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What should you do when two Isis suspects are interrogated right before your eyes?

On the ground in Mosul, the terror group's stronghold is crumbling.

It was nearly midnight when the prisoners were brought in. A couple of the Iraqi soldiers in the room had already drifted off to sleep in the effortless manner of front liners, while those still awake had dropped the volume on their conversation to a murmur, focused mainly on how to capture the unit’s final objective from Islamic State the following day.

I was sitting on one side of a sofa, half-listening to the conversations around me, my eyelids starting to hood. From time to time there was the muffled thump of an explosion, but the rhythm of violence was on the ebb. There was nothing much to be worried about in that house that night, full of armed troops nearing the end of a nine-month battle to recapture the last Mosul stronghold of Isis, known in the region as Daesh. Thoughts of sleep unrolled easily across my mind.

Then, suddenly, the front door opened, and two Isis suspects were frogmarched in. The captives were young men in their early twenties; short, tough-looking guys, already beaten and bound, plastic cuffs holding their wrists tight behind their backs.

“Shit,” I thought, as they were pushed down on the floor in front of us between the sofa and TV. “Interrogation. Just when I am about to get some sleep.”

The beating and abuse of bound prisoners is widespread among Iraqi forces; and that is just the low end of the human rights violations scale seen in the country during this brutal war. Intensive torture; the slaughter of human shields by Islamic State; civilians killed by air strikes and artillery; rape; murder; extrajudicial execution. It was all out there on the snarling Mosul battlefield.

The battle did have its share of heroes, though, and many brave men. The Iraqi army – which had so shamefully run away from Mosul in 2014, leaving two million people to the mercy of the world’s cruellest terror group – redeemed its reputation for courage, enduring huge casualties in nearly nine months of fighting to take the city back. That said, history should simply record the battle as the hard-fought, high-cost turning point in which the caliphate died. No one should call it pretty, or try to discern some greater glory.

Right from the beginning it was looking bad for the two captives. Found in the street outside after curfew, they looked like escapees from the Old City, where Isis made their final stand in those last weeks of the Mosul battle. They had hard faces and the sinewy build of impoverished urban fighters.

Prisoner A had fresh scabs pockmarked up the left hand side of his body from shrapnel which he admitted had been thrown up by an airstrike. It would be seen as incriminating evidence that he was a fighter. “Uh-oh,” I thought, sitting up. “Bad start.”

A smiling fat soldier brought in a length of twin cable, knotted, to start the beating, and put it on the floor at his feet. Another opened a laptop in front of the commanding officer to check the suspects’ names against a database of wanted people.

From my years spent covering the fighting in Iraq, I had learned how interrogations usually progressed. Anyone suspected of possible Isis membership – and that included almost any male coming out across the lines from the Old City during the final stages of fighting there – was likely to be beaten with cables and flex across his back and the soles of his feet. That could progress to stress positions, or being hung upside down for further beating. It depended on the mood of the unit, the corroborating information on the suspects’ database or the suspicious nature of the prisoner. If the soldiers really wanted to go for it they would wrap a length of rope or cable around the suspect’s upper chest and tighten it with an improvised winch from behind, which provoked extreme pain and the sense of suffocation.

After a while the captive might either be released, or else handed over to division level intelligence officers for further questioning, in which case the torture options increased. In the latter stages of the battle, when the holding areas became too full of suspects, some were killed merely because there was no space to detain them. Earlier this summer in the Old City I saw the body of one Isis suspect who had been shot without being questioned at all. His sister had denounced him as they clambered out of the rubble together.

The challenges for a journalist were complex. A reporter’s presence could either antagonise the interrogators or mitigate the treatment of captives. Should journalists just watch and say nothing, like they do in so many other incidents during war? Say something? Or walk away?

The officer’s laptop powered up. The database appeared. He ran the suspects’ names through it, while starting to ask some simple questions. Prisoner A – short-haired, clean-shaven, in dirty tracksuit bottoms, a filthy T-shirt and sandals – made an early beginner’s mistake, by saying he knew of no one in his family affiliated to Islamic State.

The database said different, and the commanding officer yelled: “Liar!”

He was a big guy, the CO. His shout echoed in the room. The prisoner hung his head and beside him the fat soldier stood ready with the whip, rocking on his toes while looking at me as if I was the maiden aunt who should have gone to bed before the party started.

“It says here you have six brothers with the Daesh, one of them fighting in Syria!” said the CO.

“Six brothers in Isis?” I thought, aware of feeling intensely hostile to the captive. “You prick. You’re dead already.”

But he came back well, Prisoner A. “They were all my step-mother’s sons!” he said, sounding indignant and somehow credible. “They were the sons of my father’s second wife. I never lived with them! It’s true what I say! I beg you believe me.”

“Smart move,” I thought. Iraqi families are as complex and divided as any. Every second soldier in that room must have had a stepmother issue, or bad blood with a half-brother. “I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world,” as the old Bedouin saying goes.

I felt intrigued but uncomfortable, watching it all unfold, the bound and kneeling men waiting for the whip or worse. I knew that if I left the room both prisoners would get thrashed for sure, and likely tortured. If I stayed, they might get thrashed anyway, in front of me, which might have implied my acquiescence. But I also wanted to know what would happen. It was awkward either way.


Ali Arkady’s story epitomises this dilemma. A 34-year-old Iraqi photojournalist, Arkady had been embedded with a unit from the Emergency Response Division during the start of the battle for Mosul. The soldiers whose heroism he set out to portray started torturing prisoners, hanging them from ceilings with weights on their bodies, gouging their eyes, beating them, sometimes shooting them.

Arkady was so involved with the unit that he later admitted to striking some of the prisoners too, an act he claimed to have done under duress. Nevertheless, he somehow managed to reclaim his integrity and fled Iraq, publishing a dossier of prisoner abuse images in May 2017, while the battle still had six weeks left to run.

I knew how difficult it could be to avoid bonding with troops under shared pressure. Although my own contact with them was brief, just a few days, I liked the soldiers with whom I stayed during the battle’s final act. It was hard not to. They looked after me and fed me. There was no formal “embed” process as such.

I had met the CO through my interpreter. He put me in a Humvee and took me to the front. His soldiers escorted me around the Old City, even when other journalists were blocked from the area. Tough guys fighting a terrible enemy, they were as nuanced and funny and complicated as any soldiers I met anywhere else.

The best conversations we shared were about fear. House-to-house fighting is terrifying. Sometimes they got stuck in a building with Isis fighters in adjoining rooms, or were temporarily cut off, or lost, or fought with friendly units in confused night-time bloodbaths in basements.

There were improvised explosive devices, IEDs, everywhere. The bomb disposal officer attached to the unit told me that he received his posting to Mosul after drawing names from a hat. “Oh fuck,” he had said when he saw where he was being sent.

But now these nice guys had a couple of prisoners and they wanted to beat the crap out of them. Prisoner B, who had eyes like black pebbles and a scraggly beard, looked even more messed up. The database recorded his elder brother as being a senior Isis commander fighting inside Syria, while his mother was an MP in the Iraqi parliament.

“It’s true of my brother,” he said, staring at the floor, utterly resigned to what was about to befall him. “But I am not Daesh.”

I had a sudden bolt of inspiration. On my phone I had a photo of my own face, taken in a hospital in 2014, a few hours after I had been worked over by a Syrian rebel group while being held as their hostage. It was a proper beating.

“Hey, this was me when I was beaten with my hands tied,” I said, producing the photo. In the UK anyone who has seen that picture winces and makes a sympathetic “oooh” noise. But in Iraq they raise their eyebrows and go “huh!”, as if admiring the professionalism of the beating.

“The thing is,” I began, “it really upsets me now, after this happened to me, when I see someone else with their hands tied getting beaten in a similar way.”

Then I took a tactical piss in the hallway loo to let the soldiers discuss the matter among themselves. I knew I had hit on a good idea. Iraqis are fabulous hosts. The thought of upsetting a guest was an anathema, even in an interrogation session.

Sure enough, when I came back in the prisoners had their plasticuffs cut off, and were sitting on the floor drinking juice, looking dazzled with surprise. They pulled up their T-shirts to reveal terrible raised welts – as well as proper cat-o-nine-tails scarring – which they said had been given to them during two earlier interrogations that same week by other Iraqi units. Then the soldiers let them go into the night.

“I think maybe they were innocent after all,” the CO said, rather unconvincingly. “It is important you understand we treat prisoners fairly.”

Only the fat soldier looked pissed off.

I went next door to sleep. One of the officers put an assault rifle by my blanket and said “just in case”. I was about to nod off when I suddenly twitched awake, fearing that maybe I had been duped after all, that maybe the captives had been set free, and then shot around the corner, out of my view.

“Oh well,” I thought finally, closing my eyes. “Maybe they were Daesh after all.”

Anthony Loyd is a reporter for the Times 

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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Donald Trump’s offer to talk to North Korea tests the “madman” theory to the limit

Nixon also allegedly played up his unpredictability in the Cold War, with the US embroiled in Vietnam. 

Is Donald Trump’s announcement of talks with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un his Nixon goes to China moment? As recently as last October, Trump publicly rebuked his (now former) secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, for leaving the door open to talks, concluding that he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man”. This followed Kim’s promise “to tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire”. Now we are told that dotard and dictator are due to meet.

As Trump continues to break all the rules of post-Cold War international relations – on anything from alliance management to trade and nuclear non-proliferation – it is worth remembering that the so-called madman theory of diplomacy at least has a distinguished heritage.

Niccolò Machiavelli once wrote that “at times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness”. Richard Nixon was said to test the same proposition at the height of the Cold War, with the US embroiled in Vietnam. According to his chief of staff, HR Haldeman, Nixon had played up his unpredictability – supported by a back catalogue of ferocious Commie-bashing that stretched back two decades – in order to send a signal to Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi that he was prepared to countenance nuclear war.

According to Haldeman’s account, this was a lesson he had learned at the feet of Dwight Eisenhower, who had sought a truce to the Korean War in 1953 by getting word to the Chinese that he was willing to drop the bomb to bring hostilities to a close. By 1972, the year that Nixon went to China, his secretary of state Henry Kissinger also reflected on the president’s tried and tested strategy to “‘push so many chips into the pot’ that the other side will think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further”.

So Donald Trump may yet become a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. If he succeeds in denuclearising the Korean peninsula he would be a more worthy recipient than Barack Obama in 2009. In truth, the gamble on direct talks with Kim Jong-un is based on an exaggerated sense of his own genius for deal-making rather than a careful reading of history or a painstakingly constructed plan. As such, it has none of the chessboard choreography that underlay nuclear diplomacy in the Cold War era. And it comes against the backdrop of continued chaos and confusion in the White House.

The story of how the opening for talks came about may well become a fable of the dysfunction in the court of Trump. On 8 March, Chung Eui-yong, national security adviser to President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, arrived at the White House for a scheduled meeting with his counterpart, HR McMaster. On learning of his presence, Trump asked to see Chung himself. In that discussion, Chung revealed that Kim Jong-un had made an offer to meet Trump in person. A meeting with a US president is something that the North Korean regime has sought for decades, but has resurfaced in the context of the improved relations between the two Koreas following the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Before his officials could intervene to urge caution, Trump appears to have jumped on the suggestion of a summit and told the South Koreans to go public with the news. A surprised Mr Chung said that he would first have to call President Moon, who subsequently gave the green light. At 5pm, Trump popped into the White House briefing room to hint to reporters that a major announcement was coming on Korea. By 7pm, Chung found himself in the dusk on the White House driveway making an impromptu statement that the president of the United States had expressed a willingness to meet the North Korean leader.

The meeting has been pencilled in for May, though it is unclear where it will take place and on what terms. With Kim likely to refuse any visit to the White House, and the Americans eager to avoid handing a propaganda victory to his regime with a pageant in Pyongyang, the most likely outcome would be on it taking place in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.

That is if it happens at all. Both defence secretary James Mattis and McMaster (whose position is said to be under threat) are thought to be opposed to a meeting. The befuddled Tillerson, on an official visit in Africa, was taken ill and initially unavailable for comment. On 13 February, Trump tweeted that he had a new secretary of state.

If Trump calculates that his hard line has yielded this opening, then one could be forgiven for guessing that Kim might believe the same. Meanwhile, the apparent willingness to consider “denuclearisation” is so ambiguous as to mean almost anything. Having witnessed the fate of the last nuclear-armed dictator to “come nicely” and give up his missiles – Colonel Gaddafi in Libya – Kim is unlikely to be in a hurry to dispense with his greatest bargaining tool.

 At the end of last year, the view from White House watchers was that Trump was gearing up for war. Much was made of the saga of Victor D Cha, an academic and former Bush administration official, who had been expected to be confirmed as ambassador to South Korea before Christmas. Despite being known as a hawk, Cha had expressed opposition to a “bloody nose” or “limited strike” military option against the regime. Having set himself against some prominent voices on the National Security Council, his nomination was withdrawn. Now the administration is attempting a different course but Cha, writing in the New York Times, warns the stakes are just as high. If handled with care, a meeting might provide a unique opportunity brought about by an unlikely combination of bluster and force. But a failure would increase the likelihood of war by raising the stakes and exhausting the diplomatic last resort. 

John Bew is an NS contributing writer

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game