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Zero Dark Thirty and its Historical Accuracy

Gina Tangelo
AP United States History
Bob Hoch
June 1, 2018
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The search for and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden was a very long and

tedious assignment taken on by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. For years, there

was no progress made on the case eventually they managed to be able to locate someone who

was supposed to be impossible to find and he, along with his courier and the courier’s brother

and wife, were killed in 2011. While there are multiple reports on what happened and there is not

one clear story from the CIA themselves, the movie Zero Dark Thirty tried to recreate the

“manhunt” as accurately as possible. According to sources on the movie, though the directors

claimed that it was written based on accounts of what actually happened, it was not as accurate

as people may have believed.

In the movie, the fictional antagonist Maya is a CIA intelligence analyst who was

recruited “straight out of high school” to help with the search for bin Laden. The beginning

scenes show the torture of a man suspected to be associated with bin Laden and the September

11 attackers, this also being Maya’s first time seeing this type of interrogation. Throughout these

scenes, along with scenes of the intelligence team trying to piece things together, the tortured

man, Ammar, reveals the name of bin Laden’s courier that apparently no one knew about before:

Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. With this new information, along with other detainee information, the

CIA discovered courier traffic by al-Kuwaiti between Abu Faraj al-Libbi and bin Laden. When

Faraj was captured and interrogated, he denied knowing a courier by this name which lead Maya

to believe that Abu Ahmed was important and that Faraj was trying to protect him.

After a few more years, in an attempt to find out more about Abu Ahmed from a

Jordanian doctor, Maya’s fellow officer, Jessica, is killed in the Camp Chapman attack. On this

same day, Maya is informed that a Jordanian detainee claimed to have personally buried Abu

Ahmed, this contributing more to Maya’s terrible day. Soon after this she figures out that the
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CIA had been told five years ago that a man named Ibrahim Sayeed was found traveling under

the same name as the courier in Morocco.1 Maya then calls her friend Dan, who is a senior

officer at the CIA headquarters, and informs him of what she found as well as asking for the

phone number of Ibrahim Sayeed’s mother, this acquired from a Kuwaiti prince in exchange for

a lamborghini. The CIA then manages to find a caller in a car that matches the activity of Abu

Ahmed. The vehicle is tracked down and is seen entering a large compound in Pakistan where it

is assumed that he lives. When the compound is further examined with heat recognition

technology, it is found that there are three men living in the house and that if one of them is Abu

Ahmed, another would have to be bin Laden.

Because there was no confirmation of bin Laden living in this compound, the seniors

officers of the CIA are unsure whether they should go through with the raid of the compound or

not. After a meeting with the seniors officers with Maya also present, the raid is approved and

later executed. The Navy Seal gains entry into the compound and kill four men and one woman,

one of which is believed to be bin Laden. When Seal brings the body back along with other

documents from the compound, Maya confirms that it is indeed the dead body of bin Laden and

that her instincts lead the United States to finally be able to find and kill Osama bin Laden.

There are aspects of the movie that cause a lot of speculation amongst people who were

actually a part of the search, one aspect being the depiction of torture in the movie. One of the

people part of the actual search for a certain amount of time was Jose A. Rodriguez, a thirty-one

year veteran of the CIA. According to him, the movie “inaccurately links torture with

intelligence success and mischaracterizes how America’s enemies have been treated in the fight

"Zero Dark Thirty (2012)," IMDb, , accessed May 29, 2018,
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against terrorism.”2 Glenn Greenwald agreed with this and also believed that this movie was

being praised because it glorifies torture instead of the stance against it.3 Rodriguez also points

out that others believe that the interpretation of the torture was accurate but the movie wrongly

implied that the interrogation techniques worked.4 Rodriguez was a part of the setup of the CIA’s

interrogation program and he stated that the program not only worked but it was not torture.5 The

movie shows the detainees being brutally beaten and implies that this was how they were being

treated for years when in actuality no one was beaten during Rodriguez's time in the program

from 2002-2007.6 For example, scenes with the dog-collar were taken from abuses done in Iraq,

none of which actually happened at the CIA black sites where these abuses were in the movie.7

It was also implied in the movie that the waterboarding was a direct contribution to the

knowledge of Abu Ahmed but that was not exactly the case. The CIA had heard of the name Abu

Ahmed al-Kuwaiti before but were unsure of his importance in relation to bin Laden.8 A detainee

named Khalid Sheik Mohammed was said to be the one disclose the information about Abu

Ahmed that lead to bin Laden9 but actually, according to John McCain who asked the CIA

director at the time Leon Panetta for details, the CIA had heard the name of the courier for the

Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., "A CIA Veteran on What 'Zero Dark Thirty' Gets Wrong about the Bin Laden
Manhunt," The Washington Post, January 03, 2013, , accessed May 28, 2018,
Emily Bazelon, "Does Zero Dark Thirty Advocate Torture?" Slate Magazine, December 11, 2012, , accessed May
30, 2018,
Rodriguez, “A CIA Veteran”.
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first time from a detainee in another country who they believe was not tortured.10 With the black

sites and compliant terrorists, years of work followed and allowed the CIA to go back to the

detainees to obtain more information about the courier11 which would eventually lead to bin


Another person involved in the search who had some things to say about the movie was

the US Navy Seal who shot bin Laden. In his interview with American Journalist Phil Bronstein,

he stated that the actors playing the Seal Team 6 talked too much.12 In a real operation such as

the raid on the compound of bin Laden, when someone needs to blow a door with explosive

packs they would just put their fist on their helmet as a signal instead of yelling “Breacher!”. 13

He also said that when bin Laden was tracked down in his bedroom on the third floor that no one

was whispering “Osama, Osama” to lure him out of his hiding spot at it happens in the movie.14

He states that “when Osama went down, it was chaos, people screaming. No one called his

name.”15 That part of the scene was ridiculous to watch and even people who were not part of the

operation could say that it was a little weird to be calling the name of the person you are

supposed to kill to try and lure him out of his hiding spot. If he is supposedly dangerous and it

has already been seen that there are guns in the house, why would calling his name make him

come out of his hiding spot? All in all, though it was said by critics that the raid was very

accurate and entertaining, the same would not be said by actual officers in the military who know

how certain aspects of the raid would actually be executed.

Bazelon, “Advocate Torture?”.
Rodriguez, “A CIA Veteran”.
Paul Kendall, "Zero Dark Thirty: Fact vs Fiction," The Telegraph, January 23, 2015, , accessed May 28, 2018,
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In conclusion, the movie Zero Dark Thirty was highly praised but it is said that it was

praised for all the wrong reasons. It is believed that it gave off the wrong image of torture, how

the information that lead to bin Laden was acquired, and how the operation to kill bin Laden was

executed. There are many reasons for why the movie is not completely historically accurate, no

historical movie ever is, no matter how much the directors claim it to be. The directors and

writers claimed the movie was written based on first-hand accounts of the search but, even with

that claim, they still had to make decisions on what they thought people would want to see and

how to make this long search as entertaining as possible. In this case, it meant that they had to

exaggerate the torture and the raid to make points as well as keeping the people interested. What

the point could be is unclear but it seems as though whatever point was trying to be made by this

movie was not seen or accepted by critics. At the end of the day, the movie is not a documentary

and it seems as though according to what the writers and directors have said that the movie was

more for entertainment and to give American an idea of what happened rather than to give a full,

detailed report on the search itself. It can be agreed by all who watched it that the movie, like the

search, was extremely long but in the end was worth watching, regardless of its historical

accuracy and that people will never be able to judge it for themselves because the real

information about the raid has and will never be disclosed to the public. The people watching

this movie can only make a judgment based on their liking of the film, and it in the end that’s all

that matters.
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Bazelon, Emily. "Does Zero Dark Thirty Advocate Torture?" Slate Magazine. December 11,
2012. Accessed May 30, 2018.

"Death of Osama Bin Laden." Wikipedia. May 30, 2018. Accessed May 27, 2018.

Haglund, David, Aisha Harris, and Forrest Wickman. "Who Are the People in Zero Dark Thirty
Based On?" Slate Magazine. January 14, 2013. Accessed May 29, 2018.

Jr., Jose A. Rodriguez. "A CIA Veteran on What 'Zero Dark Thirty' Gets Wrong about the Bin
Laden Manhunt." The Washington Post. January 03, 2013. Accessed May 28, 2018.

Kendall, Paul. "Zero Dark Thirty: Fact vs Fiction." The Telegraph. January 23, 2015. Accessed
May 28, 2018.

Mazzetti, Mark, Helene Cooper, and Peter Baker. "Behind the Hunt for Bin Laden." The New
York Times. May 03, 2011. Accessed May 28, 2018.

Owen, Mark, and Kevin Maurer. No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy SEAL. New York:
Dutton, 2012.

Taibbi, Matt. "'Zero Dark Thirty' Is Osama Bin Laden's Last Victory Over America." Rolling
Stone. January 16, 2013. Accessed May 28, 2018.

"Zero Dark Thirty (2012)." IMDb. Accessed May 29, 2018.

"Zero Dark Thirty." Wikipedia. May 22, 2018. Accessed May 27, 2018.