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

“The others are ignorant,” Abu Haydr said, referring to Mary and Lenny. “They know nothing of Iraq or the Koran. I have never felt comfortable talking with them.”

It was not a surprising comment. Detainees often tried to play one team of gators off another. But Doc saw it as an opening, and hit upon a ploy. He told the prisoner that he now understood his full importance. He said he was not surprised that Abu Haydr had been able to lead his questioners around by their noses. Then he took a more mendacious leap. He told Abu Haydr that he, Doc, wasn’t just another gator; that he was, in fact, in charge of the Compound’s entire interrogation mill. He was the Boss; that was why he had waited until the last minute to step in.

“I believe you are a very important man,” he told Abu Haydr. “I think you have a position of power in the insurgency, and I think I am in a position to help you.”

Abu Haydr was listening with interest.

“We both know what I want,” Doc said. “You have information you could trade. It is your only source of leverage right now. You don’t want to go to Abu Ghraib, and I can help you, but you have to give me something in trade. A guy as smart as you—you are the type of Sunni we can use to shape the future of Iraq.” If Abu Haydr would betray his organization, Doc implied, the Americans would make him a very big man indeed.

There was no sign that the detainee knew he was being played. He nodded sagely. This was the kind of moment gators live for. Interrogation, at its most artful, is a contest of wits. The gator has the upper hand, of course. In a situation like the one at Balad, the Task Force had tremendous leverage over any detainee, including his reasonable fear of beating, torture, lengthy imprisonment, or death. While gators at that point were not permitted even to threaten such things, the powerless are slow to surrender suspicion. Still, a prisoner generally has compelling reasons to resist. He might be deeply committed to his cause, or fear the consequences of cooperation, if word of it were to reach his violent comrades.

The gator’s job is to somehow find a way through this tangle of conflicting emotions by intimidation or bluff. The height of the art is to completely turn the detainee, to con him into being helpful to the very cause he has fought against. There comes a moment in every successful interrogation when the detainee’s defenses begin to give way. Doc had come to that moment with Abu Haydr. He had worked at the detainee’s ego as if it were a loose screw. All of his ruses dovetailed. If Doc was an important, powerful man— better still, if he was secretly in charge—his respect for Abu Haydr meant all the more. After all, wouldn’t it take the most capable of the Americans, the man in charge, to fully comprehend and appreciate Abu Haydr’s significance?

Doc pressed his advantage.

“You and I know the name of a person in your organization who you are very close to,” Doc said. “I need you to tell me that name so that I know I can trust you. Then we can begin negotiating.” In fact, the American had no particular person in mind. His best hope was that Abu Haydr might name a heretofore unknown mid-level insurrectionist.

Ever circumspect, Abu Haydr pondered his response even longer than usual.

At last he said, “Abu Ayyub al-Masri.”

Doc was flabbergasted. Masri was the senior adviser to Zarqawi, the second-in-command of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The gator hid his surprise and excitement. He thanked the prisoner, pretending that this was the name he had expected.

“Now we can begin negotiating, but I have to leave now.”

“I only will talk to you,” said Abu Haydr.

“I can’t promise you that,” the American said. “You should talk and be friendly to whoever comes in to question you. I will be watching.”

He promised—avoiding the usual hedge—to get Abu Haydr an extra blanket and extra food, and did. And he got the detainee off the list for transport to Abu Ghraib.

The Feud that Felled Zarqawi

"Why did he decide to talk?” asked Doc’s commander.

The gator explained that he had promised Abu Haydr “an important role in the future of Iraq.” He also reported that he had represented himself to the detainee as the man in charge. That infuriated Lenny, who was already annoyed that Doc had been questioning “his” prisoner behind his back. Lenny complained that the lie undermined his position in future interrogations.

“He was scheduled to leave,” Doc reminded him.

Despite Abu Haydr’s insistence that he speak only to “Dr. Matthew,” his interrogation resumed with the regular team of gators. Lenny promptly told him that their colleague had lied when he said he was in charge.

Doc was infuriated, and he took his outrage to his commander. Lenny was more concerned about protecting his turf than the mission, Doc complained, and demanded that he be reassigned, but this request, too, was denied. Concerned that his breakthrough would be squandered, Doc decided to go behind his commander’s back. He paid the first of many unauthorized visits to Abu Haydr’s cell in the holding block, away from the cameras monitoring the interrogation rooms. He told Abu Haydr that his colleagues were not allowed to reveal that he was in charge.

“I’m still around, and I’m still watching,” Doc told him. “Talk to them as if you were talking to me.”

Abu Haydr asked how much information he would have to give to earn Doc’s assistance.

“Right now, you are at about 40 percent,” he was told, “but you must never mention our deal to anyone.” Doc swore him to secrecy about their informal talks.

And, curiously, the feud between the gators began to help the interrogation. Abu Haydr seemed to enjoy the subterfuge. Doc’s visits with him were unauthorized; if his fellow gators found out about them, they would be furious, as would his commander. So Doc, unable to deliver the captive’s information himself, had to persuade Abu Haydr to talk, not to him but to Mary and Lenny. He stayed vague about what information he wanted and kept using the percentage scale to push the detainee. Sure enough, Abu Haydr responded. In his sessions with the others, he confirmed his status above Abu Raja’s and began talking about significant al-Qaeda figures. He was still cagey. He wanted to buy himself Doc’s help, but he didn’t want to pay any more for it than necessary.

Doc would regularly slip into Abu Haydr’s cell to grade his progress.

“What percent am I at now?” the detainee would ask.

“Fifty percent,” Doc would say.

This went on for three weeks, and soon the Task Force was mapping Zarqawi’s organization with greater and greater detail. During a series of raids on May 13 and 14, shooters killed one of Zarqawi’s lieutenants, Abu Mustafa, and 15 others in his network. Eight suspects were detained. Intel gleaned from them sent the shooters back out to arrest more men, who delivered still more information. The eventual result was what the Task Force called an “unblinking eye” over the network. On May 17, two of Zarqawi’s associates were killed, one of them his manager of foreign fighters. Punishing raids went on throughout that month.

Still, even though he clearly relished his “secret” sessions with Doc, Abu Haydr protected the men at the very top of the organization. The ploy played upon his belief that he was operating in a multilayered reality, and at a deeper level than those around him; the secrecy just reinforced the ruse that Doc was a high-level connection. In the middle of this process, Mary started questioning Abu Haydr with the older gator they called Tom, and Lenny continued on in separate shifts by himself.

In early June, after Doc told the prisoner he was at “90 percent,” Abu Haydr promised to give up a vital piece of information at his next session. And he did.

“My friend is Sheikh al-Rahman,” he told Mary and Tom.

He explained that Rahman, a figure well-known to the Task Force, met regularly with Zarqawi. He said that whenever they met, Rahman observed a security ritual that involved changing cars a number of times. Only when he got into a small blue car, Abu Haydr said, would he be taken directly to Zarqawi.

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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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