The look at those who hunted Osama bin Laden begins with the sisterhood — a collection of female CIA analysts who became somewhat obsessed with al Qaeda and its leader.
They now are talking on camera for the HBO documentary "Manhunt," which debuted Wednesday night, two years after the terrorist mastermind was killed and weeks after another jihadist attack on America at the Boston Marathon.
The film, which HBO is showing throughout May, is not about the raid that killed bin Laden but the inside story of the CIA's bin Laden hunters — their frustrations, guilt, joy and, for one, a violent death.
"The night of the raid, I just had this gut feeling that there was a deeper, darker, richer story other than just the story of the raid itself," said Greg Barker, a journalist and the director of "Manhunt." "It's about an intelligence story that spoke to the decisions made in secret inside our government that led us to Abbottabad."
Appearing on camera are Susan Hasler, who edited the daily intelligence brief to the president; Cindy Storer, who tracked bin Laden after the CIA opened a special off-site base; Nada Bakos, who ended up focusing on Abu Musab Zarqawi, the most ruthless al Qaeda killer in Iraq; and Jennifer Matthews, who appears hauntingly only in photographs.
"Manhunt" is stark, devoid of voice-over narration or final judgment. Viewers who want condemnation of the CIA for not stopping the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. or for conducting "enhanced interrogations" of senior al Qaeda members will not find it here.
"The real story inside the CIA, the long struggle against al Qaeda, wasn't really appreciated, not just by the general public but within the government itself," Mr. Barker said. "I felt it was a largely untold story."
Al Qaeda was first thought to be a financing arm run by a young Saudi named bin Laden. But after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, the CIA realized that al Qaeda was much more — and at war with the U.S.
"All of a sudden it just hit me that this was a bureaucracy," Ms. Storer said.
"Manhunt" follows some of the reporting of author Peter Bergen, who taped an interview with bin Laden in a cave in 1997. A crew member speaks of bin Laden's "dead fish" handshake. Bin Laden declares war on the U.S., and his henchmen fly planes into buildings four years later.
President Bush ordered the CIA to go to war — a command that forever changed the analytical Langley headquarters into a tactical battalion of "targeters" who embedded with special operators overseas.
In the documentary, the CIA fairly quickly finds the 9/11 ringleaders, with mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the special prize. "Black sites" open in third-party countries to begin interrogations designed to learn about al Qaeda and its next attacks.
Of the so-called enhanced interrogations, Jose Rodriguez, who led the CIA's clandestine service, says: "You can't argue with success."
Marty Martin, a rough-edged spy recruiter in the Middle East, is brought to Langley to manage the war. "If you can't make them uncomfortable to save lives, we missed the boat," he said.
Ms. Bakos finds herself in Iraq hunting Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who pledged loyalty to bin Laden and began a killing spree in Iraq designed to spark a Shiite-Sunni Muslim civil war.
"It seemed strange," she said. "I never met Zarqawi. I was thinking about him 24/7. It wasn't pleasant after a while."
A U.S. airstrike ultimately killed Zarqawi, but the search for the thug yielded much more.
Zarqawi was even too vicious for bin Laden, who protested his mass killings of Muslims, and al Qaeda dispatched an emissary, Hassan Ghul, to convey the leader's concerns.
The U.S. captured Ghul, who at a black site told of a special courier to bin Laden. The CIA later learned the messenger's name, and he led hunters to bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The "get bin Laden" obsession lured the CIA into a costly mistake. Jordanian intelligence said it turned a rabid pro-al Qaeda blogger into a double agent who might be able to penetrate the group in Pakistan's rugged tribal areas.
Humam Balawi, a physician, traveled to Pakistan and disappeared for six months. He later emerged with news — that he had information about al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri. He wanted to meet with the CIA in Afghanistan at its base in Khost, the window into Pakistan from where the agency collected intelligence and waged its drone war on extremists.
The CIA gave Balawi special access. On his way in a sedan, he videotaped the suicide vest strapped to his body, saying: "This is the switch to kill as much as I can."
CIA officers lined up to greet him. He stepped out of the car and detonated the suicide bomb. Seven CIA operatives died, including the station chief, Jennifer Matthews, a 45-year-old mother of three.
When Ms. Bakos heard of the death of the officer who had hunted bin Laden for as long as anyone else at the CIA, "I was shocked," she said. "She was taken out by bin Laden."
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