In the final meeting before President Obama decided to order the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the president’s top advisors were far from unanimous on what to do. The secretary of defense, Robert Gates, haunted by the failed mission to rescue U.S. hostages in 1979, thought the risks were too great. Vice President Joe Biden wanted certainty that bin Laden was in the Pakistani compound and worried about the impact of the raid on relations with Pakistan.
Other top advisors said the chance to get bin Laden was worth the risks. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in: “It’s a very close call, but I would say: ‘Do the raid.’ ” CIA director Leon Panetta said the average American, if he or she knew what we knew, “would say, ‘We gotta go.’ ”
Author Peter Bergen interviewed many officials, along with the analysts and operatives who searched for bin Laden during the frustrating years when the trail had gone cold. Bergen’s Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad is a dispassionate and authoritative account that delivers the details of the hunt and the raid, the inside debate on what to do and a well-grounded look at bin Laden and the terrorist organization he created.
What the author brings to this epic story is context and perspective. After the raid that also netted significant intelligence from the compound, we heard breathless stories about bin Laden’s plots to kill Obama or blow up trains in the United States.
But al Qaeda, decimated and desperate, was unable to launch anything like the 9/11 attacks. As one intelligence official explains, some of bin Laden’s plots were “delusional,” reminding him of Hitler in his bunker at end of World War II, sending orders to nonexistent armies.
Bergen has the credibility to tell this story. He begins: “I first met Osama bin Laden in the middle of the night in a mud hut in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in March 1997.” This is his fourth book on terrorism; his works include Holy War Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden. He has studied bin Laden, his patterns of behavior and his relationship to his wives and children.
The author has empathy for the CIA and military analysts who slowly pieced together clues about a courier with a long history with al Qaeda who lived in a suspiciously large compound in the town of Abbottabad. Obsessed with security, bin Laden never left the compound or communicated from it. His daily walks were under a tarpaulin that made positive identification impossible.
The success of the raid by the Navy SEALs is the stuff of legend that will be written about for years as new details emerge. Bergen provides several tidbits. As the first outside observer to visit the compound last year, just before it was bulldozed, he saw the top-floor room where bin Laden lived and died.
It had tiny windows. No one could see in, but bin Laden could not see what was going on as the SEALs entered the compound. “Bin Laden had become a victim of his own security arrangements,” Bergen writes.
The author also steps back to provide the big picture. He sees continuing threats from al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia. An unstable, unreliable Pakistan with nuclear weapons remains a huge problem.
But bin Laden’s demise is more than symbolic, Bergen writes. He likens the attacks of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, a “tremendous tactical victory” that set in motion a chain of events that destroyed imperial Japan. So too, the attacks on New York and Washington led to “the destruction of much of al Qaeda and, eventually, the death of its leader.”
Frank Davies, a former Miami Herald reporter and editor, works for a congressional committee.