The al-Mawla TIRs: An Analytical Discussion with Cole Bunzel, Haroro Ingram, Gina Ligon, and Craig Whiteside.

AuthorMilton, Daniel

CTC: Cole, Craig, Gina, and Haroro, it is great to have you all here to speak with CTC about these documents. Let's start with some contextual questions. As you all know, we've only got three documents of a larger population of approximately 66. What do you think we can make of just three documents? Is it possible to get insight from a limited sample? What are some of your thoughts on that in terms of the limitations, but also potentially the things that can be extracted?

Whiteside: I've been through the TIRs a few times, and each time, I'm picking up more stuff. I'm surprised there are that many reports in general. If there's 66 that are out there, I didn't realize that detainees were interrogated that often in a place like [the U.S. Camp] Bucca [detention facility], which [had] a reputation for people just getting dumped there and being unmanageable, so it indicates to me that he was a person of interest long beyond the initial screening process.

Ligon: It's the most that we have from him, and so I think that's really important. It's also essentially in his own words, which as a psychologist and somebody who studies leadership style by how people talk, that to me is incredibly important. Using interviews and responses to interviews is an important method for those of us who assess the psychology of leadership. And so the fact that there are three at different time points actually shows some reliability because you can see some of the same speech patterns and constructs he uses across the three time periods, and really remarkable consistency in how he expresses his world views. So I personally deduced a lot out of the length and the fact that it's a primary account. It's his own words. Although these summaries are paraphrased by the compilers of the TIRs rather than verbatim, it's still the closest thing we have to his own words. The key to me is that there was no speechwriter; and his responses, whether deceptive or not, are still his words. So I think it's incredibly useful.

That said, one limitation is the date of them. It's 12 years ago, and life experiences shape how someone views the world and their place in it. To get a better sense of his leadership style, I would like to know what's happened to him since, anything of how he would perceive lessons learned. Insofar as we can deduce anything from a small set of documents and knowing the leadership position he does end up attaining, I think this is someone who does draw upon lessons and experiences that he's had, so it would be good to know what's happened to him in the intervening years.

Ingram: I'd just add to what Craig and Gina have said so far. This is an interesting collection of documents, but there's no question that there are significant limitations. These are only three of 66 or so documents, and so we're missing that larger context. I think more time is needed to track down, for example, the consequences of his informing on his terrorist colleagues, to verify the accuracy of his claims. But even just beyond that, there's a real value from a research perspective to taking this as a snapshot and placing it within the historical context for the time.

I would be interested in seeing actual transcripts as opposed to the summaries. (a) That would allow you to capture the nuances. Sometimes that exchange between interrogator and detainee is actually really important because what you can potentially do over time is track developments in the relationship between the interrogator and the individual. And you can't really see that in the summaries.

Even though this is someone being interrogated and under pressure, one of the big points we learn is that this is a man who is clearly a rat. When I was reading these summaries, it just reminded me of other snitches. The way he selectively talks up and emphasizes certain details while conveniently ignoring or downplaying others. At least in these summaries, al-Mawla largely focuses on other people and the group. Even when talking about himself, the story of his recruitment seems exaggerated in some ways, whitewashed in others, but largely a means to point to other people. Whether this is part of a master plan for senior members that get caught, the actions of a common snitch, or a bit of both, it's hard to tell, but it's all important for context. I think that that's a really important part of this collection, and that's why the transcripts would be so interesting. Even if much of what he's saying is not accurate, it's such an insight into al-Mawla. It's also important to recognize that what we see in these summaries is likely partly the result of an interrogation plan, and al-Mawla's interrogators may have latched on to signs of ego or other vulnerabilities that made him more likely to talk. I'm obviously speculating here because these summaries don't provide all these details, but the possibilities are interesting.

Aside from these types of limited insights, the real value of these documents from a research perspective will be the ongoing and future research efforts that they can help inform. In my view, it's that kind of contextual, strategic hindsight-type research that will be really interesting.

Bunzel: Obviously, it's a limited dataset here, but I still think it's extremely useful, particularly because we don't have much verified information about al-Mawla. Not that this is entirely verified, but at least it's information that comes from a verified source. I've seen, for example, reporting that he went by the name of 'ustaz, or the professor or the teacher, and here one of his pseudonyms given in the TIRs is Ustaz Ahmad, so there's some corroboration for that. There has also been reporting about him having a religious educational background, and that also finds corroboration here. (b)

Another interesting thing is the time lag between one of the TIRs and two of the other ones, and you can definitely see that he takes a very different approach from January 8th to January 25th 2008. In the first one, he practically distances himself from the organization, saying, 'I've never even given bay 'a to anyone in the organization. Why? Because I'm a Sufi.' While we might be learning that [he] had some Sufi past, the idea that he is presenting there is that 'I am a Sufi. Therefore, I have given bay'a to a murshid, which is a Sufi spiritual leader. I cannot possibly give bay 'a to a leader of ISI because I have bay 'a to a spiritual Sufi leader.' That's nonsense, because in terms of ISI's ideology at that time, having a bay 'a to a Sufi spiritual leader is a death sentence. So that seems like nonsense.

He also doesn't even acknowledge that he was a bona fide member of the group in that earlier January 2008 TIR. And then in the second two, as we all know, he's singing quite loudly. So even though we don't know the circumstances of the interrogation--there are also different interpreters, and there is some variation of language used from one set to the other, and these are problems--having that time lag helps understand the development of his willingness to talk with interrogators.

CTC: This has been touched on in your comments, but clearly in the back of all of our minds is the question of whether al-Mawla is just putting out falsehood after falsehood. What are we to make of it all with respect to this adversarial process where potentially there are incentives to deceive or to ininimize? How do you try to balance some of those things when you're looking at information like this and trying to draw out the truth?

Bunzel: At first, I was skeptical that he was giving a whole lot of valuable information away. I thought, 'these were mostly pseudonyms, so what's the big deal of saying Abu Ahmad is the administrative leader for some imaginary province?' But I think when you look more carefully, he's identifying people by name. At the end of one of these TIRs, the names are given, real names. He does seem to be ratting on people. Then I notice something interesting, which is that when it came to his brother-in-law, he completely distances his brother-in-law from the organization: 'Oh no, he's just a driver.' It's just fascinating. There was an allegation made in 2019 by an IS [Islamic State] defector that al-Mawla paid a very large sum of money to the Iraqi government for his son-in-law to be released from detention, all the while ignoring requests to seek the release of other detainees. So that struck me as interesting. There may be a pattern here of trying to protect family members at the expense of other members of the organization.

Ligon: Again, as someone who looks at leadership styles based on the psychological constructs they use, I'm actually less concerned with the factual veracity of these statements. I'm really interested in the words used to describe his relationship to others in the organization and the organizational structure. That to me gives more insight into the sense-making he uses and how he might be expected to perceive ambiguous events that happen in the future. So it's interesting to hear you all talk about the factual veracity, but for me, it's the word choices and the psychological constructs that he uses to label events and people that are really important from an organizational psychology perspective.

CTC: So even in that sense, the falsehoods or fictions are still telling in and of themselves.

Ligon: Yes. And if he was using deception, the level of detail that he gives does show a remarkable capacity for contriving information, so acknowledging Haroro's point about what happens in these interrogations and how they try to evade culpability, it is interesting to me that he gave really specific details down to acne marks on someone's face and accents. As those descriptions had stability over time, if he was not being truthful, that gives some indication to his capacity for deception. But the stability of the descriptions does point to the likelihood that he was being truthful rather...

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