Review: Non-Fiction: Manhunt: From 9/11 to Abbottabad – The Ten Year Search for Osama Bin Laden by Peter Bergen
Bodley Head, £20, hbk, 384 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
It was, as Peter Bergen points out in this pacy and authoritative book, the most expensive manhunt of all time, costing around half-a-trillion dollars.
At its heart was a small number of CIA operatives, no more than would fill a conference room, and an equally restricted group of senior policymakers.
We learn, for example, that Bin Laden's two older wives, both academics, taught the children Arabic and read from the Koran in a bedroom on the second floor.
Almost every day, the al-Qa'ida leader lectured his family on how the children should be brought up. The Bin Ladens' living conditions weren't particularly salubrious.
A tiny bathroom off the bedroom he shared with his Yemeni third wife had a rudimentary squat toilet and a cheap plastic shower.
In this bathroom, Bergen tells us, Bin Laden regularly applied Just for Men dye to his hair and beard.
Next to the bedroom was a kitchen the size of a large closet, and across the hall was Bin Laden's study. There was no air-conditioning.
One of the strong points of this excellent account of how Bin Laden was found and killed is the new detail. Bergen managed to get into the house in the northern Pakistani city of Abbottabad where Bin Laden lived from around 2005 and can thus tell us how the militant leader, his three wives and many children spent their time in hiding.
Such details are important because they remind us that Bin Laden, for all the monstrosity of his acts, was human.
Bergen neatly skewers hyperventilating analysts who spoke of world war three, reminding us that Bin Laden and al-Qa'ida were never an existential danger to our societies in the way that previous threats have been.
Much of the first half of Manhunt consists of a useful account of the early years of the hunt for Bin Laden. There are some nuggets of new information including a fascinating description of how rampant sexism within the CIA in the late 1990s stymied efforts to attract attention to the growing danger posed by al-Qa'ida.
After about a hundred pages, the narrative moves up a gear. Bergen describes how analysts assembled and matched a huge amount of information from multiple interviews and documents.
Importantly, instead of mapping hierarchies, the hunters sought to build up a picture of horizontal connections.
Focusing on connections and links, rather than ranks, meant different people were highlighted. These might be lowly in status -- such as a driver -- but high in significance. In Iraq this helped with the hunt for the brutal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was eventually tracked down and killed north of Baghdad in 2006.
The person who most interested the hunters was a Pakistani who had grown up in Kuwait, who appeared to be some kind of fixer for al-Qa'ida. Nobody knew exactly what he did, but the efforts of captured militants to downplay his importance set off alarm bells.
The case that "the Kuwaiti" might be the key to finding the al-Qa'ida leader was first made in a memo by CIA officials in August 2010 titled "Closing In on Osama bin Laden's Courier".
A month later, a second assessment titled "Anatomy of a Lead" was put together. By this time, Pakistani CIA "assets" had located him in the border town of Peshawar and had trailed him back to the Abbottabad house.
The house was put under surveillance. The CIA worked out that there were at least three women, nine children and a young man living there.
Then there was the "pacer", the tall figure who was seen walking in circles in the walled garden. Yet the final conclusive identification never came. Instead, the hunters were reduced to probabilities. US President Barack Obama was briefed frequently. Some analysts said there was a 40pc chance that Bin Laden was there. Others went as high as 80pc. But, in the end, it was all subjective.
This makes Obama's decision to risk his presidency on a raid by special forces flying in from Afghanistan -- not a stand-off missile strike or any of the other options available -- all the more impressive.
So, on a Sunday night just after midnight, the residents of the Bin Laden compound were woken by explosions, says Bergen, basing his account on interviews with Pakistani intelligence officers.
Bin Laden's 20-year-old daughter Maryam rushed to her father's bedroom to ask what was going on. "Go downstairs and go back to bed," she was told.
"Don't turn on the light," Bin Laden then said to his wife Amal. These, Bergen says, would be the al-Qa'ida leader's last words.