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Manhunt, By Peter Bergen


The final days of Osama Bin Laden bore parallels to Adolf Hitler in his bunker. Conceiving unfeasible strategies for the drone-bombed remnants of al-Qa'eda, he viewed videos of his glory days. Yet, as Bergen notes in this painstakingly researched account, his suburban hideaway in sedate Abbottabad, a stone's throw from Pakistan's equivalent of Sandhurst, was "the perfect hiding place".

Despite being accompanied by two wives and several children, the aging warlord evaded the CIA by staying put, exercising under a canopy, eschewing all electronic communications and sending messages via a courier known as The Kuwaiti.

This, of course, was his fatal weak spot. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's fiercely gripping film, which goes unmentioned in this book, makes much of The Kuwaiti's unusual vehicle that acted as a big arrow pointing to Bin Laden. Here it gets a single sentence: "Once the CIA asset had identified the Kuwaiti's distinctive white Suzuki jeep… he was able to follow him to Abbottabad."

Bergen notes that information leading to the Kuwaiti was gained through CIA torture, though this proved to be unreliable. "Since we can't run history backwards, we will never know what conventional interrogation techniques alone might have elicited." It would, however, have given America a moral authority that waterboarding severely undermined.

Though both target and assassins were men, a group of women lie at the heart of this book. Characterised by the figure of Maya in Bigelow's film, a group of female CIA analysts "played a key role in the hunt for al-Qa'eda". The director of their unit explained, "They seem to have an exceptional knack for detail." The women are featured in a new HBO documentary based on Manhunt, which suggests that their warnings before 9/11 were ignored.

Despite its jumpy chronology, this is an addictively readable account. Bergen concludes that al-Qa'eda was "relatively insignificant". The war on terror was, however, "a bonanza" for US intelligence, whose budget rose from $25bn to $80bn.