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.

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