The Road to Abbottabad: 'Manhunt' Tracks the Search for bin Laden

Around midnight on May 2, 2011, President Obama strode down the halls of the White House to announce that Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and the orchestrator of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, had been killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. For many celebrating in Washington, this marked the end of a stirring chapter in the country's history. For documentary filmmaker Greg Barker, the night represented the beginning of a period of self-reflection.

"I felt very uncomfortable with all of the celebrations going on," says Barker. "I think that people wanted a sense of closure, but I also knew that it had been a dark decade, and that the road that led to Abbottabad by necessity had to be very dark and morally ambiguous."

It was with this hunch that Barker set out to make Manhunt: The Story of the Hunt for bin Laden, a documentary about the decades-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, debuting May 1 on HBO. The cabler is also presenting, with IDA and the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, a screening of Manhunt on Thursday, April 25, at 7:00 p.m. at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills (For more information, click here). The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, in the wake of the controversial release of Zero Dark Thirty. The documentary opens with the question that Zero Dark Thirty ends with: Where do we go from here? Unlike that film, however, Manhunt looks to pre-9/11 history for an answer.

In Manhunt, that story begins in the early 1990s when a group of female analysts within the CIA known as "The Sisterhood" identified the existence of al-Qaeda, and bin Laden as its head. The cadre of analysts went on to work in a unit in the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center known as "Alec Station." Its sole purpose was to track bin Laden's activities.

 

CIA analyst Nada Bakos, at the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center. From Greg Barker's Manhunt.

 

"That story isn't even widely known within US government circles, let alone the wider public," says Barker. "It is full of classified material that goes way back. So there's only a certain amount that we can know. But what isn't classified is the emotional journey that these people went on."

Much of the testimony in Barker's film comes from three CIA officers: Cindy Storer and Nada Bakos (both members of the original "Sisterhood" who went on to serve as "targeters"
in the field); and Marty Martin, the former commander of the CIA's worldwide operations against al-Qaeda. Joining this cast are such key figures as Jose Rodriguez, the former director of the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center; Stanley A. McChrystal, the retired commander of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan; Ali
Soufan, FBI's lead investigator of the USS Cole bombing; and Peter Bergen, a journalist who produced the interview in which bin Laden declared war on the US. Set against muted black backdrops, these people reflect on their actions with a candor we're rarely accustomed to seeing.

"I realized early on that I would have to develop relationships with all of the main characters myself," Barker explains. "What I said was to them was, 'I want to make a film that
humanizes the CIA and the people involved with this fight against al-Qaeda from the early days. I believe that the only way that we as a public can assess what happened is by understanding the human choices that people made along the way.'"

Empathizing with CIA officials isn't something people readily do. If recent history has shown us anything, it is that the American public shares an uneasy relationship with agency operatives. We are critical of them, we mistrust them, and yet we wholly depend on them for our survival. While we rejoiced in bin Laden's death, we were left with the consequences of the actions fought in America's name.

Manhunt does not assume an antagonistic stance toward its subjects. Rather, the film conveys something of what it's like to be a CIA employee. Though it's an extraordinary life, it's one lived in the cloak of everydayness. We also learn that it was a lonely life in the early days of Alec Station. CIA analyst Cindy Storer, who wrote the agency's first warning to President Clinton about al-Qaeda, says as much when
discussing an early performance report that criticized her for "spending too much time on bin Laden.

"When you're the first one off the block, by definition you're going to be in the minority," Storer maintains in the film. "That's what we were."

What made Alec Station unique was its fusion of the CIA's two cultures: analytic and operational. Manhunt devotes special time to conveying the personality traits of each. While the analysts—all
of them women in the film—display a quietly emotional approach to their work, Marty Martin, representing the operational side, is boisterous and self-assured—more like a P.E. teacher than the senior manager of the CIA's worldwide war on al-Qaeda.

 

Marty Martin, senior manager of operations at the CIA. From Greg Barker's Manhunt.

 

"The CIA never formally cooperated with this film," Barker is quick to say, after the backlash against the agency's cooperation in Zero Dark Thirty. "Ultimately, these people wanted to tell their story. I think there's value in taking people into a secret world, and presenting it as it looked from that point of view at the time."

Manhunt chronicles a period of time when the CIA had to radically adjust to a new kind of enemy. The evolution of that enemy is shown through a combination of Western news broadcasts,
jihadi videos and Arabic television excerpts. "Most of our archive came from al-Qaeda or its affiliates," says Barker. "It was a very weird decision to make. But it was part of this idea of taking people into this world of the CIA analysts and operatives. And this is what they see."

Barker immerses us in the propaganda videos that originated from the Soviet-Afghan war, when the US supported the mujahadeen (or "holy warriors") against the Soviets. The mujahadeen, and bin Laden in particular, put out a series of videos encouraging Muslims to
wage jihad against the foreign invaders. Bin Laden would later repeat this call to arms on CNN in 1996, this time against the US. Peter Bergen, whose book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden served as the basis for this documentary, produced that broadcast.

"The impact of the interview at the time was pretty muted," Bergen recalls in the film. "It didn't get a lot of play, because at the time of course [bin Laden] hadn't really done anything. Imagine if in 1937 the Japanese army had gone on NBC and said, 'We're planning to attack the United States.' Pearl Harbor might have turned out differently."

Barker takes us through al-Qaeda's escalating attacks against the US: the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the 1998 bombing of the Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; the 2000 bombing of
the USS Cole. Viewed from the present, these moments produce nauseating guilt in the viewer. But it's a guilt that few felt more personally than those at the CIA.

One of the most harrowing moments comes from the film's depiction of the 2009 attack on a CIA outpost in Khost, Afghanistan. A spy recruited by Jordanian intelligence was handed over to the CIA, and claimed to know the whereabouts of al-Qaeda's inner circle. For fear that his identity might be compromised, CIA officers allowed him to bypass the camp's security checkpoints—only to succumb to the blast that he detonated from his suicide vest.

The attack killed seven CIA employees, including Jennifer Mathews, who had been tracking bin Laden since before 9/11. A video released from al-Qaeda's media wing features the attacker stating his intentions before he acted on them. "I will get you, CIA team," he says. "Death will come to you, from an unexpected way."

"When Joe [Bini, the editor of Manhunt] and I first watched these jihadi videos," says Barker, "Joe asked, 'Well, what do you think? Can we show this?' I said, 'I think we have to show it. I've never seen this stuff. No one has ever seen this. We've got to show this.'"

This sense of moral obligation undergirds the film. By now, most Americans know that the CIA got bin Laden by tracking his courier network. Manhunt deals with this painstakingly and compellingly. But what rings clearest in the end isn't the events so much as what they have taught us. "There are two things you have to bring when [dealing] with al-Qaeda," says the FBI's Ali Soufan at one point. "You have to bring knowledge and you have to bring empathy." In telling the story of the CIA's war on al-Qaeda, Manhunt risks exaggerating the space that the terrorist group occupies in the Islamic world at large. But the complex world we face exists in the periphery of every frame.

"I'm well aware that in terms of the general tone of Islam, this is just a small sliver of extremists," Barker says. "But to the extent that they have support, al-Qaeda is drawing support from the broader Islamic community. And we have to understand that broad culture to understand the extreme elements from it. We need to understand the world that we as Americans operate in, and understand it in all of its nuance."

 

Greg Barker, director of Manhunt. Photo: Patrick Fraser

 

Daniel James Scott is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. Based in Brooklyn, he writes for Filmmaker magazine, Cinespect and other publications.