Gerges, one of the most astute chroniclers of Islamist radicalism, begins this book with a masterly and trenchant account of the origins of al Qaeda and its decline after 9/11. As he moves into more recent years, the book loses focus, becoming more assertive and less analytic -- a victim, perhaps, of recent developments whose impact on global jihadism is difficult to predict, namely, the Arab Spring and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Gerges’ main goal is to refute the mainstream “terrorism narrative” that has shaped U.S. policy since 9/11. An exaggerated threat of terrorism has led the United States to engage in disproportionate and inappropriate responses, a tendency Gerges sees continuing with President Barack Obama. The al Qaeda threat undoubtedly lends itself to overblown rhetoric in Washington. But Gerges’ core thesis, that the group is in decline, is closer to the mainstream view than he acknowledges.
Analyses of high-level counterterrorism strategy sometimes lose sight of the fact that the “war on terror” comprises a series of individual operations. Warrick, a reporter for The Washington Post, narrates an extraordinary story of intrigue and betrayal behind one such effort. Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor, started out as an “Internet jihadist” whose contribution to holy war was limited to spewing vitriol online. After his arrest by the Jordanians in 2009, he was recruited as a CIA informant. But later that year, Balawi revealed his true loyalty, killing seven CIA officers and his Jordanian handler by blowing himself up as the team welcomed him at a base in Khost, Afghanistan. Warrick shows how the pressure for results led the CIA to take shortcuts when it came to handling an agent who some feared, correctly, was too good to be true.