Blowback: How Torture Fuels Terrorism Rather Than Reduces It

Key figures in Al Qaeda were tortured before turning to violent extremism. Even U.S. military officials admit that torture is counterproductive.

Does torture lead to terror? Has the decadeslong abuse of political prisoners across the Muslim-majority world — not to mention in CIA black sites, U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, and the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay — fueled radicalization and extremism? Or is it a coincidence that some of the major figures in the jihadi movement — Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb; Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri; Al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — were all victims of horrific torture?

Lawrence Wright, one of the world’s leading authorities on Al Qaeda and author of “The Looming Tower,” doesn’t think so. He has said that the torture the founders of Al Qaeda & Co. endured “is what really gave them an appetite for revenge. And the bloodletting that is so characteristic of Al Qaeda … I think it was born in the humiliation that those men felt in those Egyptian prisons.”

As I point out in the latest episode of my six-part video series on blowback, torture is also a recruiting sergeant for terrorist groups. It allows them to act as a vehicle for angry and outraged young men and helps bolster their propaganda war against people in power. For example, Cherif Kouachi, one of the brothers who carried out the horrific attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015, said it was “everything I saw on the television, the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, all that which motivated me.”

And it wasn’t just Kouachi. A State Department memo leaked by WikiLeaks in 2009 noted how “following publication of the first Abu Ghraib photos, Saudi authorities arrested 250 individuals trying to leave Saudi Arabia to join extremist groups in Afghanistan.”

From Abu Ghraib in Iraq to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, the U.S. has engaged in brutal and violent abuse toward detainees suspected of terrorism — despite the fact that such brutality and abuse is what may have motivated many of those detainees to begin with. Listen to Gen. David Petraeus, former head of U.S. Central Command and former director of the CIA: “I think that whenever we have, perhaps, taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside,” he said on Meet The Press back in 2010. “Abu Ghraib and other situations like that are non-biodegradables. They don’t go away.  The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick.”

Has anyone in the Trump administration paid attention to such warnings, though? Or are they destined to repeat the same mistakes (and crimes) of the George W. Bush era? While running for president, Donald Trump made it clear he was a fan of torture and saw no ethical or legal obstacles to waterboarding and the rest. Then, after his election, he said his new defense secretary-designate, Gen. James Mattis, had persuaded him against such practices. Yet, in his State of the Union speech in January, Trump won cheers from the Republican legislators in the audience when he announced that he had “just signed an order directing Secretary Mattis to re-examine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.”

So Gitmo is staying open for business — with all of the torture and abuses associated with it. Perhaps, though, the president should have a word with former U.S. Air Force Officer Matthew Alexander, who was in charge of an interrogation team in Iraq and is author of the book, “How to Break a Terrorist.”

“The longer it stays open,” Alexander wrote in 2012, referring to Guantánamo Bay, “the more cost it will have in U.S. lives.”

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