Did the ticking time bomb scenario play itself out in Brussels?

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The ttb scenario has long been ballyhooed by critics as unrealistic. That such things only play themselves out in Hollywood movies and television shows.

“Ticking bomb” scenario

Arguments in favor of executive use of foreign torture information frequently refer to variations on the so-called ticking bomb scenario. In the usual version of this hypothetical scenario, an alleged perpetrator of an imminent terrorist attack is in custody and will reveal information critical to preventing the attack if tortured.

Experts in the fields of intelligence-gathering, law enforcement and human psychology have forcefully discredited the use of this hypothetical situation to justify torture. It rests on the impossible combination of perfect timing (the information will be obtained in time to defuse the bomb), perfect information (the person in custody definitely knows the location of the bomb and it could not have been moved and those conducting the torture are certain the person knows) and absolute certainty over the outcome (the person in custody will definitely provide the correct information once tortured and the bomb will subsequently be defused).[34]

Given the rarity of perfect timing, perfect information and absolute certainty in real life situations, reliance as a matter of policy on the ticking bomb hypothesis creates a significant risk that human beings will be brutalized on the basis of mere possibility or assumptions.

However:

“Brussels suicide bombers Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui were planning attacks on Belgian nuclear power stations, Dernier Heure newspaper has reported.

The newspaper exclusively reported that the arrest of Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam accelerated the plans of the terrorists.”

LA Times:

Abdeslam’s network may have decided it had a choice: Either attack at a time of its own choosing, or wait for a climactic showdown with the security forces, where the costs to civilian life would be limited. The network’s leaders seemingly chose the first option, perhaps reasoning that it would generate greater publicity, and greater torment and pain.

On the evening of Abdeslam capture, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel announced, “Tonight, we are celebrating a victory.” Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon echoed this. “I think it’s a big blow, because [Abdeslam] is one of the most wanted foreign fighters in Europe,” he told CNN. Belgian security chief Jaak Raes was similarly sanguine, telling VTM News on the same day that it was “of the utmost importance that Abdeslam was captured alive, because we can now try to reconstruct the entire scenario … [and] learn lessons from the information that is gleaned.

In other words, play out the past and introspectively navel-gaze- not proactively seek answers to prevent any immediate follow up plots that Abdeslam might be privy to.

Siobhan O’Grady, in a Foreign Policy article titled “Capture of a Paris Ringleader Could Lead to Intelligence Bonanza,” paraphrased Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer and director of special projects at a security-intelligence firm in New York: “The priority in the immediate aftermath of [Abdeslam’s] arrest will be finding out what the Islamic State has planned next.”

Skinner now works for The Soufan Group (of Ali Soufan fame- the FBI “go-to” interrogation expert and darling of the media left for his rabid criticism of the CIA RDI Program- and I say this as a fan of Ali Soufan’s patriotism and contributions to the GWoT).

Skinner also told her that the “downside to Abdeslam’s dramatic capture … is that other members of the militant’s cell would have immediately heard about it and will now ‘try to scatter or shut down.’”

Or accelerate the planning of their next terror attack to an earlier date.

No one yet knows exactly who perpetrated the attacks, how they did it, or why. But it is possible that rather than scattering or shutting down the cell with which Abdeslam was associated, his capture accelerated the violent denouement the cell had long been planning. It is a common argument on the left that killing terrorists is counterproductive, serving to further radicalize the communities in whose name they proclaim to act. But it now seems that capturing terrorists may also have dark, unintended consequences, dangerously raising the stakes for those in the wider terrorist network and for their potential victims.

The attacks that occurred in Brussels on Tuesday were almost certainly planned before Friday’s arrest of Salah Abdeslam, says Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s specialist on jihadist networks:

The explosions that tore through Brussels international airport and a metro station were the realisation of fears that have been weighing on Belgian authorities since at least last November.

They finally happened four days after the raid in Brussels’ Molenbeek neighbourhood that led to the capture of French citizen Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving militant of the group who carried out the jihadist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015.

“But these attacks [in Brussels] aren’t just revenge for Abdeslam’s arrest,” said Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s specialist on jihadist networks. “These kind of attacks can’t be planned in 48 hours. It is very clear that they were well-prepared.”

However, Nasr does think that jihadists sped up the execution of the attacks after Abdeslam’s arrest.

So authorities basically had about 4 days to extract information out of Abdeslam that might have prevented the next attack. So how did that rapport-building standard interrogation methods work out for them? Maybe it was working. But it certainly did not work in time to possibly have prevented last Tuesday’s attacks in Belgium.

Marc Thiessen in today’s WaPo:

For years, Brussels has been the epicenter for European outrage over the CIA’s terrorist interrogation program. Now it is Belgium that has some explaining to do for its failure to effectively interrogate a high-value terrorist — an interrogation that could have foiled last week’s deadly terror attacks. The carnage is a direct result of Europe’s refusal to accept that terrorists must be treated differently than common criminals.

When Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the logistics chief for an Islamic State terror cell, was captured, Belgian officials followed law enforcement procedures with precision. They provided Abdeslam a lawyer, told him he had the right to remain silent and put him into the Belgian criminal justice system. Four days later, the terror cell carried out bombings in Brussels that killed 35 people — including at least four Americans — and injured hundreds more.

Astonishingly, officials did not question Abdeslam at all for his first 24 hours in custody. He spent Friday night in the hospital recovering from a leg wound sustained in the raid. When he was finally returned to the police on Saturday, he was questioned by authorities for a grand total of . . . two hours – and then was not questioned again until after the attacks. Why? “He seemed very tired and he had been operated on the day before,” a senior Belgian security official told Politico.

He seemed tired? That’s precisely when they should be interrogating him. The CIA used sleep deprivation as one of its most effective interrogation tools. But for Belgians, a terrorist’s exhaustion is a reason to stop questioning, not intensify it.

But here is the most incredible part: During those two hours of questioning, The Post reports, “investigators did not ask . . . about his knowledge of future plots.” Seriously? Abdeslam was the logistics chief for the Brussels-based terror cell that carried out both the Paris and Brussels bombings. According to the New York Times, “He was the fixer, renting cars, finding apartments, picking people up and dropping them off.” He could have identified the other members of his cell, the safe houses they used, how they communicated, moved money, picked travel routes and — most importantly — the targets they had selected.

But investigators did not bother to ask him about plans for new attacks. Instead, The Post reports, they “concentrated solely on the Paris attacks . . . and then no other discussions were held until after Tuesday’s attacks.”

Law enforcement and F.B.I.- their focus is in solving crimes. Not in preventing future crimes. That is why the interrogation of terrorists should be handled by intelligence agencies like the CIA.

Investigators had found unused detonators and weapons in a safe house with his fingerprints. Did it occur to them to ask what he had intended to use them for? Apparently not.

Abdeslam’s questioning is a textbook example of why the law enforcement model for interrogating terrorists is a disaster. As we saw in Brussels, law enforcement officials are in no hurry to extract answers from a detainee, because they are questioning terrorists after an attack has occurred. Their goal is to extract a confession in order to secure a conviction. In such circumstances, patience is a virtue.

But in an intelligence-driven interrogation, patience is deadly. Interrogators are trying to get information from the terrorist quickly, before an attack occurs. In such circumstances, you need to take a terrorist from a state of defiance to a state of cooperation quickly. Speed is of the essence.

It is simply unconscionable that Abdeslam was allowed to protect the identities of cell members and their plans for the Brussels attacks. But that is only the beginning of the shameful incompetence on display here.

Here, Thiessen points out the pitfalls of premature chest-thumping and back-patting; of showing our cards to our enemies and announcing to the world (and to them) what we know and don’t know.

Not only did officials not ask Abdeslam about future attacks, but they also compounded that error by holding multiple news conferences in which they bragged about his arrest and boasted how well he was cooperating. This was a fatal mistake.

Belgian officials should never have publicly acknowledged Abdeslam’s capture. When terrorists learn that one of their comrades is being interrogated, they rapidly begin purging email accounts, shutting down phone numbers, dispersing operatives and closing other vital trails of intelligence — and in this case, likely accelerating attack plans. But if a terrorist’s capture is kept secret, these intelligence trails may remain warm for some time — allowing officials to exploit them as they extract information from the detainee.

This case demonstrates the need for some form of secret detention and an intelligence-driven approach to interrogating captured high-value terrorists. It does not mean, as Donald Trump has suggested, that Abdeslam should have undergone waterboarding and “a lot more.”

Could enhanced interrogation techniques have obtained actionable intelligence information that could have saved lives in Belgium? Unknowable. But it seems Belgian interrogators didn’t even bother with asking the right questions, let alone have it in mind to prevent “the next wave”. Again, highlighting the difference between the law enforcement (solving crimes) model for interrogations and that of an organization like the CIA (preventing future attacks).

10 Responses to “Did the ticking time bomb scenario play itself out in Brussels?”

  1. 1

    Nanny G

    FTA:

    Abdeslam’s questioning is a textbook example of why the law enforcement model for interrogating terrorists is a disaster. As we saw in Brussels, law enforcement officials are in no hurry to extract answers from a detainee, because they are questioning terrorists after an attack has occurred. Their goal is to extract a confession in order to secure a conviction. In such circumstances, patience is a virtue.

    But in an intelligence-driven interrogation, patience is deadly. Interrogators are trying to get information from the terrorist quickly, before an attack occurs. In such circumstances, you need to take a terrorist from a state of defiance to a state of cooperation quickly. Speed is of the essence.

    Obama and the Left in Europe both look at the embedded insurgency inside their respective borders as if they are merely criminals.
    They are not mere criminals.
    They are insurgents.
    Their attacks are part of their revolutionary war.
    Their intent is to replace Western law and justice with Sharia.
    So, the use of the law-enforcement model for interrogation is yet another way the terrorists win.
    Lawfare is one front in this insurgency.
    So is prison dawa (converting convicts met behind bars after their own convictions).
    Everything we are doing at present assists in the spreading of ”no-go zones.”
    And ”no-go zones,” are merely small areas where Sharia is already the law within our lands.

  2. 2

    John

    Torture is not a good way to obtain intelligence it is s great way to obtain a confession
    Some might argue that it was only through torture that the Satanic Witchcraft in the Middle Ages was able to be defeated Yeah a little bit of torture or a lot they eventually named names and it even worked during The Inquistion when some people were suspected of not praying exactly the correct way
    Might work on repeat drunk drivers, who knows? They kill more than terrorists, some public tirture might certainly reduce those numbers
    When a person is being tortured he/she will say anything to have that pain stopped
    As long as he gives an answer correct or incorrect that pain will stop
    If torture did work the Nazus woukd have been able to crush all the resistance movements in WW II
    Nanny if I thought that you knew where the ticking time bomb was and tirture do YOU, would you continue to say “I don’t know I don’t know”
    Or would you lie and say it is under Curt’s bed?
    Torture is wrong, if anyone wanted to use it to stop a bigger wrong would he be willing to go to jail himself ?
    How about limiting it that way? If you think tirture is so important to do in a case be willing to go to jail for 5 years
    Nanny would you be willing to torture someone yourself
    Is torture a sin?
    And for all you brave posters who say YES I’d go it
    Well as I said before buy a ticket and fly over capture a few ISIS guys and have at it

  3. 5

    Greg

    Just out of curiosity, how does protecting the privacy of dead terrorists’ encrypted cell phone data square with a willingness to torture them on the spot to get highly questionable answers? (The unlock code was just cracked without Apple’s compliance, btw. No doubt iPhone users will be much relieved.)

    In the ticking time bomb situation, it might be better to make them comfortable and drug them to the point where they think they’re having a polite, confidential conversation with Mohammed or the Easter Bunny.

  4. 6

    Nanny G

    @Greg: Just out of curiosity, how does protecting the privacy of dead terrorists’ encrypted cell phone data square with a willingness to torture them on the spot to get highly questionable answers? (The unlock code was just cracked without Apple’s compliance, btw….)

    Winston Churchill once said, ”Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.”
    The idea that our government is so incapable of digging into a phone to pull secrets from it was absurd on its face.
    Thank goodness someone in gov’t was willing to buckle down and do his/her job!
    See?
    It could be done.

    Lazy gov’t workers!
    They would rather trample on everyone’s rights than do their job!
    This is the same reason our veterans are dying while waiting for medical care.

    Intel gathering off a phone has nothing to do with intel gathering from a human asset.

  5. 7

    MOS 8541

    John,

    a finger at a time produces very good results, than one moves to the feet and toes. you are just out of touch on what one can discover from fingers and toes. the Romans loved waterboarding. when this technique is applied correctly, results are forthcoming in a matter of minutes.

  6. 8

    john

    Belgium has released the only suspect they had in the bombing because of a lack of evidence. With enough voltage they could of had a confession

  7. 9

    Nanny G

    When governments oppose ISIS should America cooperate with them in fighting ISIS?
    Obama claims a large ”coalition.”
    But is Egypt part of that coalition?
    Egypt is fighting ISIS.
    Egypt has asked for American aid to WIN its fight with ISIS in the Sinai.
    But March 25, the NYTimes said this: “Time to Rethink US relationship with Egypt,” concluding, “Over the next few months, the president should start planning the possibility of a break in the alliance with Egypt. That scenario appears increasingly necessary.”

    OK, who knows where countries go when the USA refuses to fight along side them to defeat ISIS?
    An Egyptian appeal to Moscow cannot be ruled out.

    See, Egypt, like Jordan, fights ISIS so as to WIN.
    They don’t fight ISIS like it is a law enforcement issue.
    They fight ISIS like it is an insurgency.

  8. 10

    Budvarakbar

    @Nanny G:

    The idea that our government is so incapable of digging into a phone to pull secrets from it was absurd on its face.

    My thoughts exactly — I figure they used the scam to (1) expose Apple’s non-patriotism and send message to all tech co’s, or – (2) Apple readily helped out and the pretend refusal was just a ploy to keep the jihadiis thinking that their apple stuff was safe from FBI/CIA eyes –

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