The Sydney Siege


The death of two innocent and evidently heroic individuals in the Sydney Siege is a terrible tragedy and one cannot feel anything but deep sympathy for their families and friends, and indeed those of everyone affected by this appalling crime, including the police and/or soldiers who brought it to an end.

A couple of points spring to mind.

Firstly, it strikes me as a bit of a stretch to regard it as an act of ‘terrorism’.  From what has emerged about the killer, Man Haron Monis, he seems to have been a disturbed and disorganised individual who did not fit in anywhere.  No doubt in his own mind he was an heroic representative of the Islamic State but the reality is that he was an unstable and grandiose attention seeker whose actions were not carried out for any particular purpose beyond that.  I don’t know, of course, but it’s my suspicion that that is why the Australian security authorities didn’t regard him as a genuine threat and took their eye off the ball in his case.

Secondly, and related to my first point.  Describing him as a ‘Lone Wolf’ attaches a romantic ‘Hermann Hesse-ian’ drama to his activities that might encourage others to do the same.  ‘Marginalised Nutcase’ would be a better and more fitting description.

The sad fact is that there are people like Man Haron Monis on the fringes of every society, slowly working themselves up into a murderous state, and some of them will use the existence of groups like ISIS to lend purpose to their insanity.  We should think very carefully before we accept their deranged narrative.

Shout to Kill?

The Sunday Telegraph reports today that British military interrogators are no longer permitted to shout at ‘terrorist suspects’ as part of a tightening up of rules for interrogation.  This is designed to avoid subsequent legal challenges and the payment of large amounts of compensation to the supposed victims of apparently angry shouting.

What on earth have we come to?

Firstly, context.  The prisoners who have been shouted at are detainees in a war, not some ordinary punter who has been picked up for shoplifting razor blades in Tesco.  They have been picked up because they and their associates are known or believed to have been involved in actions in which British military personnel, and far larger numbers of their own compatriots, have been killed and maimed.  The reason that we have been in the places where the alleged shouting is supposed to have taken place is to attempt, however futilely, to bring the killing and maiming to an end.  Because it is a war zone, the normal rules for collecting evidence, charging and bringing suspects to trial cannot be applied because it is not safe or practical to do so.  By the normal customs and usages of war, detainees in these circumstances remain in detention until hostilities come to an end or until they are deemed unlikely to pose a further threat.

A couple of fall-outs from this.  These detainees are not ‘suspects’ in the sense of being persons who are being investigated for future criminal charges: they are being held because we want to disrupt possible future attacks against us and the civilian population.  The nature of the attacks being launched against us and the civilian population has, in the past eleven years in both Iraq and Afghanistan, been of savage brutality:  IEDs, rockets and small arms attacks have been of a high-intensity and would, in other circumstances, be classified as military operations.  They are not, in this case, because the attackers do not usually wear distinguishing markings or uniforms, nor do they carry arms openly when not involved in attacks against us and the civilian population, as they are obliged to do in order to be classified as lawful combatants under the Laws of Armed Conflict.  In fact many of these attacks would fall under the definition of ‘treachery’ which, in the past, almost universally carried the death penalty after a conviction by court-martial.

Secondly, shouting.  I did what was then called the ‘Long Interrogation Course’ at the Joint Services Interrogation Wing at Ashford in Kent in 1987.  I’m not going to go into the details of the course but I will highlight a couple of key points about it.  The first is that it was underpinned throughout by an understanding of how the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war applied to the practise of ‘tactically questioning’ and interrogating prisoners captured in the context of open war and insurgency.  Consequently we were reminded again and again that both physical and psychological duress was banned. We were not to torture suspects, nor could we subject them to prolonged psychological ordeals of the type that had been inflicted on IRA suspects under Op CALABA during internment in 1971.  We did learn the so-called ‘5 Techniques’ (hooding, stress positions, white noise, sleep deprivation and limited food and water) because we used them in training exercises on volunteers from within the British Armed Forces and other government agencies, in order to teach them how to resist hostile interrogation but we were reminded, again and again, that we could not do so for ‘real’.

The process of interrogation is really designed to develop a relationship and rapport between the interrogator and the prisoner.  In my experience, this is best done by using a reasonable approach to encourage co-operation.  However, for this reasonable approach to work it often needs to be juxtaposed with some alternatives and consequently some detainees will, at some stage in the process, be exposed to a ‘harsh’ interrogation in which one or more interrogators will shout and yell verbal abuse and threats at the prisoner for a relatively short period.  This is not an approach that yields much, if any, information but it does remind detainees that they’re better off communicating with an interrogator who will be reasonably nice to them.

Let’s just go back to the context here.  These people are being interrogated because we know or have good reason to believe that they have been involved in violent attacks against us and/or the civil population and we want to stop it.  We are not trying to obtain evidence for a court of law, we are trying to gain intelligence to frustrate future violence and save lives, military and civilian.

Parties to the Geneva Convention agree that they will not subject prisoners to ‘humiliating or degrading treatment’.  What does this mean?  In the original context, it was about banning the practise of parading prisoners of war through civilian areas where they would be subjected to attack, physically and verbally, and things of that ilk.  A modern parallel might be putting prisoners in front of TV cameras and subjecting them to hostile questioning from the media.  An interrogation is very much a private process: it’s certainly uncomfortable and at times probably frightening, but I would question whether 30 minutes or so of shouting in an interrogation room is really humiliating or degrading in the sense that the convention was framed. It is a normal operation of war, and a comparatively mild one at that.

Finally, we need to apply some realism to the situation.  We have an absolute duty to do our best to protect both our soldiers and the civilian populations in the areas in which we operate.  In order to do that, we need to collect intelligence and sometimes that requires a degree of subterfuge, like throwing a harsh session into an interrogation sequence.  I’m very doubtful that it causes ‘enduring harm’ outside the fevered imaginations of ‘human rights’ lawyers and their fans.

There do need to be safeguards and there are.  When I was an interrogator, all interrogations were conducted under medical supervision and I doubt that has changed.  Abuses can and do occur and we should be mindful of them and take strong action to bring perpetrators to justice but I suspect that, in the British context, they are relatively rare.

Shouting at prisoners has only become a problem for us because we have not thought through the consequences of adopting poorly drafted human rights legislation.  In the context of the savage insurgencies we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, shouting seems a pathetic thing to become exercised about.  Let’s remember that many so-called human rights lawyers are members of the hard left who regard any Western intervention overseas as a form of Imperialism and feel justified in using whatever tools are available to stop it. In this context, the UK Government has placed the tools in their hands.

The Ticking Time Bomb

As an afterthought, here’s a practical perspective on the ticking time-bomb ‘problem’.

The scenario is that you have information that Mr X has planted a nuclear weapon on a timer in a major city.  You’ve still got him strapped down with his ‘nads wired up so how are you going to find out where the bomb is in time to save the population?  Torture him, we all chorus.

Except that it won’t work very well.

‘Where’s the bomb?’

‘It’s concreted into the foundations of the Shard, so fuck you!’




‘Yes, you’re all going to die. Fuck you!’


‘Tell me the truth!’

‘That is the truth!’



‘I want the truth, now, or you’re going to suffer even more’

‘Fuck you!’


‘Aaaaaaaargh!  OK, it’s in the left luggage office at Paddington. There was a bear nearby, eating marmalade sandwiches’

So what can you do? A team goes off to dig up the Shard; another team goes to Paddington. The bomb goes off in Victoria Station left luggage.  Everyone dies.


Interrogation and Torture

The contents of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report into the CIA’s use of torture in interrogation make grim reading, not least because it doesn’t appear to have worked in any significant way.  It so happens that, back when I was serving in the regular Army, I trained as an interrogator on the course that was, back then at least, regarded as pretty much the ‘gold standard’ amongst western intelligence agencies.

As you might expect, there was some discussion about the utility of torture and physical ‘pressures’ and the broad consensus was that they were not as useful as is often imagined.  In any case, the point was moot: we Brits didn’t use it and we weren’t about to start.  What we did seek to do was apply psychological pressure to start a dialogue which could deliver information which we could analyse and collate.  A detailed interrogation can be a slow process and I’m not sure that torture would speed it up very much.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example:

Mr X is a suspected terrorist and a suspected associate of Mr Y – who is believed to be a senior member of the same organisation – with some knowledge of his intentions.  We have Mr X at our interrogation centre and we’ve wired up his testicles to our torture machine.  It happens that we know very little about Mr Y, including what he looks like, but we’re keen to know.

‘OK X, I need a detailed description of Y.  Everything you know’

‘Fuck off, I’m not talking’

‘Don’t give me that attitude or I’ll hurt you’



‘You don’t want me to do that again, do you?’

‘Aaargh! No! Please don’t!’

‘So what colour is his hair?’

‘He has purple hair’

‘Purple eh? You’re lying!’


‘Aaaaaaaargh!  OK, OK, it’s green!’

‘So it’s green, is it?  You just told me it’s purple’


‘Aaaaaaaaargh!  It’s purple, it’s purple!’

‘Are you sure?’

‘No, I’m not sure, I’ve actually never met him’


‘Aaaaaaaargh!  OK, I did meet him’

Etcetera etcetera.

In other words, people being tortured will tell you what they think you want them to say, if you give them enough clues.  If you don’t, they’ll just try stuff out.  It may be accurate or it may not, but that doesn’t really make any difference because none of it is intelligence yet, it’s just information that needs to be checked against other sources, and that will take time.

But also, and this is quite important, if Mr X was who we thought he was and did know important information and was fully committed to his cause, every time you hurt him you remind him that he is your enemy and you are his, and that it is never going to be in his long-term interest to help you.

As an interrogator, I would, from time to time, attend the lectures on an annual ‘combat survival tour’ that was organised for the UK Military.  Typically, this involved American former prisoners of the North Vietnamese talking about their experiences attempting to evade capture and then in captivity.  The ordeal that these men went through, over many years for the most part, was wretched.  Torture was frequent – sometimes a daily event – and sustained.  Many – if not most – of these men did give away information, although for the most part it was of a fairly trivial nature by the time they ‘broke’ (the military, like intelligence and, indeed, terrorist organisations, try to compartmentalise information so few individuals know enough to cause serious damage).  However, the conditions in which they were held and the horrors they were subjected to left them in no doubt that they should not be helping their captors and, as far as possible, it seems they tried to return to first principles during every torture session, giving away only the ‘Big Four’ – name, rank, number and date of birth – until their pain became unendurable.  Their courage and fortitude was beyond heroic – one of the reasons the US Military gets very upset by false claims of Vietnam POW status.

There is a lesson to be learned here.  I would not put Al Qa’eda terror suspects in the same moral universe as the Vietnam POWs but I have little doubt that in their own minds, most of these angry, sexless thugs think exactly that: that they are heroic warriors fighting for a just cause.  I wonder how much mistreatment by the CIA helped to fortify them and strengthen their resolve to resist.  There can be little doubt that many of them were ‘true believers’.

The reality is that good intelligence is usually a gradual process of building up a picture from a multitude of different sources, of which interrogation is one.  The general view when I was trained, and subsequently as a practitioner, was that an induced state of anxiety, disorientation and isolation was pretty much as effective as torture in getting a prisoner to talk, and that this could be done through psychological pressure without resorting to violence.  A weak prisoner is likely to start talking if he thinks he’s going to be tortured without the need to actually do it.  These pressures aren’t a pleasant experience – I’ve been through it in training – but they don’t kill or maim people.

I personally think that one of the key weapons which will defeat Islamic fundamentalism is the moral superiority of the plurality of those who oppose it, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, secular or whatever, and what the Senate Intelligence Committee has told us today suggests that, for a time, the CIA gave up that superiority.  How can we now claim that we are better than they are?