A year after the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, we have a terrific new book on the decade-long search for high-value target No. 1. Peter Bergen’s Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad is the first in-depth study of how the CIA found the emir of al Qaeda and how the SEALs brought justice to him.
It is very appropriate that Bergen is the author of this tale. He was one of the very first journalists and analysts in America to recognize the importance of al Qaeda and bin Laden. He traveled to Afghanistan to interview the Saudi terrorist, and he has written a series of excellent books on the man and his organization. For this book he got unique access to bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad from the Pakistani authorities before they demolished it and to their interrogations of bin Laden’s wives. He also interviewed many of the Americans involved in the search for bin Laden, including myself, over the last decade, and especially those involved in the successful manhunt in 2010 and 2011.
The result is a fast-paced narrative that takes you into the search for the most-wanted man in human history. Bergen reveals that the key to the outcome was not some swashbuckling James Bond spy, but rather the meticulous hard work of professional intelligence analysts. Catching HVT1 was more the work of Hercule Poirot than Bond. And many of the best analysts were women who used their “little gray cells” brilliantly to put together a plan to find bin Laden by studying his work habits, family, and those he trusted most. It was not without danger. Al Qaeda was determined to fight back, and in December 2009 a Jordanian triple agent used the bait of the whereabouts of bin Laden’s deputy and heir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to get access to a CIA base in Afghanistan and blow up seven CIA officers.
Two fascinating portraits also emerge in Manhunt. The first is about the final years of bin Laden himself. He spent almost six years in his last hideout in self-enforced austere house arrest, surrounded by his wives and children. As Bergen notes, it was “a comfortable retirement.” He was not a recluse, however, as the documents and electronic chips recovered by the SEALs from his lair revealed. Bin Laden to his dying day was the CEO of the world’s first truly global terror empire. He was communicating via his courier with his lieutenants and supporters across the Islamic world, constantly pressing them for more terror against America. He was making personnel decisions, even micromanaging his subordinates’ lives. As the drones began killing more and more of his best operatives, bin Laden became depressed and even delusional to a degree. The Arab revolutions in Egypt, Yemen, and Syria made his message of terror more and more irrelevant in the final months of his life.
The other portrait is of his nemesis, Barack Hussein Obama, who had campaigned on the promise that if elected, he would not hesitate to take unilateral action inside Pakistan to kill bin Laden if he could find him. President Obama is a thoughtful and deliberative decision maker who values debate and data. I learned that in chairing for him the strategic review of American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the start of his administration, which set as its goal defeating al Qaeda. Obama is also a risk taker and gambler. The odds that bin Laden was in the hideout were only 50-50, and the risk of encountering a Pakistani Army patrol in Abbottabad was considerable. Bergen reveals that two of Obama’s top three aides, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, advised against sending in the commandos; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was for the operation. She had criticized Obama’s promise to go after bin Laden into Pakistan during the campaign. But when the moment of truth came, she told the president to forget about Pakistani sensitivities and strike. The result was a devastating blow to al Qaeda that it is still struggling to recover from.
There are unresolved mysteries about the manhunt and the hideout. Bergen gives little attention to the question of how bin Laden operated from deep inside Pakistani territory for so long without the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, discovering his presence. He was communicating with other terrorists in Pakistan who have intimate connections with the ISI, like the leadership of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the Mumbai massacre in 2008 just after Obama’s election. When one of his wives was released from Iranian detention in 2010, she seemed to have had no problem finding her way to Abbottabad.
Bergen reveals the debate within the Obama team about whether to tell the ISI about the hideout or to give the Pakistani government warning that the commandos were coming. In the end, Obama decided not to do either. It was an extraordinary decision. By 2011 Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush had given Pakistan almost $25 billion in military and economic aid precisely to fight al Qaeda. But when the decisive moment came, the president rightly decided he could not trust the Pakistanis with the vital information about bin Laden.
No one believes Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, knew about bin Laden’s hideout. His wife, Benazir Bhutto, had been murdered by terrorists loyal to al Qaeda, according to the United Nations investigation into her assassination. Rather, suspicion is focused on the generals. After all, most of Pakistan’s top-ranking officers are graduates of the Kakul Military Academy, which is less than a mile from the hideout itself in Abbottabad. Many retire to the town. Perhaps they were simply incompetent in searching for bin Laden. If so, what else are the generals who run the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal clueless about?