Hunting for Osama bin Laden

November 26, 2014

By Robert Van Egghen

“How can you have a war on terror when terror is a tactic?” asks one of the American counter-terrorism analysts interviewed in Greg Barker‘s new film, Manhunt, about the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, which was screened at the Frontline Club on Monday 24 November. Director Greg Barker joined the packed-out audience afterwards for a Q&A via Skype.

Manhunt

Greg Barker joins the Frontline Club audience for a Q&A via Skype from LA after the screening.

In the film, we see Barker conducting interviews with retired CIA analysts and operatives.

“We did ask for some current people inside the intelligence community and they were all denied,” said Barker. “There’s a certain healthy rivalry between analysts and field officers, but I think one of the things that was clear to a lot of people is that since 9/11 there’s been a real effort to integrate them more.”

Many of the analysts interviewed in the film were women who had been examining bin Laden and al-Qaeda since the mid-90s with little recognition from their superiors. One audience member asked whether the women felt that it was a culture of silence or a culture of sexism in the CIA which prevented their work from being recognised earlier.

“I think there was definitely a culture of sexism in the mid-90s,” answered Barker. “But I also know from talking to some people who were not on camera, some of the men involved, even the guys overseeing that unit around 9/11, they all felt that they were crying wolf.”

Indeed what becomes apparent throughout the film is that the threat of bin Laden and al-Qaeda was not taken seriously by many of those working for American national security. As Barker pointed out: “The more they [the analysts] raised the alarm the less they were listened to. . . . At that point, the institutions in Washington were still in a mindset shaped by the Cold War so the idea that a group of fundamentalists somewhere off in Afghanistan could pose an existential threat to America’s national security was just kind of laughable actually.”

The conversation then turned to the topic of ISIS and whether there has been again a failure of the intelligence services to spot the warning signs.

“Our focus now has been shaped by the al-Qaeda threat and the bin Laden threat and that’s just not what ISIS is. There’s always a danger of fighting the last war,” said Barker.

One audience member asked whether a decade-long hunt for one man was viewed by those on the inside as a success or a failure. “There was a certain frustration that it hadn’t been done earlier,” said Barker.

He also spoke of his own frustrations at not being able to include a portion in the film detailing the detrimental effect that the Iraq War had had on the hunt for bin Laden: “It was a massive diversion in terms of resources.”

Barker also spoke about his motivation in making the film. “What I wanted to do was give a human face to the people who work in operations . . . so next time something happens we don’t necessarily believe all the rhetoric and we remember that there are these people inside who in many ways are a lot like us, just doing very unusual jobs.”

Manhunt premiered at The Sundance Festival at 2013 and is available for pre-order from HBO.