Reviewed by Nadir Hassan
If there is one subject on which Peter Bergen is a specialist it is Osama bin Laden. In 1997, he interviewed the Al Qaeda leader for CNN, becoming the first Western journalist to do so. Since then, working for both CNN and the New America Foundation, Bergen has become known as one of the few people who were sounding early and consistent alarms about bin Laden and for being extremely knowledgeable about the terrorist leader.
Perhaps it is Bergen’s outsized reputation that makes his new book Manhunt, an account of the decade-plus search for OBL, a triumph of access. In researching this book, Bergen was allowed to view US government files about the OBL hunt before they were declassified and he was given unprecedented access by authorities in Pakistan to bin Laden’s final home in Abbottabad before it was razed to the ground. This exclusivity lends an air of atmosphere and authenticity to many scenes in Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad.
This access on its own, however, is not enough to paper over some holes in the book. The portion which covers the actual US Navy SEAL’s attack on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad relies heavily, and almost exclusively, on an account reported by Nicholas Schmidle in The New Yorker. Many questions were raised about the veracity of Schmidle’s reporting, including the fact that his breathless, minute-by-minute descriptions of what the SEALs were thinking, doing and feeling were not actually based on any interviews with the SEALs themselves.
Part of the problem with Manhunt is something over which the author had no control. The search for Osama bin Laden lasted for well over a decade and, for much of that time, there simply wasn’t much progress at all. This makes the first half of the book quite dull. Bergen might perhaps have been better off acknowledging the glacial pace of the hunt rather than trying to maintain an air of suspense and impending thrills. It might not have made for a book that was particularly lively but it would have rung far truer. About the only interesting revelation in these sections is the prevalent sexism in the CIA of the late 1990s and how that may have caused senior officers to dismiss breakthroughs by women analysts.
Bergen’s account also throws up some contradictions and assumptions that remain unanswered. Through his interaction with intelligence officials in Pakistan and US government figures we learn that OBL simply wasn’t much of a threat in his latter years. He was disconnected from the rest of Al Qaeda and was increasingly frustrated by his marginalised role. Bin Laden spent his days dreaming up pointless schemes, like rebranding Al Qaeda by giving it a new name and obsessively reviewing the resumes of the militant outfit’s commanders.
This is mirrored by the fixation of the Obama administration and the CIA on hunting down Osama. Obviously, at the time, it was not known just how impotent Osama had become but,
even in retrospect, Bergen doesn’t question whether the Bush administration might just have struck the right formula in not attaching too much importance to a lone, symbolic figure. For Bergen, it is a given that tracking down Osama was so vital that the cost and risks did not matter.
Bergen’s questionable assumptions also lead him to ignore other potential costs of the Abbottabad raid. He lays out, with painstaking detail, just how circumstantial the evidence of OBL being in the compound really was. Pretty much all the CIA had to go on was that a Pakistani courier for Al Qaeda, known as “Kuwaiti” because of where he was brought up, would deliver messages to the compound. They also knew that one of those living in the compound was a tall man, whom they nicknamed “the walker”. On the basis of these two facts, President Obama was told that there was, at best, a 50 per cent chance that “the walker” was Osama bin Laden.
That was enough for Obama to consider the options of either launching a drone attack in Abbottabad or sending in a team to kill him. As it happens, the story turned out well enough for the Americans. Imagine for a second, though, that the man inside had not been OBL. Bergen doesn’t ponder the question of how a US attack on Pakistani soil would have fatally undermined the war against militancy if the target had turned out to be the wrong one. It is easy now to praise Obama for his courage but there is a thin line separating courage from foolhardiness.
Bergen’s analysis of possible Pakistani collusion in hiding OBL is similarly superficial. He raises the question and then simply declares it unlikely and is done with the matter.
Bergen’s Manhunt, then, is a mixed bag. It may prove to be the definitive account of the chase for Osama, mixing as it does unprecedented access and an amalgamation of other journalistic accounts. But its thoroughness should not distract from its analytical weaknesses. Future writers would do well to use his account as an initial source to explore more deeply the questions raised by the US obsession over this one man who came to be seen as the embodiment of evil.
Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad
By Peter Bergen
Crown Publishers, US