Small Wars Journal

Interviewing Tactics in Counterinsurgency

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Interviewing Tactics in Counterinsurgency

by Stacy S. Lamon, Ph.D., Nahama

Broner, Ph.D., John Hollywood, Ph.D., and COL Billy McFarland, USAR

Download the full article

There is a recent growing body of literature on strategic, operational and theoretical

approaches to interacting with insurgents, as well as official documentation on

the topic.  Though there is demand for it, often from junior officers, surprisingly

little attention is given to the applied, boots-on-the-ground questions of "How

do I do it? Who do I ask? What do I ask them?" and"How do I ask it?" 

Not since Galula's 1964 manual on counterinsurgency has a basic hands-on approach,

written for the user, been offered. Using techniques from criminology, police investigation,

military science, psychology, and social network analysis, as well as practices

learned in the field, this article provides a framework for organizing tactics of

how to conduct interviews in non-controlled settings with the uninvolved man or

woman in the street and the bystander or victim aware of insurgent activities, as

well as the non-combatant collaborator and functionary of an insurgency, and a framework

for interviews in semi-controlled settings such as government or police offices.

In effect, this article walks the reader through the interview process step-by-step,

question-by-question, from planning to execution to analysis.  In doing so,

it provides a basic tactical answer to the question "How do I do it?" -- This

is how it can be done.

Download the full article

Dr. Stacy S. Lamon, a clinical and forensic psychologist and research scientist,

is currently a senior development advisor to the United States Agency for International

Development (USAID) in Iraq. 

Dr. Nahama Broner as a senior research psychologist at RTI International and

adjunct Associate Professor at New York University researches violence (victimization

and perpetration), public health and safety risk management interventions of offender

populations, and the translation of research to practice.

Dr. John Hollywood is an operations researcher at the RAND Corporation, where

he studies intelligence collection and analysis methods to preempt violent attacks

in the areas of crime prevention, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.

COL Billy McFarland, USAR, is the Assistant Chief of the U.S. Army's Foreign

Area Officer Proponent, the Pentagon office responsible for the design, support

and advocacy for the Army's Foreign Area Officers -- the language, regional and political-military experts serving commanders, Defense agencies, and Embassy Country Teams around the globe.

About the Author(s)


Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 09/14/2010 - 1:32am


Police gang and drug teams do it all the time and it has become second nature to them---you are right it is a critical skill set and incorporates street smarts, but as long as the USAISC ignors the problem as it is not TRADOC approved for the basic instruction skill sets and no one knows how to treach it as an advanced skill set ---it is an art that will remain unknown to them.

By garage scene if you are referring to the standard link analysis tools such as Analyst NB which I call death by circles and lines and you are right.

Bill (not verified)

Mon, 09/13/2010 - 4:20pm


We really weren't thinking about any setting other than a street in a village or town in Iraq or Afghanistan and the time and space constraints of "doing your thing" inside the enemy's OODA loop, which, in the age of cell phones is faster but still not timely due to other characteristics. We'd like to focus on this, look into the militants' response times over time, and keep refining but, alas, we've all moved on. Our next project will probably focus on disputed boundary situations and the associated narratives.

We haven't heard anything from USAIC. It would be great to collaborate with them. This is a critical skill and part "street smarts" of COIN in places that are so totally foreign to us and maybe even in settings like the Balkans--hard to remember that far back now.

We've found SNA superior to the garage scene in A Beautiful Mind. Yes, it has its flaws.

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 09/09/2010 - 12:35am

Bill: curious---did you get any feedback from USAISC?

The course taught was only taught at the NTC--was canned by two Ops Group intelligence officers using USAISC as an excuse because after 30 inquiries to the USAISC as to what the problems were there was never any return answers.

If you ask me the real reason was that they did not want to have to answer the question of why is a civilian contractor dictating HUMINT type innovative field work vs what the green suiter says is the TRADOC way forward.

I had worked as well with a Troop Commander from the 3ACR (2007) who was the first Company Commander to build and test the concept of a Company Intel Support Team (CoIST) at a time that the USAISC and the 25thID were just talking about trying a CoIST test bed.

We trained the entire company in tatical questioning ie tactical interviewing, the Austin TX Police Force (drug teams) continued the training for those selected as being the "most talkative"---needless to say they were extremely successful during their NTC rotation as well as the work they were doing in Diyala/Baqubah during the surge phase which I heard after the fact those that had done both the TQ/TI as well as the police review were highly successful with the local population.

CALL never did any review of the work done by the 3ACR as they only started after 2008 doing extensive TTP collection and they definitely did not know of the extra amount of work done by the 3ACR.

One key item that is needed if one is doing constant interviewing is a deep understanding of the Commander and the S2s intelligence requirements so they can focus on that information which is needed for the answering of those requirements instead of a one over the world approach to information collection.

Just a small comment SNA is now petering out even though it is still the latest buzz word especially since some use the Carnagie Mellow SNA tools ORA and DyNet---simply put it looks great to look at but still does not provide actual information needed for analysis using the Kilcullen "conflict ecosystem" model.

Bill McFarland (not verified)

Wed, 09/08/2010 - 1:57am

Mike: Thanks! Glad you liked what we had to say about SNA. John purposefully presented it in a way that would make it practical and useful, while avoiding all the detailed mathematical analysis that can go with it.</BR>

Outlaw 7: We didn't write this article from a HUMINT perspective, nor were HTTs involved in it or its focus, and certainly its not written from an interrogation viewpoint -- we explicitly leave interrogation to the experts. That said . . . . The genesis for this article was watching infantry troops in Northern, Central and Southern Iraq struggle with the issue of how to operate in their "build" role. Lots of effort but we observed that the "pieces" didn't fit together. Things briefed very well at MNFI and the US Mission, same at MNCI and the MNDs but at the BCT level and below, disconnects began to emerge. Since two of us were able to spend significant time as "embeds" at company CPs in patrol base settings and with the TF staffs at satellite FOBs, we had a very unique perspective, at least to us. Hence, this article. You may have missed it, but the Intelligence Board report was referenced in footnote 9. Since the bulk of the Boards report is devoted to interrogation, rather than field interviewing, we only mentioned Randy Borums behavioral science portion of it. But youre right, in retrospect its a good report that deserved more attention and we should have mentioned Robert Fein and Gary Hazletts contributions to interviewing in the report, as well. And we agree that the process for capturing and disseminating TTPs to combat arms soldiers working outside their former area of expertise (breaking things), isn't a clean process. Nevertheless, love CALL (discussed this material with CALL field teams in Iraq) but we are overwhelmed by the volume. Thanks for your comments - they are very useful.</BR>

Anonymous: Didn't know about the course. The units I was with had been JRTC-trained and if there was a similar course, it wasn't evident. No one ever mentioned one, but that's not determinant. As an aside, I conducted a series of orientation courses to the companies of a BCT and got a lot of post session walk-up comments like, "gee, I wished I known this on my previous rotation," or, "Why didn't we know this during our train-up? We would have trained differently." Nonetheless, your observations are very much appreciated, and were curious, too, to see if USAISC pays attention to it.</BR>

Carl: You are absolutely right: A conversation is by far the best way to get information. But since we are talking about getting information in very restricted circumstance, the closest we can come to that is the "narrative" we mentioned - letting someone tell you a story is probably the next best thing to a conversation. In regard to using extended time to get information, youre right again. But here were focused on high threat circumstances - when you see people starting to come out of the shadows, you know that you have to use what little time you have. Finally, youve stumped us for a solution to one of your last observations, "not everyone is good at interviewing." Theyre not, and the best you can do is try to select those who are best at and get them to practice - we hope this article can give them some guidance in doing it.</BR>

To each of you: thank you for your comments. Most helpful.

carl (not verified)

Tue, 08/10/2010 - 4:03am

There are two things I would have liked to have seen the article mention. The first is making the interview a conversation. People like to have conversations. They often don't like being grilled, especially if they can detect a checklist. It is a matter of tone and presentation. A skillful person could work all the questions into a conversation and the subject won't know it unless he thinks about it later. I think this a very important point.

The second thing that I would have liked to have seen is not everybody is good at interviewing. Like other aspects of small wars it is important to find out who is good at this kind of thing and use that unique talent.

The article does apologize for its' brevity but those two things should have been mentioned because they are so important.

I have a question too. The article in several places mentions interviewing with time constraints, doing it quickly. The experience I have is stateside policing and time is needed to get anything of use, time and repeated contacts. Can good info be gotten in the foreign fields if time is limited? That is not an opinion disguised as a question, I don't know because it is outside the range of my experience.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 08/03/2010 - 8:42pm

Interesting article in light of the fact that over 1400 soldiers, officers, and company commanders, and NTC Observer Controllers had been taught a form of "tactical questioning" between 2006 and early 2009 at the NTC and that is identical to the article but with a cultural slant. Actually the term "tactical questioning" became interchangable with "tactical interviewing" over the life of the course.

The two hour course was built around; legal aspects of "tactical questioning/interviewing" with the restrictions between TQ/TI and MSO, coupled with a heavy dose of Iraqi culture in answering core questions as viewed by the three basic Iraqi age groups, rapport building, spiral questioning coupled with "cognitive dissonance".

Comments came fast and heavy from all ranks about it's effectiveness and how it showed them the mistakes they had been making on previous Iraq rotations. Instructor rating by the class participants was extremely high for the three years.

Course got killed by the TRADOC G2 intel advisor assigned to the NTC and complaints from the USAISC to the fact that it "was to difficult" for someone not trained as an interrogator to understand or even for that matter "to difficult for young inexperienced interrogators". But that totally clashed with the reviews of the class participants which ranked from E3s up to O6s.

Will be interested to see if the USAISC signs on for this.

Outlaw 7 (not verified)

Tue, 08/03/2010 - 8:12pm

Where does one start?---this is why the HUMINT field takes such a beating from those outside of HUMINT.

Not sure what part of this entire article is in complainance with FM 2-22.3 HUMINT Collection? Not sure what part of this article is actually "legal" in the strictist sense of 2-22.3 as some of points mentioned in fact trend into the realm of MSO.

Noticed as well the authors did not quote the Military Intelligence Board's 2007 long article on needed new forms of interrogation techniques.

There has been a steady eroding of the interrogation field since 2005 via the terms "tactical questioning", "field interviewing", "tactical screening", "tactical interrogation", "interrogation", "strategic debriefing", and "debriefers". There has as well be a spiralling downward of those deemed to be able to conduct interrogations---first it was only 97Es/351Es now Ms, and then local police retirees were allowed, then DEA or FBI were allowed to interrogate---now in fact it appears that based on this article even HTTs can get into the game.

What is described in the article could in fact be replaced by and has been available for over thirty years to the intel community via the Stat Debriefing course or in the former EAIT course for advanced JIDC interrogators-namely "the spiral questioning technique" which many here at this blog view as nothing really new so why discuss it further.

This article opens a massive can of worms in the area of interrogation/strat debriefing vs tactical questioning/interviewing--and the related training needed as well as the legal aspects since Abu Ghraib.

Looks like the world is going backwards as the term interviewer was common in the Cold War days of refugee operations when no one wanted to use the term interrogator---then the workaround became "stat debriefer" so now the new COIN term has morphed to what "tactical interviewer" from interrogator and now anyone can do it?

This could get into an interesting discourse on problems inside the HUMINT Collection field which I have said for a long time can in fact coverdown on HTS work as part of their MSO mission set.

Outstanding contribution.

I particularly liked that y'all mentioned Social Network Analysis (SNA). For those unaware of SNA, my rudimentary explanation is that it's a Analyst Notebook combined with Google Earth. The technical terminology is that it "views social relationships in terms of network theory consisting of nodes and ties. Nodes are the individual actors within the networks, and ties are the relationships between the actors. The resulting graph-based structures are often very complex. There can be many kinds of ties between the nodes. Research in a number of academic fields has shown that social networks operate on many levels, from families up to the level of nations, and play a critical role in determining the way problems are solved, organizations are run, and the degree to which individuals succeed in achieving their goals."*

Combined with other collection assets, it is a way of penetrating the conflict ecosystem.