These two books tell the story of the United States’ struggle against terrorism from 9/11 to the death of Osama bin Laden, concentrating on the intelligence and police operations that led to the capture or killing of a collection of true believers and naive fantasists who sought to kill as many Westerners as possible. The jihadists profiled in these books seem motivated more by a lust for vengeance than by a desire to create a new political order founded on Islam. Authorities thwarted most of their plots, and some would-be terrorists failed on account of their own incompetence, such as the hapless “shoe bomber” and “underwear bomber.” Both books argue for the importance of intelligence and police work and warn against the folly of casting counterterrorism as a military activity.
Peritz and Rosenbach provide more context, delving into the now-familiar difficulties experts faced in persuading the U.S. government to take the al Qaeda threat seriously before 9/11 and examining the problems created by the post-9/11 counterterrorism overdrive. They reveal that the main challenge now is identifying and locating terrorists; once this is done, contemporary technologies make it relatively easy to “finish” them. Yet they note that this seemingly straightforward process is complicated by ethical and legal dilemmas when intelligence is obtained by torture and killings are carried out by drones. Such means create awkward precedents and possibly encourage more terrorism, especially when innocents are killed.
Jones’ book is more in-depth, analyzing particular al Qaeda attacks in great detail. Jones sketches three waves of al Qaeda violence. The first began with the attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and peaked on 9/11. The second took place in two regions: in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion and in Europe, which witnessed a surge in jihadist activity at around the same time. This second wave was reversed by improved intelligence work and by an anti-jihadist backlash in Iraq. A third, less dramatic wave developed in the Arabian Peninsula beginning in 2007 with the emergence of an al Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen and ending in 2011 with the killing of key leaders, including bin Laden. Despite bin Laden’s death, Jones does not preclude the emergence of a fourth wave; the anger and ideological fervor that animate jihadist terrorism are still prevalent.