America's Avengers

REVIEW: 'Countdown Bin Laden' by Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss

September 12, 2021

This is a book about an American victory in the war against al Qaeda and its allies. Savor it, for there may not be another book like it for some time. America has just concluded an embarrassingly messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, yielding the Taliban a massive victory. After 20 years of fighting, thousands of American troops killed or injured, and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars spent, the Taliban has won the war. Of course, the Biden administration is spinning America's botched departure as a huge success. But that's simply not reality.

If you're looking for reality, Chris Wallace, the veteran Fox News anchor, has written a rather remarkable book. It's about the long and careful months of planning that culminated in America's liquidation of the world's most notorious terrorist mastermind in 2011. Osama bin Laden famously evaded justice in 2002, after the United States invaded Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and routed al Qaeda but failed to get its man. He subsequently dropped out of sight for nine years. But, in the end, perseverance paid off. An al Qaeda courier gave the intelligence community new hope of getting its man. Wallace's story starts there.

And though Countdown Bin Laden is written by a Fox News television personality, it's thoroughly nonpartisan. If anything, Wallace goes a bit too far in his praise for Democratic president Barack Obama. Wallace credits him for being the eloquent and cool-headed commander in chief who pulls the trigger on a daring and ultimately successful operation that defined his foreign policy legacy.

That's all true, but Wallace's book ignores the many grave mistakes the president committed during the Arab Spring, heralding the rise of Islamist governments across the Middle East. The author further ignores Obama's reckless decision to throw billions of dollars at the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world's foremost state sponsor of terror, in exchange for fleeting nuclear concessions.

Then again, Wallace may have been wise to avoid such things. In fact, he maneuvers around a number of complicated topics that would have likely bogged down the simple narrative of his fast-paced and gripping book. For example, he devotes virtually no ink to the purported grievances of al Qaeda. He doesn't struggle to grasp the Islamist ideology behind bin Laden's radical mindset. In fact, he barely gives a second thought to bin Laden's biography.

The end result is a book laser-focused on the 247-day manhunt for the terrorist responsible for masterminding the attacks of September 11, 2001. It tells that story through the eyes of the American men and women who ultimately made that manhunt a success. The reader gets to know the Navy SEALs who trained their whole lives for a critically important mission with no inkling that they would one day be lauded as heroes. William McRaven, who commanded the SEALs and liaised with the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency, emerges as a larger-than-life hero. There are even vignettes about Cairo, the service dog who saved countless American lives over a remarkable military career that culminated on a moonless night on which a team of SEALs breached bin Laden's hideaway in Abbotabad, Pakistan.

Other notable characters in this book include Leon Panetta, the God-fearing director of the CIA, who early on wrestled with the veracity of the intelligence that his team had identified near a prominent Pakistani military academy. Panetta's team of intelligence officers are immediately likable characters, too. One can only begin to grasp the grueling and monotonous effort they mounted to identify "The Pacer"—the nickname they gave to the tall, lanky man who they correctly believed was Osama bin Laden. He was so named because, with nowhere else to go, he walked countless laps inside the walls of his Abbotabad compound.

Wallace counts down from August 27, 2010, to May 1, 2011, chronicling the highs and lows of the manhunt. This countdown includes the bureaucratic battles, the military training, and Washington politics. Every page draws the reader inexorably closer to the dramatic moment that a SEAL's bullet felled "The Pacer" and the comical moment when McRaven ordered a six-foot-two-inch-tall member of his team to lie down next to bin Laden's six-foot-four-inch body, just to make sure that he was in the right ballpark.

In the end, America got its revenge. It was bittersweet, however, given that more than 3,000 lives had been lost in 2001. Indeed, the additional casualties from the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq rendered that moment more bitter than sweet. Still, that didn't stop a crowd from gathering outside the White House on the night that Obama made his historic address to the nation. The crowd chanted, "USA! USA! USA!"

Now, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it is all bitter. America has just completed its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the place where the plot was hatched. Thirteen American servicemen were killed, and untold numbers of civilians remain stranded. As if that were not bad enough, the withdrawal returned the reins of power to the Taliban, the ascetic and violent jihadist group that provided safe haven to bin Laden and his associates. Worse still, the botched withdrawal has put abandoned American weaponry in the Taliban's arsenal. The human cost for the region is yet to be tallied.

The worst part of the American withdrawal was that it lacked strategy. In heeding calls from neo-isolationists to end "forever wars," with a false binary choice of total withdrawal or total war, we have forgotten that a minimal military footprint can sometimes provide solutions for some of our thorniest problems. As the Abbotabad raid reminds us, a small group of American warfighters can accomplish remarkable things.

Countdown Bin Laden: The Untold Story of the 247-Day Hunt to Bring the Mastermind of 9/11 to Justice
by Chris Wallace with Mitch Weiss
Avid Reader Press, 368 pp., $30

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at the nonpartisan think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.