For more than two decades, he was the target of intense scrutiny, with an entire unit at the CIA dedicated to tracking his every move and trying to determine what violence he might perpetrate. When 9/11 confirmed Osama bin Laden’s intentions, these same analysts and operatives were now blamed for failing to prevent it, though they had spent years warning about the possibility of an attack.
An official selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, MANHUNT tells the remarkable true story of the two-decade search for the world’s most notorious terrorist.
Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi who had taken up the cause of the Muslim jihad and helped establish the secret terror network al-Qaeda, was one of America’s greatest threats. From the early 1990s he was the obsession of a small group of CIA analysts and operatives who were determined to stop him before he launched a strike on U.S. soil.
MANHUNT features testimony and recollections – many shared for the first time – from the CIA officers who labored to destroy bin Laden’s terrorist organization and eventually kill the man himself. Although audiences may know some of the story through fictionalized films such as “Zero Dark Thirty,” this real-life spy thriller includes behind-the-scenes accounts from actual analysts, targeters and operatives, who testify to the disagreements, frustrations, tragedies and triumphs that marked this fascinating and painful chapter in American history.
The first part of MANHUNT chronicles the frustration of many in the CIA who first targeted bin Laden in the early 1990s and felt their intelligence was falling on deaf ears. The film draws on the recollections of a group of female analysts known as The Sisterhood, the first officers to pinpoint intelligence that proved not only the existence of al-Qaeda, but evidence that Osama bin Laden was its leader. These dedicated analysts – officers such as Cindy Storer, Nada Bakos, Susan Hasler and Barbara Sude – began with a blank slate and worked deliberately to piece together disparate fragments of information to get a clearer picture of al-Qaeda.
“I think women make fantastic analysts,” says Nada Bakos, a CIA veteran turned lead targeter, whose job was to capture or kill senior al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq and who tells her story on camera for the first time in MANHUNT. “We have patience, perseverance, and we’re not always looking for the sexy payoff immediately.” Susan Hasler, who was in charge of preparing the CIA’s daily brief to the president, notes, “At the time, the people who had all of the deep expertise in al-Qaeda were women.” As terrorist attacks against America’s interests abroad increased pre-9/11, The Sisterhood was convinced that bin Laden headed al-Qaeda’s shadowy network of dedicated Muslim jihadists from dozens of countries specializing in a new kind of guerilla terrorism.
However, many in The Sisterhood were advised that they were spending “too much time on bin Laden” and told not to be so “emotional” or “passionate” about their work. The Sisterhood began to gain more traction with superiors when bin Laden’s actions grew deadlier, and his threats against the United States more explicit.
Among the film’s most gripping scenes is Peter Bergen’s account of filming his TV interview with bin Laden, the first-ever granted to western television, in which he stated his intention to attack the United States. Produced by Bergen with correspondent Peter Arnett, the piece aired on CNN in March 1997. Although little notice was taken at the time, analysts and operatives at the CIA recognized it as part of a consistent pattern.
MANHUNT offers extensive, rarely seen footage of al-Qaeda training and propaganda videos, including digital suicide notes from terrorists who had dedicated their lives to jihad, that CIA officers studied closely on a daily basis. Because government and military leadership bases its actions on multiple levels of intelligence and likes to operate with a high degree of certainty, it was difficult for the CIA analysts and operatives tracking al-Qaeda to get the attention of those in command. As they issued a series of daily briefings in 2000 and 2001, consistently warning that bin Laden was determined to attack inside the United States, frustration grew within the CIA.
After 9/11, the CIA was suddenly “irresponsible” for “allowing” the attack to occur, for not sharing enough information, for not “connecting the dots,” as if they had been facing a traditional enemy. The regret and guilt is evident on the officers’ faces as they recall the weeks following the attacks. But soon, with the full force of the United States government now dedicated not just to disrupting, but permanently disabling al-Qaeda, their work became more relevant and necessary than ever before.
The second half of the documentary continues to follow the analysts while introducing on-the-ground operatives who were empowered to turn intelligence into plans of action. Central to those plans was the return of operative Marty Martin, a former senior CIA case officer in the Middle East, who became the day-to-day manager commanding the CIA’s worldwide operations against al-Qaeda and the search for bin Laden. Led by Martin (who tells his story for the first time in MANHUNT), many in The Sisterhood, as well as other analysts, shifted into an operational role, targeting bin Laden and his followers with the intent to kill or capture.
MANHUNT explores the controversy that ensued when the Bush administration secretly authorized the use of “black site” prisons and 12 “enhanced interrogation techniques” to gather information from captured terrorists. Some in the film regret being a part of these operations; others acknowledge the complexity of the arguments, while defending the use of the techniques, as they feel some of them proved effective. “Eight of the 12 techniques, in my humble opinion, were pretty wimpy stuff,” says Jose Rodriguez, who led the Counter Terrorism Center after 9/11.
“We didn’t ask for this; we didn’t ask to get attacked,” says Marty Martin. “If we can’t make them uncomfortable in order to save lives, then we’ve missed the boat here.” Offering a different view, FBI agent Ali Soufan comments, “All the information we got from [senior al-Qaeda operative] Abu Zubaydah, we got before waterboarding. The traditional interrogation techniques worked tremendously.”
New intelligence gathered on the ground, combined with years of information compiled by the CIA’s bin Laden unit, eventually uncovered the lead that would result in the late-night raid in Abbottabad years later. MANHUNT reveals new details about this key break in the hunt for bin Laden, disclosing a CIA operation, headed in Iraq by targeter Nada Bakos, who recounts her decisive role in this crucial break for the first time. This led to the capture of al-Qaeda emissary Hassan Ghul, which revealed that bin Laden had a single courier, as well as the courier’s pseudonym (Ahmed al-Kuwaiti). This prompted the CIA to focus more attention and resources on the pursuit of al-Kuwaiti and the courier network. Later, as Jose Rodriguez reveals for the first time, a “human source” provided the bin Laden courier’s real name.
The documentary also chronicles the bombing of the military base in Khost, Afghanistan, where a Jordanian doctor viewed by the CIA as a potential mole inside bin Laden’s inner circle turned out to be a suicide bomber. This deadly attack took the lives of seven CIA officers, including base chief Jennifer Matthews, an original member of The Sisterhood, who had dedicated herself to tracking down bin Laden.
In the wake of the bombing, which al-Qaeda leadership seemed to publicly gloat over, the impetus to follow the tenuous lead of bin Laden’s courier became even more urgent, leading to the events of May 1, 2011 and the startling announcement by President Obama that the mastermind behind the deadliest attack on American soil was no longer a threat to the world.
MANHUNT is a unique insider account that puts a human face on the secret world of intelligence gathering. It offers a reminder that these CIA analysts, targeters and operatives aren’t trained soldiers like those who successfully raided Abbottabad. They are, in many ways, like everyone else. For them, however, debates about the morality of their choices aren’t an abstract philosophical discussion, but an everyday part of the job.
Peter Bergen’s bestselling book “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad,” on which the film is based, will be released in paperback April 30 by Broadway Paperbacks, a division of Random House.
For more information on the documentary, visit: Facebook: facebook.com/hbodocs; and Twitter: @HBODocs #manhuntdoc.
HBO Documentary Films presents a Passion Pictures and Motto Pictures Production; a film by Greg Barker; based on the book by Peter Bergen; original music by Philip Sheppard; edited by Joe Bini; executive producer, Peter Bergen; produced by John Battsek, Julie Goldman and Greg Barker; directed by Greg Barker. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.