Peter Bergen’s “Manhunt: the Ten Year Search for bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad”.

Peter Bergen’s 2012 book about the search for Osama bin Laden, “Manhunt”, is a fairly fast read.  It is only 260 pages long, but looks lengthier because it as 75 pages of notes, plus an extensive bibliography, interview list, and index.  I recommend it.

Here is what stands out to me:

1.  Al-Qaeda, at the time of 9/11 was no fly-by-night outfit (pardon the pun).  From the book (page 55):  “The pre-9/11 al-Qaeda was quite bureaucratic, with its various committees for media outreach, military planning, business affairs, and even farming; its top down CEO; the salaries it paid many of its members; the comprehensive training it provided its recruits; and the detailed application forms that were required to attend its training camps. The group’s bylaws, which ran to thirty-two pages in an English translation, covered annual budgets, salaries, medical benefits, policies for al-Qaeda members with disabilities, grounds for dismissal from the group, and vacation allowances.”

2.  Once bin-Laden fled Tora Bora and holed up in Abbottabad, this changed, and al-Qaeda became less top down and more decentralized.  There was no way bin Laden could micro-manage from his hiding place (his only contact was through courier, as he was afraid that any electronic communication could be tracked), although he tried his best.

3.  Bin Laden was obsessed with more attacks on the West and especially on the United States.  The various al-Qaeda cells throughout the Middle East often attacked other competitive Islamic groups, something that bin Laden felt not appropriate or priority.

4.  It took such a long time to locate bin Laden in Abbottabad in part because he really was hiding in plain sight, in a fairly large city, in an exposed villa (built for him), in a location where Pakistan had a strong military presence, and in a place considered relatively safe and peaceful, where there were always a significant number of foreigners present.

5.  Bin Laden apparently did not leave his compound for six years.  He lived on the third floor of the main house with his youngest wife, with the only windows overlooking a closed courtyard.  His only outdoor exercise was walking in the courtyard in circles under a canopy where he could not be seen.  Two of his other wives, and some of his younger children, lived in the first two floors.  His courier (and his wife, family and brother’s family) lived in a separate house within the compound.

6.  It was never 100% clear that bin Laden was living in this house.  Some intelligence people thought it was 90% certain, while others thought it no more than 50% or 60% certain, so the decision to attack the house was a tough one.

7.  There were several ways to approach the house.  A personal attack (which is what was used, with Navy SEAL Team 6), a drone attack, a bombing attack, a larger military operation.  There were advantages and disadvantages to each, and each had its proponents.  President Obama had to make the decision as to whether to try to kill bin Laden (capturing was viewed as very problematic) and how to do it.

8.  The political aspects were as difficult, or perhaps more difficult, than the physical aspects.  Should the Pakistani government or military be told what was going on?  Should they participate?  If not, how would this be handled?

The book tells the story well – how bin Laden lived in Tora Bora and in Abbottabad, how the SEALS and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) trained and operated, how the decision to attack was made (it’s not easy being President), and how the attack was carried out.  Well worth reading.


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