The Ploy

The inside story of how the interrogators of Task Force 145 cracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s inner circle—without resorting to torture—and hunted down al-Qaeda’s man in Iraq

Five of the men captured during these raids were assigned to teams of interrogators at Balad. Two of them would prove to be the most valuable. The first, whom we will call Abu Raja, was assigned to Matt and Nathan. The second, an older and more imposing figure, we will call Abu Haydr. He was assigned to Mary and Lenny.

Abu Raja was a sophisticated man in his mid-30s, a professional who spoke fluent English. Round, soft, and balding, he wore the regulation Saddam-era Sunni moustache. He came from a family that had been well- connected during the tyrant’s reign; before the American invasion, he’d had a thriving business. A relative of his had been killed in the long war Iraq fought with Iran in the 1980s, and Abu Raja hated all Iranians. He saw the American invasion as a conspiracy between the Iranian mullahs and the United States to wipe out Iraq’s minority Sunnis. Though Abu Raja was initially defiant, Matt and Nathan sized him up as a timid man, neither ideologically committed nor loyal. They battered him with rapid-fire questions, never giving him time to think, and they broke him—or so they thought—in two days. He agreed to talk about anyone in al-Qaeda who outranked him, but not about those who held less important positions. Since the Task Force’s method was to work its way up the chain, this suited the gators perfectly.

Abu Haydr was more difficult. He was a big, genial man who nearly buckled the white plastic chairs in the interrogation rooms. He was 43 years old, with a wide, big-featured face, big ears, a well-trimmed beard, and fair skin. He was married and had four children. He also spoke fluent English. Before the American invasion, he’d had an important government job and had made a good living. He had hated Saddam, he said, but when the tyrant fell, he had lost everything. He looked tough and boasted that he had a black belt in karate, but his manner was gentle and his hands were smooth and delicate. He spoke in a deliberate, professorial way. He had studied the Koran and, while not overtly pious, knew a great deal about his faith. He admitted his sympathy for the insurgency. He had been arrested once before and had served time in Abu Ghraib, he said, and did not wish to return. He said Abu Raja had asked him to attend the meeting where they had both been captured, and that he was there only because the people at the house needed him to operate a video camera. This was the same story told by Abu Raja.

“I don’t even know why we were there,” he told Mary and Lenny.

For three weeks, from mid-April to early May, Abu Haydr was questioned twice daily, and gave up nothing. Three weeks is a long time for interrogators to hold on to someone. Mary was forceful and thorough. Lenny’s approach was consistent; he tended to hammer at the man relentlessly, taking him over the same ground again and again, trying to shake his confidence or just wear him out. It wasn’t sophisticated, but it often got results, especially when combined with Lenny’s imposing tough-guy demeanor. Abu Haydr took it all in stride, stubbornly unruffled. Before every response, he would lean his bulk back in the groaning chair, fold his graceful hands, and meditate like a scholar.

Doc, who was observing both interrogations in his role as a supervisor, saw that Mary and Lenny were getting nowhere, so he asked the Army captain supervising the process to replace them. This was not an unusual request from a senior gator; detainees were often placed with different teams when someone felt that an alternate approach might work, and Doc had asked to shift detainees before. But this request was denied. Given the circumstances of Abu Haydr’s arrest—and his age and sophistication—the Task Force was highly suspicious of him, and there were those high up the chain, Doc was told, who wanted Mary on his case.

It was easy to dismiss Doc’s concern for several reasons. He was known to be overbearing, and some of the gators felt he supervised their work a little too closely. That may have been particularly galling to Mary, who had been at Balad longer than Doc and was regarded as the best in the Task Force. Their colleagues knew that there was something of an ego clash between those two. Doc was older and more experienced, and could not always disguise his resentment at the organization’s higher regard for his younger colleague. To orient him when he first arrived at Balad, Task Force officers had assigned Doc to observe Mary. After a few days, he had told his commander that he was unimpressed and had asked to be placed with someone else. When he was assigned the supervisory role, he reprimanded Mary directly and complained to others that she seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet chatting with her boyfriend, who was also serving in Iraq. She sometimes skipped staff meetings, and while some of the gators were doing three and four interrogation sessions a day, she stuck resolutely to two. Doc argued that she seemed inexcusably out of step with the fervid pace. Others had also expressed concern about the way she dressed. Mary usually wore khaki cargo pants and two layers of T-shirts, which they suggested were cut too low at the top, exposing cleavage, or too high at the bottom, showing her midriff—displays offensive to religious Muslim detainees. But neither Mary’s status nor her habits had changed in response to Doc’s complaints. The tension between them was observed by all. For whatever combination of reasons, Doc’s attempt to move her aside failed.

Abu Raja, meanwhile, was a wreck. After weeks of grilling, he had given up all that he could give, he complained, but the gators kept after him day and night. One day, Doc sat in on his questioning. Watching an earlier interrogation, he had noticed that Abu Raja had slipped. Going over a story he had told many times before, Abu Raja mentioned for the first time that Abu Haydr had sometimes met alone with Abu Raja’s boss.

This was different, and odd. Why, Doc now asked, would Abu Haydr, Abu Raja’s subordinate, a man who had been called in just to operate a video camera, be meeting separately with Abu Raja’s boss? The detainee had no convincing explanation for it, and it left Doc with a hunch: What if Abu Raja had been lying about the other man’s status all along? Why would he do that? Was he frightened of Abu Haydr? Protecting him? It forced a fresh look at the older prisoner, who was more impressive than Abu Raja anyway. What if he had been Abu Raja’s superior in the organization? That would mean Abu Haydr was even more important than they had suspected. The problem was that Mary and Lenny were stymied, and the team had all but given up on getting information from Abu Haydr. He had made a final statement, been issued new clothes, and was on the list for transport back to Abu Ghraib.

With Abu Haydr just hours away from being shipped out, Doc asked for and received permission to speak to him one more time. He knew Abu Haydr dreaded going back to Abu Ghraib, and he had an idea for how to get him talking.

Breaking Abu Haydr

The two men—the big Iraqi and the intense blond-haired gator—talked for five hours in the interrogation room; because Doc was a supervisor himself, their conversation was not monitored. They talked about children and football and wrestling.

“I was a great wrestler,” Abu Haydr announced.

“You look like one,” Doc told him.

In his weeks of watching, the American had noted Abu Haydr’s chronic braggadocio. The Iraqi constantly trumpeted his skills—the black belt in karate, advanced knowledge of the Koran, expertise in logic and persuasion— like a man determined to prove his importance and worth. He spoke little about his family, his wife and children. He seemed completely preoccupied with himself, and he presented his frequent opinions forcefully, as the simple truth. The two men discussed the historical basis for the rift between the Sunnis and the Shia, something Doc had studied. And when the Iraqi lectured Doc on child-rearing, the younger man nodded with appreciation. When Abu Haydr again proclaimed his talents in the arts of logic and persuasion, Doc announced himself out-argued and persuaded.

Their conversation turned to politics. Like many other detainees, Abu Haydr was fond of conspiracy theories. He complained that the United States was making a big mistake allowing the Shia, the majority in Iraq, to share power with the Sunnis. He lectured Doc on the history of his region, and pointed out that Iraqi Sunnis and the United States shared a very dangerous enemy: Iran. He saw his Shia countrymen not just as natural allies with Iran but as more loyal to Iranian mullahs than to any idea of a greater Iraq. As he saw it—and he presented it as simple fact—the ongoing struggle would determine whether Iraq would survive as a Sunni state or simply become part of a greater Shia Iran. America, Abu Haydr said, would eventually need help from the Sunnis to keep this Shia dynasty from dominating the region.

Doc had heard all this before, but he told Abu Haydr that it was a penetrating insight, that the detainee had come remarkably close to divining America’s true purpose in Iraq. The real reason for the U.S. presence in the region, the gator explained, was to get American forces into position for an attack on Iran. They were building air bases and massing troops. In the coming war, Sunnis and Americans would be allies. Only those capable of looking past the obvious could see it. The detainee warmed to this. All men enjoy having their genius recognized.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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