The elusiveness of Bin Laden and the failures of the US government to get him is the theme of this great book. Coll has produced a masterpiece of investigative journalism. His book is amply documented and footnoted. However, some of his crucial interviews are left anonymous or unattributed and the identities of these sources would be very valuable to an evaluation of the overall history of this period.
Coll paints a broad and detailed picture of intelligence operations from the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR up to the attacks upon the World Trade Center in 2001, and he clearly shows how the US effort to defeat the USSR in that country, eventually led to the rise of Bin Laden and Muslim radicalism. The United States and Saudi Arabia gave huge amounts of government largesse to fund the radical Muslims, who did all the fighting and dying to defeat the Communists. Too much credit is given to Reagan for "defeating" Soviet Communism and little is said about the actual people who died for the Muslim cause of defeating the infidels. Also, little is said about the law of unintended consequences, wherein the rise of the radical Muslim mentality was originally fostered via the US strategy by Reagan and his CIA chief William Casey. So in this connection, Bin Laden and 9/11 is a form of "blowback".
The picture painted by Coll of intelligence agents trying to get Bin Laden is curious indeed, since the effort to track him and corner him was very good at times, yet when he could have been caught or killed, the agents backed out or the intelligence agencies seemed paralyzed to follow through. This seems like a fruitful area of study for further books searching for the real truth of this secret history.
Coll's book addresses the usage of the funds to finance the radical groups fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, however, not much hard information is offered to show exactly who siphoned money to Bin Laden and how much was diverted to his groups(s). The unspoken assumption is that Pakistan's intelligence service, (ISI) was responsible for this diversion. In addition, it seems the author implies the US did not really know which groups were receiving US funds. This is a murky subject area which further research would clarify and make accessible to the American people.
I recommend this book to those interested in this sordid and ironic period of US history. The book is long but well worth the read, since it will impart much enlightenment about CIA behavior and the reader will be armed with a better understanding of what must be done to avoid this kind of catastrophe again.