- - Friday, May 4, 2012

By Peter L. Bergen
Crown Publishers, $26, 384 pages

A year ago, on May 1, 2011, an elite U.S. SEAL team killed the world’s most wanted terrorist. After a decade of near misses and dead ends, Osama bin Laden was finally cornered in a fortresslike compound, in the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan, close to that country’s elite military academy, and fatally shot. The following day, his body was buried at sea by the U.S. Navy in an Islamic ceremony.

While the general contours of the decisions and operations that led to Bin Laden’s killing are well-known, Peter Bergen’s “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad” is the first inside account of the enormous efforts by U.S. intelligence agencies to locate and apprehend the al Qaeda leader who was responsible for so much catastrophic bloodshed against America and its allies, including attacks against fellow Muslims in countries such as Iraq.

Mr. Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, came to prominence in early 1997 when he interviewed bin Laden in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and then published three acclaimed books about al Qaeda and bin Laden. For this book, Mr. Bergen interviewed the key players involved in hunting for bin Laden and was granted access to some of the “treasure trove” of materials collected by the SEAL team from bin Laden’s compound.

Mr. Bergen’s gripping account begins with the initial attempts that failed to capture bin Laden following the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001. As he writes, the opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden and his bodyguards before their escape from their Tora Bora hideout in the Afghan mountains failed when U.S. military leaders and the George W. Bush administration turned down urgent requests from military and CIA special forces operatives for large reinforcements, fearing that “they would be treated like enemies by the locals.”

Even the capture and interrogation of top al Qaeda operatives such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in 2003 failed to reveal new information about bin Laden’s whereabouts, Mr. Bergen writes, although they produced a wealth of intelligence about the organization that helped to apprehend or kill other senior-level operatives.

In the absence of any plausible leads, in 2005 the hunt for bin Laden took on a new shape, according to Mr. Bergen, when a paper written by a CIA analyst became the blueprint for the ultimately successful operation. An effective search, according to the blueprint, was based on four pillars: locating al Qaeda’s leader through his family members, his communications with his organization’s senior leadership, his occasional outreach to the media and his courier network.

With three of the pillars yielding little information about bin Laden’s whereabouts, identifying his courier network became the “glue” that had the potential to reveal the way he operated. Mr. Bergen then describes how intelligence analysts began creating a “composite of the ideal courier: he would have to be able to travel in Pakistan without sticking out, he would have to speak Arabic to communicate effectively with al Qaeda’s Arab leadership, and he would have to have been trusted by bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks.”

Piecing together countless leads, intelligence analysts were able to identify such a courier: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who, they found out, lived inside a compound in Abbottabad with a still unidentified “high value” inhabitant, and, as a result of surveillance of his movements throughout Pakistan, including setting up an observation post in a nearby house, proved successful in ultimately locating bin Laden’s whereabouts.

In a testament to the exhaustive and meticulous planning that preceded the SEAL mission to ensure its success, Mr. Bergen discusses the myriad alternative outcomes that were considered, such as the possibility that bin Laden’s presence in the compound might have been circumstantial, not actual, that the SEAL helicopter-based mission from Afghanistan was too dangerous because it could be met by Pakistani military resistance and relations with Pakistan would be severely damaged in the aftermath.

After President Obama gave the formal go-ahead two days before the May 1 mission, Mr. Bergen’s narrative turns dramatic when he discusses how tight operational secrecy was maintained by the small group involved. This was the case when Mr. Obama participated in the lighthearted humor of the White House Correspondents Dinner of last year, never giving away the evening’s true high drama and the stunning military operation that would be carried out the next day.

In the book’s conclusion, Mr. Bergen writes that bin Laden’s death eliminated “the one man who provided broad, largely unquestioned strategic goals to the wider jihadist movement.” Al Qaeda’s “jihadist brand” isn’t yet finished, Mr. Bergen cautions, because in what he terms a “wild card,” “one of bin Laden’s dozen or so sons - endowed with the iconic family name - could eventually rise to take over the terrorist group.” Moreover, despite the leadership shortcomings of Ayman al-Zawahri, his less-charismatic successor, al Qaeda is in a position to exploit the current chaos in the Middle East, including establishing a new safe haven in Yemen, where many of its members have ancestral roots.

In “Manhunt,” Mr. Bergen has produced a masterful account of bin Laden’s life and activities, how al Qaeda operated in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and the American government’s success in tracking down the world’s most notorious terrorist leader.

• Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at the Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington.

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