A breakthrough in the hunt for Osama bin Laden can be traced back to a woman who grew up in small-town Montana and attended Montana State University.
As a targeting officer for the CIA, Nada Glass Bakos was in charge of the team that searched for the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. What Bakos’ team discovered in that process has been widely recognized as a critical turning point in the decade-long search for bin Laden.
Before Bakos joined the CIA in 2000, a team of CIA analysts—many of them women—uncovered bin Laden’s financing of terrorism in the early 1990s. Later, they connected scraps of intelligence to discover a secret terrorist organization, al-Qaida. The group wrote dozens of warnings about al-Qaida and bin Laden, although those warnings mostly fell on deaf ears before 9/11.
Now, after years of keeping her participation in the events secret, Bakos, 44, is sharing her story. Articulate and self-assured, she was prominently featured in Manhunt: The Search for bin Laden, an HBO documentary, as well as other forums, including a segment about the documentary on the Late Show with David Letterman. Many have also speculated that the protagonist Maya in the Hollywood film Zero Dark Thirty, which dramatizes the hunt, is modeled after Bakos—a claim she is among the first to dismiss—although, she does allow that the character is most likely a blend of women she knew and worked with in the CIA.
Bakos insists there’s no real secret to her success. She says her background and experiences simply matched the CIA’s needs at the time she was hired, and she worked hard. But if her path to hunting terrorists seems unlikely—one lifelong friend recalled that she was always riding a horse in the small Montana community where she grew up—there are also glimpses of how her upbringing contributed to her success.