By Peter Bergen,
The Bodley Head, 384 pages, £20
It is a late April morning in 2011 at the White House and President Barack Obama is gathered with senior administration officials and his Chief of Staff Bill Daley at the Diplomatic Reception Room.
On the agenda is Osama Bin Laden.
Or rather, the man believed to be Bin Laden — a tall, dark figure with a long beard settled in an isolated villa in Pakistan’s sleepy town of Abbottabad, who has been captured by spy satellites and surveillance cameras to have barely strolled out of his third-floor lair in the isolated compound in the past six years.
It is the culmination of several meetings on the Al Qaida leader who has been heard about but never seen since the 9/11 terror attacks on America. While years of mostly painstaking and sometimes bumbling intelligence gathering have led to what seems like solid evidence of Bin Laden’s hideout, opinion within the Obama administration is deeply fragmented over what should happen next.
The day before, at a National Security Council meeting, two out of three of Obama’s most senior advisers make it clear they oppose a proposed US Navy SEAL raid. Vice-President Joe Biden finds the intelligence about the Al Qaida leader’s possible presence at Abbottabad too circumstantial, while Defence Secretary Robert Gates worries about American soldiers getting killed.
Instead of the SEAL raid, the option preferred by Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright and Gates is to drop an experimental “smart” bomb on the man believed to be Bin Laden. Opposed to that option is Obama’s top military adviser Admiral Mike Mullen, who feels the untested bomb might not work out.
And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who favours the raid, feels that getting Osama Bin Laden should trump any considerations over Washington’s diplomatic relations with Pakistan.
At the Diplomatic Reception Room, Obama dismisses the strategy deadlock with one clear swoop. “I’ve considered the decision: it’s a go,” he tells the team.
When senior White House official Tony Blinken heard of the president’s decision to go ahead with the raid, “I thought, ‘Man, that is a gutsy call.’ First we don’t know for sure Bin Laden is there; the evidence is circumstantial. Second, most of his most senior advisers had recommended a different course of action ... Leaving that meeting, I think a lot of people had visions of Jimmy Carter in their heads.”
In two days, however, Blinken’s fears would be set to rest — instead of more Carter moments, Obama’s gutsy call would bring down the curtains on what would go down in history as the biggest manhunt ever.
It is therefore apt that the title of the latest book from Peter Bergen — a British-American print and broadcast journalist, author and CNN’s national security analyst who produced the first television interview with Bin Laden in 1997 — is simply called “Manhunt”.
In chronicling the ten-year search for Bin Laden that began from the ashes of 9/11 and would culminate — successfully — in the midnight raid at Abbottabad on May 1, 2011, Bergen recreates a dramatic story of the days of Al Qaida after the Twin Tower attacks, the intelligence gathering that led to Bin Laden, his life in Abbottabad and the different aspects of the raid itself.
Like the search for the Al Qaida leader, Bergen’s book itself is the result of a lot of work — countless interviews with top officials from White House, the Pentagon and the CIA as well as the Pakistani military, and sifting through key documents in the “treasure trove” of nearly 6,000 documents retrieved by the SEALs from the Bin Laden compound.
Bergen was also the only journalist and the only independent observer to have been allowed access to the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad before it was demolished in late February this year.
“It was interesting to observe how Bin Laden lived and to get a personal sense of the household,” Bergen told Weekend Review in an interview, talking of his recollection of the villa where the world’s most-wanted terrorist lived for six years. “It had a tiny toilet about the size of a closet — that’s where the world’s most wanted terrorist would answer nature’s call; also found in the bedroom was a hair dye — a sign that Bin Laden did care about his image.”
Bergen, who has written three previous books about Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida, says it was a natural progression to write about the end of the Al Qaida leader.
“I decided to write ‘Manhunt’ on the morning of May 2, 2011, the day the world woke up to the news of Bin Laden’s killing. I didn’t know that his end would come in 2011, but in a way it was an easy book for me to write,” he said.
So what got him interested in Al Qaida?
“The World Trade Center attack in 1993. I travelled to Afghanistan later that year to do a documentary for CNN, linking the Afghanistan situation with the World Trade Center attacks. I read about Bin Laden the first time in 1996, and it seemed that he was the person responsible for such terrorist activities,” he says.
“Manhunt” effectively completes a full circle for Bergen, because he was the first TV journalist to meet Bin Laden in the middle of the night in a mud hut in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in early 1997. In fact, in the course of that interview, the Al Qaida leader surprised even Bergen by declaring war on the United States on camera.
So when that war-cry eventually came to end in May, was that the result of a really gutsy call from President Obama?
“I think it was quite gutsy,” Bergen says. “Once you know the outcome of the raid, it was an easy call, But under the circumstances, it was quite a complicated situation and a very complex call. There were lots of risks, and similar calls made under such risky circumstances have led to US presidents going out of office,” he adds.
In fact, that call from Obama becomes even more gutsy considering that in the final week before the raid, in a new analysis a “Red Team” of US analysts who had not been involved in developing the intelligence on Abbottabad lowered the estimate of Bin Laden living in the compound to about 40 per cent. “The Red Team actually brought down the level of certainty; the positive ID percentage was higher before the Red Team got done. So I think we went from maybe seventy/thirty or sixty-five/thirty-five to fifty-five/forty-five or even fifty/fifty,” senior administration official Blinken recalls in the book.
That the search and successful capture of the world’s most-wanted terrorist would spawn almost a publishing and film industry of its own is hardly surprising — from accounts under pseudonym by some of the SEALs to Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming political thriller “Zero Dark Thirty” — billed as a film that depicts “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man” — there seems to be an unending rush of new material on Bin Laden.
But what sets Bergen’s narrative apart is its laser-like focus and integrity of information — his key concern is not with the ideological backdrop or the political wranglings and the eventual diplomatic kerfuffle caused by the Abbottabad raid, but the process of the manhunt itself and its natural conclusion. All the other nuances of the whole saga are captured and chronicled authoritatively — such as the debates within the US establishment, the bungled bids for information on Bin Laden, the strained ties with Pakistan and Washington’s handling of the post-raid scenarios — but first and foremost you can approach “Manhunt” as a taut thriller.
So could it have ended any differently for Bin Laden? And what about the controversies floating around his death and burial?
“In the end, the fact remains that world is without Osama Bin Laden,” Bergen says. “It probably couldn’t have been any different.”
Indeed, SEALs at Bin Laden’s room later found two guns with empty chambers. “He didn’t surrender, but he hadn’t also prepared a defence; he had no intention of fighting,” Bergen says.
“Don’t turn on the light,” were the last words Bin Laden would ever utter, speaking to his youngest wife after strange sounds of explosions at the villa compound woke him up on a moonless night. And within minutes, a “double tap” of shots to the chest and his left eye would take his life.