As a journalist covering post-9/11 terrorism, Scott Shane, a National Security reporter for The New York Times, wanted a deeper understanding of the disturbing arc of recent history, and one of the questions he set out to answer was how President Obama came to embrace so aggressively the targeted killing of suspected terrorists. The result of his inquiry is Objective Troy (Tim Duggan, $28), a gripping and illuminating book that opens with a tightly paced scene that could be straight from a thriller, describing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab—aka the “underwear bomber”—and his failed attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound aircraft per the instructions of his mentor, Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki. What follows is a fascinating portrait of American-born al-Awlaki (for whom the military’s code name was Troy) and his transformation to an Al-Qaeda leader in the Arabian Peninsula. Shane also highlights some of the biographical parallels between Barack Obama and the man who would become a high priority target of his administration: both men were born in the U.S. to secular Muslim fathers and both spent parts of their childhoods overseas. The personal details lend a human touch to this narrative of the controversial extra-judicial killing of a United States citizen.
Washington Post journalist Joby Warrick chronicles how a fanatic movement led by a onetime thug, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has been transformed into the Islamic State, now menacing whole parts of the Middle East. In Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS (Doubleday, $28.95), Warrick provides an extensive biography of Zarqawi, from his early years in Jordan to his leadership of a violent resistance network in Iraq following the U.S. invasion. Since Zarqawi’s death in 2006, his successors have built the Islamic State into an organization that has eclipsed al Qaeda in influence and ambition. Now led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known as “the invisible sheik,” the Islamic State has seized large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, running oil fields, banks, schools, and a formidable military while spreading terror through gruesome acts. Warrick’s revealing, well-written account is valuable for anyone trying to understand the Islamic State’s origins and aims—and how U.S. missteps along the way contributed to the group’s rise.
For many who follow national security affairs, one of the most vexing questions about the Obama administration has been how, after entering office promising different approaches to fighting terrorism than the Bush administration pursued, it has ended up in a number of cases actually continuing or expanding the Bush policies. New York Times journalist Charlie Savage examines what happened in Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency (Little, Brown, $30), providing the most comprehensive and revealing account so far of how current policies on drones, detentions, military tribunals, surveillance, leak investigations, and other national security matters have evolved. Savage portrays the Obama team as one led largely by lawyers who have focused on adding new legal justifications for existing practices rather than eliminating them. The result, Savage says, is that Barack Obama is likely to be seen “as less a transformative post-9/11 president than a transitional one.”