Manhunt: From 9/11 to Abbottabad – The Ten-Year Search for Osama Bin Laden, Peter Bergen, The Bodley Head, Pp 359, £ 14.99
THIS is a racy account of the most intensive and expensive manhunt of all time for Osama bin Laden, the founder of the Al-Qaeda and mastermind behind the 9,11 attacks. The real life story begins against Abbottabad’s placid environs half a decade after Osama bin Laden’s victory on 9/10. It is one of the last places in Pakistan that anyone would have suspected him of living there with his three wives, children and grandchildren. He allowed his first wife, a Syrian, to leave him as she wanted to go home and see her family in Syria. The other three lived with him, with the youngest called Amal, who was barely 17 when he married her at age 43.
We learn for instance, that bin Laden’s two older wives, both academicians, taught the children Arabic and read from the Quran in a bedroom on the second floor, while his youngest wife lived on the third floor with him. About every day apparently, the al-Qaeda leader, a strict disciplinarian, lectured his family about how the children should be brought up. Nowhere were bin Laden’s living conditions particularly salubrious. Peter Bergen says that a tiny bathroom off the bedroom that bin Laden shared with his Yemeni third wife had green tiles on the walls but none on the floor, a rudimentary squat toilet and a cheap plastic shower. In his bathroom, Berger tells us, bin Laden (54 when he died) regularly applied ‘Just for Men’ dye on his hair and beard. Next to the bedroom was the toilet and the kitchen which was the size of a large closet and across the hall was bin Laden’s study, where he kept his books on crude wooden shelves and tapped away on his computer. There was no air conditioning.
Such details remind us that for all the monstrosity of his views and acts, he was human. There have been times in the past decade when the Saudi-born son of a construction tycoon and veteran of the Afghan war, appeared more myth than a man.
This manhunt for bin Laden is supposed to have cost, in terms of funds funnelled to American intelligence services over the past decade, somewhere around half a million dollars. Bergen points out that at its heart, it was an astonishingly small number of CIA operatives, no more than would fill a small conference room and an equally restricted group of senior policy makers who participated in the hunt.
Peter Bergen, a former TV journalist, considered one of the most reliable and perceptive specialists in the now expansive field of al-Qaeda studies, managed to get himself into the house in this northern Pakistani city of Abbottabad where bin Laden lived from around 2005 with his family and how they spent their time in hiding.
Though Osama bin Laden’s initial stance was total denial of his role in the attacks on the Twin Towers in USA, he is reported to have admitted later, “What America tastes now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years. Our nation (the Islamic world) has tasted this humiliation and this degradation for more than 80 years.”
After reading about 100 pages of the book, the narrative picks up momentum as Berger describes how analysts assembled and went through a huge amount of information from multiple detainee interviews and from thousands of al-Qaeda documents recovered on the battlefield or following the arrests of its operators.
In the hunt for bin Laden, the person that interested the hunters, that is the Western powers, was a Pakistani who had grown up in Kuwait and who appeared to be some kind of a fixer for al-Qaeda. Nobody knew exactly what he did, but the efforts of senior captured militants to downplay his importance to al-Qaeda set up alarm bells in the CIA. The analytical case that ‘the Kuwaiti’ might be the key to finding the al-Qaeda leader was first made in a memo by CIA officials in August 2010 under the title, ‘Closing in on Osama bin Laden’s Courier’. A month later, a second more detailed account, titled ‘Anatomy of a Lead’, was put together. By this time, CIA ‘assets’ had located him in the border town of Peshawar and had trailed him back to the Abbottabad base.
The book has to be read to get the feel of the atmosphere and the description of the site of attack to visualise what it must have been like when the USA launched its attack.
(The Bodley Head, Random House Group, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA; www.bodleyhead.co.uk)