda terrorist with techniques that might have worked against Soviet war prisoners.

The Al Qaeda people understand only physical violence and humiliation, which are banned by the Geneva Conventions and a string of other accords against torture.

Here is Mackey”s conclusion: &#34Our experience in Afghanistan showed that the harsher the methods used, though they never contravened the {Geneva} Conventions let alone crossed into torture, the better the information we got and the sooner we got it.&#34

This book was written before revelations that the US is maintaining secret interrogation centres in a number of European and Arab countries. If those reports are true it would be interesting to know what techniques are used in those secret locations to make the alleged terrorists talk.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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