From 9/11 to Abbottabad, Peter Bergen’s Manhunt is an ‘unputdownable’ narrative about the struggle to track down the world’s Number One terrorist, Osama Bin Laden
If you asked anyone who Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was, chances are no one would bat an eyelid at the name of the 23-year-old Nigerian who, on Christmas Day 2009, botched up the bombing of Northwest Airlines’ flight 253. Expect the same blank stares for Khalid Sheikh Mohamed (one of the 9/11 masterminds) and Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri (Bin Laden’s successor and present leader of Al Qaeda) as well.
Point is: while all three are extremists from the same radical militant group, somehow, when it comes to terrorism, there is only one name that laymen like you and me seem familiar with — Osama Bin Laden.
After it was confirmed the 9/11 attacks were part of Laden’s strategic “war on the infidels”, the US administration swore to take down Number One — dead or alive — and dismantle his carefully crafted network of fanatics. And that wasn’t just a reactionary American sentiment: worldwide, it was shared across the board.
An all-out war on Al Qaeda was declared, but, after the first few anniversaries, many wondered if the chase for bin Laden still was on. A few even debated if the US intelligence had reneged on its vow or was simply not doing enough. Peter Bergen holds out a cogent perspective for all such streams of thought with Manhunt, an outstanding 260-page account of a decade-long search for Bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad.
Bergen attempts to cover everything from Bin Laden giving the American elite forces a most-frustrating slip at Tora Bora; the resurgence of Al Qaeda; how intelligence closed in on the courier (that unwittingly gave bin Laden’s position away); the brutal battle rhythm of the Joint Special Operations Command (the forces that spearheaded the operation that killed bin Laden) where the average day was 17-5-2 i.e. the number of hours for work, sleep and everything else respectively; and the relationship breakdown between the US and Pakistan as a direct result of an operation that caught the latter entirely by surprise.
Chapters are also dedicated to the valiant warriors who executed the mission; the different courses of action the US President and his top advisors grappled with; and lastly, a chapter titled ‘Don’t turn on the light’ — on the operation itself and the last words Bin Laden spoke before he was shot dead. In the end, one thing was made clear: the Obama administration were absolutely tunnel-visioned when it came to taking out Number One and Two (Zawahiri) — and they did whatever it took to protect their people first, even if that meant seriously jeopardising already-strained relations with iffy allies.
Bergen doesn’t waste breath with non-essentials. The chapters turn fast at thriller-speed; almost every sentence is a revelation of something new that leaves you hankering for more. The analyses are excellent — coming as they are from a CNN national security analyst. As the only journalist who was allowed into bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound (where the latter hid for six years before being taken out by the US Navy SEAL raid last year), Bergen was strategically placed to draw readers a vivid picture of the grim living quarters the Al Qaeda leader occupied. It was from here that Bin Laden struggled to maintain control over Al Qaeda, that was falling out of favour with Muslim countries everywhere.
Bergen’s notes and research are both meticulous and exhaustive, as is evident from the detailed bibliography at the end of the book and the tens of interviews he conducted through unprecedented access to top brass officials — from Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus to US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, among many more. If there are too many names or references to keep track of, Bergen offers useful reminders each time so you never really lose the thread or have to rewind and hunt for who, say, [Admiral Mike] Mullen was.
So is the book over-ambitious? Definitely not. Manhunt is an engrossing read for anyone keen to explore the delusional mind of the world’s most famous terrorist — and the run-up to his day of reckoning on May 1 last year.