The world’s most dangerous terror group foiled by a killer blonde in Calvin Klein who wars with her superiors? Only in Hollywood’s dreams, surely.
But, astonishingly, it has now emerged that truth may indeed be as strange as fiction. According to Zero Dark Thirty, a forthcoming film about the hunt for Bin Laden – whose makers were given top-level access to those involved – he might never have been found if it hadn’t been for an attractive young female CIA agent every bit as troublesome as Homeland’s Carrie Mathison.
CIA insiders have confirmed claims by the film’s director Kathryn Bigelow that she is entirely justified in focusing on the role played by a junior female CIA analyst, named Maya in the film and played by Jessica Chastain. And just as in Homeland, the real agent has been snubbed by superiors and fallen out with colleagues since the Bin Laden raid in May 2011.
But who is this CIA super sleuth? Although the woman is still undercover and has never been identified, Zero Dark Thirty’s emphasis on Maya’s importance tallies with the account of a U.S. Navy SEAL involved in the raid who later wrote about it in a book.
Matt Bissonnette writes in No Easy Day of flying out to Afghanistan before the raid with a CIA analyst he called “Jen” who was “wicked smart, kind of feisty” and liked to wear expensive high heels.
She had devoted the best part of a decade to finding Bin Laden and had become the SEALs’ go-to expert on intelligence matters about their target, he said.
And while her colleagues were only 60% sure their quarry was in the compound in Abbottabad, she told the SEAL she was 100% certain.
“I can’t give her enough credit, I mean, she, in my opinion, she kind of teed up this whole thing,” Matt Bissonnette said later.
The commando saw a very different side of her days later when they brought Bin Laden’s body back to their Afghan hangar. Having previously told Matt Bissonnette she didn’t want to see the body, “Jen” stayed at the back of the crowd as they unzipped the terrorist’s body bag.
She “looked pale and stressed and started crying.
“A couple of the SEALs put their arms around her and walked her over to the edge of the group to look at the body,” wrote Matt Bissonnette.
“She didn’t say anything . . . with tears rolling down her cheeks, I could tell it was taking a while for Jen to process.
“She’d spent half a decade tracking this man. And now there he was at her feet.”
Jen’s role in the operation passed largely unremarked when Matt Bissonnette’s book came out but now the new film has confirmed his estimation of her importance.
Although she remains active as a CIA analyst, it is believed Mark Boal, Bigelow’s screenwriter, was allowed to interview her at length. It has emerged that she is in her 30s and joined the CIA after leaving college and before the 9/11 attacks turned American security upside down.
According to the Washington Post, she worked in the CIA’s station in Islamabad, Pakistan, as a “targeter”, a role which involves finding people to recruit as spies or to obliterate in drone attacks.
But CIA insiders say she worked almost solely on finding Bin Laden for a decade. She was still in Pakistan when the hunt heated up after Barack Obama became President in 2008 and ordered a renewed effort to find him.
According to colleagues, the female agent was one of the first to advance the theory – apparently against the views of other CIA staff – that the key to finding Bin Laden lay in Al Qaeda’s courier network.
The agency was convinced Osama Bin Laden, who never used the phone, managed to communicate with his disparate organization without revealing his whereabouts by passing hand-delivered messages to trusted couriers.
The agent spent years pursuing the courier angle, and it was a hunch that proved spectacularly correct when the U.S. uncovered a courier known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti and tracked him back to a compound in the sleepy Pakistan town of Abbottabad.
It was a stunning success for the dedicated agent, though she hardly endeared herself to her colleagues in the process.
As one might expect of a woman working in the largely male world of intelligence, colleagues stress she is no shrinking violet but a prickly workaholic with a reputation for clashing with anyone – even senior intelligence chiefs – who disagreed with her.
“She’s not Miss Congeniality, but that’s not going to find Osama Bin Laden,” a former colleague told the Washington Post.
Another added: “Do you know how many CIA officers are jerks? If that was a disqualifier, the whole National Clandestine Service would be gone.”
In the film, Maya is portrayed as a loner who has a “her-against-the-world” attitude and pummels superiors into submission by sheer force of will. CIA colleagues say the film’s depiction of her is spot-on.
If this is the case, then she shows little of the feminine tenderness that serves Carrie Mathison so well in Homeland and which Hollywood usually uses to soften female protagonists like Maya.
Instead, the film shows her happily colluding in the torture by water boarding of an Al Qaeda suspect.
And Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette reported how she had told him she wasn’t in favor of storming the Bin Laden compound but preferred to “just push the easy button and bomb it”. Given that the bombing option would almost certainly have killed the women and children the CIA knew were inside, her comment suggests a cold indifference to “civilian” casualties.
But then the real female agent is hardly your archetypal film heroine. She has reportedly been passed over for promotion since the Bin Laden raid, perhaps adding to her sense of grievance.
Although she was among a handful of CIA staff rewarded over the operation with the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the agency’s highest honor, dozens of other colleagues were given lesser gongs.
Fellow staff say this prompted her anger to boil over: she hit “reply all” to an email announcing the awards and added her own message which – according to one – effectively said: “You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award.”
Although colleagues say the intense attention she received from the film-makers has made many of them jealous, they are shocked she was passed over for promotion and merely given a cash bonus for her Bin Laden triumph.
She has also been moved within the CIA, reassigned to a new counter-terrorism role.
Kathryn Bigelow, who won an Oscar as director of the Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker, has said it was like being dealt a Royal Flush at poker when she discovered a woman at the heart of the story.
“The juicy thing about Maya was the surprise of it,” she said.
One thing is certain: The emotional cost of her achievement took its toll on her.
Matt Bissonnette recalls seeing her again as he and his comrades got on to a plane back to their main base at Bagram in Afghanistan.
She was sitting on the floor of the plane sobbing, “hugging her legs to her chest in the fetal position”.
Her eyes were “puffy and she seemed to be staring into the distance”. When he tried to reassure her that the mission had been a “100 per cent” success, she simply nodded and started crying again.
He put it down to a mixture of exhaustion and relief for a woman who had, with almost messianic zeal, dedicated her life to hunting down the architect of 9/11.