After 9/11, women continued to play a key role in the hunt for bin Laden. In 2005, a CIA analyst named Rebecca (a pseudonym), who had worked the bin Laden "account" for years, wrote an important paper titled "Inroads" that would help guide the hunt in the years to come.
Given the absence of any real leads on bin Laden, how could you plausibly find him? she asked. Rebecca then came up with four "pillars" upon which the search had to be built. The first pillar was locating al Qaeda's leader through his courier network. The second was locating him through his family members, either those who might be with him or anyone in his family who might try to get in touch with him. The third was communications that he might have with what the CIA termed AQSL (al Qaeda senior leadership). The final pillar was tracking bin Laden's occasional outreach to the media.
These four pillars became the "grid" through which CIA analysts would from now on sift all the intelligence that had been gathered on al Qaeda that might be relevant to the hunt for bin Laden, and also helped to inform the collection of new intelligence.
A promising lead
An especially promising lead in the search for al Qaeda's leadership came four years after Rebecca wrote her memo and it came in the form of Humam al-Balawi, a Jordanian pediatrician in his early 30s who had become radicalized by the Iraq war and had subsequently become an important voice on militant jihadist websites.
Balawi was arrested in early 2009 by Jordan's General Intelligence Department, with which the CIA enjoyed exceptionally close relations. After offering the doctor the possibility of earning substantial sums of money, General Intelligence Department officials believed they had "turned" Balawi, who said he was willing to go to the tribal regions of Pakistan to spy on the Taliban and al Qaeda.
However, no one at the CIA had met Balawi, and pressure was mounting to get some agency eyes on him. That task fell to Jennifer Matthews, who had worked for the bin Laden unit almost from its inception. Matthews arranged for the Jordanian doctor to slip over the border from Pakistan's tribal areas to meet with her and a considerable team from the CIA in Khost in eastern Afghanistan.
Determined that this first meeting with this golden source be warm and friendly, Matthews did not have Balawi searched when he entered the CIA section of Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost on December 30, 2009. She had even arranged for a cake to be made for Balawi, whose birthday had been only five days earlier.
But there was to be no opportunity to celebrate. As he met with the CIA team, the Jordanian doctor began muttering to himself in Arabic, reached inside his coat, and then detonated a bomb that killed Matthews, 45, and six other CIA officers and contractors who had gathered to meet him.
Balawi also died in the attack. The doctor from Jordan had not been spying on al Qaeda's leaders; he had, in fact, been recruited by them.
"Zero Dark Thirty" does a brilliant job of reconstructing this tragic episode.
In the movie, the death at the hands of al Qaeda of her friend Jessica, the character who is modeled to some degree on the real-life Jennifer Matthews, makes Maya all the more determined to track bin Laden down. She explains, "I believe I was spared so I could finish the job."
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a movie and that meant screenplay writer Mark Boal and Bigelow had to make what Boal told CNN were "creative choices." The key creative choice was to place a female CIA analyst at the center of the film. As we have seen from the historical record, it's a very defensible choice.
That said, there were scores of other analysts and operators at the CIA of both sexes who played important roles in the hunt for bin Laden. The founder of the bin Laden unit at the CIA was Michael Scheuer, and before 9/11 he pushed obsessively for operations that would eliminate bin Laden. So great was his zeal that Scheuer would regularly arrive at work at 3 a.m.
After 9/11, John (a pseudonym), a CIA analyst with the tall, lanky physique of the avid basketball player he had been in both high school and college, played a critical role in the hunt for bin Laden.
John joined the CIA's Counterterrorism Center in 2003 and stayed there, even though he could have taken promotions to go elsewhere, because he was fixated on finding bin Laden. He had pushed for more CIA drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan in 2007, when he noticed that more Westerners were showing up there for terrorist training.
Like the Maya character in "Zero Dark Thirty," John was consistently certain that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, but he put the odds at around 90% rather than the 100% that Maya puts it in the movie. John and other male CIA analysts barely feature in the film.
In the book "No Easy Day" by "Mark Owen," the Navy SEAL who went on the raid that killed bin Laden, he describes a CIA analyst he names "Jen" who corresponds to Maya. Like Maya, Jen is 100% sure bin Laden is living in Abbottabad.
In "Zero Dark Thirty," when the SEALs return to base with bin Laden's body, Maya calmly opens the body bag containing his remains and simply nods that it is, indeed, al Qaeda's leader.
But in real life, when the SEALs returned to base after bin Laden's death, they found "Jen" in the fetal position sobbing uncontrollably.
Sometimes the facts are even stranger and more interesting than the fictionalized version.
(Full disclosure: Along with other national security experts, as an unpaid adviser I screened an early cut of "Zero Dark Thirty." We advised that the torture scenes were overwrought. Al Qaeda detainees held at secret CIA prison sites overseas were certainly abused, but they were not beaten to a pulp, as was presented in this early cut. Screenwriter Mark Boal told CNN that as a result of this critique, some of the bloodier scenes were "toned down" in the final cut of the film. I also saw this final version of the film. Finally, HBO is making a theatrical release documentary that will be out in 2013 based on my book about the hunt for bin Laden entitled "Manhunt." This film features a number of the real-life female analysts and "targeters" at the CIA who hunted al Qaeda's leaders.)