Find, Fix, Finish

By Alex Joffe
Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What is the threat?  Al-Qaeda? "Terrorism"?  "Violent religious extremism"?  Israeli analysts call it "global jihad," but U.S. leadership has carefully circumscribed it as "al-Qaeda" or, even more narrowly, personified it as Osama bin Laden and his minions, hijackers of planes and Islam.  The ideologies motivating individuals from bin Laden to Toulouse gunman Mohammed Merah are rarely examined publicly.  This failure to be specific and honest about the definitional question has hampered American understanding of the problem and the proper means to address it.  

But Find, Fix, Finish, a new book by U.S. counterterrorism professionals Aki Peritz and Eric Rosenbach, shows that the United States may be catching up to Israel in experience and understanding.  "Find, fix, finish" is a military exhortation: Use intelligence to locate enemies, then employ the vast array of U.S. firepower to fix them in place.  The problem, of course, is finishing them.  The book reflects U.S. policymakers' customary focus on the "al-Qaeda" brand but shows that the American response to the Islamist wars has been global, often brutal, and surprisingly successful, sometimes in spite of itself.  Many Israeli approaches to counterterrorism and low-intensity conflict have been adopted by the United States, but on a global scale.  

The story begins with al-Qaeda's late-20th-century attacks on America—the World Trade Center in 1993, the Khobar Towers in 1996, and the USS Cole in 2000.  The Clinton administration responded weakly, in part out of fear of causing increased Islamic extremism.  But the weakness merely convinced bin Laden that the United States was frail. Peritz and Rosenbach describe the subsequent risk aversion, bureaucratic turf wars, failure of information sharing, and legal uncertainties that contributed to the catastrophe of September 11, 2001.

In contrast, the Bush administration swept away risk aversion, conquered Afghanistan, convinced itself of the need for war in Iraq, and improvised military commissions, enhanced interrogation techniques, and rendition, not to mention the gigantic bureaucracies known as the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Safety Administration.

When it comes to the legal foundations of the Islamist wars, the U.S. is also adapting.  The Obama administration, though it has largely pulled out of Iraq and is about to pull out of Afghanistan, finds itself in the same terrible conundrums as its predecessors:  Where to fight the war?  What to do with prisoners too implacably dangerous to set free?  Thus, the administration has retreated from its promise to close Guantanamo and try its prisoners in civilian courts; the base remains open, housing prisoners who will be tried by military commissions.  To avoid more prisoners, terrorists are increasingly killed from above. 

The twinned problems of the Islamist wars and their legal foundations are explored by journalist William Shawcross in his book Justice and the Enemy.  Shawcross, whose father was the British prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials, reviews the tangled intersection of military and civilian law with the real-world villainy of al-Qaeda, Taliban and assorted other jihadis over the past decade and concludes that existing international laws, such as the Geneva Conventions, are utterly inadequate to address global conflict by non-state actors who have no regard for those laws or any others.  In Shawcross's view, the Obama administration's retreat on Guantanamo and civilian trials was entirely sensible.

Targeted killings and other forms of preemption, subject to legal approval and judicial review, have long been part of Israeli practice; the use of coercion against security prisoners has been repeatedly addressed by Israel's High Court of Justice and security services.  The result, as Peter Berkowitz shows in his new book Israel and the Struggle over the International Laws of War, is that Israel has borne the brunt of repeated international legal assaults on its military activities over issues such as proportionality; but American military and legal thinkers have tried to learn from this experience. 

U.S. counterterrorism literature has also come to accept the "global jihad" concept.  As a RAND Corporation study puts it, "terrorist groups that may not be formally part of al-Qaeda but that have assimilated al-Qaeda's worldview and concept of mass casualty attacks" have become the "center of gravity of the current global terrorist threat."  Counterterrorism theorist David Kilcullen describes a "global insurgency" in which "al-Qaeda and similar groups feed on local grievances, integrate them into broader ideologies, and link disparate conflicts through globalised communications, finances, and technology."  Even "lone wolves" like Merah and Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hasan turn out to be not so alone.

Two other realities have long been accepted by Israel.  The first is that only highly detailed intelligence from informers and eavesdropping—gained through profiling, agents provocateurs, watch lists, identification cards, border controls—can prevent terrorist attacks.  The second is that the battle is everywhere, preferably abroad but also at home.  These realities challenge democratic principles.  Breathable space has been compressed, behaviors are constrained and monitored, and the conflict increasingly feels ever-present.  Closed circuit cameras peer, ID's are examined, and security guards patrol.  Privacy becomes a dear commodity.  

The recent outrage over the New York City Police Department's surveillance program shows that Americans have yet to learn this lesson; and, despite recognition by intelligence and law enforcement officials of the breadth of the threat, high-level U.S. leadership remains publicly fixated on al-Qaeda and bin Laden.  The Obama administration is willing to extinguish Islamist terrorists using drones or special forces but will not declare that the threat is a global Islamist insurgency.  Attorney General Eric Holder refuses to say the words "radical Islam."  

Perhaps the administration's acting one way and talking another is just political expediency, but it may be something more: Publicly recognizing the scope and depth of the problem would constitute, almost necessarily, a call to arms, one the administration seems not to be willing to issue.  

Still, Americans share many values with Israelis and are likely to learn how to think about and live with the larger terrorist threat in the ways that Israelis do.  This is not a happy outcome, but it is our future.

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