In 2005, a CIA analyst named Rebecca (a pseudonym) wrote a memo laying out a new strategy for the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Given the absence of any real leads, she asked, how could you plausibly find him? She sketched out what she saw as four pillars on which the search needed to be built. Her solution turned out to be prophetic.
“The first pillar was locating al-Qaeda’s leader through his courier network,” Peter L. Bergen writes in his new book, “Manhunt.” “The second was locating him through family members, either those who might be with him or anyone in his family who might try to get in touch with them. The third was communications. . . . The final pillar was tracking bin Laden’s occasional outreach to the media.”
We know now, of course, that finding bin Laden’s personal courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, is what led the United States to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and, with that, ended the decade-long battle of wits between the terrorist leader and U.S. intelligence agencies.
The story of Rebecca’s memo is just one of the nuggets in the book. “Manhunt” virtually crackles with insider details. Bergen traveled to Pakistan three times after the Abbottabad raid and eventually became the only outside observer to tour the compound. He arrived when the house was still a crime scene, when bin Laden’s blood was still on the walls.
“Whitewashed walls and large glass windows that looked out over the small, high-walled terrace kept things relatively bright in their bedroom,” Bergen writes. “But the space was cramped for a man as tall as bin Laden [who was 6-foot-4]. The bedroom ceiling was low, no more than seven feet high. A tiny bathroom off to the side had green tile on the walls but none on the floor; a rudimentary toilet that was no more than a hole in the ground, over which they had to squat; and a cheap plastic shower. In this bathroom, bin Laden regularly applied Just for Men dye to his hair and beard to try to maintain a youthful appearance now that he was in his mid-fifties. Next to the bedroom was a kitchen 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.”
Bergen’s Pakistani sources gave him new insight into bin Laden’s home life. Contrary to gossipy news reports, there was harmony in the household. Bin Laden’s three wives accepted polygamy and believed, as he did, that the arrangement was sanctioned by God. To ensure that tranquility reigned, Bergen writes, “bin Laden created a dedicated living space for each wife in all his homes. On the Abbottabad compound, each wife had her own separate apartment with its own kitchen.”
This domestic arrangement was a source of genuine solace for bin Laden, Bergen reports. So much so that he allegedly used to joke to his friends: “I don’t understand why people take only one wife. If you take four wives you live like a groom.” Bergen writes that this is the only recorded joke bin Laden ever made.
Bergen is the author of three other books, but he may be best known for a 1997 journalistic triumph: a meeting with bin Laden. The sit-down took place in a mud hut outside the Afghan city of Jalalabad, not far from the mountains of Tora Bora. Bergen produced the interview for CNN. He is now a national security analyst with the network. Just four years later, Tora Bora became ground zero for an American dragnet aimed at capturing bin Laden. Instead, the terrorist leader disappeared, like a ghost melting through a wall, beginning a manhunt that tested not only America’s high-tech surveillance capabilities and its creativity, but the lengths to which its intelligence services were willing to go to bring bin Laden to justice.