Military Interrogator Matthew Alexander On Noncoercive Interrogation Techniques Matthew Alexander, a pseudonym for the author, was a military interrogator in Iraq who rejected previously used harsh techniques. He writes about how his team hunted down two key al-Qaida operatives in Kill or Capture.

One Man Says No To Harsh Interrogation Techniques

One Man Says No To Harsh Interrogation Techniques

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Matthew Alexander, a pseudonym for the author, is pictured with another interrogator who was part of the task force looking for Zafar. Courtesy of St. Martin's Press hide caption

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Courtesy of St. Martin's Press

Matthew Alexander, a pseudonym for the author, is pictured with another interrogator who was part of the task force looking for Zafar.

Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
Kill or Capture
Kill or Capture
By Matthew Alexander
Hardcover, 304 pages
St. Martin's Press
List Price: $25.99
Read An Excerpt

Matthew Alexander led the interrogation team that tracked down al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006.

Alexander, a critic of the harsh techniques employed by the military during the administration of George W. Bush, says he used strategic, noncoercive methods of interrogation to find al-Zarqawi, which he wrote about in his book How to Break a Terrorist.

In his second book, Kill or Capture, Alexander — a pseudonym for the author — recounts how his team of interrogators tracked down and captured another wanted man: a Syrian named Zafar, the leader of al-Qaida in northern Iraq.

But finding Zafar was not easy. Alexander says he conducted hundreds of interrogations and supervised more than a thousand more while trying to track down a man who eluded security forces and had never once been photographed by U.S. forces.

In a conversation with Dave Davies on NPR's Fresh Air, Alexander details the interrogation tactics he used while conducting his kill-or-capture missions in the area of Iraq where Zafar was thought to be hiding.

"The first step of any interrogation is to understand your detainee, understand what uniquely motivates them as an individual," he explains. "[You have to understand] why they joined al-Qaida or another insurgent group, why they decided to pick up arms. And if you can analyze them and figure out those motivations, then you can craft an appropriate approach and incentive, but not until you've done that."

But Alexander says he couldn't always give the incentives he thought would provide the best response from his potential informants. For example, he was not allowed to offer money or visas to people who provided information about the location of senior al-Qaida members.

"That's a real change," he says. "In Vietnam, we had real incentives that interrogators could offer captured Vietcong members to get them to turn to our side. But we didn't do that in Iraq, and it wasn't until Gen. [David] Petraeus got there and offered the Sunni tribes money and weapons that they turned against al-Qaida."

Alexander learned to offer things he couldn't necessarily deliver, a technique he says criminal investigators use every day to catch criminals. In one instance, he even forged a divorce application for an informant who wanted to get out of a marriage.

A car bomb caused this scene of wreckage in Kirkuk in 2006, where Alexander's task force was searching for Zafar of Syria. Courtesy of St. Martin's Press hide caption

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Courtesy of St. Martin's Press

"Deception is a legitimate part of warfare," he says. "We don't question deception if an infantry fakes an attack on the left and sweeps right. And interrogators can use deception, too, but they must be careful about how they use that deception. And the reason why is because somebody else is going to interrogate that detainee one day. And if you've used deception and you've been found out, then they're going to have a harder time establishing trust."

To gain trust with the Sunni combatants he was interviewing, Alexander says, he would admit that the United States had made some strategic mistakes in its approach in Iraq.

"Almost every detainee that I admitted those mistakes to, they all were surprised that I was willing to admit that," he says. "And it moved many of them to hear that, because many of them had lost family members or friends because of these actions — because of allowing the Shia militias to run free. And so when they heard that apology followed by an offer to work together, it was very appealing."

More than anything, Alexander says, it was important for interrogators to understand the detainee and know exactly where they were coming from. Interrogators who believed in misguided stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs, he says, were the single most detrimental factor to undermining interrogations in Iraq.

"A common parlance that was said by some interrogators and analysts was 'Arabs grow up in a culture of violence, so they only understand violence.' We have that documented in an e-mail from a senior interrogator to his commander at one point in Iraq," he says. "And it was that type of stereotype of Arabs and of Muslims that was very counterproductive to try to get people to cooperate. ... Those prejudices worked directly in contrast to what we were trying to accomplish."

Matthew Alexander is an 18-year veteran of the Air Force and Air Force Reserves. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his achievements in Iraq and has contributed to both the Washington Post and The New York Times.

Matthew Alexander is a U.S. Air Force investigator turned interrogator. He is an 18-year veteran of the Air Force and Air Force Reserves and the author of How to Break a Terrorist. St. Martin's Press hide caption

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St. Martin's Press

Matthew Alexander is a U.S. Air Force investigator turned interrogator. He is an 18-year veteran of the Air Force and Air Force Reserves and the author of How to Break a Terrorist.

St. Martin's Press

Interview Highlights

On how he would start an interrogation

"Sometimes I would walk in with my copy of the Quran, and I would recite a line. Usually I would use the first line of the Quran, which is 'Praise be to Allah, the most compassionate, the most merciful,' which would help me with compassion toward my enemy who's sitting in front of me but then also put in place an obligation of reciprocity on their part to show compassion toward me, by providing information."

On liars

"I don't really care if anyone admits to participating in terrorist activity. I could have somebody on tape having prepared suicide bombers to go out on missions — we had detainees who we had on tape having cut peoples heads' off with machetes — but I would let them lie about that all day as long as they were telling the truth about the information I needed to kill or capture the next target. ... Some interrogators, even in the military, forgot this — that they're not there to get a confession. In fact, I believe that the confession hurts you because it reminds both them and the interrogator that you're opponents. So I would gladly allow them to lie about their participation in terrorist activity as long as they were telling the truth about the information I needed."

On the harsher techniques used by other interrogators in 2006

"There was a lot of battling at the prison when I was inside the prison between the old-school interrogators and my new school of interrogators. And those old-school interrogators — people who had been at Guantanamo Bay, people who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan early on, who had been allowed to use advanced interrogation techniques, which I believe is a euphemism for abuse, if not torture — believed those methods should still be used. But now we had the Detainee Treatment Act, so what they started to do was manipulate the rules so that they could still do what are basically advanced interrogation techniques, or use abuse, but try and notionally stay within the rules. And that created large differences between the ways we wanted to interrogate certain detainees."

Excerpt: 'Kill Or Capture'

Kill or Capture
Kill or Capture
By Matthew Alexander
Hardcover, 304 pages
St. Martin's Press
List Price: $25.99

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.

The Mole

May 15, 2006
Kirkuk, Iraq

A solitary streetlight casts the black shadows of the soldiers against a stone wall. The soldiers kneel, their rifles in the ready position, and wave green infrared beams, scanning rooftops, windows, and balconies, until the silence is broken by a whisper yelled over the wall.


A small explosion is followed by the sound of metal falling onto stone. Two of the soldiers kneeling against the wall stand and rush through the metal gate, through the courtyard, and into the house, followed closely by an interrogator, hoping to grab evidence before it can be flushed. Inside the doorway, Zafar's men greet the team with a death chime.

"Allah Akhbar!"

Two human bombs detonate, turning the inside of the house into a maelstrom of fire and shrapnel. The soldiers and suicide bombers die instantly, engulfed in scraps of hot metal and flames, and the interrogator is blown off the porch and lands on his back in the courtyard. Everything goes black as blood pours down his face and hands grab his arms and legs and lift him into the air. He opens his eyes and sees the clear night sky filled with thousands of stars.

Meanwhile, a man escapes out the back door of the house, but before he can take ten steps he is tackled and tied by a soldier. The soldier sits the man in the sand and kneels to face him.

"Hello, Mahmoud. Going somewhere?"

May 22, 2006
Central Iraq

I listen to the wail of the horn as the bugle player at the front of the formation, decked out in full army dress, puffs out the long and solemn notes. We are a formation of camouflage uniforms and civilian clothes, standing at attention in crisp rank and file to honor our fallen comrades. They are not the first that our task force has lost in this hunt.

In the distance, mortars, like soft drums, land and shake the compound, growing closer every second, but not a soul moves in the formation. We will not be deterred from honoring our fallen comrades.
* * *

Mahmoud is a delicate man with tiny features, short brown hair, and a trimmed beard. It's hard to imagine this diminutive Syrian as the number two man behind al Qaeda's northern campaign of violence, but it takes brains, not muscles, to fight an insurgency.

We captured Mahmoud in a raid in Kirkuk a week ago. He was caught in a house/factory used for the production of suicide vests and we knew full well who he was when we captured him — he had been on the Most Wanted list for months. Mahmoud runs the suicide bombing operations for al Qaeda in northern Iraq and the analysts say he reports directly to Zafar, a shadow of a man who exists only in rumors and recently took the lives of two of our brothers-in-arms. There are no pictures of Zafar and no one has admitted to meeting him, but several detainees have confirmed that he is the leader of al Qaeda in the north. He is Iraq's Keyser Söze, and we hope that Mahmoud will lead us to him. This is how we found Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, by slowly and methodically climbing the ladder of al Qaeda leadership.

Mahmoud sits in a white plastic chair in a plywood-walled interrogation room. In front of him sit two interrogators who specialize in foreign fighters. They are both in their midthirties, with long unkempt beards grown over the past three months. As the task force's senior interrogator, I supervise from the Hollywood Room next door, an observation room with rows of monitors. The interrogation takes place in English.

"Tell me about Zafar," the black-bearded interrogator asks.

"I don't know anyone named Zafar," Mahmoud answers.

"Don't lie to us!" the brown-bearded interrogator shouts. "You know who the fuck we're talking about!"

Mahmoud stares at the interrogator with a blank look on his face.

"Wallah mawf," he says flatly.

I don't know.

Brownbeard throws his notebook on the floor, stands, and walks up to the seated Mahmoud. The top of the Syrian's head barely comes to the interrogator's waist.

"Listen to me, you little shit," he says, "you're going to hang for what you've done, and the only way to avoid the noose is to work with us. You understand?"

In the monitor room I shake my head. These interrogators don't belong to me. I monitor their interrogations out of courtesy, but they've never followed the advice I've offered. They are old school.

Mahmoud shrugs his shoulders. Brownbeard turns and slams his fist against the wall.


"Listen," Blackbeard interrupts, "we're trying to help you here. We can work together. You help us and we'll help you."

It's a classic Good Cop/Bad Cop approach, but the Bad Cop should be outside the room so that the detainee feels comfortable confiding in the nice guy. Still, I admire Blackbeard's attempt to build rapport.

"I don't want your help," Mahmoud replies. "Unless…"

"Unless what?!" Brownbeard yells.

"Unless you want to release me to find this man named Zafar."

"I thought you said you didn't know a Zafar!"

"Perhaps my memory will improve once I am out of this prison."

"You little shit! We should —"

"Wait," Blackbeard interrupts again. "Do you mean that if we let you go then you can find Zafar for us?"

"It's possible," Mahmoud says.

"How would you go about doing that?"

Mahmoud casually waves his hand as he speaks.

"I know people. I can ask around. Then I can call you when I find him."

"But al Qaeda knows you've been captured!" Brownbeard says. "Why the hell would they trust you?"

"Do you think that I would be the first fighter that you have accidentally released?" Mahmoud replies.

Mahmoud is correct. Last month I flew to a base in western Iraq to help interrogate five men captured in a house that U.S. forces thought was used to train suicide bombers, but the house was empty of evidence. None of the five men revealed any information and we had no reason to believe they were involved with the insurgency, other than an anonymous tip that was provided to us. The decision was made to release the five men because the tip, it was suspected, was a vindictive false report — a common occurrence.

We pushed the men out the front gate of the base and I gave one of them twenty dollars out of my own pocket for a taxi. Two weeks later we recaptured the same man — this time in a house with bombs. The moral of the story: Counterinsurgency is complex.

"How long would it take you to find Zafar?" Blackbeard asks.

"A week," Mahmoud answers.

"What if we release you and you run?" Brownbeard asks.

"You know where my family lives," Mahmoud answers. "You caught me in my house."

The two interrogators look at each other. Blackbeard nods toward the door.

"We'll be back in a moment," he says to Mahmoud and the two men convene outside and close the door.

I leave the Hollywood Room and join them in the hallway.

"Do you think the Colonel will go for it?" Blackbeard asks.

"I don't know," Brownbeard replies. "I don't trust this guy and I don't know how I'm going to convince the Colonel to trust him."

Blackbeard turns to me.

"What do you think?"

I consider it. We've never done this before that I know of, but I'm all for trying new things. Even if Mahmoud doesn't lead us to Zafar, he might kick up some dust in his wake that we can follow.

"In the criminal world we run dirty sources all the time," I say. "It's part of the business."

Blackbeard nods and Brownbeard defers to me.

"Go for it," I say. "See what the Colonel thinks."

Later that day the two interrogators meet with the Colonel. The mission gets approved, with caveats. Mahmoud is to be monitored closely and the entire operation is to be strictly controlled. If he runs, the first order of business will be to shoot him. The entire time he is free, Big Brother will be watching.

Excerpted from Kill or Capture: How a Special Operations Task Force Took Down a Notorious al Qaeda Terrorist by Matthew Alexander. Copyright 2011 by Matthew Alexander. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.