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U.S. military’s strategic manhunts

Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden

By Benjamin Runkle

(Palgrave Macmillan)

When U.S. Navy SEALs last spring ended a seemingly endless manhunt by killing Osama bin Laden in his hide-out in an affluent suburb north of Pakistan’s capital, the world learned that the code name given to the al-Qaida leader during that operation was Geronimo.

Although the designation upset some Native Americans, it had some compelling logic. The strategic manhunt launched by U.S. forces 125 years ago was targeted at Geronimo, the tribal warrior whose savage attacks on American settlers in the Southwest made him the target of Army troops who pursued him on both sides of the border with Mexico.

The hunts for Geronimo and bin Laden were centered in borderlands that included rugged, mountainous terrain. The Apache leader, for whom the government posted a $25,000 reward, surrendered in 1886 after evading U.S. and Mexican troops for more than a year. In contrast, the quest for bin Laden, who had a $25 million bounty on his head, went on for 13 years.

Benjamin Runkle, an ex-paratrooper and presidential speechwriter now on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee, details the hunts for Geronimo, bin Laden and other targeted individuals in Asia, Africa and the Americas. They include Filipino rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo, Mexican bandit Pancho Villa, Panamanian strongman and drug dealer Manuel Noriega and deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Although there is no shortage of books about bin Laden, Runkle breaks new ground by putting his story in the context of earlier manhunts that are surely less familiar to most readers.

“Wanted Dead or Alive” may be most appealing to those with an interest in military history, but should also find favor with a broader readership drawn to lesser known episodes in the nation’s past.

Most of the manhunts detailed in the book came to a successful conclusion. The author goes on to weigh the various elements that make for such an outcome, assigning less importance to factors such as technology and terrain and more to what he regards as the potential key to success: actionable human intelligence that can locate the target.

That was certainly the case with bin Laden, whose trail went cold in the mountains of Tora Bora. He met his end after interrogated detainees identified one of his trusted couriers. Likewise, help from one of Saddam’s security officers led searchers to the spider hole where he was hiding out.

Geronimo’s fate was far different. After constant pursuit by Army troops, he surrendered and eventually became a celebrity, appearing at Wild West shows and participating in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade.

There have been nearly a dozen deployments of U.S. military forces whose missions were to kill or capture one specific person. At a time when leaders of terrorist groups or rogue states may pose the most immediate threats to U.S. security, Runkle predicts that the most recent manhunt will not be the last.

“Long after the operation that killed Osama bin Laden has faded into history, strategic manhunts will remain an important problem for U.S. policymakers and military officials alike,” he concludes.