Talking To Terrorists: One Interrogator's Story Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym) led the interrogation team that gathered the intelligence necessary to capture terrorist al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He says it was his team's subtle techniques — not torture or intimidation — that made them so successful.
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Talking To Terrorists: One Interrogator's Story

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Talking To Terrorists: One Interrogator's Story

Talking To Terrorists: One Interrogator's Story

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This is Talk of the Nation. I am Neal Conan in Washington. In the rush for intelligence after the attacks on 9/11, many American interrogators used fear and control, confrontation and domination to try to get crucial information from suspects in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. In some cases, even more extreme measures were authorized techniques like water boarding, which many regard as torture. Their effectiveness and legality remain controversial and the publication of pictures of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib proved disastrous. Afterwards, a new crop of interrogators tried a new approach: negotiation, respect, psychological manipulation. The story of how they worked, how they succeeded and how some in the U.S. military resisted them is the subject of a new book "How To Break A Terrorist," the U.S. interrogators who used brains not brutality to take down the deadliest man in Iraq. The co-author is an interrogator who writes under the pseudonym Matt Alexander.

If you have questions about interrogations, what works? What doesn't? If you've been an interrogator give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website, go to and click on Talk of the Nation. Later in the hour, NPR's ombudsman will join us to talk about corporate underwriting and complaints about a paid announcement for the Department of Homeland Security. But first, how to break a terrorist? Matthew Alexander, who writes under that pseudonym because of security concerns. We should also mention he has got a co-author John Bruning. Matthew Alexander is with us here in Studio 3A, nice to have you on the program.

Mr. MATTHEW ALEXANDER (Co-Author, "How To Break A Terrorist"): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And we should also identify the deadliest man in Iraq from your book title that's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The man who blew up the golden mosque in Samarra and fermented the worst of the violence between Sunnis and Shiites. You got there, what, about a month after that attack?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yes. I arrived in Iraq in a March of 2006. Violence was at its peak. Zarqawi was being fairly successful in his quest to start a civil war between Sunni and Shiite in Iraq. And I call Zarqawi in the book, the Preacher of Hate. This was man who was very extreme in his ideals. Early on in his life, he had been a criminal, you know, he had spent time in a Jordanian prison for sexual assault, among other crimes. And then he converted to Islam, an extreme brand of Islam while in prison. I went to Afghanistan, and he eventually ended up in Iraq prior to our invasion.

CONAN: And you should not be described or confused in any way with somebody who is a, well, you know, was there in penny loafers.

Mr. ALEXANDER: No, and you know, Zarqawi was ultimately, he was not an intellectual. In fact, he was illiterate for most of his life. Unlike a lot of other al-Qaeda leaders, he had not memorized large portions of the Quran until very late in life, and he espoused a version of Islam that was very extreme. In fact, in the book, I tell stories about how the Sunni Iraqis that we interrogated often were very easy to bring back out of that because they didn't espouse in it. They even saw this as very radical.

CONAN: And indeed, later on we saw messages from Ayman al-Zawahri, number two in al-Qaeda saying, you got to stop killing quite so many Shiites here and Muslim civilians. And indeed one of the things that we ran into in terms of resistance from other people that when you got to Baghdad there's this assumption that all of these dissidents that were being picked up, all these detainees were hardcore al-Qaeda who had cut off all relations from their families and you know, didn't want have any truck with anybody.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah, I think this was false perception we made about Sunni Iraqis. They were not extremists.

CONAN: For the most part.

Mr. ALEXANDER: For the most part. There were some, there were some, no doubt. But in the book, you know, I talk about the first story I talk about is man named Abu Ali. And Abu Ali the first thing he said to me is, if I had a knife I would cut your throat. Abu Ali was a Sunni imam, and he had been forced to flee his home, drop his business and because of Shiite militias that had threatened him and killed one of his friends. But he joined al-Qaeda not because he believed in the ideology. He joined out of a need for protection, and he said to me, ultimately, something that stuck with me, which is that, you Americans forced us to do this. You gave us no choice. You didn't protect us from the Shiite militias, and al-Qaeda could.

CONAN: And they were the force that did protect them, did something to protect them, and they found themselves caught up in this. Others even caught up in it simply for the money.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah. There's - I tell another story about a man named Abu Gamal, who we caught in a house full of suicide bombers, and through some very innovative ways of interrogating and using new methods of interrogation that relied on knowledge of Arab culture, I was able to convince him to sell out his cause. But this is a man who joined al-Qaeda because he had a second wife he couldn't afford. She had a shopping habit. We used to say she loved the blue jeans and bling. And he ultimately had joined al-Qaeda because he needed to pay bills. His business wasn't doing well, and his wife was spending a lot. And when I realized what motivated him - what truly motivated him was his loss of respect for himself. And I offered him a way to get that back, and then he became cooperative.

CONAN: And that way - and this is not to suggest that you come from a criminal investigation background and one of the tricks you used, ruses if you will, was to print a fake divorce decree that he could then take to, say, I divorce my second wife. I can thereby have my self-respect, and therefore, I will give you some information in return for this because you have been so kind to me.

Mr. ALEXANDER: That's correct. And you know, but the important part of this, it's not the ruse, you know, there is a infinite number of ruses and trickery that we can use. In the criminal investigative world, we have, you know, whole lists of these things that we use. The important part is the way you adapt that to the culture of the person that you are interrogating. That same ruse would not have work most likely on an American.

CONAN: And there's another case, a man named Abu Ali, which means Father of Ali, who denied he had a son.

Mr. ALEXANDER: That's correct and I was very puzzled by this, you know? You don't often find somebody - some Iraqis take on names of Abu without being a father, but it just didn't strike - it didn't hit right with me, and it turns out we are right. His friend later told us that he did have a son name Ali, and he had been hiding that from me. And then a I tell a story in the interrogation, the last interrogation I did with Abu Ali in which I said to him, you know, you need to think about the future of Iraq and the future of your son. And you know, you can't live in the past.

Us Americans, we've made mistakes here, no doubt. We've put you in a tough situation, but we're willing to work with you now. I am extending a hand to you of friendship for the future of Iraqis, for Sunnis and Americans to work together. And that appealed to him and ultimately, he gave us a target location, a house where we captured the man who delivered Zarqawi.

CONAN: Later delivered Zarqawi the so-called Group of Five. These were people who are very puzzling and then you spend much of the book parsing (unintelligible), then tracked from them up the chain of command to Zarqawi and eventually to his demise. The final ruse, the final piece of trickery was to convince one of his lieutenants, as it turned out, a guy you already held that in fact, you were there as a recruiter to, you know, build up the Sunnis in Iraq to fight eventually, against Iran, and he could help you with this and while there were conspiracies underway, and you can't trust everybody you can only trust me but we'll find out what went on here.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Abu Khader(ph) was an interesting character. This is the man who ultimately gave us the information that led to Zarqawi. I describe him as the Hannibal Lecter of al-Qaeda. He was manipulative. He is extremely intellectual, very smart. He was very thoughtful, articulate and had hid for a couple of weeks, for three weeks, he had foiled our interrogators who had tried to control him. And he was on his way to be shipped out to another prison, and it came down to a matter of six hours that I had with him to try and convince him to sell out his cause. In that six hours, I spent the first five and a half hours just getting to know him, stroking his ego, figuring out how to get this guy to sell out his cause. And ultimately, in the last 30 minutes, I was able to do that with a little bit of a gamble, a little bit of a risk, and a lot of knowledge about Iraqi and Arab culture.

CONAN: And part of the risk was, in fact, that your superiors would find out what was going on. You were somewhat off the reservation here, and in fact, your career was at risk because there was great resistance to some of these ideas. Some of the people there in Baghdad with you at the time, including some of those who were your bosses, well, didn't want you to try these techniques even when they have proved successful.

Mr. ALEXANDER: That's correct. And you know, I think in the past the harsh methods had had some success at some point. And so, they were very reluctant to abandon them and to see that there was better ways to do this. And to their defense, I was fairly new to Iraq. You know, I had only been there a couple months when all this was going on. And so I think it took some time for me to earn their trust. But ultimately, they did. I did earn their trust because of the successes we had. But in the case of Abu Khader, I had to make a decision, and I think it was a leadership decision about career first, mission first. And I chose to put the mission first. I believed in my gut that Abu Khader could lead us to Zarqawi.

CONAN: And he eventually did. We're talking with a man who calls himself Matthew Alexander for obvious reasons of security. He's written a new book "How to Break a Terrorist." If you'd like to talk with him about what works and what doesn't in interrogations, if you've been an interrogator, give us a call 800-989-8255. Email us, And why don't we begin with Vincent. And Vincent calling us from I-95, a major highway along the East Coast.

VINCENT (Caller): Yes. Hello, Mr. Conan. Thanks for taking my call, and I'm a long -time listener. I had a question for Mr. Alexander. I'm an Iraq war veteran myself. And I was told that among the large amounts of detainee population that currently exist as a result of the Abu Ghraib incident, we can't really have any interrogations amongst a large majority of them. And I was wondering what Mr. Alexander feels, if that's been sort of going overboard in our response to Abu Ghraib, and how he feels that might affect the outcome of the Iraq war and the possible security implications there. And thanks for taking my call. I'll take my answer off of the air.

CONAN: All right. Drive carefully, Vincent.

Mr. ALEXANDER: That's a good question. I think every person that we capture has some type of intelligence value if they were involved in the insurgency. The question is how do you know that? I tell the story in the book of one young man who was captured with some paraphernalia from videos that were on CDs, and we eventually found out that this was the guy who was the al-Qaeda web developer. He took what we called chop-chop videos - the videos of beheadings and of suicide bombings and put them onto video and then created those as propaganda for al-Qaeda. And this guy, if we had not suspected that he could have been somebody more important, just said well, he's just a guy with some bad CDs or some propaganda, we would have never known that. So, to answer your question, yes. Everybody that we detain that we suspect, we should interrogate to find out if they have intelligence value.

CONAN: We're talking with former interrogator in Iraq who calls himself Matthew Alexander about his new book "How to Break a Terrorist." The U.S. interrogator said use brains not brutality to take down the deadliest man on Iraq. 800-989-8255. If you'd like to join us, email us at Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. They call themselves gators, the military interrogators trained to elicit information from suspects in Iraq. Matt Alexander, a pseudonym, was flown to Iraq back in 2006 as part of a group of interrogators that joined an elite team charged to find Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Matthew Alexander is talking with us today in Studio 3A. His book is called "How to Break a Terrorist."

If you'd like to read the first chapter about his first days in Iraq, head over to our website at If you have a question about interrogations, what works and what doesn't? If you've been an interrogator, 800-989-8255; email, You can also join the conversation on our website, Just click on Talk of the Nation. And let's go now to Conrad. Conrad with us from St. Augustine in Florida.

CONRAD (Caller): Hi. I'm just calling. I was an interrogator myself in the first gulf war. But I'm wondering whether this book that says "How to Break a Terrorist" won't compromise our future efforts by having al-Qaeda come up with a book for themselves, how to withstand future interrogations?

CONAN: You obviously, Matthew Alexander, ran into terrorists have been trained how to defy interrogations, the standard of the people, the kind that the people before you were using, and I guess Conrad's got a good question.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Right, and you know the Department of Defense made the decision years ago to unclassify the field manual of interrogations that lists the techniques that are legal. But my background is criminal investigations. In the criminal investigative world, the techniques are unclassified. You can turn on the TV any night, and you can see detectives working on any number of TV shows and see them using techniques. Yet somehow, even though criminals are exposed to the techniques and learn them, the detectives are still successful day in and day out.

CONAN: Good cop, bad cop still works.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Correct. And the reason why is because they still need something, the person sitting inside of the room still needs something, and the interrogator still needs something. So there has to be a negotiation of compromise whether or not they know what technique you're using or not. Really though, it's up to the interrogator to come up with - to be innovative and to use the techniques in new ways. And that's some of the things I talked about in my book is how my team and I used methods that were well known by al-Qaeda, but we put little twists on them. And we made them better and improved them and came up with new ways of interrogating. So I make the analogy of a football game. Both sides know that there's rules. Both sides know that there are certain types of plays you can run. But it doesn't mean one side has an advantage and can win. It's up to the ability and the intellect of the other side.

CONAN: Conrad, does that fit with your experience?

CONRAD: Well, yeah. I mean you play to somebody's - like you said you played to somebody's needs. And again, I did a lot of education and background in the Middle Eastern studies. So, you know that helps certainly. But again, I'm just - you know, of course I haven't read the book. I didn't even know it existed. I just listen to NPR. You know you can write a book on how to make a dirty bomb and stuff (unintelligible) on the internet. You can use that, but I don't think it's really - or probably the less that's out there, probably the better.

CONAN: All right, Conrad. Thanks very much. I appreciate it.

CONRAD: No problem.

CONAN: Lets' see if we can go now to - this is Bill. Bill on the line with us from Chicago in Illinois.

BILL (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon. Fascinating topic. I wanted to ask Mr. Alexander what sort of strategies or defensive measures do you use to prevent your captive from getting too far inside your head and turn the interrogation against you, because I remember hearing another NPR story with a former military interrogator who after an interrogation that got deeply personal left military intelligence altogether because he could no longer delineate the terrorist from himself. And I'll take my comments off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Bill. Thank you.

Mr. ALEXANDER: It's a great question. I advocate that one of the best techniques was not to fight that, to let the detainee believe that he was converting you. You know within Islam, if you convert an infidel to Islam, that's a way to heaven and many Muslims believe this. So, a lot of my detainees were very surprised that they'll find out that I had read the Koran. And I often brought a copy of the Koran, a personal copy of the Koran, into the interrogation booth and show them passages that I was interested in or discussed it with them. And then they'd take that interest, and they'd try to convert me to Islam and I'd play along.

The interrogation is not about trying to win, necessarily. It's about trying to convince the other person to be cooperative. And so, I actually think it's a great strategy to allow them to try to convert you or try to convince you or try to get inside of your head. As the interrogator, it's incumbent upon you though, to always keep the end goal in mind.

CONAN: Here's an email from Chuck in Portland. It's been made very clear that many of these interrogations violated international law and constitute war crimes. Warrants are being issued worldwide for arrest of these American interrogators. The new administration has promised to prosecute many of these cases. Does your guest have any thoughts regarding the war crimes he has committed? That's Chuck's words, not mine. And whether or not he will go to prison for committing them.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah. I never broke the rules of an interrogation while I was in Iraq, and I would not allow any of my team members to break the rules. I know...

CONAN: The rules are set out in the Army Field Manuals.

Mr. ALEXANDER: That's correct, and as set out in Geneva Conventions. All interrogators are trained on Geneva Convention before we arrive.

CONAN: Did other people that you saw, did those people in Baghdad abide by those rules?

Mr. ALEXANDER: You know I've chosen not to focus on that subject. I did see breaking of the rules, and I did report those. But that's not the focus of my book or of what I'm saying because I'm a military officer ultimately, and my job isn't to point out the broken wheel, it's to fix it. And enough has been written about abuse and torture and that they don't work and what we've suffered because of their use. I think we need to focus now on the way forward and that's why I write my book and tell stories about how new interrogation methods are more effective and how we need to change the system.

CONAN: You identify no other interrogators or indeed anybody else in the military by name and rank with one exception, and that was General Casey who was then the ground commander in Iraq and he - at one point at a meeting you got up and said wait a minute. Our perception of these Sunnis is incorrect. Maybe some of them are people who are opposed to al-Qaeda in Iraq. They just had no choice but to go to them. If we give them an alternative, they may come over to our side. And you say he blew you off. And indeed, you've written that General Petraeus a year afterwards used some of those same techniques in the Anbar Awakening.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Neal, I don't know what was going through General Casey's mind. To my reply he said humph, which I'm not sure how to interpret that or what that meant. I don't agree with you or noted and maybe I'll take some action on it. But I do know that we had no policy to work together with Sunnis while I was in Iraq. It was people were actually - the attitude toward Sunnis was very negative, and it took General Petraeus - and people that worked before General Petraeus, some Marines in Ramadi, had actually first started this process of reaching out to Sunnis and saying we can work together even if they've committed crimes against other Iraqis or against Americans. And that process facilitated the Anbar Awakening which dramatically dropped violence in Iraq.

CONAN: Let's get Ed on the line. Ed with us from the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

ED (Caller): Yes. I'm from a different era with different training, but my question is this. In my situation, we were well trained in the culture. We were well trained in the language. We, basically, when we had someone we needed to interrogate, we did not have stringent time constraints. Given those factors, if you are under tremendous time constraints, does that alter significantly the amount of force that may be required to break a recalcitrant?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, let's take a look at that. There's two ways to look at this. There is a morality issue on torture, and there is a pragmatic issue. And the pragmatic issue can be broken down into short term and long term. Let's say that you have a guy who could give you information and the only way you're going to get that is by torturing him. And let's say you decide to torture. You get that information, and you stop a terrorist attack. Now, this is a situation that we were in, in every interrogation in Iraq. We were trying to stop suicide bombings.

Some of the people that we faced off with in the interrogation booth had literally been caught with suicide bombers, some had been caught right after the suicide bombers had walked out the door, and we'd missed them. And so, we were in the ticking time bomb scenario everyday in Iraq. But for the short term, we knew that if we tortured, yeah we might stop one bomber, but now al-Qaeda is going to use that against us to recruit fighters, and now down the road a year or two years from now we're going to have to stop another 10, 20, 30 40, 50 terrorists.

So, it's counter-productive in the long run towards winning the war to use torture. Now let's go over to the morality argument. Torture for me is simply un-American, it's against American principles, it's against what we stand for. George Washington forbade his troops from torturing prisoners of war, Abraham Lincoln forbade his troops from torturing prisoners of war, and there's a reason for that because they were abiding by the principles upon which this country was founded on.

ED: You mistake two things here. One, you were dealing with tactical assets as opposed to strategic assets, and I think there's a difference here, you were dealing - yes you were under time constraints, but these were relatively low-level people, but when we're talking about the strategic folks, some of the sheiks and things, I think you have a different situation there.

CONAN: Well, I think some of the people is writing about - we're more than tactical if you're thinking about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as strategic, the guy running al-Qaeda in Iraq at one point the most wanted man next to Osama bin Laden in the world.

Mr. ALEXANDER: And let me address that. That the people that we had in Iraq in my prison were the highest ranking members of al-Qaeda in Iraq. They were almost all of them were strategic and had strategic information and in fact, the person that ultimately gave us Zarqawi, you know, there are some information I don't write about in the book because I believe it should stay classified about strategic information that we received, but the torture argument it holds the same whether you're talking about strategic or tactical information because torture recruits for al-Qaeda which hurts our effort in the long run, and secondly, I don't care if it's tactical, operational, or strategic information that you need, it's still immoral, and it's against American principles.

ED: Thank you.

CONAN: Ed, thanks very much for the phone call I appreciate it. We're talking with a man who calls himself Matthew Alexander for security reasons he writes under a pseudonym along with John Bruning. They're co-authors of a new book called "How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators who use brains and not brutality to take down the deadliest man in Iraq. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation coming to you from NPR News. And it's interesting to me you write, what makes a good interrogator? Well, interrogation you say is like acting and as you're feeling somebody out, you're deciding which persona to adopt?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah, I called the doppelganger. You have to be able to transform yourself in each interrogation. The worst interrogators I had were people who could only play one role, and whether that role was sympathetic or whether it was, you know, being the hard ass. They were very limited in their usefulness. The best interrogators I had could be anybody. Bobby, the interrogator that starts with me in the beginning was extremely versatile. One day he could be your best friend, and the next day he could be a real hard ass. He was almost like a one-man good cop/bad cop. So, yeah.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line this is Bill. Bill is calling us from (unintelligible) in Germany.

BILL (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call. I have a question for Mr. Alexander. And that is when you were making assurances to Sunnis that you were interrogating, did you have the feeling that those assurances will going to get backed up from policymakers in Iraq or back in Washington? I sometimes when reading little bit into American history whether it be in Vietnam or Cuba or other places had the feeling that sometimes assurances are made that Washington then does not back up on. I would like to hear your answer to that question.


Mr. ALEXANDER: I wished that I could have backed up every promise that I made when I was interrogating people, especially in the case of Abu Khader, the person who gave us Zarqawi, here was a man who could have played a role in the future of Iraq in terms of a friendship with us even though he had hated us at one point and participated in attacks against us. But as an interrogator you can make promises that you can't keep. That's perfectly within the rules.

The reason it's harmful is if that you don't keep the promise and someone else has to interrogate them down the road, they're not going to have faith in them because they would have been lied to once. But also remember that there are some ways to keep promises. For instance, when people do cooperate with us and they later go before a panel of judges for sentencing, the panel of judges certainly taken to account whether or not somebody has been cooperative and will give the people more leniency who are.

CONAN: Bill?

BILL: Yeah, I'm there. OK, well thank you very much for your answer.

CONAN: OK, thanks for the phone call.

BILL: Yup, bye-bye.

CONAN: And here's an email from Mathew in Salt Lake City. I've often heard that the small-scale cells that terrorist used to operate are prohibited as when captured they know little or nothing about wider operations of the cause they fight for to what extent is that true? How does one manage limited information coming from interrogations in order to make it practical?

Mr. ALEXANDER: That's a great question. Serious challenge in interrogations is when you have compartmentalized information on the part of the enemy. Ultimately, as the interrogator, you try to get every piece of information you can out of the detainee and then you pass that to analysts. The analysts put the pieces of the puzzle together, and we have superb analysts working for us in United States military and in our government, and the work that they do is just crucial to be able to putting these pieces together.

So, as an interrogator, you just get everything you can and you pass it out to the analysts and let them put the pieces of the puzzle together, but you know, the other part of this is that you never know what somebody is hiding and you know, I called the book " How to Break a Terrorist", but break is a term that we use as interrogators to just mean that you get a little piece of something. It's like cracking an egg. And usually, we will use it to refer to the first time that you get somebody to cooperate because that's the most important.

CONAN: Finally, we just have as minute with you left, but do you feel that the lessons that you learned in Iraq and these new methods of interrogation, do you think that these have been adopted? That these are the techniques being used today?

Mr. ALEXANDER: There are interrogators who are still using these techniques today. I passed on my thoughts before I left to how we could better train our interrogators. I put out a list of techniques that are used in the criminal world that we should be using, but I think, you know, it would be great if the next administration would put together a team of experienced criminal investigators to teach our intelligence interrogators some of those techniques.

CONAN: Thank you for being with us, we appreciate you coming in today.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

CONAN: Again, the gentleman calls himself Matthew Alexander writing under a pseudonym along with co-author John Bruning. The book is called "How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Use Brains Not Brutality To Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq," and he joined us here in Studio 3A. Coming up, NPR's ombudsman Alicia Shepherd joins us to talk about NPR's funding credits and complains about how they may or may not influence programming. That's next, stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of Nation from NPR News.

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