Martyrdom, Interrupted

March 8, 2010 Topic: Security Regions: Americas Tags: IslamismWar In AfghanistanIslam

Martyrdom, Interrupted

Mini Teaser: The former head interrogator in Iraq goes undercover in Indonesia to learn the secrets of their top-notch interrogation program. To win the battle against terrorism, violent extremists must be converted into antijihad advocates.

by Author(s): Matthew Alexander

Please click here to watch TNI editor Justine A. Rosenthal discuss U.S. interrogation strategy with Matthew Alexander.


 THE SEVEN-year manhunt came down to this. In the wee morning hours of a September dawn, Noordin Mohammed Top, the most wanted terrorist in Southeast Asia, huddled in a burning house in central Java along with three of his men. The fire started when a round shot by police in the initial standoff ignited the fuel tank of a motorcycle inside the courtyard of the house, forcing Top to seek refuge in the bathroom, where he decided to make his final stand. Top believed that dying during what he considered to be legitimate jihad would earn him a seat in heaven, and taking a few apostate policemen with him would ensure a bonus reward in the afterlife. The Indonesian police had come close to catching Top before, but he proved to be an elusive, and lethal, fugitive. Perhaps this would be their moment of glory.

Top's terrorist rap sheet was long. As the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Indonesian al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization bathed in Islamic extremism, he pulled off spectacular bombings of Western-frequented establishments: a Bali nightclub in 2002, the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2003, the Australian embassy in 2004, another in Bali in 2005, and, most recently, that same JW Marriott Hotel and Jakarta's Ritz-Carlton this past July. Top was a master recruiter, bomb maker, evader and leader; an unprecedented threat with connections to organizations in Pakistan and the Middle East.

The police that surrounded the remote, smoldering house were not your run-of-the-mill beat cops. They were members of Detachment 88 (so called in honor of the eighty-eight Australians killed in the first Bali bombing). This elite Indonesian counterterrorism unit, founded in 2002, is funded, trained and equipped by the United States government. In its infancy, Detachment 88 quickly built a reputation for success, capturing or killing JI leaders like Azahari Husin and Abu Dujana. Yet Top remained at-large, marrying and fathering children while on the run.

Behind the raid was a man who had spent more time hunting terrorists than Top had spent playing one. Smooth-faced and soft-mannered, Colonel Tito Karnavian, the chief of intelligence for Detachment 88, gave directions to his policemen. Less than twenty-four hours earlier he had supervised the interrogations of Top's associate, Rohmat Puji Prabowo, whom the police had arrested at a market in Solo. After only a few short hours, Prabowo told his interrogators the location of a house in Kepuhsari, a village in Java, where they could find Top. What made Prabowo talk? A minor revolution in interrogations and counterinsurgency strategy.

As America struggles to find its footing in the wake of new terrorist threats against the homeland, a surge in Afghanistan and burgeoning war fronts in Africa, there is much to be learned from those interrogators we have funded-but have yet to emulate-in Indonesia. We will not stop "detaining" our enemies. The question is whether we can turn away from our newfound tradition of torture to one of deradicalization.


COLONAL KARNAVIAN is the armed academic; a career policeman with a graduate degree in police studies from Exeter University and a PhD in strategic studies, he rapidly rolls his Rs as he explains his innovative interrogation techniques. Karnavian starts with relationship-building approaches to establish trust with a detainee, and then takes this time-tested method a step further. He converts detainees to his way of thinking-a modernist interpretation of Islam in which jihad is a nonviolent struggle against evil within oneself. Karnavian routinely turns former enemies into allies, enlisting reformed terrorists as police assets. The audacity of his plan is a page out of Clausewitz.

According to Karnavian, interrogators must adapt themselves to the detainee's subculture, adopting his manner of speech, habit and ritual. Karnavian and his elite team of interrogators, numbering fewer than a dozen hand-selected men, pray with their prisoners, provide them halal food and refrain from criticism. Instead, they analyze the detainee's motives for having joined JI (spiritual, emotional or material), the role the prisoner plays in the organization (Hardcore, Operative, Supporter or Sympathizer), and the inmate's personal problems, whether they be economic difficulties or sexual frustrations. Only after this detailed analysis do they get down to brass tacks.

Detachment 88 offers significant incentives to captured terrorists in exchange for cooperation, providing financial support to the families of detainees for as long as they remain in captivity. They also invite the wives of detainees to visit their husbands, sometimes securing hotel rooms for the couples where they can spend intimate nights together. For reformed bachelors serving long prison sentences, they've arranged marriages and flown in family members for the ceremonies. Some former terrorists are now on the police payroll and act as advisers, helping Detachment 88 bring in their former brothers-in-arms and, after their capture, these same men help with the interrogations.

The goal of the interrogators is not intelligence information that can prevent future terrorist attacks, but the conversion of the extremists into advocates against violent jihad. Interrogators have, de facto, become the primary facilitators of rehabilitation. In this manner, Karnavian has turned a tactical weapon into strategic leverage, and the results speak for themselves.

Following the implementation of Karnavian's interrogation strategy, Indonesia did not have a terrorist bombing for almost the entire three years between 2006 and 2009, no doubt chalked up to the cooperation of numerous imprisoned extremists. Two former senior JI members captured by Detachment 88 have since written books admitting their erroneous violent beliefs. One book was a national best seller in Indonesia. In comparison, U.S. interrogation strategy, although improved since the revelations of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib in 2005, is in the Stone Age.


THIS IS not to say the American military has never known the wily ways to turn an enemy into an accomplice. Adapting to the detainee's subculture is not new-Americans and Germans did this successfully in World War II. In fact, Karnavian's initial approach mirrors the technique of Major Sherwood Moran in the Pacific theater. Moran, who spent forty years as a missionary in Japan before the war, became arguably the most famous U.S. interrogator and wrote "Suggestions for Japanese Interpreters Based on Work in the Field," firsthand advice that found its way into the current Army Field Manual. Moran espoused befriending detainees to convince them to cooperate, going so far as to write that an interrogator ". . . should be a real wooer!"

But clearly the United States has lost its way. One need look no further than the spare, end-of-the-world office spaces across the globe where American interrogators work to witness the neglect of the profession. In Iraq, our interrogation rooms were indeed nothing more than plywood walls and cheap plastic chairs that often folded under the detainee's weight. Imagine trying to convince a prisoner that you're someone they want to work with when you can't even afford a decent place to sit. I spent time at three separate detainee facilities in Iraq, and they were all dismal.

And even though the following is written under the title "Incentive Approach" in the U.S. Army Field Manual 2-22.3 governing human intelligence:

The incentive approach is trading something that the source wants for information. The thing that you give up may be a material reward, an emotional reward, or the removal of a real or perceived negative stimulus. The exchange of the incentive may be blatant or subtle. On one extreme, the exchange may be a formal cash payment for information during some contact operations while on the other extreme it may be as subtle as offering the source a cigarette.

American military interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan have, at best, been able to offer an extra pillow, blanket or meal. There is simply no systematic approach to incentive-based rehabilitation. The U.S. Army has spent billions of dollars to outfit the soldiers who conduct dangerous capture-or-kill missions, but miniscule resources on the intelligence professionals that uncover the targets.

Worse still, according to two current interrogations instructors, the U.S. Army's testing standards for admission into the interrogations career field were recently lowered to increase the number of eligible enlistees. At a time when interrogations remain one of the most valuable tools in preventing future terrorist attacks, this can be seen as nothing other than counterproductive. The United States does not need more interrogators, it needs better ones. Above all, America needs to employ the time-tested techniques that work.


IN THE case of Prabowo, the terrorist that Detachment 88 captured the night before the raid on Top's house, the interrogators started with the now clearly tried-and-true relationship-building approach. He confessed to his captors that his chief concern was his family. Once the interrogators understood Prabowo's worries, they offered to take care of his loved ones financially for the entire duration of his confinement. But according to Karnavian, the interrogators also convinced Prabowo to cooperate using an age-old method that borrows a page from criminal investigations. They laid out all the evidence they had against the JI supporter, collected over several days of surveillance, and convinced him that they already knew everything-resistance was futile.

Image: Pullquote: The goal of the interrogators is not preventing the next terrorist attack, but the conversion of extremists into advocates against violent jihad.Essay Types: Essay