Tracking Al-Qaeda and the Hunt for Bin Laden, 9/11 to Now

Book review: The Exile, by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

Investigative journalist Lawrence Wright published the Pulitzer-winning narrative history The Looming Tower in 2006, detailing Al-Qaeda’s formation and the road to September 11. It closes shortly after the towers fall.

With the recent popularity of the film Zero Dark Thirty portraying the SEAL team raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, a narrative was fixed in the public mind, though it’s been questioned since then by key players. The decade-long manhunt for the Al-Qaeda terrorist leader was the biggest of our time. We know bits and pieces of the rest, what came after: the additional waves of terrorism; attacks, both thwarted and enacted; the rise of what would become Islamic State; the ripple effects of the Arab Spring – but a comprehensive narrative, linking all the dots and providing anecdotal background for context and picking up where Wright’s masterpiece left off hasn’t existed.

Despite being wholly unconnected to Looming Tower, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that book while reading this one. It feels like the perfect beginning to the other’s ending, although this one is also chronological and includes detailed research and chronicling beginning with al Qaeda’s founding. Journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy author this collaborative work of intense investigative journalism that combines meticulous research with journalistic storytelling. It reads like a series of long-form investigative pieces come together.

I remember occasions when complaints would arise in the U.S. about what was transpiring with the hunt for bin Laden and the perceived lack of transparency. His apprehension became a political talking point to be twisted and used by whichever side needed it. At some point, his capture or killing became more symbolic than anything else, especially as al Qaeda was floundering, with many attacks being intercepted and prevented, like the so-called “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and the attempted car bomb in Times Square in 2010.

Splinter groups started popping up, and as has always been the case, the face of terrorism underwent changes in response to technology and advancements on both sides of the fight.

What this investigative report shows is the extent of the operations that were always taking place, the intelligence gathering and collaborations between governments – all increasing the tightening of the net around bin Laden, his sprawling family and network of couriers as they were chased out of Afghanistan into Iran, Pakistan, and other Middle Eastern hideouts.

It’s jarring to be reminded how much the presidential administration affects the face of modern terrorism. Consider:

“When George W. Bush was elected U.S. president in November 2000, Mokhtar [name used by Khalid Shaikh Mohammmad, self-professed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks] and Osama were delighted. ‘My father was so happy,’ recalled son Omar, who was still with him at that time. ‘This is the kind of a president he needs – one who will attack and spend money and break the country.'”

Or the openmouthed response from American ambassadors abroad when Bush tossed out his now-infamous catchphrase for the lumping together of Middle Eastern countries he would target in the wake of 9/11:

“All the delicate diplomacy of recent times – the meetings in Geneva, the intelligence and maps locating Taliban and Al Qaeda positions, the haggling at the Bonn conference that had elevated Hamid Karzai into power in Afghanistan – had been swept away by three ill-judged words: ‘axis of evil.'”

More than following the footsteps of the U.S. government and CIA as they track bin Laden, and those of al Qaeda players as they shift locations and funnel money and plots through the increasing chaos of various Middle Eastern nations, The Exile explains the origins and evolutions of modern terror.

This includes actions on the American side. I learned, to my shock, that children are often tapped for use in counterterrorism actions; in best case scenarios as “dummy witnesses” for building fake court cases, and in the worst cases, suffice to say that it gets much worse. That’s not even touching on the exploration of torture methods used and heartily approved and expanded by the Bush administration. The book’s passages detailing torture methods and conditions at Guantanamo Bay and secret locations run by the government in Poland and Thailand are appalling, not to mention clearly in violation of international protocol and unsuccessful at providing the intel they sought.

And yet the description of the murder of captured journalist Daniel Pearl is equally horrific and disturbing. When his killer’s children are targeted by the U.S. as part of the effort to get to him, I’m torn. I don’t agree that children should ever be involved, but every ugly side of the story is presented here, and it’s hard to read this material and still be surprised at the aggressive decisions made. It’s dirty fighting all around.

The focus here is on hard facts and transparency, and shies from political opinion (aside from what’s glaringly obvious in hindsight). It’s important to consider facts and form opinions independently. An informational and transparent account of this modern history was long overdue.

It’s a complicated subject, and with so many twists and turns and involved players, it can be difficult to follow and understand every nuance. An included cast list is helpful in keeping track of those involved, but sometimes the book does venture into dense territory, particularly when so many names, dates, places, and convoluted scenarios exist.

But generally, it’s a well-crafted narrative spilling over with information, including some particularly engrossing passages giving a very human glimpse into the lives of those close to bin Laden and their day-to-day existence, from September 11 until the compound raid and its aftermath. It’s fascinating material well-presented, able to answer many questions and curiosities that have lingered in the public’s mind during this chapter of modern history, especially amidst the misinformation perpetuated by popular media like Zero Dark Thirty.

The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight
by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy
published May 23, 2017 by Bloomsbury USA

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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