Find, Fix, Finish

Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda


By Aki Peritz

By Eric Rosenbach

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On 9/11 the U.S. had effectively no counterterrorism doctrine. Fast forward ten years: Osama bin Laden is dead; al Qaeda is organizationally ruined and pinned in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan; there has been no major attack on American soil; and while there has been at least one instance of a massive planned attack, it was crushed by the greatest international collaboration of intelligence services seen since the end of the Cold War. It’s been a remarkable transformation.

Aki Peritz and Eric Rosenbach have experienced first-hand the monumental strategy changes in our country’s counterterrorism strategy within the intelligence, defense, and political communities. In this book, they show how America learned to be very good at taking on the terrorists, often one at a time, in ever more lethally incisive operations. They offer new details behind some headlines from the last decade. They are frank about the mistakes that have been made. And they explain how a concept coined by General Grant during the Civil War has been reinvented in the age of satellite technology to manage a globally distributed foe, allowing the U.S. to find, fix, and finish its enemies.


For Dana
—A. P.
To my family, because they put up with a lot
—E. R.

Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct.

Terrorism is a political tornado that has the capacity to wreck lives and disrupt societies. For those unlucky bystanders caught up in its path and for those who have lost loved ones in attacks, terrorism is a random, unforgivably cruel turn of fate. The specter of terrorism causes people to think twice about normal social activities: joining a crowd, idling at a café, boarding a plane, and taking the subway. Terrorists fray the intangible ties that bind, causing otherwise rational individuals and modern civilizations to act in irrational, medieval ways.
Al-Qaeda has been the world's foremost purveyor of this particularly lethal form of social mayhem. Its 9/11 operation was notable not only for its destructive capacity but also for its audacity, striking the heart of the world's superpower on a sunny Tuesday morning. And, unlike many terror groups that have focused on regional and parochial interests, al-Qaeda has taken its cause worldwide. Al-Qaeda members have attacked New York City, Madrid, London, Amman, Istanbul, Islamabad . . . the list goes on and on.
For all the rhetoric that followed 9/11, America did not possess a fully formed, off-the-shelf strategy to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda. Rather, on September 12, the US began the first of a series of painful, halting steps to confront this determined adversary. America's counterterrorism policy is a dense web of interconnected stories of men and women making tough choices and authorizing risky decisions. It is a complex series of tales filled with victories as well as defeats, resolute behavior, bureaucratic compromises, paths taken and those not.
As we enter the spring of 2012, America's leaders insist that al-Qaeda is on the ropes. Upbeat evaluations have been the hallmarks of American policymakers even in the worst of times. "I'm convinced," defense secretary Leon Panetta said in mid-2011, "that we're within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda." Michael Vickers, who a generation ago provided creative solutions in the covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, expanded this sentiment, noting that "within 18 to 24 months core al-Qaeda cohesion and operational capabilities could be degraded to the point that the group could fragment and exist mostly as a propaganda arm." Thankfully, this optimism may be merited. While al-Qaeda has proven itself a resilient and resourceful foe, America's ability to track and destroy al-Qaeda operatives anywhere on earth has never been better.
BOTH AUTHORS served in sensitive US government positions. As such, various publication review boards have examined this manuscript. Some redactions remain as blacked-out text in the final version of this book. Uncle Sam also asked to include the following text: In the interest of full disclosure, this publication was submitted for pre-publication reviews to the Central Intelligence Agency to ensure that no classified information was accidentally disclosed. However, the CIA's review did not shape the case study's scope, tone, or subject material; rather, the authors remain solely responsible for this publication's content.

The Find-Fix-Finish Doctrine in Action
The crisp, clear morning of August 5, 2009, was the last one of Baitullah Mehsud's life.1 The grim leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—more commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban—had been responsible for Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination and dozens of gruesome suicide attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On that sunny morning Mehsud was lounging on the roof of a squat house in South Waziristan. Without warning, two missiles streaked through the sky and slammed into the house.2 Mehsud, like many of his victims, never saw his enemy until it was too late.
What happened? Two days earlier, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employees, stationed thousands of miles away in suburban Virginia, had identified Mehsud in surveillance footage and ordered the lethal Hellfire missile strike via an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). After the dust settled, the video feed indicated that Mehsud had been sliced in half and was unquestionably dead.3 A week later, President Barack Obama reported that "we took out" Mehsud, confirming it was indeed the US that felled the Taliban commander.4
In contrast to the many sanitized Hollywood storylines of American officials ordering precision air strikes against dastardly terrorists, eliminating Mehsud had been a lengthy, messy process of trial and error for the US government. The Washington Post called finding Mehsud an "obsession" for the CIA; this was the sixteenth drone strike that the Agency, with explicit White House blessing, had executed intending to neutralize him.5 In pursuing Mehsud, the US had killed an estimated two hundred other individuals—combatants and noncombatants alike—since 2008.6 Not trusting just one method, American officials beginning in early 2009 even took a parallel approach, advertising a $5 million bounty for information leading to Mehsud's death or capture.7
Mehsud's death exemplified not only the capacity to hunt individuals in the remote badlands of Pakistan without committing ground forces to the area, but also American willingness to allocate resources to finding and killing one man—spending eighteen months, multiple strikes, significant analytical and operational capital, and countless personnel hours to do so. The death of Baitullah Mehsud was the culmination of a learning process for the US, and evidence of a new approach to countering America's terrorist enemies in remote parts of the world.
The tenure of Baitullah Mehsud's successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, lasted less than five months. It was cut short by another UAV strike, which severely wounded Hakimullah and occurred only five days after a video surfaced on Al Jazeera showing the new TTP leader seated beside a Jordanian militant who had just killed eight CIA officers in a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan. The quick turnaround time from the video's emergence to Hakimullah's neutralization sent a clear message: the US was rapidly perfecting its ability to eliminate those who seek to harm America.
This energetic national security capability, which did not exist a decade before, now stands as a core component of the strategy the US deploys to defeat its adversaries. The new doctrine for national security is based on dramatically improved drone technology, close cooperation by civilian and military organizations and with host-nation intelligence services, lethal Special Forces, and a modern interpretation of the law of war that allows for the targeting of militants. The attacks on 9/11 were the catalyst for a radical restructuring of America's attitudes toward security and stability, especially toward the protean threat of international terrorism. The revolution in counterterrorism operations began in 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan, which demonstrated the power of coordinated intelligence and military operations. Later, both Afghanistan and Iraq served as the laboratories for developing the capacity to suppress terrorism abroad and at home.


For much of American history, when the US looked to take on foreign threats it focused on the menace of hostile nation-states. With rare exceptions—such as when Thomas Jefferson sent US naval forces to battle the Barbary pirates in the early nineteenth century, or when Woodrow Wilson authorized the US Army to (unsuccessfully) hunt for Pancho Villa in Mexico in the early twentieth century—the US has understood the primary threat to its security interests as coming from national adversaries.
No longer. The 9/11 attacks brutally exposed an inability to detect and disrupt a small, highly disciplined, well-trained group of individuals bent on massive destruction. Understandably, America's efforts in the decade since have been refocused on targeting people and small groups who seek to find ways to disturb America's advantaged position.
This shift, however, has affected US national security strategy beyond the immediate concern of eliminating the so-called terrorist threat. Developing the ability to target individuals has proven critical to achieving other national security priorities. The policy debate about the future of Afghanistan policy that occurred within the Obama administration in 2009 represented the formal arrival of a new strategic option: focused, small footprint counterterrorism operations aimed at crippling al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the end, President Obama chose to pursue a more expansive counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. The COIN strategy in Afghanistan, or some variant, was appropriate to achieving a long-term solution to a conflict. But it required—more than guns, troops, or briefcases of cash—a long-term commitment from the American people. But polling in 2010 suggested that public support for the fight was declining, and by 2011 President Obama had announced the beginning of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Yet the terrorism threat emanating from South Asia did not simply evaporate. Until 2011 COIN represented the strategy for the main effort, but parallel targeted counterterrorism operations increased dramatically on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border whose object was to find, fix, and finish the adversaries that threatened America's national interests.


The idea of "find, fix, finish" is not new, Indeed, it has a classic American military heritage. In the 1950s General Matthew Ridgway rallied his demoralized troops during the Korean War by repeatedly exhorting his commanders to "Find them! Fix them! Fight them! Finish them!"8 Ridgway reportedly based his maxim on a study of General Ulysses S. Grant, who said, "The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get him as soon as you can. Strike at him as hard as you can as often as you can, and keep moving on."
Following the Korean War, General Ridgway's exhortations evolved into national security policy during the cold war:
FIND: Find the enemy
FIX: Ensure the enemy stays (is fixed) in that location
FINISH: Defeat the enemy
The find-fix-finish mantra helped shape the cold war worldview of the adversary: the Soviet Union and its proxies. A bipolar world was a simple world, and the long-term US goal was to defeat the USSR, or at least hold Soviet power in check. The intelligence community knew its targets and its mission: finding and fixing Red Army divisions, strategic bombers, nuclear assets, and the like. Locating the enemy was the easy part; the Soviet Union had cities, citizens, and interests to defend. Finishing the Soviet Union militarily was a much greater challenge, one the US never undertook because of the threat of mutually assured destruction.
But once terrorist groups, not nations, were viewed as the main threat, the rules of engagement that had evolved under the bipolar system of nuclear powers—deterrence, containment, reassurance—were less relevant. There was no tangible adversary, no army of uniformed soldiers, no arsenal regulated by carefully negotiated arms agreements, and certainly no state leader with whom to negotiate.
The fundamental assumption of the cold war—that neither side wanted to risk annihilation—was null and void, since the terrorists were willing to martyr themselves. Since the adversaries had changed, the find-fix-finish doctrine had to evolve as well. Now finishing the enemy would be relatively simple, but finding and fixing an individual or small cell became devilishly hard.
A number of intelligence professionals had begun to draw attention to this shift in strategic thinking. "For most of, certainly, my professional life, most of our work was out there on fix and finish," said former CIA director Michael Hayden in 2007. "The world has turned upside down . . . the finishing is relatively easy. In this world it's the finding that's the hardest-to-do function, it's the intelligence thing. And we now have to treat those sources and methods with the same almost sacred respect we treated the secrecy of troops movements and operational plans in the '40s, '50s, '60s,'70s, and '80s, because it's those things at the front-end, the fine point, that have become the critical piece of that 'find, fix, finish' equation."9
The current director of national intelligence, Lt. General James Clapper, elaborated on this point in mid-2009. "Many aspects of the intelligence community today, including some investments and practices, are legacies of the Cold War era and anachronistic," mused Clapper. "Nowadays, with the kind of targets being pursued, the antithesis is true. Today's targets are very elusive and therefore quite hard to find, yet once they are found, they are very easy to finish. This reality has a very profound effect on the way intelligence is done today."10


Finding potential threats—figuring out who they are and where they are—is a core requirement of the new doctrine and has proven to be the most difficult aspect of counterterrorism. The intelligence and law enforcement communities have struggled to find regular criminals within American borders. Internationally, locating threats is an even greater task.
In order to accomplish these goals, the intelligence, military, and law enforcement communities have evolved significantly in both mind-set and allocation of resources since 2001. Within American borders, the new nature of the threat led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a radical restructuring of the intelligence community, including the establishment of the National Counterterrorism Center and the position of the director of national intelligence (DNI). Controversially, law enforcement officials have additionally been given new powers in regard to electronic and physical surveillance.
Intelligence officials have strengthened working relationships with other nations' intelligence and security services, arguing that the US cannot eliminate the global terrorist threat by itself. In 2005, CIA deputy director for operations Jose Rodriguez told Congress that nearly every capture or killing of a suspected terrorist outside Iraq since 9/11—more than 3,000 in all—was the result of CIA cooperation with foreign intelligence services.11 One CIA official who worked with Pakistan claimed in late 2009 that the country's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) had captured or killed over six hundred US targets.12
Navigating the new challenges to finding terrorists has not been without incident. Revelations that the Bush administration launched controversial counterterrorism programs such as a warrantless electronic surveillance program riled an already tumultuous political environment. The operational necessity for extensive electronic surveillance of individuals within the US who have connections to terrorists abroad is clear; however, the murky legality of the Bush-era Terrorist Surveillance Program resulted in political controversy that distracted national security professionals from their core mission. Finding the enemy is essential, but at what political, moral, or legal price?


In a global war against small groups of extremists, the US now more than ever places a premium on "actionable intelligence" and has developed new mechanisms to collect fresh tips and refine its dissemination. Whether this perishable information comes from signals intelligence or imagery analysis, from drone-based cameras or from human assets' lips, US forces require precise input to be proactive. Since the targets are not lumbering armies but highly mobile individuals, the instantaneous and momentary nature of the threat requires much greater speed to generate and synthesize this information than in the past.
The US and other countries struggled for years to "fix" Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who arguably became the single most important instigator of sectarian carnage in Iraq from 2003. The fix did not occur until June 2006, three long, bloody years later.
The success was the result of years of trial and error that demanded a massive bureaucratic shift, which has not been fully completed. During the cold war, the intelligence community relied heavily on expensive satellite systems to clarify the capabilities and intent of America's adversaries. Despite the enormous cost of these systems, disproportionate to their utility in locating terrorist individuals and small groups, the intelligence community has struggled over the past decade to reallocate its resources and budgets.
Technical methods can generate excellent intelligence, but satellite systems and electronic surveillance cannot see into men's souls or divulge their exact location. Human intelligence is a crucial aspect of the effort to fix terrorists, and the US had to significantly improve its capacity in this area. In 2001, CIA had limited ability to operate in significant terrorist hotspots, including Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, and Yemen. By the late 1990s, for example, the US still had not replaced intelligence officers in Afghanistan, all of whom had left when the US embassy in Kabul was evacuated in 1989. But over the past decade, the intelligence community has dramatically bolstered the cadre of collectors and informants in the toughest parts of the world. They focus on developing local sources that help the spies attack terrorist cells and provide the actionable details necessary to support capture or kill operations.
The US ability to act swiftly on this information is also rapidly evolving. The need for focused military action in combating smaller targets has led to the rising importance of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and counterterrorism task forces that combine a wide range of military and intelligence resources. For instance, JSOC, with CIA assistance, has increasingly exploited the use of on-the-ground technical analysis of cell phones, computer hard drives, and documents in combination with the debriefing of captured militants to quickly locate new targets for attack.13


US decision makers have struggled, not only to establish a new paradigm for finding and fixing terrorists, but also new strategies for "finishing" them. The US now attempts to neutralize its targets using special military forces, an integrated group of military operators and analysts, high technology, and severe legal sanctions—which keeps US and civilian casualties to a minimum. The mechanics of finishing terrorists may include a combination of lethal action, physical detention, and prosecution. Terrorist suspects are successfully finished when they no longer represent a physical or ideological threat to US interests, not just when they are killed by military strikes or by covert action.
Many intelligence and military officials argue that detaining and interviewing terrorist suspects is the most effective way to finish them, since they can provide information that will allow the find-fix-finish cycle to begin again; the debriefing of one suspect can aid in locating, isolating, capturing, or killing others. After Khalid Shaykh Mohammed (KSM) was arrested in Pakistan, he provided actionable intelligence that was used to arrest the leader and several top members of Jemaah Islamiya, an extremist group in Southeast Asia.14 Still, the brutal circumstances under which KSM provided certain information—for example, after being tortured—proved controversial.
Also notorious was the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan militant captured by the Pakistani military and turned over to the US, which "finished" him by guaranteeing that he remained confined for the rest of his life within US, Egyptian, and Libyan facilities. While al-Libi is better known for providing erroneous information that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda had a high-level relationship prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, he did provide actionable intelligence about pending attacks against US interests at the beginning of his detention.
Lethal action, as in the case of Baitullah Mehsud, and rendition, as with KSM and al-Libi, remove individuals from the global battlefield and prevent them from harming US citizens and interests. Lethal action may also disrupt ongoing or imminent terrorist planning, as critical individuals are removed from future plots.
The mechanics of finishing terrorists is easier than ever before, but significant legal, ethical, and political complications remain. Some of the complications of nonlethal methods were demonstrated in the cases of al-Libi and KSM. Once a terrorist suspect is in custody, US officials must decide how to proceed with his incarceration. One option is to bring the terrorist suspect to trial, but this obliges American officials to provide some sort of legitimate legal process. Another option is to detain him indefinitely, which, beyond the likely unconstitutionality of this alternative, begs thornier questions of where to imprison him and under what conditions. US officials can deport a detainee to a third country, as in the case of Osama bin Laden's driver Salim Hamdan. After spending time in the detention center at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, he was deported and is today living quietly in Yemen. But freed individuals may then engage in terrorism or militant activity, as was the case for former Guantanamo Bay detainees Said Ali al-Shihri, who became the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader, and Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul, who became a Taliban commander.15
American attempts to adapt the find-fix-finish paradigm to a new era have not come without high political costs. The Bush administration famously stated that the war on terror should not be fought as a law enforcement exercise; at the same time, President Bush claimed that terrorists would be "brought to justice." If we measure justice in terms of fair trials and convictions, the US has fallen short of that standard. Despite more than three hundred convictions for terrorist-related offenses in civilian courts and a handful in military courts since 9/11, the US has yet to place a single al-Qaeda leader on trial, let alone obtain convictions and sentences. Moreover, the ongoing debate inside and outside the Obama administration over whether al-Qaeda and Taliban militants should be tried in civilian or military courts—as well as other festering issues, such as the ongoing inability to shutter Guantanamo Bay—demonstrates the hard decisions Americans face in determining the appropriate manner of finishing the threat. The US continues to grapple with the thorny political, legal, and moral problems, seeking clear-cut answers that will maintain its legal and ethical footing in very uncertain, constantly shifting political terrain.


Some might argue that America's new national security paradigm ignores the warning that President John Quincy Adams uttered in 1821 and makes it a nation that goes abroad "in search of monsters to destroy." Whether the US has the foresight to cease, as Adams said, involving itself "beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom" remains up for debate. In an interconnected world, however, some of the monsters have the will to journey here unless they are stopped.
The ability of some organizations to create havoc should not be underestimated, especially when they have indicated a strong desire to procure chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Osama bin Laden said in 1998 that it was his obligation in furthering jihad to acquire weapons of mass destruction; this public statement followed al-Qaeda's various attempts to procure uranium since the early 1990s.16 Beyond al-Qaeda, other terrorist groups, such as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Jemaah Islamiya, Aum Shinrikyo, and Lashkar al Tayyib, have tried to acquire weapons of mass destruction.17 Indeed, the possibility of WMD—especially nuclear weapons—falling into the wrong hands is, as then-Senator Obama said in 2008, "the gravest danger" the US faces today.18
Pursuing an effective national security strategy abroad in the post-9 /11 era also requires a new approach to political consensus at home. Given the controversial nature of many of the tools now routinely used by the US government to protect our interests, it is critical to receive the support of Congress and the public at large. The hyperpartisanship displayed on various issues must not hinder our ability to pursue new threats to American security in an ethical and legal manner.
More importantly, scoring cheap political points at the expense of national security corrodes the public's faith in the government's ability to protect it from attack. What America sorely needs is an adult, bipartisan consensus within the legislative branch on how to proceed on security issues that brings legitimacy, intellectual rigor, and a sense of permanence to our often ad hoc security system. A new national security consensus will also allow the US to better appreciate the intelligence and military costs of these efforts, as well as rein in future leaders guided by a misplaced zeal to protect the country from attack.
Finally, to confront security threats in the twenty-first century, the US will require a more nuanced approach to the world, as foreign liaison relationships, particularly with Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, become instrumental in isolating and ending terror networks. A standoffish attitude toward international laws and norms jeopardizes international relationships and the nation's moral standing. Furthermore, using the new tactical tools in a sloppy manner—such as rendering people to noxious countries like Syria or firing Hellfire missiles into dwellings in Pakistan without regard to civilian casualties—will undermine these methods politically and morally, and make protecting US interests more difficult. By revealing how America reinvented its approach to security after 9/11 and by showing its successes and failures, we hope to contribute to a wiser, safer future for the US and its allies.



On Sale
Mar 13, 2012
Page Count
320 pages

Aki Peritz

About the Author

Aki Peritz is the senior national security advisor to the Third Way think tank. He has authored or coauthored with Eric Rosenbach various publications on a wide range of national security issues at Harvard’s Belfer Center. He worked for several years at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. In 2006-2007, he served in Iraq.

Eric Rosenbach currently serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. He has taught courses on counterterrorism policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and served as a professional staff member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, where he led oversight of U.S. counterterrorism programs.

Learn more about this author