This post is long overdue but blame it on the fact that I’ve been moving house for the past week and a half. Sure, I could’ve sat down and quickly blogged some thoughts, but I thought this book deserved a re-read (this time armed with a pencil for neat note-taking) before I posted. This review explores some of the aspects that I found particularly interesting in the book.
Could there have been anyone better to write this book than Peter L. Bergen? CNN’s national security analyst has penned three previous books on Osama bin Laden and now he ties up the loose ends with the exploration of Bin Laden’s final defeat in Manhunt. Honestly, I’m not the most worldly person. All the news updates I get are from Twitter (incidentally, that’s how I heard about bin Laden’s death). So when I picked up this book, I knew the content would ultimately be interesting, but I expected to do a lot of flipping around. Let me tell you, I was hooked and read each word–twice. Not only do we get an insight into what life was like for Osama bin Laden, before and during his 6-year sojourn in the Abbottabad compound, we are also taken deep within the confines of the Situation Room, the Oval Office, and the wild caves of Tora Bora. Bergen cuts down to the basic facts and helps shed light on the arduous task of finding one of the world’s most notorious terrorists. I was also surprised to find that the book took a lighter, more humorous note at times, which made it all the more appealing to me. It showed that the people who dealt with this situation were in fact people and not drones, only programmed and trained heavily to act.
Most of us already know that bin Laden never relied on the comforts of home that one would be accustomed to on a daily basis. “You should learn to sacrifice everything from modern life, like electricity, air-conditioning, refrigerators, gasoline. If you are living the luxury life, it’s very hard to evacuate and go to the mountains to fight.” He never believed in the use of telephones or cellphones either, which made him even more difficult to track down. It would be one thing for a man to have used these comforts for awhile and then abandoned them to take flight. Eventually, they’ll figure themselves safe enough to turn back just for a moment. Usually, that’s how they get nabbed. With bin Laden, it slowed down his progress and communication vastly, but it kept him well off the grid. It’s quite the feat for a man to run such an operation with so limited means. Of course, once he was in Abbottabad, his role as leader significantly diminished. I almost wonder how long he would have continued to stay shielded.
Bergen tells us that bin Laden spent a lot of his ‘retirement’ time reading and watching old videos of himself giving speeches and interviews. He is particularly famous for saying “Thank God for that…” with regards to the 9/11 attacks, back when he was still pretending he had nothing to do with the act. He compared the attacks to the “humiliation” and “degradation” that the Islamic world has seen for almost a century. He always worked off of the notion that America was “weak” and that if it was hit in the right spots, it would crumble and fall. Despite his plans backfiring, he never gave up that notion. His dedication to destroying America and his loyalty to his people already made him a martyr to most of his followers. His wives in particular, all highly educated women of different ages, worshipped him and his politics. I almost admire their devotion for him, giving up their comforts to trek in the wilderness and finally hide in a compound for years with no outside contact. One wife, Amal, told her cousin that marrying Osama would allow her to go down in history. Her cousin bantered that her only history was to belong in the kitchen to which she retorted, “You mean history is only for you men?” It amazed me how such a forward thinker could follow the footsteps of such a warped lifestyle. The first chapter or two shed a lot of light on Osama’s views on marriage and his personal life and relations with his wives. He had a great deal of respect for all of them and was very attentive to each. He boasted that to marry more than once was to increase the nation of Muslims, a great thing. Bergen notes that Osama joked “I don’t understand why people take only one wife. If you take four wives, you live like a groom”. Bergen then jokes and says “This seems to be the only recorded joke bin Laden ever made.”
One of the most fascinating chapters from the book was entitled “The Working Theory of the Case”. As a criminal justice graduate, it aways fascinates me to watch how case theories are pieced together and then either accepted or rejected based on the smallest of facts. The real shining reason that made this chapter stand out was the prominent role of women in the hunt for bin Laden. Naturally the CIA had an entire unit dedicated to finding bin Laden day and night. Most of this unit was made up of female analysts. Founder, Michael Scheuer explained his reasoning: “They seem to have an exceptional knack for detail, for seeing patterns and understanding relationships, and they also, quite frankly, spend a great deal less time telling war stories, chatting, and going outside for cigarettes than the boys. If I could’ve put up a sign saying, “No boys need apply, I would’ve done it”. HA! Loved that.
Another part of the book that I absolutely loved was when a chief of staff, Jeremy Bash, demanded that his analysts come up with at least 25 operational ways to get into the compound or to get bin Laden out. It’s the perfect brainstorming strategy; any idea is welcome no matter how ludicrous. So one person suggested that they make an announcement on the loudspeakers outside the compound, pretending to be the Voice of Allah and say “You are commanded to come out into the street”. Not to make fun of anyone’s beliefs or religion, but I definitely had a good chuckle at that one. We often hear acts of terrorism blamed on the voice of God, so this was an ironic and funny turnaround.
I realize this is turning into more of a book report than a review, so I’ll keep the rest succinct. I’ve always admired the men in service and their families. To put themselves through hellish training and real-life combat situations while their wives, parents, and children wait at home for just a phone call, sick with anxiety–I could never do it. Bergen dedicates a bit of chapter space to showing us exactly what it was like for the SEALs to train and how they lived daily. When I read that one of the leaders only saw his wife once a month for FIVE YEARS, I thought to myself, “My God. Now that’s commitment.” Hats off to them. Everyday should be Memorial Day.
Lastly, the chapter that details the attack itself. We all know how the story ends, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my heart was pounding with anticipation. To read that bin Laden’s last words were “Don’t turn on the light” was such an anticlimactic surprise, and yet it seemed so poignant. The agonizing wait in the Situation Room almost brought sweat to my brow. It was crazy to think that the world saw Obama fighting Donald Trump’s ridiculous accusations and demands for birth certificates while behind the scenes, he was preparing for one of the biggest moments in his presidential career and in history.
It’s a fairly short book but Bergen gives you everything you need to know. Frankly, it left me curious to read his other three books to get more into the mindset of bin Laden and his life.