The word “secret” has ceased to have much meaning in the context of the CIA. It seems as though every aspect of the “war on terror” has now been documented in detail, with few identities left hidden or operations left unrevealed. Mazzetti’s fine account traces the embrace of drone-assisted targeted killing by an organization that began the century prohibited from engaging in assassination and lacking the budget to purchase expensive hardware. U.S. attempts to detain terrorists are fraught with legal problems, and attempts to deny them sanctuaries require unpopular and extensive deployments of boots on the ground, so it is no surprise that simply taking out these targets became such an attractive option for Washington. Nor is it a surprise that the CIA quickly began to ease the safeguards governing the use of drones, resulting in growing unease among the public and policymakers at the processes the White House was using to choose targets and the complex effects the strikes were having on countries such as Pakistan and Yemen. Mazzetti describes in compelling detail the agency’s turf battles with the Pentagon, its awkward relations with its Pakistani counterpart, and its reliance on a motley collection of freelancers and private contractors.
One sort of terrorist not so susceptible to drones -- or any other form of detection and apprehension -- is the self-motivated lone wolf acting without instructions from a central command. Simon’s book is a lucid survey of the phenomenon, examining figures such as Yigal Amir, who murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the right-wing Norwegian Anders Breivik, who set off a bomb in Oslo and slaughtered children attending a Labor Party camp on an island in Norway. As relatively organized groups, such as al Qaeda, have been disrupted, there has been a spurt of private enterprise by frustrated militants. There is no shortage of weapons, guides to bomb-making, or sources of political rage. This is why the book’s subtitle describes lone wolves as a “growing threat,” although the recent cases might not represent the worst bout: Simon recalls the almost routine murders of top political figures and even heads of states by lone-wolf anarchists in the early twentieth century, including the assassination that triggered World War I.
One of the more effective ways of undermining organized terrorist groups is to starve them of funds. Zarate, who worked on counterterrorist financing in the U.S. Treasury Department and the White House under President George W. Bush, describes his experiences chasing the moneymen behind jihadist groups and going after organized criminals and adversaries of the United States, such as Iran. In a fascinating account, he relates how such players hide their financial transactions and the lengths to which the U.S. government goes to counter them -- even, in the case of Iran, interfering with national economies. The details are complex, but Zarate explains them well, hoping to demonstrate that even “grey men in suits” can fight terrorists, far away from the feats of derring-do that dominate coverage of the “war on terror.”