Small Wars Journal

Exploring Resistance Training with Terrorists: Why HVT Interrogation is Hard

Tue, 08/14/2018 - 12:25am

Exploring Resistance Training with Terrorists: Why HVT Interrogation is Hard


J. Robert Kane

In counterterrorism, the interrogation of high-value targets (HVTs) can be difficult. [1] Rapport building can be near impossible because HVTs may be determined not to talk regardless of the approach strategies used by the interrogator. If these unconventional HVTs were members of a conventional military, it would be said that they possessed a high degree of resistance training.


When it comes to interrogation, resistance training refers to any training supplied to the subject by his/her parent organization in order to evade or defer elicitation during the course of an interrogation in the event that they were captured. It is performed by the U.S. military and civilian agencies through a program referred to as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training. [2] It is also performed by many other foreign militaries and civilian intelligence agencies.


Many terrorist HVTs who are captured by the U.S. claim to receive resistance training from their host organizations during the course of the interrogation or tactical questioning. Many U.S. interrogators believe that they may have received some sort of resistance training but nothing to the extent that would allow them to effectively and persistently implement a resistance strategy. It is believed by many intelligence officials that the resistance training received by HVTs is minimal and non-sustainable. Further, many of these same officials believe that the period between the alleged resistance training experience and detention is far too long for the resistance training to remain valuable. [3]


The only problem is that many of these HVTs possess greater resistance capabilities to interrogation than any conventional detainee to date. The exception to that may be with regard to subjects from North Korea or Vietnam. But when it comes to most other targets, terrorist HVTs generally tend to possess greater resistance capabilities to interrogation.


The reason why comes to ideology. Terrorist organizations are funded by ideology. [4] It is what spurs the group’s inception, augments its financing and membership and is the reason why operations are fulfilled to satisfy larger political objectives. [5] While someone’s ideology to a nation-state generally comes down to allegiance, this allegiance can be changed through ideological examination. Hence is the reason for many defections.


Ideology may be (or historically was) stronger in the case of captives from North Korea or Vietnam but that is mainly because the ideology was forcibly engrained in the subject’s mental faculties in order to legitimize and protect it from outside influence that may undermine the premises of the ideology in the first place. [6] But that does not mean that nation-states invariably possess high ideological positions affiliated to their allegiance. Historically, ideology was not too strong in Russian nationals and that is because many citizens of the Soviet-era knew that the ideology was a farce. They went through the motions of the Communist-controlled government but that was only to remain politically correct with the present regime’s mandates.


Terrorist group members possess a high degree of belief in ideology. [7] The ideological beliefs are bona fide, especially when it comes to high-ranking group members as in the case of HVTs. Except when the ideology was not truly believed by the member in the first place, it is extremely difficult to change ideology of this sort. [8] Hence is why, in intelligence parlance, not many terrorists can be “turned” or have their convictions swapped for that of the rival organization or nation.


That is why terrorists generally possess a high ability to resist interrogation regardless of how comprehensive or not the resistance training was that they allegedly received.


Many experts of interrogation of terrorists HVTs contend that more aggressive interrogation approaches are not needed to gain the detainee’s compliance because they can just break the ideology of the detainee. [9] When it comes to many HVT detainees, that is almost impossible.


For example, consider the interrogation of any HVT detained and interrogated by the U.S. since the beginning of the Global War on Terror. Not one target (aside from maybe a low-level battlefield combatant) has been dissuaded from their ideology or began compliance to the interrogator’s questioning through rapport building, alone. The ideology of such detainees is too strong.


When it comes to resistance training such as in the case of what is performed in the U.S. (SERE training), I firmly believe that the extent of resistance abilities does not come from the training, itself. The training may test the individual’s ability to resist interrogation strategies but it generally does not form a new capacity for resistance. It is the person who goes into the training and what their ideology is. It is not who comes out of the training. Resistance training does not forge a new ability to resist interrogation but rather it solidifies the individual’s ability to resist interrogation based on their ideology.


The capacity to resist interrogation does not come from resistance training. It comes from ideology. Like certain subjects who were brainwashed or subject to propaganda to fasten their ideological views, terrorists generally contain a high degree of ideological strength. As a result, they are incredibly skilled at resistance strategies that make interrogation extremely difficult. Propaganda can be extremely effective at preparing individuals to resist interrogation.


People can be taught resistance strategies that may be effective. That is the hope of SERE training, after all. But these strategies are only as effective as the ideology of the subject in question. A person with a high degree of ideological strength will be more successful at employing resistance to interrogation than a person who possesses all of the resistance training imaginable but only a marginally lower level of ideological strength.


Future efforts to interrogate HVTs of terrorism should explore the root components of terrorism and the ideology of the group the HVT represents. It would be almost impossible for an interrogator to change the ideology of the detainee but it would not be impossible to understand it.


The views, opinions, and findings of the author expressed in this article should not be construed as asserting or implying U.S. government endorsement of its factual statements and interpretations or representing the official positions of any component of the United States government.


End Notes


[1] Parry, John T., and Welsh S. White. "Interrogating Suspected Terrorists: Should Torture Be an Option." University of Pittsburgh Law Review 63 (2001): 743.

[2] Doran, Anthony P., Gary Hoyt, and Charles A. Morgan III. "Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Training." Military Psychology: Clinical and Operational Applications (2012): 306.

[3] Schiemann, John W. "Tortured Logic: Information and Brutality in Interrogations (With Debate)." Torture Journal 27, no. 3.

[4] Habeck, Mary R. "Knowing the enemy: Jihadist ideology and the war on terror." In The Theory and Practice of Islamic Terrorism, pp. 65-68. Macmillan, New York, 2008.

[5] Hassan, Muhammad Haniff Bin. "Key Considerations in Counterideological Work against Terrorist Ideology." Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29, no. 6 (2006): 531-558.

[6] Pratkanis, Anthony R., Anthony Pratkanis, and Elliot Aronson. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. Macmillan, New York, 2001.

[7] Blomberg, S. Brock, Khusrav Gaibulloev, and Todd Sandler. "Terrorist Group Survival: Ideology, Tactics, and Base of Operations." Public Choice 149, no. 3-4 (2011): 441.

[8] Becker, Howard S., and Irving Louis Horowitz. "Radical politics and sociological research: Observations on methodology and ideology." American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 1 (1972): 48-66.

[9] Russano, Melissa B., Fadia M. Narchet, Steven M. Kleinman, and Christian A. Meissner. "Structured interviews of experienced HUMINT interrogators." Applied Cognitive Psychology 28, no. 6 (2014): 847-859.


About the Author(s)

J. Robert Kane studies intelligence and terrorism. He is an intelligence officer and researcher who has worked on Middle Eastern targets. In addition to research funded by the U.S. Government, he has conducted studies at New York University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. He can be found on Twitter at @jrobertkane.