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