“Takedown: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda” is an insider account by a former high-level official at the CIA and FBI about how both agencies substantially upgraded their counterterrorism capabilities after the U.S. government’s failure to prevent al Qaeda’s catastrophic attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Philip Mudd is ideally positioned to discuss these issues after a distinguished 24-year career at the CIA, where he rose to become deputy head of its Counterterrorism Center, culminating in a four-year detail in 2005 to the FBI as a deputy director of its National Security Branch. He resigned from government service in March 2010 (more on the reasons for his resignation later in the review). He is currently a senior research fellow on counterterrorism studies at the Washington, D.C.-based New America Foundation and a sought-after commentator.
Mr. Mudd’s account begins, after the attacks of Sept. 11, when he was selected to support a small diplomatic team that was deployed in Pakistan and Afghanistan that helped establish a new government for Afghanistan, following the American military intervention that overthrew the Taliban regime in late 2001. Mr. Mudd’s discussion of his role reads like a spy novel, with the American team using various ad hoc methods to improvise a new political order with its Afghan counterparts, some of whom, like Hamid Karzai (the future president), had been living in exile for many years.
Although the American intervention was criticized at the time for not pressing sufficiently to roll up Osama bin Laden and his escaping forces (who ultimately made their way to Pakistan’s tribal regions), Mr. Mudd explains: “But then, the fight was up in the air: ousting the group [i.e., the Taliban] that had hosted the architects of 9/11 was a primary focus, and the hunt for al Qaeda leaders was only a part of that mission.”
In 2002, Mr. Mudd returned to the CIA as a senior official in the Counterterrorism Center, becoming its deputy director in 2003. At this point, the book becomes a highly informative primer on the components that constitute effective counterterrorism. With their overall mission to “ensure that we do not have another catastrophic event on U.S. soil,” their objective became to “destroy al Qaeda’s safe haven; break up plots; find, fix, and finish plotters.”
Interestingly, with bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, his deputy, on the run and in hiding, they became, in effect, “symbolic leaders, providing strategic direction, cajoling their underlings, weighing in on key decisions, but not day-to-day overseers.” It was the “top operational commanders and their subordinates and facilitators” who became the focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Mr. Mudd writes, because they “posed the most significant tactical threat to the United States.” Here, U.S. counterterrorism became effective over time, Mr. Mudd argues, as it succeeded in arresting top operational commanders such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in March 2003.
Mr. Mudd explains that a measure of success in counterterrorism is not merely “who was captured or killed … but whether operations broke plots and destroyed the networks that could sustain long-term training and planning resulting in another strategic strike.” In this sense, Mr. Mudd concludes, “the focus on these operational figures was well founded: virtually no one, in 2001, would have bet that the United States would not have witnessed another 9/11-style event by now. In this most critical sense, the operational focus was successful. Bin Laden took nine-plus years to take down, and al-Zawahri is still out there, but their organization poses nowhere the strategic threat it did a decade ago, and its leadership is decimated beyond recognition.”
Successful counterterrorism requires not only effective intelligence, law enforcement and military operations against terrorist networks, but solid analytical products to guide the nation’s top decision makers. As an insider, Mr. Mudd provides a revealing portrait of how the “threat matrix” a snapshot summary of the threats facing the country on a daily basis is produced. He outlines the difficulty of piecing together fragments of disparate intelligence information about terrorist cells and their operatives and how intelligence analysts go about prioritizing threats, since lots of unfounded rumors invariably make their way as “raw intelligence” all of which need to be considered, given the difficulty of penetrating terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda to uncover their imminent plots.
With our nation’s attention now focused on understanding the suspects in the bombing of the Boston Marathon, Mr. Mudd’s book also provides important insight on how the FBI examines the activities of individuals who are suspected of possible future involvement in terrorism. While a majority of those who are radicalized are clusters of “angry young men” who “think about doing something,” but never take action, the key to determining their proclivity to becoming terrorists, he writes, is to “find the key players; find how they communicate; find their overseas contacts; determine their access to weapons, explosives, training; find who radicalized them, and who they’d radicalized.”
Mr. Mudd had an exemplary career at the CIA and FBI, but the upward trajectory in his career took an unfortunate turn when his 2009 nomination by President Obama as head of intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security was derailed by congressmen who raised objections over the CIA’s supposed harsh interrogation techniques against captured terrorist operatives (for which he writes that he was not directly involved). This episode is sensitively discussed by Mr. Mudd in the book’s concluding chapter.
Joshua Sinai is the author of “Active Shooter: A Handbook on Prevention” (ASIS International, 2013).