Hunting Osama bin Laden was women's work

Reporter, NBC News
Navy SEALs may have killed Osama bin
Laden, but women led them to their
Women made up the majority of
analysts – at one point all the analysts
-- in “Alec Station,” the unit charged
with finding Bin Laden, managed the
ramp-up at the CIA's Counter
Terrorism Center after 9-11, and
participated in the interrogation, and
the waterboarding, of al Qaeda
suspects. They were critical to the first
capture of a major al Qaeda target,
Abu Zubaydah; helped find and kill
Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of al
Qaeda in Iraq; ran "black sites," the
secret CIA prisons used to interrogate
terror suspects; and in the case of two
senior analysts, died in an attack by al
Qaeda on a CIA compound in
Afghanistan. Fran Moore, then and now the CIA’s
director of intelligence, its fourth-
ranking official, said she doesn’t know
if there was “something explicit” about
their gender that sparked the female al
Qaeda hunters. “But I can say,” said
Moore, “that if those individuals hadn't
been working the issue, I am not
confident we would've been
Some of Moore’s male colleagues are
more effusive. In a speech this January,
former CIA Director Michael Hayden
said an "incredible band of sisters” led
the search for Osama. Michael
Scheuer, who ran “Alec Station,” told
Newsweek last year that, “If I could
have put out a sign on the door that
said ‘No men need apply,’ I would have
done it.”
So why are the women of the war on
terror so driven, and so valuable as
Nada Bakos, the head of the targeting
team that killed Zarqawi, said her team
was "three quarters women," and their
relentless focus on taking down
Zarqawi and other al Qaeda leaders
may have been influenced by a
distinctly female view of security.
After 9-11, she said, the women
working for her seemed to have
vowed, "You're not going to do that to
me again."
"We're aggressive in the protection of
our children,” said Bakos. “We see risks
differently, longer term."
Carol Rollie-Flynn, former executive
director of the agency's Counter
Terrorism Center, said she thinks “the
real strengths of these women were
their intense dedication and incredible
attention to detail."
Nathalie Bardou / AP
On May 5, 2011, four days after the
that killed him, Pakistanis walk by
compound where al Qaeda leader Os
bin Laden was caught and killed in
Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Detail and more detail, said Bakos, was
a big part of the Zarqawi team’s day.
The women sifted through
communications intercepts,
interrogation reports, snippets from
human spies, and satellite images,
trying to make their analysis
“operational” – meaning good enough
to find their target and strike him.
Whatever the intangibles, even two
years before 9-11, all the staffers in
"Alec Station" except Scheuer were
female. After 9-11, women were
involved in setting up the earliest
"black sites,” and participated in the
controversial interrogations
themselves. Officials told NBC News
that both Zubaydah and ”KSM” --
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9-11
mastermind -- were interrogated by
women, sometimes with the aid of
"enhanced interrogation techniques,"
including waterboarding, the simulated
drowning technique since outlawed.
A former CIA official told NBC News
that he thought women might have
been especially effective at
interrogating terror suspects because
of the combination of surprise and
shame. Jihadis were stunned that
women, whom they saw as inferior,
had been chosen to question them.
Jose Rodriquez, the head of the CIA's
Counter Terrorism Center and National
Clandestine Service during much of the
hunt for bin Laden, said in his book
“Hard Measures” that “KSM” once told
one of his female interrogators that he
much preferred dealing with women.
According to Rodriguez, KSM said he
believed women were "better prepared
and less judgmental." KSM told male
debriefers something different,
however – that he was glad to see "the
CIA wasn’t entirely run by women."
The woman with perhaps the biggest
role in the hunt for bin Laden,
however, wouldn’t live to see her
mission completed. Portrayed as
“Jessica” in “Zero Dark Thirty,”
Hollywood’s take on the bin Laden
raid, Jennifer Matthews had been an
analyst with Alec Station in the late
‘90s, then moved to the clandestine
“There were a handful who formed a
human database on al Qaeda and I
recall they were all women," said
Rollie-Flynn. "Jennifer Matthews was
one of them. They knew everything.
Their knowledge was encyclopedic.
They would brief the director and had
all the answers.”
In early 2002, Rodriguez appointed
Matthews to head a task force tracking
the elusive Zubaydah. Then pregnant
with her third child, she dove into the
challenge and by March had
determined he was at one of 16 sites
in Pakistan. Between the FBI and
Pakistan’s ISI, there was enough
manpower to carry off simultaneous
raids on all 16, though she told
National Security Adviser Condoleezza
Rice that the chances for success were
no better than 40 percent.
The raids were launched on March 28,
2002. Afterwards, Matthews broke into
CIA Director George Tenet's 5 p.m.
"threat meeting" to read a brief email
from a CIA team leader in Faisalabad,
Pakistan. Zubaydah had been severely
wounded in a firefight and captured.
In 2008, Matthews was promoted to
head a CIA station in the belly of the
beast, Afghanistan. Matthews arranged
for a jihadi she thought had been
"turned" to meet with CIA officers and
provide information on the
whereabouts of bin Laden and his No.
2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But the mole
was really an assassin. Five days after
Christmas 2009, he entered the CIA
compound in Khost without being
searched and detonated a bomb,
killing himself and seven CIA officers,
including Matthews and another
female analyst.
Some used the tragedy to criticize
Matthews, and question her skills.
While defenders said the opportunity
was too good for anyone to pass up,
others thought she’d been blinded by
seeing her quarry too close at hand
and failed to follow security
The al Qaeda hunter now known to the
public as "Maya" didn't escape
criticism either. In “Zero Dark Thirty,”
Maya, who is based on a real person,
helps lead the hunt for bin Laden,
grieves for the death of her mentor
“Jessica,” and then demands to go to
Afghanistan as the SEALs prepare to
raid Osama’s lair. She watches the
helicopters disappear into the
darkness, knowing that her years of
effort led them to their quarry.
Fran Moore receives a commendatio
then-CIA Director Leon Panetta.
After bin Laden’s death, the real Maya
got a cash bonus and a medal. She had
been crucial to the search, if not as
central as her movie counterpart. But
she was denied a promotion and a
$16,000 pay raise -- perhaps,
suggested one former CIA official,
because she doesn't “play well with
others. She has very sharp elbows."
She is not permitted to speak to the
media, and has not responded publicly
to the criticism.
No one suggests that criticism is going
to slow the rise of women at the CIA.
As the agency moves on to other
crises, women have new roles. The
Syria "shop" is filled with women and a
woman holds a key position in the
group that tracks Iran's nuclear
program. The deputy director of the
National Clandestine Center, the
agency's undercover arm, is a woman.
John Brennan, the current director of
the agency, told NBC News women
have a unique perspective.
"We all are products of our
experiences," said Brennan. "In
addition to the innate intelligence and
capability and creativity that women
bring to the workforce, I think they
have the opportunity to see the world
through -- and I think this is very
important-- the eyes of a woman."