We all know the airport security rule on liquids by now: Whether we’re toting salsa or shampoo in our carry-on luggage, containers holding no more than 3.4 ounces each must fit inside one quart-sized, clear, resealable plastic bag. But we may have forgotten the terrorist scheme that compelled this regulation—and the international effort to expose and quash another al Qaeda plot to destroy passenger aircraft in flight. SIS adjunct professor Aki Peritz takes readers behind the scenes of Operation Overt in Disruption: Inside the Largest Counterterrorism Investigation in History.
What prompted you to write this book?
A chapter of the book I wrote in 2012 [Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns That Killed Bin Laden and Devastated al Qaeda] dealt with a major terror plot that still affects all of us today. It would have happened in 2006, only five years after 9/11. Had it occurred, it would have destroyed the civilian aviation industry. Nobody would have flown. It would have tanked our economy, had they pulled it off.
Why do successful counterterrorism operations receive less media attention?
A scholar in the 1990s had a great analogy: If you’re a soccer goalie, nobody remembers the one you catch; everybody remembers the one that gets into the net. That’s true for a lot of the work that’s done in the shadows, even today. There are all kinds of thwarted attacks people don’t know about, by virtue of the fact that they were stopped. This plot disrupted air traffic across the Atlantic for the better part of a month, and people forgot about it after a while. Unless it directly affects you—the victim—it goes into the background.
The title of Chapter 15 comes from a former CIA director’s declaration to employees of the Counterterrorism Center: “Today’s date is September 12, 2001.” Does this mentality still hold true today?
I would say it doesn’t. If America is at war with a non-state actor—a war to the death—you make choices you would probably look back on with regret. We were so focused on fighting terrorism in those years that we forgot about everything else. Now we have other national interests.
“Intelligence is a team sport” is one of your lessons learned in the final chapter. Is the United States practicing good sportsmanship?
I think so, generally. One of the central tensions of the book is that the US wanted to arrest these individuals a lot faster than the British wanted to. We cannot protect the United States unless we have allies. We will go it alone if we have to, but we prefer not to because it makes the long game a lot harder if we have no friends.
How did the research you conducted for this book differ from other research you’ve done?
I don’t normally reach out to the top people in the intelligence services for a book. Senior leadership at the CIA—all retired now—were very willing to talk about their experiences during this time. The operation was a great counterterrorism success for both the Bush administration and the intelligence services. They were much more open than if I were writing a more aggressively negative portrayal.
Did you uncover anything that surprised you while researching the book?
The main ringleader, Rashid Rauf, was the only person the Pakistani government never allowed US intelligence officials to talk to. It looks like the Pakistani spy agency, the ISI, trained him to fight in Kashmir against the Indians. If the US found out that an al Qaeda operative who had committed violent acts in the West had been trained by Pakistan, that would be embarrassing for the Pakistanis.
Did you have any input in choosing the narrator for the audio version of the book?
I did. They gave me three choices, and they were all Americans. I said, “A lot of the action happens in the UK, and I’d really like to have a British reader. And I don’t want a very posh reader. I want somebody who can talk like a cop.” We narrowed down on the actor Samuel Roukin, and I thought he did a great job. He played a psychopathic British officer and spy hunter in Turn: Washington’s Spies.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got some ideas in the hopper. I’m trying to understand how to build interesting, dynamic characters that people care about. It doesn’t matter what Middle Earth looks like or what happens in Central Louisiana if you don’t have compelling characters.
Are you mainly a nonfiction reader?
I usually read nonfiction. Right now I’m reading God’s Chinese Son, by Jonathan D. Spence, about the most consequential civil war in history. The Taiping Rebellion lasted for 14 years and killed 70 million people.
What was the last great book you read?
Grant, by Ron Chernow, is about the United States during Reconstruction, a liminal time when we could have gone in a different direction in terms of racial harmony and industrialization. And Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe, is about the Irish Republican Army. The audiobook is great because it’s read by a guy from Belfast.
I go to Politics and Prose to support the local economy.
Best time/place to read?
I mostly listen to audiobooks now because I have small children. I’m usually doing that when I’m commuting or late, late at night when my kids are asleep.
You’re struggling to get through a book. Do you push through or put it down?
If I don’t find it compelling and I’m reading for fun, I just put it down. It’s a sunk cost, it’s done, and if I’m not into it, then I just move on with my life.
Book you’ve read most often?
The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. This book should be read by every single American in the State Department, the DOD, and the intelligence services. Greene writes about a love triangle between an older British journalist, an American businessman, and a younger Vietnamese woman in the 1950s, but it’s really about American behavior. We believe in progress and the righteousness of our cause, and it leads to terrible things happening.
You’re hosting a dinner party for three writers—dead or alive. Who’s on the guest list?
Graham Greene, Tina Fey, and Toni Morrison.