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'Manhunt' Asks Hard Questions About Terrorism
April 30, 2013  | By Eric Gould

Given the recent Boston Marathon bombings, the HBO documentary, Manhunt — about the CIA's hunt for Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden — is not only timely, but illuminating. It's a sobering look at the roots of violent extremism, and a reminder that winning a war on terrorism requires more than drone strikes.

Manhunt, from director Greg Barker, premieres Wednesday, May 1 at 8 p.m. ET, and gives the now well-known back-story of the bin Laden investigation as shown in last year's Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty. It also features first-time recollections from some main players of the CIA analyst group (all now retired) who were initially tasked with understanding whether terrorist groups training in Afghanistan in the early '90s were organized as one group, or were non-affiliated cells.

The analyst group, code-named "Alec Station" but known informally as "The Sisterhood" (for its female leadership), was headed by Cindy Storer. In Manhunt she gives an extensive background on the group's work, and suddenly, the depiction of CIA analysts in Henry Bromell's 2010 AMC series, Rubicon, makes sense. Says Storer, "Even in the analytical community, there's a smaller percentage of people who are really good at 'pattern analysis' — making sense of information that doesn't seem connected."

Storer authored the threat analysis memo delivered to the Bush White House in August 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks. The low point for her and "The Sisterhood" came in the months immediately following the tragedy, when the congressional finger-pointing began and the search was on for CIA scapegoats.

A soundtrack from the congressional hearings still brings tears to her eyes. It's a reminder that a painstaking decade of terrorist intelligence came up short against the success of the 9/11 attacks. She asks rhetorically, "Really? What did you [senators and representatives] know about bin Laden before 2001? Nothing. You didn't help us at all. And now, you're blaming us for having tried."

Manhunt also recounts the worldwide, post-9/11 search for senior Al-Qaeda leaders, chronicling the spy recruitment and tradecraft that lead to the identification of bin Laden's courier and the now famous raid of 2011. Aided by computerized organizational charts and flow diagrams (done by the production house The Mill, which also did the main titles for History Channel's Vikings, the focus of a recent TVWW profile) Manhunt unravels the complicated web of figures and connections that Storer and other analysts had to understand to defeat the organization and its leadership.

It's here where the documentary gets to its crucial, opposing viewpoints. Ex-CIA spy runner Marty Martin, a good ol' Southern boy, sees organized terrorists as hardcore "straight-up haters."

"There's no reasoning with them," says Martin, who believes dealing with terrorists by any means necessary is justified.

Barker then cuts to ex-interrogators and counter-terrorism officials who recount how most of the valuable information they coaxed from detainees at Guantanamo and European black sites was obtained through conventional techniques, without water-boarding.

Nada Bakos (top photo), presumably the role model for the "Maya" character in Zero Dark Thirty and the lead investigator in the hunt for bin Laden after  9/11, observes that bin Laden spread his ideology more successfully than perhaps even he imagined he could, even as Al-Qaeda, as an organization, was being degraded and all but erased.

"How do you kill an ideology?" asks Bakos. "Killing one person doesn't end that." (Barker points out that for all of bin Laden's blustering about how jihadis loved death more than Westerners loved life, no one was more well hidden, and tried to stay alive, longer than bin Laden himself.)

Near the end of Manhunt, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the man who successfully tracked and killed Iraqi Al-Qaeda leader Abu al-Zarqawi, adds, "Some (drone) strikes are necessary, but if our solution to this kind of problem is just to strike, without taking efforts to prevent the rise of a threat, it's endless. The really key part, is not how to do these operations, the thing to understand is why the people that we are fighting are doing what they're doing. Why is the enemy the enemy?"

"Why is the enemy the enemy?" has been one of the questions emerging since the recent Boston Marathon bombings that left four dead and over 200 injured. How do people radicalize to the point that murder and mayhem become plausible religious choices? As McChrystal points out, "If you don't understand why they're doing it, it's very difficult to stop."

Manhunt doesn't presume to know the answers, but it does frame the right questions.

(Above, right: One of the 9/11 hijackers from an Al-Qaeda released video, 2001.)

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