Searching for Osama: before, during and after Sept. 11 attacks

Christopher Banner

By A Contributor

Osama bin Laden was a wanted man. Dead or alive. From the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 until he was finally killed by U.S. forces in 2011. Three presidents searched for him. He definitely was wanted.

Peter Bergen’s “Manhunt”  tells us in the first four chapters about the founding of al-Qaeda in 1988 and its various activities, and the hunt for its founder, Osama bin Laden, prior to the Sept. 11, 2001.  This hunt involved the efforts of Presidents Clinton and G.W. Bush. The rest of the book tells us what happened afterwards, which involved the efforts of Bush and President Barak Obama. The tale may be viewed as three related stories that could stand by themselves:  The search for bin Laden; the decision making process; and the actual raid.

Because of the attacks on the embassies, the U.S.S. Cole, and other misdeeds, Clinton and Bush had assigned the CIA, military intelligence and others to find, capture or kill bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attack. Bush’s intelligence people warned him earlier in 2001 that some sort of attack was coming—they could not say when, where or what it would be, but this was not for their want of trying.

After Sept. 11, bin Laden moved his headquarters to three different Afghan cities before setting up in the caves near Tora Bora, on the Afghan-Pakistan border, a safe place, he thought. When Bush learned in December 2001 where bin Laden was hiding, he sent over bombers in such force that the fugitive snuck away into the wilds of northern Pakistan and disappeared completely. 

The CIA and other organizations had their spies, analysts and others continue their search for him without success. When Obama became President in January 2009, he told these researchers to keep at it, but for a long time, they came up with nothing.  Finally, they found a courier who appeared to be dealing directly with bin Laden where he was living secretly in a large compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan. 

The section on decision making gives fascinating insight into how the different governmental bodies made such an important decision, which involved violating Pakistan’s borders in an un-authorized raid. Each individual and group had to decide whether the evidence was good enough to act on, and what that action would be. Would they use B2 bombers or hit it with smaller bombs from drones?  Send in a raiding party without telling the Pakistanis or tell the Pakistanis what they wanted to do, and get their permission and help?  Would they try to capture him alive or would it be better if he were dead?  Suppose they went in and he was not there—then what? And on and on. Each decision maker was from very high up in his or her respective organization—generals, admirals, and civilian equivalents. They tried to be objective, but they still had their biases. It seemed as though each had a different take on the evidence, and how to present their particular case to the President.  In the end, Obama had to make the final decision.

On April 29, 2011, the SEAL6 raider team departed for bin Laden’s compound. The raiders and helicopter crews had been training for months on mockups of the compound.  They had considered what to do if things went right and also if they went wrong so that they were prepared for any eventuality. Although they crashed one helicopter on landing,  things went more or less OK. They found and killed bin Laden and left with his body, various papers and things of value to intelligence on al-Qaeda. They returned home without incident. 

As Bergen tells this story, the reader is constantly wondering what will happen next. Bergen has done an impressive amount of research in the writing of “Manhunt.”  The bibliography cites include five pages of books, six pages of government and other documents, speeches, and 72 interviews.  He provides three maps of the relevant areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan-a great help for the reader. He includes eight pages of color photos of various al-Qaeda and U.S. leaders involved in the effort.

A story is always in the telling. While the reader knows this one will end with bin Laden’s death, this tale is told in an interesting and exciting manner. Bergen’s “Manhunt” is a page turner that will be difficult to put down.

Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident.

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