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.
In mapping out the route to bin Laden, from Tora Bora to Abbottabad, Bergen revives the debate over enhanced interrogation techniques. He writes that there is some evidence that the CIA’s waterboarding and stress positions might have helped point to the courier who eventually led the United States to bin Laden. But Bergen’s assessment doesn’t resolve the issue. His description of what happened provides ammunition for those on both sides.
He writes that investigators began to understand the importance of Kuwaiti as bin Laden’s courier after the interrogation of a man named Mohammed al-Qahtani. Qahtani was supposed to have been the 20th hijacker on Sept. 11, 2001, but had been turned away by U.S. immigration agents in Florida. (Investigators discovered later that hijacker Mohammed Atta was waiting for him at the Orlando airport.) When officials holding Qahtani at Guantanamo realized that he was the same man who had been turned away in Florida shortly before the attacks, they interrogated him for 48 days straight, Bergen reports.
The secret summaries of his interrogations were revealed in WikiLeaks documents. They indicate that after weeks of harsh treatment, Qahtani named Kuwaiti as a key al-Qaeda player and confidant of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind. “It’s not clear whether Qahtani gave that information up because he had been coercively interrogated or because interrogators told him that KSM . . . was in American custody,” Bergen writes. “Either way, Qahtani identified the Kuwaiti only after he was subjected to a considerable amount of abuse at the hands of his captors.”
Then, Bergen reports, in January 2004, an al-Qaeda courier named Hassan Ghul told the CIA while in a secret prison in Eastern Europe that Kuwaiti was bin Laden’s courier. Bergen says Ghul also was subjected to tough interrogation techniques: He was “slapped, slammed against a wall, forced to maintain stress positions, and deprived of sleep.”
The waterboarding of Mohammed and the rough interrogation of a man named Abu Faraj al-Libi yielded quite the opposite result. They provided misinformation. Mohammed allegedly told U.S. interrogators that Kuwaiti had retired and wasn’t important. Libi denied even knowing him. What Libi didn’t realize was that Ghul had already told interrogators that Libi and Kuwaiti were close. The inconsistencies made U.S. officials suspicious.
Bergen’s view is that there were many subsequent steps that led to bin Laden — information about Kuwaiti’s real name, National Security Agency cellphone intercepts, operatives on the ground — and the book makes clear that those later steps had little to do with the information extracted from the detainees. “Since we can’t run history backward,” Bergen writes, “we will never know what conventional interrogation techniques alone might have elicited from these . . . prisoners.”
The closing chapters of “Manhunt” cover more familiar ground — the details of the SEAL raid itself. While much of that section of the book is not new, it still makes for compelling reading. Bergen puts the raid into a broader intelligence framework and deftly re-creates the heart-thumping tension of that night and the calculations that went into pulling off the daring mission.
Bergen also reveals that after President Obama greenlighted the raid, administration officials suddenly realized that it would occur on the same night as the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington. Officials envisioned something going wrong in the compound and the national security team leaving the dinner en masse — in front of the entire Washington press corps. As it turns out, weather delayed the mission by one day, and the events no longer conflicted.
Bergen’s three other books — about the al-Qaeda leader specifically and terrorism more generally — were all solid pieces of work. Over the years they have become required reading for national security buffs and counterterrorism reporters. But “Manhunt” is different. It goes to a higher level. Maybe the book is so engrossing because we know how it ends and there is such an appetite for all the details. Even with the media saturation of this story, Bergen has accomplished a journalistic feat: He manages to make the story of bin Laden’s end sound new. He has put together a real-life thriller that will be a must-read for years to come.
is NPR’s counter-terrorism correspondent and the author of four books, including “The Jihad Next Door: Rough Justice in the Age of Terror,” about homegrown terrorism in the United States.