In the March/April edition of The National Interest, Former Air Force interrogator Matthew Alexander argues for a smarter, relationship-building approach to prisoner interrogation—a method that has paid rich dividends for Indonesia’s Detachment 88 counterterrorist unit.
The goal of the interrogators is not intelligence information that can prevent future terrorist attacks, but the conversion of the extremists into advocates against violent jihad. Interrogators have, de facto, become the primary facilitators of rehabilitation. In this manner, Karnavian has turned a tactical weapon into strategic leverage, and the results speak for themselves.
Following the implementation of Karnavian’s interrogation strategy, Indonesia did not have a terrorist bombing for almost the entire three years between 2006 and 2009, no doubt chalked up to the cooperation of numerous imprisoned extremists. Two former senior JI members captured by Detachment 88 have since written books admitting their erroneous violent beliefs. One book was a national best seller in Indonesia.
— Alexander, Matthew. “Martyrdom, Interrupted.” The National Interest, 08 March 2010.
Mr. Alexander’s prescriptions do come with a certain number of partisan pot-shots at the previous presidential administration. That doesn’t invalidate his argument per se, but it does raise questions about how many of these interrogation concepts are genuinely useful and field-workable, and how many are just a useful rhetorical stick used to beat one’s political opposites.
But as a grand strategy, it’s certainly true that turning the enemy’s key people can provide both useful operational intelligence as well as enormous propaganda victories. I am all for taking the initiative and making the enemy waste his time on putting out the brush fires we can start. More importantly it helps drive intellectual wedges between moderate and radical Muslims.
Ironically, many conservatives seem to make the same arguments as the Islamists: the only true Muslims are the ones that practice violent and murderous jihad. It seems to me that we ought to be making a specific and pointed counter-argument using the voices of non-radical Muslims. Whether or not moderate or radical Islam is actually closer to the intent of the founder is a secondary or even tertiary concern; the main object is to diminish the radicals’ potential manpower and recruiting pool.
Oddly enough, as the years have gone by my estimation of the Islamist threat has fallen, not risen. This is not due solely to the fact that terrorist attacks in North America are far and few between, but also because oil reserves are dwindling, and the more I examine it, the more ridiculous Islamism as a political philosophy becomes.
To be blunt, violent Islamism is not the sort of thing anyone with half a brain and decent prospects would subscribe to. Shackling the aspirations and potential of one-half your population is self-evidently a recipe for widespread human misery. Retarding scientific and technical advances because they do not fit into 7th century cosmology is obvious self-imposed stagnation. Arguing the merits of pluralist democracies versus blatantly unpalatable theocracies ought to be child’s play for a civilisation with Hollywood at its disposal. That we have yet to do so says a lot more about the weakness of current Western philosophical thought than it does about the supposed strength of Islamism.
What little economic strength it has, it derives from “found wealth”—the happy accident of Saudi Arabia, longtime patron of evangelical Wahhabism, sitting astride a large concentration of the globe’s oil reserves. If someone were to invent a portable garbage-powered Mr. Fusion reactor (a la 1985’s Back to the Future), the revenue stream of many Persian Gulf states would be irrevocably disrupted.
What’s more, political Islam is generally unpopular even in the places where it currently reigns, so I am not so worried that it will ever take hold here. It is barely managing to hold on to the places it does have, and it manages that only through draconian laws, autocratic government and official suppression of most other religions.
What is far more troubling is that if we cannot rouse ourselves to tackle so weak and brittle an enemy, we will have no hope at all of tackling larger, fiercer pathologies which actually enjoy considerable popularity both at home and abroad.