Al Qaeda: Found, Fixed, and Finished?

September 11, 2013

Looking back on this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it is appropriate to ask how American counterterrorism policies and practices have evolved and where they stand now.  These are the central questions of Find, Fix, Finish by Aki Peritz and Eric Rosenbach. Throughout the book’s twelve chapters, Peritz and Rosenbach chronicle the U.S.’s counterterrorism efforts, starting from a period with essentially no unifying policy in the 1990s to the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. At the crux of this evolution is the “find, fix, finish” doctrine; that is, the concept of finding enemies, ensuring that they remain in a fixed location, and then eliminating the threat (be it through death or incarceration).

Perhaps the most compelling thing about Find, Fix, Finish is its attention to detail when recounting previous attempts to neutralize terrorist threats. Peritz and Rosenbach delve into numerous U.S. campaigns against terrorists and their organizations. In each account (ranging from pre-9/11 plots through the lead-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom to domestic plots in the late 2000s), the authors’ meticulous research shines—there is tremendous care given to the motivations and personal histories of the terrorists; the timeline of attacks and/or elimination of the threat; the tactics used to gather intelligence and carry out the attack; and what aspects of the operation were a success or failure. Readers get a solid sense of the history of U.S. counterterrorism operations after reading these sections, and that is owed to Peritz and Rosenbach’s research and prose.  Their prior positions on the Hill and with the U.S. intelligence community give them a unique perspective that they exploit with great effectiveness. This is not detached academic research, but objective legislative and policy insight.

The most forward-thinking and fascinating section of this book is the tenth chapter, fittingly titled “America’s Future: Shadow Wars in Yemen and Somalia.” Peritz and Rosenbach use this section to discuss counterterrorism strategies in Yemen and Somalia, particularly the use of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes. Through this discussion, several important power issues are presented. Do these campaigns violate national sovereignty? What precedents are being set by targeting combatants in states that are not at war with the United States? And is the strategy of targeted killing sacrificing long-term counterterrorism goals for short-term gains? These are and will continue to be the prime policy questions in the age of UAVs, and they require care and consideration.

Unfortunately, the book is more nuanced with its accounts of past campaigns than with future policy and power issues. The aforementioned chapter on Yemen and Somalia offers a brief analysis on these concerns, but it is only that—brief. In a book with so much attention to detail, it is disappointing to have such an engaging topic relegated to the last page and a half of a chapter.

That said, Peritz and Rosenbach at least broach the subject of power and policy concerns with regards to UAV campaigns, and their work provides crucial opportunities for future research. A study that primarily focuses on the legal, strategic, and moral implications of targeted killing campaigns would benefit greatly by drawing from the specific examples in this book. Moreover, authors such as Audrey Kurth Cronin have analyzed the effectiveness of decapitation and targeted killing as strategies against al Qaeda (see Ending Terrorism: Lessons for Defeating al-Qaeda (Routledge, 2008)); there is a clear opportunity to provide a similar style analysis regarding the campaigns in Yemen and Somalia.

Some of these issues are already beginning to be addressed in the public sphere. At a speech at the National Defense University earlier this year, President Obama spoke at length about the potential consequences of targeted killing—the radicalization of people in other countries, civilian casualties, and accountability and precedence—and determined to improve the policies and the rules by which they are governed. Whether this rhetoric translates into substantive policy remains to be seen, but its presence in the discourse is at least promising.

Find, Fix, Finish is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn more about specific terror plots and how U.S. counterterrorism policy has evolved, succeeded, and failed. Despite the book’s shortcomings, it still offers important context into the way warfare and intelligence gathering and analysis have been transformed. One thing is clear when reading this book: future counterterrorism strategies cannot stay static. As Heraclitus famously said, “the only thing constant is change.” Warfare, especially counterterrorism, is no different.


Evan Kalikow is a recent graduate of University College London’s MSc Security Studies program and is present a research intern at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University, Fort McNair, DC. These are his own views and do not reflect the positions and policies of the U.S. government.


U.S. Army photo by Spc. Casey Collier