Book review: How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators who Use Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq by Matthew Alexander
Like the other two books I’ve reviewed – see here and here - that are related to interrogation and intelligence gathering, How to Break a Terrorist is a first person narrative. Matthew Alexander went to Iraq as part of a new wave of interrogators trained in rapport building interrogation techniques; the intention was to correct the mistakes and abuses that had occurred as a result of the coercive practices which had previously occurred and culminated in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Given the on-going torture apologetics we’re witnessing in this country, Alexander’s account of how he and his interrogation team were able to gather intelligence leading to a successful military strike resulting in the death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi without torture or abusive interrogation practices is a timely and important read.
The book is an easy yet absorbing read (I think I finished it in two sittings). In fact, I would be surprised if the book is not made into a movie at some point. Alexander has managed not only to demonstrate the importance of and effectiveness of legal, non-abusive means of intelligence gathering, but has done so in the context of a book that unfolds like a dramatic thriller.
Which is partly why I don’t want to go into too many details about the story, as I don’t want to ruin the experience for the reader (the other reason being that it’s been so long since I read the book that I’m fuzzy on the precise details.) You know what the starting point and end point of the story is, but you don’t know how Alexander was able to get there, racing against a time constraint (hours) to break a key detainee and gain vital intelligence information.
I do feel comfortable, however, recounting in general one of the problems that Alexander ran up against in his efforts to interrogate effectively: other interrogators stuck in the previous methods of dominance/control and coercion. These methods repeatedly come up empty over the course of the book, yet some of the interrogators stuck to them obstinately even in the face of Alexander having success with the same subjects using rapport building methods. At one point, one such interrogator went so far as to deliberately sabotage Alexander’s interrogation of a detainee even though Alexander had been in the process of breaking him after the other interrogator had failed to make any such progress.
Another reason that the book is important is that it serves as a reminder that despite the atrocities that have been committed by terrorists and insurgents in Iraq, these are still humans susceptible to human feelings, needs, and desires. Recognizing this is not an excuse for their actions, nor does it mean they should not face legal consequence for their actions, but it does mean that recognizing and appealing to this humanity can be a effective approach at intelligence gathering, as indeed it was in the experience of Alexander. For example, one of the means that Alexander uses to help soften up a figure who was one of the top officials in Al Qaeda in Iraq was to give him a copy of one of the Harry Potter books which he had requested since he was a huge fan of the Potter series. This incident, and other incidents in the book where appeals to the humanity of the detainee lead to advances in intelligence, flies in the face of claims that only force, dominance, intimidation and control can be used to break Muslim extremists.
Reading Alexander's Washington Post op-ed will give you a better idea of what his book is about (also without taking away from the narrative power of the story) and the Time magazine review hits upon some of the same points I have made but with quotations from the book.