The scientists persuading terrorists to spill their secrets

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Expert interrogators know torture doesn’t work – but until now, nobody could prove it. By analysing hundreds of top-secret interviews with terror suspects, two British scientists have revolutionised the art of extracting the truth. A Guaridan Long Read

13 October 2017 | Ian Leslie| The Guardian

“In 2013, a British man was arrested for planning to kidnap and brutally murder a soldier. The suspect, who had a criminal history, had posted messages on social media in support of violent jihad. In a search of his residence, the police had found a bag containing a hammer, a kitchen knife and a map with the location of a nearby army barracks.

Shortly after his arrest, the suspect was interviewed by a counter-terrorist police officer. The interviewer wanted him to provide an account of his plan, and to reveal with whom, if anyone, he has been conspiring. But the detainee – we will call him Diola – refused to divulge any information.

Instead, he expounded grandiloquently on the evils of the British state for 42 minutes, with little interruption. When the interviewer attempted questions, Diola responded with scornful, finger-jabbing accusations of ignorance, naivety and moral weakness: “You don’t know how corrupt your own government is – and if you don’t care, then a curse upon you.”

Watching a video of this encounter, it is just possible to discern Diola’s desire, beneath his ranting, to tell what he knows. In front of him, a copy of the Qur’an lies open. He says he was acting for the good of the British people, and that he is willing to talk to the police because, as a man of God, he wants to prevent future atrocities. But he will not answer questions until he is sure that his questioner cares about Britain as much as he does: “The purpose of the interview is not to go through your little checklist so you can get a pat on the head. If I find you are a jobsworth, we are done talking, so be sincere.”

Even distanced by years from the events in question, it is impossible to watch the encounter without feeling tense. Periodically, Diola turns away from the interviewer and goes silent, or gets up and leaves the room, having taken offence at something said or not said. Each time he returns, Diola’s solicitor advises him not to speak. Diola ignores him, though in a sense he takes the advice: despite the verbiage, he tells his interviewer nothing.

Diola: “Tell me why I should tell you. What is the reason behind you asking me this question?”

Interviewer: “I am asking you these questions because I need to investigate what has happened and know what your role was in these events.”

Diola: “No, that’s your job – not your reason. I’m asking you why it matters to you.”

The interviewer, who has remained heroically calm in the face of Diola’s verbal barrage, is not able to move the encounter out of stalemate, and eventually his bosses replace him. When the new interviewer takes a seat, Diola repeats his promise to talk “openly and honestly” to the right person, and resumes his inquisitorial stance. “Why are you asking me these questions?” he says. “Think carefully about your reasons.”

The new interviewer does not answer directly, but something about his opening speech triggers a change in Diola’s demeanour. “On the day we arrested you,” he began, “I believe that you had the intention of killing a British soldier or police officer. I don’t know the details of what happened, why you may have felt it needed to happen, or what you wanted to achieve by doing this. Only you know these things Diola. If you are willing, you’ll tell me, and if you’re not, you won’t. I can’t force you to tell me – I don’t want to force you. I’d like you to help me understand. Would you tell me about what happened?” The interviewer opens up his notebook, and shows Diola the empty pages. “You see? I don’t even have a list of questions.”

“That is beautiful,” Diola says. “Because you have treated me with consideration and respect, yes I will tell you now. But only to help you understand what is really happening in this country.”

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