Navy SEAL Team 6’s assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, grabbed headlines across the globe. The operation was notable for its success but also for how Special Forces operatives are able to adapt when things go wrong. During the assault, one of the “Night Stalker” Black Hawk helicopters became damaged, and the pilot was forced to make a crash landing. Undeterred, the SEALs continued their assault but had to try to avoid accidentally killing bin Laden’s family, who were acting as human shields for the al-Qaeda leader. In this operation, and a hundred other lesser-known but equally dramatic Special Forces missions, things did not go according to plan.
This is remarkable because, as shown in John Weisman’s superb thriller “Kill Bin Laden,” these types of missions are typically preceded by painstaking preparation, planning and training. Weisman’s fictional account of how bin Laden ultimately dropped to the floor with bullets in his head and chest was written after the real assault. Taking place between December 2010 and May 2011, the novel imagines how things might have happened.
The story starts by taking us into the mind of a beggar called Shahid, a former fighter for the mujaheddin who’d lost his legs in an American missile strike. Shahid is begging on the streets of Abbottabad but is secretly collecting intelligence. Clearly, he must be bin Laden’s eyes and ears.
With three clever sentences, Weisman takes us out of the mind of an America-hating fundamentalist and into the mind of an American. Shahid is actually Charlie Becker, a CIA operative and former Airborne Ranger, who lost his limbs in Iraq. Becker, code-name Archangel, is watching bin Laden’s compound and is also ensuring that the CIA “Valhalla” base in Abbottabad is not compromised.
What follows is an impeccably detailed, multiperspective dash between the CIA headquarters in Langley; the Pakistani streets of Abbottabad, Lahore and Peshawar; Afghanistan; the Middle East; the Oval Office, Pentagon and State Department; and Seal Team 6’s base in Virginia. We’re introduced to tough operatives such as Troy Roberts, a baby-faced SEAL whose career is on the line; Ty Weaver, a CIA paramilitary officer and former Delta Force operative; and seasoned, no-nonsense intelligence chiefs, politicians, admirals and generals. But it’s Archangel who steals the show. Weisman depicts his strength of mind so convincingly that Becker’s dual identity becomes wholly believable.
The book maintains a microscopic focus on the mission. It’s a matter of collecting, delivering and piecing together intelligence; of getting different agencies and military units to work efficiently together; of dilemmas resolved and tough decisions made. But more than that, the mission is an exercise in overcoming fear with professionalism.
In one section, Archangel believes his undercover work could be compromised as he comes face to face with a terrorist he once interviewed in a Guantanamo Bay prison. His anxiety is palpable, as is the professional way he handles the situation:
“Saif was the real fricking deal. A hard core hater. Charlie had spent two weeks interrogating the guy. In Arabic, Waziri Pashto, and Urdu. Face to face. Nose to nose. Knows to knows. He knows me. I know him. He always had hate in his eyes. Always. Never gave an inch. Well, neither did I. But now: oh [expletive].”
Weisman’s research is excellent, and he clearly has expert sources. He’s adept at explaining the complex structure of the special operations units in a straightforward, conversational and sometimes humorous manner. As a former MI6 agent who’s used to reading inaccuracies in thrillers, I was delighted to note that every chapter here feels right.
The characters speak and act as real intelligence operatives and politicians do. They’re smart, darkly witty and struggling with insecurities, ambitions and weaknesses. But what binds them all together is a sense of loyalty and commitment to get the job done. There are disagreements among them — not least, whether to use SEAL Team 6 for the mission. But throughout the book, there is a sense that everyone is pulling together. Almost certainly, that’s how it must have been in the real hunt for bin Laden.
At the end of “KBL,” the commanding officer asks his SEALs, “Who killed him?” The SEAL who shot bin Laden in the head responds, “We did. All of us.” Even when something goes wrong, the quiet professionals can still make the mission go right. “KBL” is undoubtedly the best work of fiction I’ve read about CIA paramilitary activities.
Dunn, a former MI6 field operative who conducted more than 70 successful missions, is the author of the novel “Spycatcher.”
KBL: Kill Bin Laden
A Novel Based on True Events
By John Weisman
Morrow. 302 pp. $26.99