Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden. Special report taken from the movie of the same name.
An insight into the hard work, failures, and successes of counter-terrorism agents.
After the raid in Pakistan Only one outside observer was allowed into Osama Bin Laden’s compound at Abbottabad in Pakistan after the nave seal’s raid before they demolished it. That person was Peter Bergen who had met and interviewed Bin Laden, had written the book on which the movie was based. He reported to the participants at the ICT World Summit on Counter-Terrorism in Herzlia, Israel, that in certain rooms the walls and ceiling were splattered with blood.
The raid on Bin Laden’s compound took forty minutes to execute. The intelligence hunt for Bin Laden took two decades.
Michael Sheuer was the CIA intelligence agent tasked to head the Bin Laden team. He preferred to have women in his analysis team because, according to him, they were better analysts than men. Unofficially, they were called “The Sisterhood.”
Susan Hasler, Cindy Storer, Nada Bakos, Barbara Sude, and Jennifer Matthews made up the main team.
In an early recording Osama Bin Laden was heard predicting “the tails of the infidels will be cut off through Jihad!” Today, with the Islamic State usurpers of Al-Qaida, we see them cutting not tails but heads of people they consider infidels in the name of Jihad.
The CIA team started with a blank slate. Visual recognition, photos of Al-Qaida members, their roles, and how they ranked, were slowly and painstakingly obtained. It became clear that Osama Bin Laden was the head of this group. The difficulty was figuring out the information and how it was connected.
The picture changed all the time. In 1995, CIA created the Osama Bin Laden desk. It was called the “Alec Station.” A fusion between intelligence gathering, analysts, and operations doing covert work based on the analysis work developed. Marty Martin was the case officer. They had a bit of luck. They intercepted a Bin Laden phone call saying “the phone number is 671-0837. Buy a plane tickets and take 70% of the cost from the charity.”
In 1997, Peter Bergen got the first interview with Bin Laden in a small mountain village 6000 feet above sea level. In this interview Bin Laden said “Getting killed for Allah is a great honor bestowed only on the best Muslims. Hearts of Muslims are filled with great hatred for America. It is an unjust nation. No American is exonerated. They voted for their government.” When asked about his future plans, Bin Laden smiled and said, “You will see and hear of them in the media, God willing.”
On August 7, 1998, two US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. 258 died and over 5000 injured. This date was the eighth anniversary of the arrival of American troops in Saudi Arabia. The intelligence threads led to Al-Qaida and Bin Laden.
They then discovered that a person called Abu Zubeydah was in charge of jihadi training camps. What was going on there? By 1999, CIA began to track him. By March 2000, they logged Zubeydah as a senior Al-Qaida figure and a trusted aide of Bin Laden.
On October 12, 2000 Al-Qaida attacked USS Cole. 17 sailors were killed and 39 were injured.
Bin Laden put out another recording. In it he said, “Jihad against America is the core of our faith. We are starting a psychological war against America.”
By April 20, 2001 Alec Station were picking up intel that Al-Qaida was planning a multiple strike against America. By July they posted the threat as “real.” By August 3 they upgraded the threat as “imminent” although they had no specific details. By August 6 they had determined that OBL was about to strike inside the United States. Al-Qaida made a video about “the Manhattan Raid” which they only released after 9/11. This video showed terrorists with knives at the throat of pilots.
Then 9/11, and shock. To those who had been working for years to identify Al-Qaida it was a “This is it!” moment.
0/11 was executed nineteen terrorists. 19 out of the thousands coming out of the Al-Qaida training camps.
Then the blame game began. One of the women in Alec Station said, “After a while the guilt sets in”. Then heads of agencies and Administration started blaming them for not connecting the dots. “Our feeling was, ‘you didn’t help us at all, and now you blame us for not trying hard enough.’” CIA internal investigation put the blame on Alec Station.
The FBI was also investigating Al-Qaida. Ali Soufan was in charge of the AQ investigation. They interrogated Bin Laden’s former bodyguard.
A CIA World Wide Attack Matrix was established to kill or capture AQ operatives, and to dismantle and destroy it. There was an explosion of intelligence at CIA after 9/11. Joe Rodriquez with 25 years’ experience was appointed as CIA counter-terror head. Marty Martin led the CIA war on AQ.
In March 2002, Abu Zubeydah was tracked to a house in Pakistan and was captured in a covert operation. He was hit with 3 bullets but survived. He was taken to a “black site” secret prison and interrogated. Enhanced interrogations took place to extract intel. Tough Joe Rodriquez said “it was pretty wimpy stuff.”
On March 1, 2003, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was captured at a house in Pakistan. This man was behind the killing of Daniel Pearl in 2001. He later admitted beheading him. He was implicated in the embassy bombings and the USS Cole.
The cry was out “Where is Osama Bin Laden?” Jose Rodriquez was asked by two presidents. He said, “The next time anyone asks me where is Bin Laden I’m going to say ‘Fuck You!’ and I don’t care who it is. Then I went home and my wife asked me ‘Where is Bin Laden?’”
The order to kill and capture Bin Laden starts with accurate info on his location. Alec Station was tasked to identify and locate AQ leaders. They were digitally tracked. Alec Station agents went into target areas in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Nada Bakos went to Baghdad in search of the AQ leader in Iraq. His name was Abu Musad al-Zarqawi. “He was a monster,” she said. He was behind the bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad and, just days later, the bombing of the UN headquarters there that killed 22 people. Then, on August 29, he engineered the deadliest bombing in Baghdad with a car bombing of the Shiite holy shrine in Najaf that killed over a hundred people. The suicide bomber of this mission was Zarqawi’s father-in-law. Bin Laden ordered Zarqawi to stop killing Muslims in Iraq. He ignored the order. Later, in 2004, Zarqawi anointed himself as “Emir of al-Qaeda’s Operations in the Land of Mesopotamia.”
Zarqawi’s first victim was an American, Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded, some suspect, by Zarqawi himself.
Bin Laden sent an aide, Hassan Ghul to exert control in Iraq for AQ. Ghul was an interesting case study. He was captured by Kurdish security forces acting on a tipoff by American intelligence. Among the items on his hard disc was a long 17 page letter to Osama Bin Laden. Originally thought to have been written by Ghul, it was originally from Zarqawi thereby implicating Ghul as a central courier-type figure linked directly to OBL. Jose Rodriquez wrote in his book “Hard Measures,” “Initially he played the role of tough mujahedeen and refused to cooperate. We then received permission to use some (but not all) of the EIT [enhanced interrogation techniques] procedures on him. Before long he became compliant and started to provide some excellent information.”
The Americans tried to turn Ghul and, in 2006, they sent him to Pakistan after he agreed to cooperate and turn informer with the hope that he would lead them to Bin Laden. Ghul had given the Americans the name of a special courier. His codename was Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, but his real name was Ibrahim Saeed. More on Ghul later.
There were several attempts to kill or capture Zarqawi. All ended in failure. The brashness of Zarqawi put him into frequent conflict with AQ HQ. On June 7, 2006, acting on intelligence based on a tip from Jordanian intelligence that he was due to hold a meeting nearby, Zarqawi was killed by an air strike on a safe house north of Baghdad.
By 2001, Michael Hayden had become CIA director. In late 2007, a different approach was begun. CIA targeters of AQ leaders, particularly Bin Laden, were sent into the field to coordinate intelligence, analysis, with special ops. Khost in Afghanistan was an enemy center, and the CIA had set up a special compound for their operations in this area. Jennifer Matthews of the Alec Station Sisterhood was sent there to help target and kill AQ operatives.
In early 2009, they got a new lead that originated in Jordan with a message from a doctor talking about Zarqawi. It was sent by a 32 year old doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, writing on the internet.
Following this intercept he was arrested by Jordanian security forces and taken to their intelligence HQ. He was interrogated by American intelligence and offered millions of dollars and a plane ticket to work for the CIA. He agreed and was sent to Wasiristan. After providing the CIA with information on Al-Qaida he requested a meeting and was told to come to the CIA secured compound in Khost. Unknown to the CIA, al-Balawi remained so loyal to AQ to the extent that he agreed to go to this meeting on a suicide mission. Before leaving he made a video in which he said, “They think I am a sky, but I am a bomb.”
Arriving at the Khost compound in his vehicle he was allowed through three checkpoints without any personal security check. He filmed himself on his drive to the compound as is heard to say in English, “Death will come to you in an unexpected way. This is not a watch. It is a detonator.”
CIA agents and others were waiting for him as he arrived into their part of the compound. The smoke from the explosion could be seen for miles. Seven personnel were killed, including Jennifer Matthews. Jose Rodriquez said, “We lost good people that day.” Osama Bin Laden declared it as a great victory that targeted the CIA.
The fate of Hassan Ghul is murky. One US sources said he had vanished. On October 1, 2012, a drone fired four missiles at a vehicle in an area of Wasiristan. Three people were killed. The press called the target as unnamed rebels. It is suspected that Ghul was one of those killed.
The Washington Post revealed that the CIA and NSA tracked down Ghul’s wife’s computer from an email she sent, that homed in on Ghul. An NSA document said, “This information enabled a capture/kill operation against an individual believed to be Hassan Ghul on October 1.”
Was Ghul killed? Or was this a subterfuge to allow Ghul his freedom and anonymity for services rendered? We may never know.
Mustafa Ansari, a Saudi journalist with access to Bin Laden, said, “An Al-Qaida warrior cannot be killed unless he makes a mistake. What was Bin Laden’s mistake? His love of power. He sent a courier because he wanted to be kept in the picture. He should have stayed quiet. He made videos of himself.”
It was the communication between his courier, Ibrahim Saeed and Bin Laden that gave the location of the Al-Qaida leader to the CIA team as being a large house in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.
Even so, when President Obama gave the order to strike, the CIA analysts could only give him an 80% chance that he was in that house.
See the movie or read Peter Berger’s exceptional book “Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abottabad.”