Given enough time, Michael Koubi tells New Scientist editor Michael Bond, he could make almost anyone talk. Koubiworked for Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, for 21 years and was its chief interrogator from 1987 to 1993. He interrogated hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including renowned militants such as Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the former leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, who was killed in an Israeli attack last year. Koubi claims that intelligence gained in interrogation has been crucial to protecting Israel from terrorism.
After speaking to Koubi, Bond traveled to the Palestinian territories and interviewed a woman Koubi had interrogated. The woman, who does not want her name revealed, was arrested when she was in her 20s while she was trying to smuggle sensitive photographs across the border. She was held in solitary confinement in a detention center in Jerusalem and interrogated over the course of a week.
What cut you out to become an interrogator?
Being an interrogator is 70 percent character, 30 percent learned. You have to know instinctively how to use intonation when you speak to a prisoner—when to shout, when to speak loudly, when to speak quietly, or when not to speak at all and just sit and look at him, for hours if necessary. You have to let him feel you are the boss, always. Not many interrogators can do that, because they don’t have the self-assurance. I was born with that.
Also, I spoke Arabic very well.
How good are you at Arabic, and why is that important?
At school I learned Arabic better than other students, even the small nuances. I can speak Arabic better than most Arabs. I learned the Egyptian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Palestinian dialects. This is very important because many Palestinians have worked all over the Arab world and they might speak, say, Egyptian Arabic better than they speak Palestinian. So when I’m interrogating someone who lived in Egypt, he’ll think I was actually there. He’ll think I know everything about his world. Language is the key.
How does that help you in interrogation?
It’s about making a prisoner think he cannot hide anything from you. If he lives in a certain neighborhood in Cairo, I will learn everything about that neighborhood—the houses, even the trees, everything about it. I will give the prisoner the feeling that I followed him there.
You have to learn everything about a prisoner and his background. You have to be better than him, wiser than him. If I interrogate a mathemathics teacher, I have to know mathematics. If you feel your detainee is wiser than you and you cannot stand head to head, then you must change interrogators. That has never happened with me.
How do people behave when they are interrogated?
Every detainee behaves differently. It depends whether he’s from the city or the village, or a bedouin from the desert. It depends whether he’s educated or not. Prison is unimaginably different from normal life. People behave in unexpected ways. People who talk tough in public often submit in interrogation.
I once interrogated a bedouin, a very tough man, who said nothing at all for a few days. During one session I was playing with a stick, and this idea came to me: I said to him, Do you realize there’s a snake hidden in the stick? And suddenly he became very afraid. He said he’d tell me anything. This man was used to dealing with snakes in the open, but in a cell it was a different matter.
What’s the first thing you do when you’re faced with a new detainee?
It depends on the person. I always start alone in the room with him. Sometimes I get other, cooperative detainees to shout outside the door, and when the prisoner hears them yelling he gets fearful.
Many detainees are young, between 18 and 24; it’s their first time in jail and being interrogated, and most of them are likely to do what I tell them. Of course they won’t talk about everything at the beginning. Sometimes I’ll come in and give them a slap—but only with permission from higher authority.
What do you do when you’re faced with someone who won’t talk?
That is my speciality. I know how to do that. It has happened a lot.
How do you do it?
I have many systems. But I do it without using any kind of physical pressure.
Can you tell me about these systems?
No, I cannot.
Can you give me an example of when you’ve used them?
Once I interrogated a Palestinian man who belonged to Hamas and whom I believed knew about the murder of two Israeli soldiers. I had interrogated him once before, and he had said nothing. This time I looked in his eyes, at his hands, his legs, and he was reacting differently. I assembled my other interrogators, more than 20, in the room and told them to remain silent. I told them, I am going to show you how to interrogate someone.
Of course, he was scared with 20 interrogators there. Then I did a few actions, without physical pressure. I showed him how I knew that he was involved. Suddenly, he asked for a cigarette. When a Hamas terrorist asks for a cigarette during interrogation, you know he is going to admit something. I gave him one immediately, before he changed his mind. He asked for another. He smoked 10. Then he said, Look, I’m going to tell you things you don’t know. He told me about all the leaders of Hamas, and about hundreds of others who were involved in Hamas that we didn’t know about. He opened the way for us to get at Sheikh Yassin and other Hamas leaders.
How physical are you allowed to get during interrogations?
Very low levels. It could be two slaps in one interrogation, or to shake him, but not very strongly, or to put a cover on his head to scare him. We have never insulted a person’s religion or humiliated him. There is no torture in the security services.
What do you make of the torture and abuse that took place in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq?
I don’t want to judge the Americans. In Gaza we have one security person for every 1,000 people. In Iraq they have one for every 100,000. They have no information or intelligence on their detainees. Information is the beginning of interrogation, and if there is none, if there is no language between you and the detainee, sometimes you will use more power. That, I presume, is what happened in Abu Ghraib.
Have those techniques ever been used in Israel?
Sometimes it has happened, but very seldom, and in these cases the interrogators were thrown out of the organization. I have no need for those methods. I use only psychology, head to head.
But there have been many accusations.
I know. But these accusations come from detainees who heard screams and shouts coming from neighboring cells and believed it was really happening, when it was just theater. The yelling was from other detainees who were cooperating with us.
Did you ever have a detainee you couldn’t break?
It has happened, but very seldom. I could count them on one hand.
Tell me about Sheik Yassin. How did you interrogate him?
I interrogated him twice, in 1984 and 1989. At the beginning, he was totally silent. He didn’t answer any questions. Then I said to him, I know you are a religious man, let’s speak about religious knowledge. Now, to prepare for this interrogation I had learned the Quran almost by heart. I said to him, Let’s have a competition. I’ll ask you a question about the Quran, and if I win I can ask you another about any subject and you have to answer. He was sure he would know it better than me. But I started asking complicated questions, and he didn’t know the answers. So I won, and I sat with him for hundreds of hours while he talked about the ideology of Hamas. He even told other detainees to cooperate with me, because he respected me. If he could, he would have killed me, but he respected me.
Did you ever feel sympathy for the people you interrogated?
Sometimes you can be sitting before someone who is 24 years old and he looks like a nice man. Then he admits to you what he’s done and you can change 180 degrees in what you feel about him. It has happened a lot. But if you want to achieve a result, you have to keep your cool.
Do you think you could be broken if you were interrogated?
No. I would use the same methods I use when I’m interrogating someone, only the opposite. I would give nothing away. Nothing.
What happened when you were arrested?
They blindfolded me and put me in what I presume was a military jeep. They sat me on the floor. There were two female Israeli soldiers with me. They were stamping on me and shouting at me and encouraged me to curse President Arafat. They took the blindfold off only when I was inside the prison. I had no idea where I was. I went straight to solitary confinement.
What was your cell like?
It was about the size of a mattress, with a hole for the toilet. There was no food or water. It had no window, just a small square hole in the ceiling. I used to know whether it was day or night through this. There was a red night light always on.
Where did they interrogate you?
They would come and take me to a special interrogation cell, a small room. There was a desk and chairs. He sat behind the desk.
Could you describe the first time you met your interrogator?
He introduced himself. He said, I am Captain Koubi. I knew who he was. He was in charge of special services in the Ramallah area, where my village is, so I assumed we were in Ramallah. He never told me I was in Jerusalem.
What did he say to you?
He asked me what my name was. Then he started telling me about people in my village. He drew a map of the town. He pointed to places on the map and said, This is so-and-so’s house, this is the mayor’s house. He made me feel he knew everything about the village. He said, Don’t hide anything. I know everything.
He wanted to know why I took the pictures, for whom I took them, who told me to take them out of the country.
How did Koubi question you?
When the Israelis interrogate you, they try to scare you. They try to overwhelm you. It works with some people because they have weak personalities. He asked me the same questions over and over. He wanted me to admit to something I hadn’t done.
Could you give me an example of the techniques he used?
The pictures they found on me when I was arrested were partly of my brother and my mother. Captain Koubi would bring in the pictures and show them to me and he’d say, Take a good look at this picture of your mother. This is the last you are going to see of her.
He was intelligent. He knew my father had died and that I was the only child in my family living with my mother, that the others were abroad. He knew how close my mother and I were. He said, We have brought your mother, we have her in jail, and she is falling apart. He told me they went to her house and tore it up, and that my mother was there, and when they told her I was in prison she had fallen to the floor.
He was lying, of course, and I didn’t believe him. He said she had said things, expressions that I knew she didn’t know because she was a villager. Because of that I knew he was lying.
At this point she stops, puts her hand to her face, and shuts her eyes. Then she leaves the room and is comforted by a relative who has been sitting with her through the interview. After a while, they return. She says she has recovered and wants to carry on.
How did Koubi behave toward you?
The first time he interrogated me, he was friendly. After that, he became tougher. Once he hit me. You cannot really call it a beating, it was just a slap to my face. He would do other things. He would sit in a chair across the desk from me and put his feet up on the desk. The soles of his feet would be in my face so that I felt humiliated. His techniques were more psychological than physical.
He did other things. Once he told me to go into the interrogation room, and he left me waiting there for three or four hours. No one came. Throughout this time, I was afraid to move. I had heard about how they abuse women in jail or take abusive pictures of them. I sat with my arms and legs crossed for fear I was being filmed.
Were you frightened?
I gave him no emotion. I wasn’t afraid to begin with. If you show you are afraid, they take you over. I became stronger. I acted as if an animal was sitting across from me. I didn’t believe he was a human being. I said to myself, If you have the mental strength to come through this, you’ll see these people are nothing. They are just liars.
They think that when they do these things to you, they are going to make you afraid or stop loving your country. On the contrary, in jail you learn more things. I always had strong patriotic feelings; I used to hide boys in my house who were in trouble with the Israelis. After my time in jail, those feelings were even stronger.
What did you think would happen to you?
They told me they were not going to send me back to my town. I thought, Whatever will happen will happen. If I’m going to stay in prison, so be it.
What happened when you were released?
The day before I was released, Koubi was threatening me, telling me he was going to put me in a room full of men. He started insulting my honor. So I had no idea I was going to be let out.
The next morning, they released me into a waiting area. There were two other women there. It was strange, because during the time in solitary confinement I did not cry once, but when I saw those two women I just broke down and started crying. The older woman said, Let her cry, she needs to cry. I was assuming at that stage that the Israelis were sending me to administrative detention. I still didn’t know I was going to be released. I asked the women where I was. They said I was in the Moskobiyya detention center in Jerusalem. I had no idea I was in Jerusalem. I was relieved. I thanked God that I was in Jerusalem.
When you got home, how was your mother?
She was fine. She had been told only that day that I had been detained. She had thought I was abroad visiting my brother.
I crawled into the bed next to her. I was hugging and kissing her. My mother said she was worried about my reputation. She was worried that people in the community would be talking about how I had been in jail. There was a big social stigma about women being in jail.
How did the whole experience affect you?
All my efforts were concentrated on trying to forget about it. At the time, it was socially very difficult. I didn’t tell anybody, I didn’t talk about it. I tried very hard to forget.
Did you manage to forget?
I managed to put it in the past. But recently I began talking to psychologists from the Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture in Ramallah, and it all started coming back. It’s only recently I have been able to talk about it. My children have only just learned that I was in jail. It is very exhausting for me to talk about it.
What would you say to Koubi if you saw him again?
I’d probably spit on him. I have no respect for him, I hate him. He looks like a nice man, he is quite good-looking, but look at what he said about my mother being in the next room. He is a liar.
Adapted from the British weekly New Scientist (Nov. 20, 2004). www.newscientist.com.