Don't Kill Bin Laden

Why we want to take Osama alive.

With the assassination of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri, a golden opportunity was squandered for gathering information. In chasing Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, another leading terrorist in Iraq, a special-operations task force followed a simple strategy-work up the chain. The ultimate question for each captive was, "Where is your boss?" Within this context, the task force's interrogations unit developed a plan for interrogating Zarqawi should he be captured alive. But what do you ask the head of a terrorist organization? Which questions come first? Do you ask about planned attacks or grand strategy?

This balance between tactical and strategic questioning is a debate interrogators have often. When faced with captured high-ranking leaders within terrorist organizations, interrogators weigh the tactical needs of stopping future terrorist attacks and saving lives against gaining strategic information that may have broad, sweeping consequences.

Most Americans would sympathize with Attorney General Eric Holder's recent Senate testimony in which he stated, "the reality is that we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden." Yet, many interrogators would disagree.

Bin Laden holds a tremendous amount of tactical and strategic information. Allowing him to take that information to the grave may seem politically convenient, but would be a tremendous loss of opportunity.

While many would quickly assume the Saudi would never give up information to American interrogators, the record speaks otherwise. Saddam Hussein talked to George Piro, his FBI interrogator. A high-ranking religious Imam within al-Qaeda sold out Zarqawi when he decided to abandon the cause and work with his interrogators.

The famous German Luftwaffe interrogator, Hanns Scharff, coined the truism: The higher the rank, the more they talk (Scharff never used coercive methods and was able to get information out of 90 percent of the Allied pilots he interrogated). In fact, it's the men highest on the totem pole that have the most at stake, and hence the most with which to negotiate, making it more likely that they will talk at least a little.

An effective interrogation plan for Bin Laden would focus on his ego and dedication to cause. On the surface those appear as strengths, but a good interrogator recognizes them as weaknesses. Saddam felt the need to justify his actions to his questioner. Bin Laden might give a sermon. A good interrogator would be all ears, cajoling, praising and subtly guiding the interrogation. A little correction to the rudder here and there as the boat travels downstream can alter its destination. That could make all the difference in stopping future terrorist attacks or understanding al-Qaeda's strategic relationships that allow it to recruit and arm new members, information ripe for the picking by a professional interrogator. We'd do well not to miss that boat.


Matthew Alexander is a former senior military interrogator and author of How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. He led an elite interrogation team in Iraq that found Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former al-Qaeda leader, who was killed in a subsequent air strike. He has conducted more than three hundred interrogations and supervised more than one thousand. He is currently a fellow at the Open Society Institute.