The True Un-Hollywood Story of a Sisterhood’s Hunt for Bin Laden


The HBO documentary “Manhunt” details the grueling work by CIA agents in the search and capture of Osama bin Laden. Photo courtesy of HBO

The second anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death brings a revealing new account of what it took to get him. The HBO documentary “Manhunt” by filmmaker Greg Barker, based on the book by journalist Peter Bergen, joins a two-year blizzard of books and films, each purporting to tell the inside story of the hunt for the elusive terrorist and the al-Qaida network he built.

It’s a vivid contrast to the Hollywoodized account in “Zero Dark Thirty,” the controversial film by Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. “Zero Dark Thirty” devotes its first third to re-enacting the interrogations of detainees, some using brutal methods like waterboarding, and turns over the last third on a heart-stopping dramatization of the SEAL raid on the Abbottabad compound. (The film strongly suggested that brutal interrogation of detainees produced the crucial links that nailed bin Laden.) Given short shrift was the painstaking, hard-to-dramatize work that linked the two.

That’s where “Manhunt” comes in. It lays out for the first time the unsexy work of uncovering the al-Qaida network and bin Laden’s role, not impressionistically as “Zero Dark Thirty” does, but in all its painstaking detail — how beginning nearly a decade before 9/11, a group of CIA analysts assembled, sifted, plotted and graphed a network of individuals, communications, transactions and events that they ultimately came to identify as al-Qaida.

Most remarkably, it tells the story not through actors playing composite characters but through narratives and testimonies from the actual people involved — from formerly faceless CIA analysts, many of them women, to plainspoken field operatives to then-deputy CIA director John McLaughlin.

Central to the tale is the collective story of six women CIA analysts, informally known as “The Sisterhood,” who spent much of the 90’s assembling a picture of the matrix that was al-Qaida. Curly-haired Cindy Storer played a crucial role in recognizing that seemingly unrelated attacks around the world, from the Black Hawk Down episode in Somalia to the East Africa bombings to the USS Cole, were in fact the work of a single organization named al-Qaida, headed by the Saudi financier and former anti-Soviet mujahedeen leader in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden.

“Zero Dark Thirty” gave a nod to the importance of the female analysts too, but rolled them into one fictionalized character, the bold, beautiful, redhead Maya, who seemed to spend as much time witnessing brutal interrogations at CIA black sites in the field as she did in front of a computer screen. In real life, as we see in “Manhunt,” these brilliant analysts looked like your neighbors, teachers or office workers, wrestling with the difficulties of the task not in staccato confrontations with male colleagues, but cooped up in a warren of windowless offices, surrounded by white boards, photographs, flow charts and gruesome al-Qaida recruiting videos, and sharing outsized bottles of Tums. Their work was dissed by others in the agency. Storer was counseled that she was spending too much time working on bin Laden. “They said we were obsessed crusaders, overly emotional, using all those women stereotypes,” she says in the film.

When 9/11 hit, guilt set in, but also rage at critics who blamed 9/11 on “intelligence failures” despite the repeated CIA warnings to the White House through 2001 that a huge attack on U.S. soil was in the offing. “People say, ‘Why didn’t you connect the dots?'” Storer says. “Well, because the whole page is black!”

“Something that people don’t fully grasp is how alone the CIA felt in this period of time,” says former deputy director McLaughlin. Because the CIA had the deepest knowledge of al-Qaida, “the feeling all of us had was this is on our shoulders — to prevent this from every happening again.”

So all these analysts and operatives turned their skills to targeting specific individuals, to be killed or captured for often brutal interrogations. Unprecedented collaboration with the U.S. military brought successes, rounding up or killing major al-Qaida figures worldwide. There are many books describing this operational marriage, from Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s memoir “My Share of the Task” to Mark Mazzetti’s “The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth.”

But “Manhunt” shows its human toll. CIA analyst-turned-targeter Nada Bakos describes what it was like to spend years in Iraq tracking a “monster,” the chief of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al Karkawi. “I was thinking about him 24/7 and it just wasn’t pleasant after a while.” Her efforts paid off with his killing by a US airstrike in 2006. “You definitely need to know what your moral center is in order to be able to do that job,” she says. “My job was to hunt a person down to capture or kill. I had to be okay with that.”

Bakos’s major coup was leading the team that nabbed al-Qaida emissary Hassan Ghul in Iraq. He revealed that bin Laden relied on a single courier for all his communications, and what his full pseudonym was. That was the breakthrough in the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden, refocusing the agency on al-Qaida’s courier network.

Whether coercive interrogation techniques are necessary or effective — the controversy in which “Zero Dark Thirty” clearly takes a stand — is openly debated by some of the actual players in “Manhunt,” but ultimately left unresolved. But the moral dimensions of the issue are clear. “We knew Americans would find out at some point about everything we were up to. There were no illusions,” says former Counterterrorism Center deputy chief Phillip Mudd “I understand people are uncomfortable with this, but the options we had were not very good … There are philosophical debates you can have, but at the end of the day, the question is: Are you gonna move or not? Yes or no? Go or no go? That’s it.”

Another unresolved question is posed by McChrystal, who as commander of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq pioneered the partnership of analysts and door-kickers. “The really key part is not how to do these operations. The thing to understand is why are the people we are fighting doing what they’re doing? Why is the enemy the enemy? If you don’t understand why they’re doing it, it’s very difficult to stop it.”
That’s a quandary for us all to ponder.

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