Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counter-terrorism Campaign that Killed bin Laden and Devastated al-Qa’eda Aki Peritz and Eric Rosenbach

Public Affairs, pp.356, 18.99

Eric Rosenbach is a former academic who is now deputy assistant secretary of defence in Washington. Aki Peritz used to work for the CIA and now advises the Third Way think tank. Their book, therefore, is not a breathless account of terrorist-hunting nor the sensational inside story of how, in Obama’s words, ‘We got him’ (bin Laden). Rather, it is an exposition of legal, bureaucratic, political and military developments within the US following 9/11, illustrated by summaries of how various terrorists were killed or captured. If you want thrills and spills, go elsewhere, but if you are a student of counter-terrorism or are interested in the legal limbo of rendition, detention and targeted killings, you should probably read it.

The title refers to the process of finding terrorists — establishing who they are — then fixing their whereabouts, then finishing them off. The first two are generally intelligence tasks, the last military, and for the process to work it requires careful co-ordination. This may seem obvious but it wasn’t always so; the book usefully catalogues missed opportunities pre-9/11 for killing or capturing bin Laden and other leading terrorists. It also points out that there were around 70 renditions — US seizures of wanted terrorists from third countries with the agreement of host governments — before 9/11, under Clinton. ‘Extraordinary renditions’ are seizures without the consent of the host, most if not all of which have taken place post-9/11.

While not attacking the Bush administration directly, the authors are clearly unsympathetic to what they see as the corruption of due process that resulted from Bush’s do-whatever-it-takes strategy. They give a revealing account of the massaging of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq — ‘a grievous, self-inflicted diplomatic, military, and intelligence wound from which the US is still recovering …. a godsend to the perpetrators of 9/11’ — which focuses particularly on Colin Powell’s crucial and misleading address to the UN.

Inline sub2


They are concerned about what Washington euphemistically calls EITs (enhanced interrogation techniques). Supporters claim that such methods are justified in terms of lives saved, while detractors — apart from opposing on principle — claim that results are often misleading because people will say anything under torture. The truth, probably, is that both are right: almost everybody talks under torture but the most reliable information often comes from those who are persuaded to give freely. The clue that led ultimately to bin Laden’s killing — the identity of his courier — was revealed without resort to torture.

Much of this discussion concerns Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the most senior al-Qa’eda prisoner and mastermind of 9/11 who gave a great deal of information after 183 water-boardings. Peritz and Rosenbach quote information he didn’t reveal — the courier, for example — while acknowledging much that he did, but pointing out that gentler interrogation techniques were often more productive. They also describe confusions and divisions within the US establishment over what was going and who was allowed to do it. I remember being assured by a CIA officer who had seen him that KSM was talking willingly and writing his memoirs, after a reluctant start. Maybe he was, by then.

The authors show equal concern over indefinite detentions without trial — KSM again — and give a persuasive account of the legal and political arguments that led to Guantanamo and its current neither-continuing-nor-closing status, despite a presidential order to close. They conclude that the least worst option might be to ‘try KSM and others for different charges in both military commissions and federal court’. But even this could offer no fail-safe guarantee of convictions ‘since evidence derived from coercion could poison all the trials’. Given the three trials it took to convict the obviously guilty liquid bomb plotters in this country (Operation Overt), you wonder what a mess we’d have made of it if bin Laden himself had popped up here. He’d probably be living comfortably in Kingston under curfew.  

Peritz and Rosenbach also query the longer-term effectiveness of the remote-control killing by US drones of leading terrorists, despite the fact that this tactic has almost paralysed what remains of the al-Qa’eda leadership. Many such operations involve killing the innocent, which alienates the local population and sometimes governments whose support is essential. It is also the case that dead men tell no stories — Reaper strikes take no prisoners, so you can’t interrogate survivors. A decade after 9/11, they write, ‘playing whack-a-mole with al-Qa’eda operatives has not proven to be an effective eradication strategy.’ True, but it may prove to be a useful part of one.

But the authors are no bleeding heart liberals. They acknowledge that too much bureaucracy impedes counter-terrorism and harms national security and they argue for legal but effective measures to assist both. They do not join Lambeth Palace in regretting the killing of bin Laden and have no problem with finding, fixing and finishing. How it’s done is what matters and the American system, for all its faults, is still the best: ‘In this imperfect vessel, for better or worse, we place our trust.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, Book review, Non-fiction, War, War on terror